Mark Medoff Essay - Medoff, Mark (Howard)

Medoff, Mark (Howard)


Mark (Howard) Medoff 1940–

American playwright, director, and actor.

Medoff's plays follow in the realistic tradition of the mainstream American theater. His When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?, which won the 1974 Obie for best play, is often likened to O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh for its shared themes of unfulfilled dreams and alienation. Medoff peppers his meticulously vernacular dialogue with witty and sometimes sardonic wisecracks.

Children of a Lesser God, winner of the 1980 Tony Award, concerns the relationship between deaf and hearing people and, using speech as well as sign language, Medoff manages to present a poignant plot with a deaf and practically speechless protagonist.

(See also CLC, Vol. 6; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7.)

Clive Barnes

A young married man is at home with his stereo. He has not played it for weeks, but now he switches it on and the room becomes awash with the sound of Bach. His face lights up with both joy and the recognition of that joy. His wife looks at him, trying to grope for his totally unfathomable emotions. She is totally deaf. To her music is a concept of the hearing persons.

This is simply one of the remarkable passages from Mark Medoff's seismographically sensitive play Children of a Lesser God….

This is one of the most winning and thoughtful plays you are likely to encounter—a play that opens new concepts of the way of a man with a woman, and even new thoughts on the means and matter of human communication.

James … is a speech therapist in a school for the deaf and hard of hearing….

He falls in love with [Sarah, who is deaf,] and eventually they marry.

A happy ending? Not precisely—for between the worlds of sound and silence there is a chasm no one can jump. As Sarah points out: "Deafness is not the opposite of hearing. It is a silence full of sounds." But what sounds? Just as the blind from birth can only have an imaginative concept of vision constructed from the verbal images of others, so it is with the deaf. James's attempts to "describe" music are almost pitiful in their inadequacy.

The marriage starts to flounder. James is...

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Edwin Wilson

Credit playwright Mark Medoff with providing the season's most original subject for a play. In "Children of a Lesser God" he develops a love story between a speech therapist, James Leeds, who works in a school for people with hearing and speech problems, and a young woman in the school, Sarah Norman, who has been deaf since birth….

As for the play, it is actually three plays. One is Sarah's life story. When she was a child, her mother … and others regarded her as retarded and she was put in an institution. As a result she has developed a defiant, independent attitude….

The second play, related to the first, deals with "deaf rights." Orin …, a friend of Sarah's in the institution, is leading a fight to have more deaf people hired on the staff of the institution. He engages a lawyer … and enlists Sarah's aid. During the course of their discussions, we get an acute awareness of the problems faced by deaf or hearing-impaired persons.

Even more graphic are the moments we experience through James. At times, he will play Bach or Handel on his hi-fi and we share—with a sense of guilt—an experience deaf people never have. At other times, in order to identify with Sarah, he will don plastic ear mufflers on his head—the kind worn by airline workers around planes—and we realize more than ever what silence must be.

The third play in "Children of a Lesser God" is the love...

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John Simon

[Children of a Lesser God] is as unable to sound the depths of human suffering as it is to ascend the heights of poetic expression. If it were willing to settle for melodrama and tear-jerking, its diction and dramaturgy might almost pass muster. It insists, however, on tackling grave issues, on searching souls, on going spelunking with one soggy book of matches….

James is indeed intelligent, charming, witty, and a bit unstable—a fellow who might have, as he says, single-handedly rehabilitated Ecuador just as he now signs away with magnificent, two-handed proficiency. But why would this bright, sunny chap take on—not just as student, but also as wife—the deeply troubled, bitter, self-sabotaging Sarah? Only God and Mr. Medoff know, but the former will not, and the latter cannot, tell….

