Before analysing Brian Clark’s play ‘Whose Life is it Anyway?’ and discussing the topic of euthanasia, it is important to establish a definition of the term. According to the Cambridge International Dictionary of English, ‘euthanasia’ is the act of painlessly killing someone who is very ill or old to reduce his or her suffering. Although some people campaign for the right to euthanasia, it is still illegal in most countries. The story of Diane Pretty suffering motor neurone disease was fairly recently in the news headlines. This results in progressive degeneration of the motor system causing muscle weakness and wasting. The prognosis for Diane is the same as that of the ‘Ken’ in the play. Although Diane’s condition is primarily a physiological breakdown, Ken’s has come about from external forces responsible for his condition, paralysis. The problem in his situation is that he is determined to die because he knows that he will never be able to recover, but to do this would be against hospital authority. The staff are all sworn under the ‘Hippocratic Oath’, which states that they must save lives at all costs.
Brian Clark sets the stage up so that the audience can see the different parts of the hospital. In the centre of the stage is Ken’s room, which highlights the fact that the play focuses on him. Because the play revolves around Ken, Brian Clark has put corridors, offices and a road around his side ward so that this idea is portrayed. From the audience’s point of view, they see Ken’s side ward as the centre of attention that should stand out the most, and the other settings as ‘extras’ on the side that are of less importance. This is a very effective way of setting out the stage because he clearly differentiates Ken’s area of the stage and the other outside settings, portraying to the audience that Ken is much more of a priority. Throughout the play, there are such stage directions as “Cross fade on EMERSON’S room”. Brian Clark sets up the stage in this way so that this cross fading can occur. It makes the action flow more easily so there are no distinctive pauses between scenes. This idea works very well in a fast moving play like this because it keeps everything simple to the audience so they can concentrate on the action.
To create a truly realistic play, Brian Clark has made sure that the language used by the characters is totally suited to the action. In Act 1, the hospital staff use medical jargon such as ‘catheter’ to make the action much more realistic. Then, as Ken’s side ward turns into a law court, the language turns to law-orientated jargon such as ‘surrogate’ and ‘tribunal’. This helps to bring together the whole atmosphere of the change from a hospital to an improvised law court.
In terms of the hospital staff, Brian Clark clearly portrays them in a certain hierarchy that puts each character belonging to the medical staff in their place. At the very top is Dr Michael Emerson, a Consultant Physician at the hospital who is regarded as a very important person. In the play, Ken refers to him as “Zeus from Olympus”; mocking the hierarchy that Brian Clark has set up. He also describes his coming as “the visitation of the Gods”. Next in the hierarchy is Sister Anderson who plays an important part in Ken’s hospital life. She works in the ward and is heavily involved in regularly seeing to Ken, so she is onstage a lot of the time. Often she is a victim of the black comedy Brian Clark has used, so she has to put up with a lot. After Sister Anderson there is Nurse Kay Sadler, a Probationer Nurse who has recently graduated. She is also a victim of Ken’s black wit, but doesn’t have the experience to deal with it in the way that Sister Anderson does. At the bottom of the hierarchy is John who is a West Indian Ward Orderly. He gets on well with Ken and makes frequent jokes with him such as using Ken as a steel drum towards the start of act one. Ken and John are ‘on the same wavelength’ throughout the book, and Brian Clark uses this to emphasize the point that Ken gets on so much better with those lower in the hierarchy.
When watching the play from the audience’s point of view, the lighting plays an important part in what Brian Clark is trying to portray. He uses light in different parts of the play, which relates to the way the stage is set up. To convey Ken’s loneliness, he uses light and dark to enhance his scenes, especially at the end when Ken is alone on stage and the lights snap out. This is used to represent the end of his life, leaving the audience in the dark, approaching the realisation that the character they have grown to love is actually going to die. Also, the way that the stage is set up allows the lights to cross fade between scenes, making the action much more flowing.
