Drama – Whose Life is it Anyway? by Brian Clark

PowerPoint on the play – Whose Life is it Anyway?

Choose a play set in a society whose values conflict with those of a central character or characters.

Describe the difference in values and discuss how effectively the opposition of values enhances your appreciation of the play as a whole.

Examples of good openings for the essay task outlined above.

“Whose Life is it Anyway” by Brian Clark is a play about a man in hospital who fights  for the right to choose to die. The hospital’s view, like the view of our society today, is that euthanasia is illegal and that doctors must try to preserve life and cannot destroy it. Ken Harrison, is a quadriplegic after a car accident six months prior to the opening scene of the play. The doctors managed to stabilise him, but Ken is unable to move any part of his body other than his head and he cannot survive independently from the hospital.

Before the accident he was a sculptor and he now wonders if he will ever be able to return to the life he once led. When he realises he will never be able to do so, he decides he does not want “to go on living with so much effort for such little result”.  The hospital staff, however, maintain that it is their job “to save life, not to lose it”.

These opposing views are argued throughout the play and help to widen our knowledge of and opinions on euthanasia and free will.

“Whose Life is it Anyway?” by Brian Clark tells the story of the paralysed Ken Harrison and how he has to fight against Dr Emerson, the consultant physician, to be allowed to make the choice to end his life.

The play is set about four months after a car crash which paralyses Ken from the neck down. Ken now finds himself asking the questions: “Do you believe I will ever walk again? Or recover the use of my arms?” After receiving the answer “No”, he decides he no longer wishes to live. This goes against Dr Emerson’s values as a doctor as he believes it is his responsibility to do everything in his power to keep his patients alive.

Quotes from the film

Whose Life Is It Anyway?

(Starring Richard Dreyfuss as Ken Harrison.)

 Think about who said the following and in what circumstances.

Death is the enemy.

You just grow the vegetables here: the vegetable store is somewhere else.

The only thing I have left is my consciousness and I don’t want that paralysed as well.

Is that what I am – lump of clay?

Every time I look at you I see what I cannot do and will never do again.

In Africa, babies die of measles. It only takes a few pennies to keep them alive.

Why are your morals better than mine? I’ll tell you why. It’s because you have more power than me. I am in your power.

We are talking about a man’s right to determine his own future.

No privacy, no dignity – I’m not sure I would like to live like that.

Our duty as doctors is to prolong life.

It’s Catch 22. If you’re clever enough to put forward a convincing argument for suicide you ought not to be able to die.

Ken Harrison is dead.

I respect Ken’s wishes because I respect Ken. Why can’t you do the same? Let him do what he wants to do.

This is the first time in months I’ve felt like a human being again.

Life for me is over. I can’t even say the things I want to say so, for me, it might as well be over.

THE HEARING (On the basis of habeas corpus: “You may have the body”.)

Your Honour, I am not asking anyone to kill me: I’m only asking to be discharged from this hospital… I’ll spend the rest of my life in this hospital with everything in it geared just to keeping my brain alive and I’ll never have the possibility whatsoever of being able to direct a good, god-damn thing. Now, as far as I’m concerned, that’s an act of deliberate cruelty.

Wouldn’t it be more cruel for society to let people die when, with some effort, it could save them?

… The cruelty is that the choice is removed from the person concerned. I would like to be able to decide what happens to my own body.

The most important part of my life was my work and the most valuable asset I had for that was my imagination. Now, it’s just too damn bad that my mind wasn’t paralysed along with my body because my mind, which had been my most precious possession, has become my enemy and it tortures me. It tortures me with thoughts of what might have been, and what might be to come and I can feel my mind, very slowly, breaking up.

Now, you take women for example: I used to love what they were, and how they thought, and how they smelled; and now I dread it when they come into the room because I loathe the way they make me feel.

You know, I am filled with an absolute sense of outrage that you, who have no knowledge of me whatsoever, have the power to condemn me to a life of torment because you cannot see the pain. There’s no blood; there’s no screaming: so you can’t see it.

Your Honour, if you saw a mutilated animal on the side of the road, you’d shoot it. Now, I am only asking for the same mercy that you would show that animal. And I am not asking anyone to commit an act of violence: just take me somewhere and leave me.

