Peter Nichols, a British playwright who shook up 1960s theater with “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg,” an unexpectedly humorous story of a brain-damaged child, and who went on to acquire a reputation as one of his country’s finest and most cantankerous dramatists, died Sept. 7 at his home in Oxford, England. He was 92.
His death was announced by his agency, Alan Brodie Representation, which did not provide additional details.
In a mordantly funny style, Mr. Nichols addressed themes of death, disability and homosexuality, incorporating elements of vaudeville, British music-hall entertainment, and his own life and upbringing. His work induced squirming in the audience as well as occasional scorn from English censors, but he won four of the London Evening Standard’s prestigious drama awards, was twice nominated for the Tony Award for best play and, in 2018, was named a commander of the Order of the British Empire.
A prolific writer who had maintained a daily journal since the age of 18, Mr. Nichols also penned novels, radio plays, poetry, and film and television scripts, including for the popular British crime series “Inspector Morse” and for “Georgy Girl,” a 1966 romantic comedy based on a best-selling novel by Margaret Forster.
But he was best known for his first major play, “Joe Egg,” which premiered in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1967 before opening on London’s West End. Like most of his works, it was semi-autobiographical, about a father raising a brain-damaged child — described onstage as “a vegetable” — who loosely resembled Mr. Nichols’s daughter Abigail, who spent most of her life in a hospital before dying in 1971 at the age of 11.
The play was initially bitter and crushing in its depiction of the girl’s disability and her parent’s struggle to care for her. But with help from director Michael Blakemore, Mr. Nichols rewrote “Joe Egg,” turning it into something that he described as “more Coward than Strindberg,” referring to the droll playwright Noël Coward and the serious-minded dramatist August Strindberg.
Its characters used humor as a coping mechanism, rattling off jokes while hurling abuse up at God (described as “a manic-depressive rugby footballer”) and out into the audience.
“There is no way that ‘Joe Egg’ can be warm and funny, which is why, since it is warm and funny, its achievement is so great,” screenwriter William Goldman wrote in his 1969 book “The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway.” “Personally, I didn’t believe that such a play was possible; it expanded my view of the world.”
Opening on Broadway in 1968, “Joe Egg” ran for 154 performances and starred Albert Finney and Zena Walker. It received four Tony nominations, including for best play, and inspired a 1972 film with Alan Bates and Janet Suzman. (A 1985 Broadway revival received a Tony for best reproduction, and a 2003 production earned a Tony nomination for best revival.)
Mr. Nichols received a second Tony nomination for “The National Health,” produced at Britain’s National Theatre in 1969 before moving to Broadway five years later. Set in a London hospital ward for the terminally ill, it featured “gallows humor of a kind that makes us simultaneously gasp and laugh,” wrote New Yorker theater critic Brendan Gill.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Mr. Nichols wrote three shows for the Royal Shakespeare Company: “Privates on Parade,” a musical farce inspired by his service with a military entertainment group, later adapted into a 1983 film starring John Cleese; “Passion Play” (performed on Broadway as “Passion”), in which two sets of actors portrayed characters’ public and private selves simultaneously; and “Poppy,” a musical comedy set during the First Opium War in China.
The latter won the Olivier Award for best new musical, but Mr. Nichols had a public falling-out with its director, Terry Hands, who called him “a wayward, curiously self-destructive genius.” Mr. Nichols subsequently announced his retirement from playwriting, in 1982, and decamped to the Shropshire countryside to write novels — only to become “fed up looking at sheep,” as he put it, and move back to London after several years.
While his early works were periodically revived, critical and commercial success eluded him for the rest of his career. In part, he acknowledged, his disappearance from major stages was perhaps a consequence of his undiplomatic behavior, including a 1993 incident in which he published a mischievous poem in the Independent newspaper, “The Rime of the Ancient Dramatist,” describing a quarrel with the director of the National Theatre. (“This is the fourth play of mine / You’ve found your reasons to decline.”)
In 2007, the Telegraph newspaper called Mr. Nichols “the theater’s preeminent Grumpy Old Man.” He estimated that he had about 40 works that had been rejected — including unmade film scripts that were turned into rejected novels, and novels that were repurposed into unseen plays — but was still writing, even if few of his works were staged.
“If I won the lottery I know exactly what I would do,” he told the Guardian in 2000. “I would put myself in the Alan Ayckbourn or Andrew Lloyd Webber position and buy my own theater. I would hire a company and have them do my plays over and over and over again, not caring if people came or not. I would love to do that. It would be wonderful to see the unproduced plays on a stage.”
Peter Richard Nichols was born in Bristol, England, on July 31, 1927. His mother was a homemaker; his father was a salesman and a somewhat puritanical theatergoer who was said to have shouted “Ladies present!” when comedians performed smutty material.
Mr. Nichols was conscripted into the Royal Air Force in the mid-1940s and served in the entertainment corps in Southeast Asia. Returning home, he studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and acted in theater and television productions, playing Count Dracula onstage in Scotland before taking a teaching position to support his playwriting.
He found early success with “Walk on the Grass” (1959), a TV play that won a BBC writing competition, and went on to write the screenplay for director John Boorman’s first feature-length film, “Catch Us If You Can” (released in the United States as “Having a Wild Weekend”), a 1965 vehicle for the English rock band the Dave Clark Five.
Proceeds from the script enabled Mr. Nichols to focus on his writing, beginning with “Joe Egg.” His other major plays included “Forget-Me-Not Lane,” about a middle-aged man reflecting on his childhood and problems with his marriage, and “Chez Nous,” about two married couples on the verge of separating while vacationing in France.
Survivors include his wife, Thelma Reed; three children; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
In interviews, Mr. Nichols often recommended that aspiring writers “get a friend at court,” someone who could help them mount their plays and serve as an advocate behind the scenes. He had some additional advice after the 1987 London premiere of “A Piece of My Mind,” about a playwright who — like Mr. Nichols — moved to the countryside to write a novel, then turned his unsuccessful manuscript into a play.
The production was poorly received, and its subject matter did Mr. Nichols no favors among reviewers. “Another piece of advice I would give young writers,” he told the Guardian, recalling the show’s release, “is not to have a character called The Critic who lives in a toilet in your play.”