Peter Nichols, the British dramatist whose first and most frequently revived play, “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg,” startled and moved London and Broadway audiences of the 1960s by telling the story of a brain-damaged child’s brief life in a darkly comic style that would become his signature, died Saturday in Oxford, England. He was 92.
His death was announced on Twitter by the agency Alan Brodie Representation.
“Joe Egg” was largely autobiographical — an attempt to “cicatrize the scar,” he said — because a difficult birth had left his first daughter, Abigail, so profoundly disabled that he felt “she hardly existed as a person at all.”
Much of his subsequent work also derived from personal experience, notably his 1971 play “Forget-Me-Not Lane,” in which a thinly disguised Mr. Nichols recalls key moments in his youth, including the time his cheerfully eccentric but somewhat puritanical father embarrassed him by walking down a theater aisle and ordering a smutty comedian to quit the stage. The audience hissed at and booed his father and shouted, “Throw him out!”
One of Mr. Nichols’s most popular works, “Privates on Parade,” an entertaining blend of reminiscence, satire, and music staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1977, drew on his military service in Malaya, where he, future director John Schlesinger and several future actors and radio personalities served in a unit that brought songs and sketches to British troops.
All told, Mr. Nichols wrote 17 staged plays, nearly two dozen television plays, and one episode of the long-running “Inspector Morse” detective series.
He resisted critical or academic attempts to sum up his craft or discern particular themes in his work, explaining that his aim was “always to be an intelligent entertainer.”
“I believe entertainment is good in itself, and anything else is a bonus,” he said.
Humor almost always found a place in his plays, sometimes expressed in vaudeville style, but behind the laughter lay shrewd, often acerbic, sometimes discomforting observations: of the family, of marriage, of human foible, of Britain’s colonial past, and of the state of Britain itself.
Peter Richard Nichols was born in Bristol, England, on July 11, 1927, to Richard and Violet (Poole) Nichols. His father was a sales representative, his mother a homemaker who gave piano lessons at home. Peter often went to the theater with his father, who had been asked by his father’s brother, a London-based theatrical agent, to look for promising performers. Those visits left him stage-struck and determined to pursue a theatrical career.
After military service, Mr. Nichols enrolled in the Bristol Old Vic Theater School, where, by his own admission, his acting wasn’t highly regarded.
He took odd jobs, including selling hosiery at luxury British department store Harrods and acquiring what he called “a dread of schools” while teaching difficult boys in underprivileged areas. Meanwhile he began to write television plays, 12 of which were aired between 1959 and 1965.
In 1960 he married Thelma Reed, who survives him, along with three children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. His daughter Abigail died when she was young.
A major break for Mr. Nichols came in 1965 after his friend filmmaker John Boorman persuaded him to write the screenplay for his production of “Catch Us if You Can” (later retitled “Having a Wild Weekend”), a comedy featuring pop band the Dave Clark Five. The money he earned from it bought Mr. Nichols time to fulfill his ambition to write for the stage. It led to “Joe Egg,” which portrayed the parents of a child who resembled his daughter Abigail haplessly coping with her affliction.
Mr. Nichols’s original version of the play — he later called it “savage, sentimental, and overdone” — was universally rejected by theaters and might have been relegated to the dustbin had not his friend Australian actor and director Michael Blakemore persuaded him to rewrite it almost entirely. Blakemore then staged it at Citizens Theater in Glasgow, Scotland.
The new version — “more Coward than Strindberg,” Mr. Nichols said — received enthusiastic reviews. It moved to the West End, where a Times of London critic praised it for “significantly shifting our boundaries of taste.” It won The London Evening Standard’s prestigious best-play award and moved to Broadway in 1968, with Albert Finney playing the beleaguered father. It received four Tony Award nominations and a Tony for actress Zena Walker, who played the mother.
“Joe Egg” struck its admirers as daringly original, a work that brought humor to a painful subject and had its characters address the audience directly. The same qualities marked most of his later plays, notably “The National Health,” which drew on his experiences in hospital wards; he had twice been a patient after suffering collapsed lungs.
“The National Health” won an Evening Standard award when it was presented in 1969 by the National Theater, as did the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of “Privates on Parade” and, in 1981, Mr. Nichols’s boldly experimental “Passion Play.” In that play, its two main characters were each played by two performers, separately voicing their characters’ overt and inner reactions to adulterous love.
All three plays honed what Mr. Nichols called his “funny boohoo” style. His aim, he said, was never to seek laughter for its own sake, “but if understanding is the end of it all, or if you manage to make the audience share your worldview for a moment, or give them a glimpse of things they wouldn’t have seen if they hadn’t gone to the theater, then you’ve achieved something through laughter.”
Three of his plays were made into feature films, all with screenplays by Mr. Nichols: “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg” in 1972, with a cast led by Alan Bates; “The National Health” in 1973, starring Lynn Redgrave; and “Privates on Parade,” directed by Blakemore, in 1983. “Forget-Me-Not Lane” and “Passion Play” were adapted into television movies.