And if you don’t, if you don’t, then come back in five years and you see what a piece of work you have done here today.

There are precedents for both sides … Mr Harrison’s mind has been affected …however, I am satisfied that Mr Harrison is a brave and thoughtful man who is in complete possession of his mental faculties, and I therefore order that he be set free.

…You got your hanging judge.

I think not. Thank you. Thank you very much, Your Honour.

I hope so.


Points to consider:  Dr Clare Scott is torn between doing right by her patient and doing right by Ken.


Whose Life is it Anyway?

Whose Life is it Anyway?

In 1972 Granada Television presented a play by Brian Clark, which was later adapted as a film and has been widely influential in promoting pro-euthanasia opinion. Entitled, Whose Life is it Anyway?, it is the story of Ken Harrison, a young man of great intelligence who is tragically rendered quadriplegic as a result of a motor accident. He decides he wishes to die rather than face life in such a severely handicapped state. But since he is incapable of killing himself and euthanasia is illegal, the only way he can achieve his goal is by discharging himself from hospital. Without specialist supportive care he will die within a week. Dr Emerson, representing the hospital, will not permit it. He takes the view that Harrison is suffering from depression and is therefore incapable of giving valid consent to his treatment. In a particularly moving episode, Dr Emerson prepares to inject tranquilliser into Harrison against his will. The paralysed patient, helpless to resist, protests indignantly, but Emerson will not be deterred. “You are depressed, ” he insists. “It takes time to get over such injuries.” The forcible violation of Harrison’s body by the hypodermic needle is presented by the dramatist in a way that quite deliberately makes the audience feel it is witnessing some kind of rape. Harrison subsequently employs a lawyer who issues a writ of habeas corpus, alleging that his client is being deprived of liberty without proper cause. The resulting judicial hearing rehearses the euthanasia debate and in particular the relevance of psychiatric assessment to the establishment of consent.

The Characters

 Apart from Ken, the central character and patient, there are twelve other characters who appear onstage (although we do hear about other significant characters like Ken’s fiancée and his parents). Of these twelve, eight could be described as ‘medical’ staff and four as ‘legal’. They are listed below together with an indication of whether or not they agree with Ken’s decision.


Dr Michael Emerson, Consultant Physician in charge of the Intensive Care Unit (Against)

Dr Richard Barr, Consultant Psychiatrist at another hospital (For (but with reservations))

Dr Paul Travers, Consultant Psychiatrist (Against)

Dr Clare Scott, Junior Registrar (For (eventually))

Mrs Gillian Boyle, Medical Social Worker (Against)

Sister Anderson, WardSister (Against)

Nurse Kay Sadler, Probationer Nurse (Unsure)

John, Ward Orderly (Unsure)



Mr Justice Millhouse, Judge (For (eventually))

Mr Peter Kershaw, Ken’s Barrister (For)

Mr Andrew Eden, the Hospital’s Barrister (Against)

Mr Philip Hill, Ken’s Solicitor (For)


Plot Check

Here are twelve important moments in the play. Think about what makes them significant. All twelve of the moments listed are highly charged moments, designed to have an impact on an audience.

  1. Dr Emerson tells Ken that he will never walk again or recover the use of his arms.
  2. Ken tells Dr Emerson that he has decided ‘not to stay alive’.
  3. Dr Emerson injects Ken against his will.
  4. Ken loses his temper with Mrs Boyle.
  5. Ken tells Dr Scott that she has ‘lovely breasts’.
  6. Mr Hill asks Dr Emerson to discharge Ken and he refuses.
  7. Ken gets angry with Dr Travers.
  8. Dr Scott uses Ken’s first name – for the first time.
  9. Mr Hill and Mr Kershaw suggests a legal solution to Ken, called ‘Habeas Corpus’.
  10. Dr Barr tells the Judge that he thinks Ken has made the wrong decision.
  11. Ken makes an impassioned case to the Judge about the dignity of choice.
  12. The Judge orders that Ken should be set free.

Apart from 6. all of these moments involve Ken directly. Try to imagine how you would feel in his position.

