Day in the Death of a Once Glorious Career
By BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE | NY Times | 03.22.03
PETER NICHOLS is a genial man and a genuinely funny playwright, but he is about as optimistic as the Ancient Mariner or the sort of Beckett character who lives in a trash can. He has described his famously cynical friend Stephen Sondheim as "a ray of sunshine beside me." So don't expect him to don a party hat if Laurence Boswell's revival of his first significant play, the 1967 black comedy "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg," is a hit when it opens on April 3 at the American Airlines Theater.
"I'm back where I started," said Mr. Nichols, when we met in his north London home recently.
He has enjoyed a renaissance in Britain in the last three years, with West End revivals of "Passion Play," "Privates on Parade" and "Joe Egg" reminding the world of the existence of a dramatist who reached the top of his profession in the 1960's and 70's. But no other productions of his old plays are planned, and no one is staging the new plays that, at 75, he continues doggedly, haplessly, hopelessly to write: "I'm always working hard. But my plays get performed in my head."
In 1987 his "Piece of My Mind," about a neglected dramatist going crazy with frustration, had a short run in the West End. But since then, Mr. Nichols has gone, well, half-crazy with frustration. His "Blue Murder" and "So Long Life," though well received out of town in 1995 and 2000, died on tour. And the list of unproduced works he keeps at home now runs to 40 items, many of them composed during the last 15 years. He has even been reduced to visiting the British Library, which bought his archive four years ago, to check out plays he himself has half-forgotten. Since his aim is to reach wide audiences with plays that amuse, provoke and disconcert, this isn't merely galling.
In the 1980's, pessimism escalated into total misery. "Eventually," he said, "I had treatment for it. The psychiatry didn't work, but the tablets did. I got terribly depressed and I got very angry, which probably found its way into my work and wasn't good for it. I was damaging myself because people didn't choose to do my stuff. I suppose I've survived partly because of the antidepressants and partly by learning not to care. But that's not a very good recipe for artistic creation either. There's a lack of seriousness about it."
The draft of "Joe Egg" he sent out to producers in the 1960's was, he said, pretty bitter and angry too. That wasn't surprising, for he based it on his and his wife's attempts to bring up the eldest of their four children, Abigail, who was born profoundly spastic in 1960. She died in 1971. But the play was rejected by everybody except his old friend the director Michael Blakemore, who was running a theater in Glasgow. With his help, Mr. Nichols rewrote and rewrote, turning the play into something cooler, funnier, in his words, "more Coward than Strindberg."
But it was the memory of Thornton Wilder's "Skin of Our Teeth," which he had seen as a boy growing up in Bristol, that mainly helped him develop his trademark style. This is tough-minded yet humorous, sometimes embracing cartoon elements. It is also highly theatrical, acknowledging the existence of the audience by asides and direct address.
In 1967 both the content and the form of "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" proved sufficiently daring yet accessible to earn the piece a transfer from Glasgow to London. And with Albert Finney as the stricken child's flummoxed father, it went on to succeed on Broadway too.
Actually, the current Roundabout Theater Company revival, which stars Eddie Izzard, Victoria Hamilton and Dana Ivey, is the play's third major showing in New York. A production in 1985 won the play a Tony Award for best revival and Stockard Channing another for her performance as the child's troubled mother. Nevertheless, that success occurred at an especially low point for Mr. Nichols.
Yes, "Joe Egg" had liberated him from what he regarded as the "treadmill" of writing television drama. Yes, he had enjoyed success with a series of comedies drawing on personal experience: "The National Health," about a stint in a hospital ward; "Forget-Me-Not Lane," about boyhood in Bristol; "Privates on Parade," about service as an army entertainer in British-occupied Malaya.
But a musical about the opium trade, called "Poppy," failed when the Royal Shakespeare Company produced it in 1982, causing a public row about its staging between Mr. Nichols and the show's director, Terry Hands. Soon after, Mr. Nichols announced he was renouncing the theater for novel-writing. "Steve Sondheim said, `You'll be back, you'll miss the collaboration,' but since the collaboration was what I wanted to avoid, I thought he was wrong," Mr. Nichols said. Mr. Sondheim was not wrong. The four novels Mr. Nichols wrote remain unpublished: "I never cracked the form."
And he did try to resuscitate his theatrical career. Several plays have come near production in recent years. The actor Charles Dance wanted to perform "Pursued by a Bear," in which Sherlock Holmes hunts a killer in an animal suit. The Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned and then rejected "WE," about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in exile. Richard Eyre, the Royal National Theater's artistic director in the early 1990's, was keen on "Euphoria," a modern Jekyll and Hyde story, and "Ravishing," which derived from a trip Mr. Nichols made to Kashmir, but decided against both.
Mr. Nichols then published a mischievous version of "The Ancient Mariner" in The Independent, in which a curmudgeonly dramatist ("Writers, writers everywhere and each the worse for drink") lambastes the National. This amused his own friends but not Mr. Eyre. "I don't seem to have handled my career very well," Mr. Nichols said. "I've had the impression that stage doors are closed to me. It may be a paranoid delusion, but I think I'm a bit blacklisted."
Well, maybe some plays aren't so great? Mr. Nichols agrees, adding that his recent "So Long Life" wasn't ready for London transfer, and that some dramatists' work weakens with time. "But I don't think anybody finally knows if a play is any good until it's worked on and staged," Mr. Nichols said. "Plays are diagrams for performance, and people can't tell what the building is like from the blueprint. I think they should say: `Nichols has designed several buildings that have really stood up. He's quite a good bet.' "
So, yes, he still feels he's "a populist who just isn't popular." He is still irked by "cowardly" producers, "dreadful" dramaturges and so-called fans who mistake him for his friend, fellow-dramatist and look-alike, Michael Frayn.
After our interview, we drifted into Hampstead Theater, which, though near his home, has not presented his work. In the foyer a woman accosted him.
WOMAN: "It's great to see someone I admire so much."
NICHOLS: "Are you sure you know who I am?"
WOMAN (uncertainly): "Oh, yes. Um, I think so."
NICHOLS (grimly): "Thank you very much." Peter Nichols himself couldn't have written it better.