Throughout the play, Brian Clark uses each character to represent a reaction to Ken’s predicament. Dr Michael Emerson, being the Consultant Physician and a very important figurehead in the hospital staff hierarchy, has a very dim view of Ken’s euthanasia thoughts, probably reflecting his professionalism and that he has to sign the Hippocratic oath. On the very last page of the book however, Emerson knows that legally he has to let Ken die, so he changes his views and can now offer his help to Ken. Dr Clare Scott represents the future of the medical profession.
She is much more interested in sympathising with Ken, and she tries very hard to deter him from the idea of euthanasia by trying to make him feel like a normal human being. But she too, like all the staff, is under the Hippocratic oath and so legally must keep her patients alive. Dr Paul Travers is the Consultant Psychiatrist in the hospital. He colludes with Emerson throughout the play and believes that Ken’s possible depression is a slight reaction to the road accident. Dr Barr is the Consultant Psychiatrist from outside the hospital and he operates against Dr Emerson. Kay Sadler is a Probationer Nurse who offers Ken the chance to operate all sexual innuendos. She’s there so Ken can flirt with her, even though there is no way he can physically carry anything out. Brian Clark uses these important characters in the play to portray the different views on the Euthanasia debate.
To help attract the audience to pitying Ken and feeling sorry for his disability, Brian Clark uses Mrs Gillian Boyle, a Medical Social worker who is a ‘do-gooder’ in the play. She is capable of helping some people but Ken’s unending power shows that his brain is working perfectly normally and he takes her to pieces. The audience can pity Ken when he is in close contact with Mrs Boyle, which helps portray the suffering caused by Ken’s accident. Mr Philip Hill is Ken’s Solicitor in the play. He brings in the legal arrangement at the end that can lead to the victory of the euthanasia debate. This can show the audience that although the play is quite comical, the debate does have serious consequences. Mr Andrew Eden is the Hospital Barrister and he represents the hospital’s view over the establishment. He also helps the audience to realise that the euthanasia debate is a serious matter. Mr Justice Millhouse is the Judge so therefore has ultimate legal authority. He lets the audience know that as soon as he comes to his decision, the whole argument is polarised. Peter Kershaw also represents Ken’s challenges and is there as Ken’s Barrister to portray the things that Ken can no longer do, conveying to the audience that Ken really has got a terrible disability. As each character goes to Ken’s bedside, the euthanasia debate is explored in each character’s different way.
Ken is used himself in a big way to dramatise the euthanasia debate. His black comedy puts an amusing side on the play to obtain the audience’s interest, which makes the audience easily accessible to the truth. His personality is defined and this is contrasted with his weak physical ability. Brian Clark uses Ken’s wit and humour to portray his disability in a different light that can be very easily absorbed, but there are several times in the play when the audience can see the intense pain that he is suffering. For example, the last page of the play when the lights snap out symbolising Ken’s death, the audience are suddenly hit with the truth that this character that they have come to love is seriously going to die. His central argument is summed up in his own words; ‘my consciousness is the only thing I have and I must claim the right to lose it’. Ken is angry at the whole situation, but mainly at his lack of freewill. He argues that physically he is dead already.
At the end of the play, the characters and the audience end up in the same boat. They both feel very involved with Ken after spending the entire story looking after him or watching how he handles his condition. It is only when Dr Emerson spells out ‘unconscious in three days, dead in six at the most’ that the reality of Ken’s situation is appreciated. The last scene is very symbolic in terms of the use of light. The lights ‘snapping out’ represent Ken’s death.
Overall, the theatre offers Brian Clark many different possibilities of dramatising the euthanasia debate. Due to the use of exits, entrances, black comedy, characters and scenery, the euthanasia debate can be portrayed in a different way than it would if this play was a novel or a film. The contrast between audience and playwright is very well explored to create a debate on the topic of euthanasia that remains unresolved thirty years after the play was first produced.