Three key scenes

 The Opening

At the start of a novel, the novelist can choose to establish plots and characters by telling the reader about them directly. At the start of a play, however, the playwright has the problem of engaging the interest of the audience while quickly and naturally establishing the situations and characters through what the audience sees and hears – and mainly through the medium of the dialogue (what the characters say to each other).

Re-read the opening scene (up to John’s entrance) and answer the following questions:

1 What have you found out about Ken’s condition? E.g. can’t feel the effects of the massage…

2 How has Clark conveyed all this information in such a short space of time? E.g. uses the introduction of a new character (Kay)…

3 What have you found out about Ken’s attitude to his condition? E.g. compares himself to an object (a ‘skateboard’) – feels useless…

4 What do you make of Ken’s character so far? E.g. funny (compares the adjustable bed to a lift in a department store)..

5 How does Kay show her inexperience as a nurse? Why does Ken call her a ‘breath of  fresh air’? E.g. uses her first name with a patient…

6 What do you think would engage the interest of an audience in this opening? E.g. details like Ken’s condition, his sense of humour, his banter with the nurses….

 Ken and Mrs. Boyle

To understand Ken’s reaction to Mrs. Boyle, think about the effect on his state of mind of the following:

a he has already decided that his life is not worth living

b he has been injected by Dr Emerson against his will

c he is reluctant to see Mrs. Boyle and knows Dr Emerson has arranged it

d he likes the medical staff (like Kay) who treat him as a person, not a patient

e he is keenly aware of attractive female medical staff but knows that a physical relationship is now impossible.


1 The suspense builds up gradually through this scene and the tone of the conversation becomes darker. Within a few minutes the dialogue moves from a cheerful greeting to anger, breathlessness and the Sister’s emergency application of the oxygen mask. Find examples of Ken displaying the following rapidly changing moods e.g. joking, self-pitying, flirtatious, decisive, irritated, aggressive, furious, distressed.

2 Although she means well, Mrs. Boyle’s meeting with Ken produces nothing but anger and hostility, even though the Sister calls her ‘a very nice woman’ and the stage directions describe her as ‘attractive and very professional in her manner’. Think about why the meeting goes so badly wrong and ends in such dramatic conflict. Is it Mrs. Boyle’s fault?

3 The scene involves a very dramatic twist. What is Mrs. Boyle’s purpose in visiting Ken and what is the actual result of this visit?

4 Ken meets Mr Hill soon after this scene to try to arrange his discharge (and death). How does the meeting with Mrs Boyle reinforce Ken’s determination to end his life?

5 How do the following remarks convey Ken’s sense of hopelessness?

_ ‘It used to be’

_ ‘Dr Frankenstein…has successfully made his monster’

_ ‘they should try painting me’; ‘I’d prefer the belly dance’

_ ‘How about an electrically operated hammer and chisel?’

6 How does Mrs Boyle compare with other medical staff – Kay or John, for instance? (This question focuses on character.)

7 Ken refers to Mrs Boyle’s ‘appalling so-called professionalism’. What does he mean by this and why does it upset him? (This question focuses on theme.)

8 Ken says ‘I am not human.’ What does he mean and how does the scene confirm Ken’s sense of powerlessness? (This question focuses on theme.)

 Ken and Dr Scott

When Dr Scott uses Ken’s first name for the first time it is a particularly moving moment in the play because (amongst other reasons):

  • Ken is being treated as a person, not just a patient, and it makes him ‘feel like a human being again’
  • it represents ‘another credit’ for Ken after Mr. Hill has agreed to represent him and he can see a way out of his situation
  • it shows Clare Scott’s increasingly personal involvement with Ken and his case and it confirms the sadness she will experience if he succeeds in securing his own death
  • it is a bittersweet and complex moment for Ken because he is attracted to Dr Scott and enjoys flirting with her but (unlike Mr. Hill) he will never be able to date her and develop this relationship and so this very attraction to her reinforces his determination to seek his own death.