There is enough spurious confrontation, prefabricated anger, and bargain-basement misunderstanding here to keep your average soap opera foaming for months. Yet, of course, there is also the deaf-mute language, signing, which the author perceived as particularly theatrical: a steady stream of manual subtitles while someone gifted with speech (usually James) delivers the spoken equivalent for those who cannot read fingers. At first, this does create a lively visual image; eventually, though, one feels trapped in one of those ghastly television commercials whose simplistic message is both written on the screen and intoned in stentorian voice-over. (p. 85)

With typical manipulativeness, Medoff opts for one of those currently fashionable, neither happy nor quite unhappy, endings; he has James and Sarah reaffirm their love, only to have her declare that they cannot cohabit in either her world of silence or his world of speech, but must find a third world to live in. Children of a Lesser God (the very title is pretentious) neglects to tell us whether this is Africa or Heaven. (p. 86)

John Simon, "April on Broadway: Indoor Showers," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1980 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 13, No. 15, April 14, 1980, pp. 85-6.∗

Brendan Gill

In synopsis, "Children of a Lesser God" … would seem a very simple play: A young man, James Leeds, trained as a speech therapist, joins the faculty of a school for the deaf and, among other tasks, is assigned that of persuading a wary student of twenty-six, Sarah Norman, to acquire the art of speech.

Though as teacher and pupil Leeds and Sarah are adversaries, as good-looking, energetic, and humorous young people they are natural allies; nothing could be more likely than that they should fall in love…. The first act closes with the becoming finality of an old-fashioned love story: Leeds and Sarah have married and will live happily ever after. During intermission, we ask what on earth can befall this delightful couple in the second and final act, and almost at once we learn what it is—they can be unhappy. For in marriage certain hard facts emerge that have seemed in courtship mere gossamer. Leeds has secretly assumed that sooner or later he would be able to change Sarah's mind about gaining speech; he will not…. The distance between them widens as they quarrel, and at the curtain we are offered the thinnest of thin hopes for their future: in sign language across a bleak stage, they promise to try to help each other, not in order to change but in order to become more assuredly themselves, whoever they may be….

I always marvel that a successful play can be written more or less to order; Mr. Medoff has proved that it can be done, and that such a play can be more than merely successful, welcome as success is—it can be an authentic work of art. (p. 101)

Brendan Gill, "Without Speech," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVI, No. 8, April 14, 1980, pp. 101-06.∗

Felicia Hardison Londré


The plot [of Mark Medoff's Firekeeper] does not so much unfold as lurch tediously from one turgid moment to another: the rape of a young Mexican-American girl, her innocent near-seduction of a priest, the priest's self-mutilation, the girl's recurring delusion that she is a chicken, the climactic revelation of a not-so-shocking secret of parentage, and a mercy shooting. Many audience members voiced their confusion about the play…. I had seen Firekeeper when it opened in the 1977–78 season and vainly hoped that some reworking would make it more stageworthy.

Felicia Hardison Londré, "Theatre in Review: 'Firekeeper'," in Theatre Journal (© 1980, University and College Theatre Association of the American Theatre Association), Vol. 32, No. 2, May, 1980, p. 256.

Robert Brustein

Mark Medoff's Children of a Lesser God … is a supreme example of a new Broadway genre—the Disability Play. The origin of the species, I suppose, was William Gibson's The Miracle Worker, written 20 years ago—but only following the success of such recent extensions of the formula as The Elephant Man and Whose Life Is It Anyway?, has the Disability Play taken Broadway by storm as its dominant "serious" drama. It's not hard to understand the success of the genre, since it has everything going for it: 1) Unforgettable Characters, including spastics, paraplegics, the deaf, and the blind; 2) Intriguing Conflict, between the handicapped protagonist and the "normal" person who invites contempt...

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Gerald Weales

Children of a Lesser God, an account of the making and the breaking of a marriage between a deaf woman and her teacher, is a difficult play to discuss. If one praises it, as most of the reviewers have, one risks the error of the husband in the play, offering an embrace which becomes a kind of condescension. Is it the play that is being applauded, or the occasion that allows some talented members of the National Theatre of the Deaf to move into the mainstream of American theater? If one faults the play, are the doubts an attempt to avoid making special allowances for both the subject matter and the performers—that is, is it another form of condescension? To complicate matters further, the play is both a play...

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