16 February 2017, The Tablet

Staged exit


Killing Time

The right of the seriously ill to end their own lives feels a very contemporary debate, but has been examined theatrically since at least the late nineteenth century, when a mother dispatched her syphilitic son in Ibsen’s Ghosts (1882).

A hit of the 1922 London season, The Sisters’ Tragedy, by Richard Hughes, also dramatised what was not then called mercy killing, and Brian Clark had a West End hit with Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1978), the title of which has done much service for headline-writers since elective death became a debate in Britain and an industry in Switzerland.
Those early protagonists willing extinction tended to be extreme cases – robbed of body or mind by accidents or rare disease – but more recent scripts test the dilemma with characters afflicted by medical conditions – cancer or dementia – that will kill most of us. This flourishing dramatic sub-genre already includes Don DeLillo’s Love-Lies-Bleeding (2006), Sara Pascoe’s The Endings (2013) and Polly Stenham’s No Quarter (2013).

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