Three key characters

 Ken Harrison

You could see Ken Harrison as a strong individual battling against the forces of oppression, like the heroes of so many memorable plays, novels and film. It’s possible that you could see him as stubborn quitter, unable to accept or overcome his disabilities. Or you see him as both, or neither, or something else entirely. Ken is a fascinating and complex character who is likely to make a very strong impact on any audience and he presents an unusual challenge for any actor playing the role because he is bed-bound throughout the play and almost completely paralysed.

Which of the following words would you use to describe him?

Intelligent Witty Entertaining Brave Articulate Unselfish Flirtatious Frank Determined Stubborn Self-pitying Defeatist Insensitive Offensive Ungrateful Cynical Short-tempered Miserable

In Act One alone, Ken likens himself to a ‘skateboard’, a ‘compost heap’, ‘scrap’, ‘an ocarina’, a ‘vegetable’, Dr Frankenstein’s ‘monster’ and part of the ‘décor’. Is this ‘self-pitying’, ‘honest’, ‘entertaining’ or all of these or something else entirely? Your reactions and your reading of Ken’s character might be very different from other people’s and you must have the confidence to argue your case, based on the detail of the play.

 Dr Emerson

If you were to interview Dr Emerson how do you think he would answer the following questions?

1 Why did you inject Mr. Harrison even though he refused permission?

2 What did you make of Dr Scott’s reasons for not injecting Mr. Harrison?

3 Why won’t you agree to discharge Mr. Harrison even though he is a voluntary patient and wants to be discharged?

4 Why do you think Mr. Harrison is incapable of making his own decisions?

5 What do you hope to achieve by keeping Mr. Harrison in hospital?

6 Why were you so keen to use the staunch Catholic Psychiatrist from Ellertree to provide the second signature needed to detain Mr. Harrison?

7 What were you suggesting when you warned Dr Scott that there would be a postmortem if Mr. Harrison were to die suddenly?

8 Have you ever felt that you might be abusing your power as Head of the Intensive Care Unit?

9 What do you think of Mr. Hill and of lawyers generally?

10 Why did you offer to keep Mr. Harrison at the hospital after the Judge’s decision had gone against you?


Unlike Ken and Dr Emerson, John is a minor character who has no real effect on the central action of the play but you can argue (as with several other minor characters) that he brings a great deal to the play and sheds new light on Ken’s situation in a variety of ways.

1 like Ken, he finds Kay very attractive

2 unlike Ken he is able to act on his impulses

3 like Ken he is a creative person (music/art)

4 unlike Ken he can express his creativity

5 like Kay he relates to Ken as a human being

6 unlike Kay he refuses to take the hospital, his job and Ken’s condition seriously

7 unlike other members of the medical staff, he is a free spirit and feels no guilt about Ken’s condition

8 he is prepared to question the morality of spending so much money to support life artificially

9 his liveliness and sense of humour lighten the tone of a serious (and potentially miserable) play.

Three key themes

 The Dignity of Choice

The title takes the form of a question and although the story engages us with the characters in a moving and personal way, this is also a play of ideas that forces us to confront some very basic questions about the life and the power to choose.

The characters and their views:

A Only the Doctors have the knowledge and skill to make decisions about their patients. Dr Emerson (pages 20, 65, 69).

B The laws of the state are there to protect individual rights. Mr Hill (pages 65–6).

C It’s cruel and an abuse of power to deny people control over their own lives. Ken (page 73).

D Severely injured people are too depressed to be able to make rational decisions. Dr Emerson (pages 68–9).

E Severely injured people usually come to accept their disabilities and find a new way of life. Mrs Boyle (page 27).

F It’s degrading to use technology keep a person alive against their will. Ken (page 74).

G It’s wrong that the developed world spends so much keeping people alive artificially when children in developing countries are dying of easily treatable diseases like measles. John (page 16).

H It would be a relief if Ken could recover the use of his arms long enough to make the choice to take an overdose. Dr Scott (page 51).

I Life is God-given and therefore, it’s a sin to commit suicide. The ‘staunch Catholic’ psychiatrist at Ellertree Hospital (page 44).

J Ken is a rational man in complete control of his faculties and therefore his individual choice must be respected and he should be ‘set free’. Mr Justice Millhouse (page 75).

Which of the above views does the play encourage you to share?

