Whose Life is it Anyway?

an essay by Vita Cherepanova on the depiction of euthanasia in Brian Clark's novel, 'Whose Life is it Anyway?'

Life and death. Why do we always perceive these two concepts as polar opposites? As “good” and “bad”. We fear two things: pain and obscurity. Death is just the turning point, but what terrifies us is the idea of suffering, the process of dying, rather than the fleeting moment when one's heart rate drops to zero and the bodily processes halt. What is waiting for us next? Heaven? Darkness? Void? Nobody knows. Nobody wants to know, as the idea of the afterlife being just a “blank page”, endless silence makes us shiver from terror. What if we look at death from the perspective of disabled people, people, who can not but consider their life a torture and endless suffering? They would probably agree with the words of Haruki Murakami : “Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it”. It is a part of a cycle in which we are born, live, die and are reborn again. From this point of view death becomes an opportunity for peace, salvation, rather than a punishment, a grievous finale. Brian Clark subtly depicts the contradiction of morbid life and peaceful death in his play “Whose Life is it Anyway?”. The author introduces the audience to the views of the main paralyzed character, Ken Harrison, on euthanasia, raises moral questions over the inherent value of human life, freedom of choice, respect for one’s bodily autonomy, confrontation of an individual and authority. Clark presents the contradiction of Ken’s determination to decide his own fate and the determination of those who care for him to keep him alive. Applying a variety of literary devices and techniques the author makes arguments of both sides convincing and makes the audience doubt their initial views on the topic.

Undeniably, Brian Clark manages to make the reader sympathize with Ken, who has become a quadriplegic after a tragic car accident and has to spend the rest of his life in the hospital, since he is permanently paralyzed from the neck downwards. From the main character’s perspective, the value of life is defined by its quality and due to the inability to carry on with his previous life, Ken has to face the power of bureaucrats in a fight for death with free will. Although , the topic of euthanasia seems to be an emotionally triggering field of exploration, the author avoids sentimentality and makes Ken give an impression of an untroubled human being. “I used to dream of situations like this...lying on a bed being massaged by two beautiful women”, using sexual innuendos, making inappropriate comments, the main character makes up for his loss of manliness and sexual desires that can not be implemented due to his condition. Dark humor, puns, comical references and metaphorical language are applied in his speech: “...if you could drill some holes in my head, you could blow in my ear and play me like an ocarina”. This metaphor emphasises Ken’s attempt to avoid confronting his true feelings and wallowing in self-pity by coping with his mental trauma through humor. The main character is undoubtedly suffering an injury to his manhood, understanding that the paralysis took away all of his chances to evolve as a sculptor, potentially husband and an individual in general. He fairly prefers death to disability, to being a burden, not being able to develop his capacity. Ken objectifies himself: “...you grow vegetables here, the vegetable store is somewhere else”, this analogy implies that the character no longer considers himself human and has no wish to continue his life in these conditions. Even though Brian Clark tries to convince the audience in Ken’s sanity and consciousness of his decisions, the doctors’ opposition to the character’s views makes us doubt which side we trust the most.

In the drama, medical bureaucracy defies personal choice. “It’s the job of the hospital to save life, not to lose it”, states Dr.Emerson, the consultant physician in the hospital, promoting his morals from the perspective of a qualified doctor. He is acting in the hospital’s interests, following the law and fulfilling his purposes as a medic, which is why his point is valid and reasonable. Dr. Emerson fairly prioritizes law, medical knowledge and experience over single patient’s requests that go against doctor’s principles and beliefs: “He can’t know enough to challenge our clinical decisions”. The use of sophisticated language and dynamic verbs emphasises physician’s indifference to subjective views and irrational wishes of a depressed patient. Dr.Emerson considers Ken’s psyche to be influenced by the physical trauma, hence, his thinking distorted and decisions invalid. In contrast the junior registrar, Dr. Scott, sees Ken as an entirely sane individual, but still supports the idea of “situation’s acceptance” rather than “escape from reality through death”. “If we acted on your decision now, there wouldn’t be an opportunity for you to accept it”. Dr.Scott is unsure about her views on euthanasia, as she respects Ken’s reasoning and takes his arguments into consideration, which is why she subtly suggests her point instead of imposing it, like Dr.Emerson. Brian Clark makes it clear for the audience that doctors’ morals are seen as “the right ones” and the hospital workers are more powerful than Ken. Isn’t it unfair that the disabled character has to fight for his rights and freedoms alone against the whole hierarchy of the hospital?

