Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)
Children of a Lesser God is Mark Medoff’s eighth full-length play and by far his most successful, though five of them have been included in Burns Mantle’s Best Plays series and one, When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? (pr. 1973), won an Obie and an Outer Circle Critics Award for best playwriting of the 1973-1974 season. According to Medoff, Leeds, the protagonist of his play The Wager (pr. 1967), is the brother of James Leeds in Children of a Lesser God, though there is nothing in either play aside from the name that connects them. The Leeds of The Wager is a cold intellectual; when his roommate, Ward, bets that he can seduce the wife of a friend within a specified time, Leeds alters the wager so that they bet not on seduction itself but on whether the husband will kill Ward or at least attempt to do so within forty-eight hours after the seduction. Unlike the potentially lethal Leeds of The Wager, who carries a revolver in a shoulder holster and who manipulates people ruthlessly, James Leeds is a warm and caring person, utterly nonviolent. If, as Orin and later Sarah herself charge, he manipulates Sarah in trying to make her learn to lip-read and speak instead of fully accepting her as she is, he does so out of love, not for a game or a power play. The one thing the Leeds brothers have in common is cleverness and wit, but The Wager’s Leeds can be insufferable and enjoys inflicting pain, whereas James Leeds, despite some difficulty in sharing Sarah’s perspective, is a lovable as well as loving individual.
Children of a Lesser God was the first play written about deafness and using sign language. The National Theatre for the Deaf stages plays signed by deaf players, but those plays are not about deafness and signing versus lipreading and speaking. They do not dramatize the sensitivities of the deaf and their relationship with the hearing world, as Children of a Lesser God does. Medoff had not any particular interest in deafness until he met a National Theatre for the Deaf actress, Phyllis Frelich, who was married to Robert Steinberg, the scenic and lighting designer for Medoff’s play The Conversion of Aaron Weiss (pr. 1977). Born deaf, with deaf parents and seven deaf brothers and sisters, Frelich had never...
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