You may recognise the final view as the Judge’s decision. What are your final feelings at the end of the play as the lights ‘snap out’ into darkness? E.g. sad, relieved, triumphant, disappointed, hopeful (like Dr Emerson) that Ken will change his mind.


The play makes it very clear that caring for people with severe injuries is a very difficult job particularly when your patient is as challenging as Ken Harrison. Doctors, nurses, medical social workers and orderlies obviously need to care for their patients but can they do their job effectively if they become too emotionally involved?

Ken has typically strong views on this subject. When Kay tries to avoid personal questions by changing the subject or asking a question back (page 10), Ken calls it ‘being professional’ and concludes ‘I don’t want any more of that, it’s horrid.’

Who says the following and in what context?

A ‘That’s nice, but don’t let Sister hear you say that.’

B ‘Ours was an objective, his a subjective decision.’

C ‘I’m always warning my nurses not to get involved.’

D ‘Dr Emerson is as involved with Mr. Harrison as if he were his father.’

E ‘You and the doctors with your appalling so-called professionalism, which is nothing more than a series of verbal tricks to prevent you from relating to your patients as human beings.’

F ‘…we have to remain relatively detached in order to help…’

G ‘Detach yourself. Tear yourself off on the dotted line that divides the woman from the social worker…’

H ‘The very exercise of your so-called professionalism makes me want to die.’

I ‘You called me Ken.’

J ‘As I have a stainless steel heart, it’s easy to keep it sterilised of emotion.’

K ‘Well I should think that’s just about the one way past her defences.’

L She turns and moves to Ken as if to kiss him.

Based on these quotations, what feelings about the carer-patient relationship does the play leave you with?


A Ken after meeting Nurse Sadler, warning her that Sister would not approve of using first names (page 2).

B Dr Emerson reminding Dr Scott that they make decisions based on detached medical judgements, not feelings (page 19).

C Sister to Doctor Scott on the problems caused by emotional involvement with patients (page 23).

D Dr Scott to Sister, pointing out that involvement is often unavoidable, even for someone as experienced and professional as Dr Emerson (page 23).

E Ken, irritated with Mrs. Boyle because she is treating him as a patient, not a person (page 29).

F Mrs. Boyle, in reply to Ken, pointing out that medical staff have to keep their distance from patients in order to do their job (page 29).

G Ken, now very irritated with Mrs Boyle, suggesting that it’s unnatural for any profession to suppress natural human feelings and responses (page 29).

H Ken, now furious with Mrs Boyle’s refusal (or inability) to treat him as a human being and pointing out the irony that the professional detachment which she thinks will help, actually makes him feel like less of a human being and confirms his determination to seek his own death (page 29).

I Ken, delighted with Dr Scott, that she has used his first name and is therefore less professionally detached from him (page 55).

J Sister to Mr Hill, confirming that she has overheard his earlier remark suggesting that she has no feelings (page 60).

K Dr Scott confirming that the Sister does have feelings and that Ken’s praise of the Sister’s work, has affected her (page 64).

L Dr Scott losing her professional detachment completely, after the judgement (page 76). 


In a frank exchange with Dr Scott (pages 33–5), Ken tells her that he still has ‘a man’s mind’ and still feels ‘tremendous sexual desire’, even though he knows he can never again enjoy a physical relationship. He has just ended his engagement and can only observe as other relationships (between John and Kay, and between Dr Scott and Mr. Hill) develop around him.

How do the following quotations help you to understand Ken’s feelings?

What do they add to the impact of the play (in terms of sadness, humour, contrast)?

‘It’s surprising how relaxed a woman can become when she is not in the presence of a man.’

‘I’ve only a piece of knotted string between my legs.’

‘I now engage in sexual banter with young nurses…then they leave the room and I go cold with embarrassment.’

‘…she’s a young healthy woman. She wants babies – real ones.’

‘I hope my surrogate self behaved myself.’

‘…if I cannot be a man, I do not wish to be a medical achievement.’

One Response to “Drama – Whose Life is it Anyway? by Brian Clark”

  1. Jennifer H Says:

    I’ve just spent an hour and a half looking for good notes on this play and i didn’t even think to check the english department blog!! Right under my nose, that is sooo frustrating.

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