Proving that indignity, incapability of self-support, lack of self-respect are valid reasons for choosing death over life is a non trivial matter. The audience admires Ken Harrison for responding to his plight with poise and arguing his case on the hearing with wit and persuasion, as it requires a lot of self-control and patience. He despises self-pity and can not bear sympathy from people around: “...everybody makes me feel worse because I make them feel guilty”, Ken considers himself to be a burden, an individual defined primarily by his disability and it undoubtedly affects his ego. “I find the hospital’s persistent effort to maintain this shadow of life an indignity and it’s inhumane”, the metaphor used shows that Ken does not consider his life worth fighting for, as he will never be able to implement his true wishes and acquire happiness from self-realization .The author uses light to visualise the patient's misery and emphasise that, from Ken’s perspective, he “exists in a shadow” rather than “lives”. The author implies that the only thing the main character has left is his consciousness and he reasonably tries to claim the right to use it. “Only my brain functions unimpaired but even that is futile because I can’t act on any conclusions it comes to”. Ken is clearly in the power of the hospital, his vulnerable position makes the audience support his side and the “freedom theft” the authority commits reassures us in the accuracy of our decision. “Dignity starts with the man’s choice, without it it is degrading...if I can not be a man I do not wish to be a medical achievement”. This powerful point Ken states on the hearing shows that the lack of manliness and indignity takes away from the patient’s wish to continue life, as he is just being tortured by hospital’s “good intentions”, doctors’ professional “know-how's” and morals. Brian Clark leaves the audience with faith for justice, judge’s insight and hope that Ken will eventually win the case.

The patient’s interaction with the judge, Mr. Justice Millhouse, builds to the climax of the play. Brian Clark subtly implies the happy, fair denouement through the judge’s first name, even though the tension during the courtroom showdown scene is inevitable. Mr. Millhouse’s gravitas is subdued with humanity, which is why the audience instantly trusts him. The questions are tactful, his tone is calm throughout the whole discussion of Ken’s plea’s legal aspects. “However much we may sympathize with Mr. Harrison…the law instructs us to ignore it if it is a product of a disturbed or clinically depressed mind”. The judge applies personification, emphasizing the immense power of law and hospital authority. Along with that the author makes sure the audience realizes that the judge's final verdict tops any evidence claimed earlier during the hearing. In the monologue Justice Millhouse uses the verb “instructs” instead of “obligates” to remain respectful to the law, but at the same time to show that he is on Ken’s side, does not intend to be defied by medical bureaucracy and generally accepted rules and morals. “Mr. Harrison is in complete control of his faculties and I shall therefore make an order for him to be set free”. The conflict of the play is being entirely resolved on the very last sentence of Mr. Millhouse’s speech. The idiom “set free” proves that the judge is almost the only one considering Ken sane, his decision morally justified and the hospital’s attitude towards the situation inhumane. Upholding the audience’s attention, Brian Clark made us engrossed in both acts of the play and left us with the good aftertaste of satisfaction from justice Ken finally received.

We are the administrators of our fates. We decide our destiny. Whose life is it anyway, if not ours? The moral developed by Brian Clark in the play he wrote in 1981 stays relevant throughout decades: it takes courage to fight for the ideas we personally consider right. Individual's views are likely to not coincide with the general views of society as a whole, especially when it comes to such controversial topics like life and death. The audience admires Ken for confronting the crowd despite his physical disability, lack of supporters and power. His desire was conscious, thought through, harmless for the people around and, hence, reasonable and justified. Trying to make Ken change his mind can be compared to turning on the lights in a room for a blind person. There is no point. He can not see that "light" of what is considered moral and sane by the majority. Holding on to his decision unwaveringly, the main character does not aim to prove anyone wrong, but only free himself from suffering and get the peace he deserves. Analysing the play, we come to a conclusion that people who genuinely cared about Ken were determined to support his desire rather than keep him alive. Respect and understanding is what the main character lacked, surrounded by doctors who primarily cared about their medical licenses and covered their cowardice with “the intention to preserve their patient’s life”. Doctors’ job is life support, not death prevention. Ken did not wish to continue his life, which is why he was only hoping for humanity and sensitivity from the people around, but was forced to fight for his rights. He won the battle. He claimed the freedom that always belonged to him inherently. “The lights snap out”...