Children of a Lesser God

by Mark Medoff

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Children of a Lesser God was not originally written for a young adult audience, but the 1987 film version starring Marlee Matlin and William Hurt was popular and had a wide appeal. It should be noted that there are significant differences between the play and the film.

The play deals not only with the relationship between James and Sarah but also with the cultural conflicts that take place within the deaf and hearing-impaired communities and with the larger hearing world. Young adults may not be fully aware of the difference between being profoundly deaf and hearing impaired, the considerable training and practice required for lip-reading and speech, or the difference between American Sign Language (ASL) and various forms of signed English. It is also important for them to understand that much of deaf culture revolves around residential deaf schools such as the one in the play and that the community is often very insular.

According to the author, the play “takes place in the mind of James Leeds,” so his impressions control the way in which the action is seen. Through him, the audience sees Orin as annoying, Lydia as childish, Franklin as cynical, and Sarah as compelling. This point-of-view approach may make it difficult for the audience to judge James objectively—naturally, he seems sympathetic. His own failure to realize how much his prejudices affect his relationship with Sarah make it that much harder for the audience to see them.

Because virtually all of Sarah’s dialogue takes place in ASL, James’s character is responsible for translating for the audience. This factor is dictated by the performance of the piece before nonsigning audiences, but it illustrates one aspect of the political struggle going on in the play. James’s job is to instruct the students to speak correctly, a standard upheld by the hearing world, but the students are unable to hear or feel the accuracy of their pronunciation. In an early scene, Orin cannot tell James whether an utterance felt right until James tells him that it sounded right. Speech is the ticket into the hearing world, where success in conventional terms is achievable. Orin wants to use his speech in order to effect change in the deaf community, specifically in the school’s prejudice in hiring deaf instructors. Once he achieves proficiency in speech, however, his status in the deaf community is marginalized. He needs Sarah, as “the pure deaf person,” to join him in order to legitimize his objective.

While Sarah finds meaning in her participation, she discovers that it means she will again have to let someone else speak for her. The lawyer from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that takes up Orin’s cause is ignorant of the issues that face the deaf, and she is patronizing to both Orin and Sarah. James worries that Sarah will embarrass herself if she tries to present her own case. The address Sarah practices for James eloquently explains that her inability to speak in no way diminishes her as a person. James’s insistence that she could speak if she wanted to and his pity for her make it impossible for him to understand her. Orin is willing to exploit pity to achieve his goals, but Sarah will have none of it.

The title of the play ironically suggests the prejudice inflicted on deaf people: They are to be pitied because, through no fault of their own, they have been deprived of sound and speech; they were made in the image of some lesser divinity than the one that made the hearing world. Sarah and, eventually, James reject this prejudice and try to see each other as they really are, without imposing their own expectations.

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)