Of what relevance is the play to modern society?
How would you feel if you were told you would never walk again? This is the situation of Ken Harrison in the play ‘Whose Life is it anyway?’, who is paralysed from the neck downwards due to a tragic accident. Brian Clark presents and explores the modern issues related to euthanasia through Ken’s struggle for the right to die.
Throughout the play, Ken is presented as a lively, humorous character, using humorous language, for example, ”…going down – obstetrics, gynaecology, lingerie, rubber wear…”, so he appears to be making the most of his situation, even though he knows there is little hope of him ever leading an ordinary life again. However, an alternative interpretation of Ken’s humorous approach is that Ken could be using humour as a mask to hide his real feelings underneath. He feels despair that his body cannot fulfil what he wants to do.
Ken is a very intelligent character; this is shown through his quick, witty responses, for example, ”What do you mean? Have I finished nurse. I haven’t started her yet!” and also his full awareness of his situation, and ability to make decisions. This intelligence means he can understand what people really mean under their ‘professional’ language. It also makes him as a character more appealing to the audience, because they will get to like him throughout the play, which means they are likely to support his views about euthanasia. However, when he finally gets what he wants, they may feel sad or disappointed that he is gone. This makes the play have more impact on its audience, and increases the range or messages and emotions in it.
A key concept in the play is dignity, and value of human life, which is shown through Ken’s presentation as a very dignified person, who wants to be respected as a human being. He believes that if there is no hope of improvement in his condition, he would rather die in a good state than allow his condition to disintegrate and then die in a bad state. For example, he says, ”I do not want to go on living with so much effort for so little result.” This means that people would remember him the way he was before the accident. He may also feel that it would be more dignified to lift the burden off his family and the hospital, otherwise he may feel guilty at not being able to do anything for himself. However, it could be said that it is more dignified for him to die fighting, rather than to give up straight away. This challenges the audience and gives them more questions to think about.
Ken believes in his right to make decisions about his own life. He believes that it is up to him to decide on whether he should live or die, not the hospital, which believes it is up to them to save all lives, no matter what quality they will be. This shows that Ken has a strong character, which influences other characters in the play, like Dr Scott, who he influences not to give him the valium she prescribed. In the first part, the hospital argues that Ken may not be in a state of mind to make decisions, however, Ken insists that the staff do things his way, for example, when Dr Emerson gives him valium.
At this point, Emerson is acting outside the law, but Ken, in his vulnerable position, cannot defend his rights. Ken refuses to have the valium, but is powerless to stop it being given to him, so this makes him angry. Ken also believes he has the right to know all the details of his condition, and the possibilities of his future. His frustration about this is reflected in the structure of the play; the audience does not realise at first what the situation is, but as the play moves on, Ken’s condition and details of his past are revealed and built up in stages, for example, we learn that he is a sculptor.
In the play, rules and regulations seem to play a large part in the hospital. This annoys Ken because he feels the staff are not allowing themselves to overcome their impersonal attitude and tell Ken what is really happening to and around him. Mrs Boyle also acts coldly towards Ken, finding nothing else to comment on but the colour of the walls, ”…used to be really dismal, all dark green and cream…” She acts as part of the ‘monstrous regime’ of professionalism, which raises the question: Should we face reality? This contrasts to John, who is the only member of staff who treats him like a human. He makes Ken laugh, with the steel band game, ”…Why not try knocking a tune out of me?” This gives the impression that Brian Clark believes this is the case in real hospitals, and that this insensitivity is not benefiting patients in real life any more than in the play.
The play reflects modern society on the issue of the NHS and funding of the hospital. In part 1 of the play, Dr Emerson is shown in his office trying to fundraise for a monitoring unit, which would cost a lot of money. However, John believes that money should be spent on saving people in poor countries who are suffering from easily curable diseases, rather than spending thousands of pounds to save Ken’s life, he says, ”There’s something crazy somewhere”. Brian Clark uses the varied opinions in the play to put forward the issue of how money should be spent in the medical world. However, no solutions are given, which engages the audience with the complication of these problematic issues.
Brian Clark brings up many issues related to euthanasia in the play. One important issue raised is the question of whether someone has the right to choose if they would like to die. Ken’s struggle for this right clearly shows how difficult it is to make a decision, for example, Dr Emerson says, ”…a doctor cannot accept the choice for death; he’s committed to life.” It also shows that it is a very complicated issue with no obvious solutions. Another issue brought up it whether hospitals should allow patients like Ken to die rather than save as many lives as possible, which is a hospital’s purpose. This is shown by the discussion between Ken and Mrs Boyle; Mrs Boyle says, ”it’s the job of the hospital to save life, not to lose it.”
Drama is an effective way of bringing issues to the publics attention, because it brings them to life, whereas if someone was simply reading about an issue, they may not take in everything they are reading. Drama informs people, and challenges their opinions, as well as being entertaining to keep their attention. ‘Whose Life is it Anyway’ is a story, which moves chronologically to show the audience the series of events which happen to Ken. This means the audience can relate it to real life, as an example of what is really happening. This makes the issues involved more believable.
I believe Brian Clark was neither for nor against euthanasia, but wrote the play to bring up the issues about it, and show how complicated they are to solve. I think he also wrote it to be an entertaining piece of drama, but with depth beneath it’s humorous nature. I think the message of the play is to think carefully about the consequences or things before you make a decision. The play did not alter my perspective of euthanasia, but it made me think more about the issues related to it.