Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama)
Saying that Children of a Lesser God is about the deaf is to miss the point. It is a play about communication of all kinds, not a sociological treatise. It is a drama about searching for identity, not a political tract advocating the rights of the deaf, though that element is there, and rightly so. Medoff makes it abundantly clear that Sarah is a person of acute intelligence, intelligence that the school wastes in consigning her to work as a cleaning woman. An intense individualist, she resists conforming to expectations others have of her; thus, she alienates her mother and ultimately disrupts her marriage to James.
The title, from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, suggests that people all try to make one another over according to their own perceptions of what people should be like. Thus, James tries to pressure Sarah to learn to lip-read and to speak; this is what he has done for his other students to enable them to adjust to the hearing world. Sarah, however, wants the hearing world and her husband to adjust to her and to accept her as she is. From her perspective, signing is the genuine language, and those who cannot use it are handicapped. Deafness intensifies the problem of communication between James and Sarah, but it does not create it; both of them, as they try to remake each other, find that there are no easy solutions. Their dilemma suggests that of any couple whose members come from different backgrounds—racial, ethnic, cultural,...
(The entire section is 286 words.)
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Language and Meaning
Children of a Lesser God forces its audience to struggle with the problem of language, specifically resulting from the differences between spoken English and American Sign Language (ASL) and those who employ these languages. James becomes exhausted trying to act as bridge between the two. Mrs. Norman lost her daughter for eight years because of the misunderstandings and lack of communication between herself as a hearing person and her deaf daughter. Mr. Franklin is skilled at ASL but refuses to use it, especially in social situations. Orin and Lydia seem to abandon ASL for speech. Sarah refuses to speak and converses only in ASL. And Ms. Klein is confused when people seem less than enthusiastic about her having learned three signs.
English has its own grammatical structure, its own rules, its own way of putting thoughts into communication. ASL has a different grammatical structure, one that linguists say is more like Chinese than English. ASL follows a different set of rules, rules more often made by the speakers themselves than by teachers and writers. ASL uses the entire body to bring the thoughts of its user to the world at large.
Much of the conflict in this play comes from an unwillingness to accept the language system of "the other." James signs, but he is always trying to get Sarah to speak, to use his language. At the end of the play, he forces Sarah not to use her hands. Sarah then...
(The entire section is 789 words.)