Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762
Children of a Lesser God followed William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, the last Broadway play to include a major deaf character, by twenty years. The two plays can be seen as metaphors for the deaf cultures of their time. In 1960, America was becoming aware of the deaf community, just as Helen Keller became aware of language. The intervening years brought the National Theatre for the Deaf, improved educational opportunities such as the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, the cultural attention of such groups as the American Theatre Association, which established the Program on Drama and Theatre by, with, and for the Handicapped, and civil rights legislation which included protection for individuals with challenging conditions. In 1980, deaf political activists, such as Orin in Children of a Lesser God, were beginning to have the impact that would lead to the 1988 Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Just as Sarah does in the play, the deaf community was demanding the right to represent and speak for itself.
Ostensibly a love story, one of Children of a Lesser God’s most significant contributions is the accurate portrayal of the complex issues facing the deaf community. Not all deaf people are the same. Two students are portrayed using residual hearing, reading lips, and having the ability to speak. Sarah, on the other hand, refuses to use her voice, wear a hearing aid, or read lips, preferring American Sign Language (ASL), the language of the manual deaf community. There is a hearing-impaired hierarchy; the hard-of-hearing think they’re better than the “pure deaf.” The goal of hearing teachers is to force deaf students to speak so they will be able to function in the hearing world, whether they want to or not. Several scenes in the play, such as the depiction of Sarah responding to music, are included merely to inform the audience about deafness.
Mark Medoff’s recurring theme of self-discovery is developed primarily through the character of Sarah. In the beginning, she proclaims that others do not have the right to re-create her in their image. She expresses her desire to have deaf children. Later she realizes that those around her want to re-create her for their own selfish purposes. James still wants her to function as a hearing person. Orin still wants to preserve her as a dependent “pure deaf” pawn in his political movement. The lawyer-activist still wants her to be an object of pity. In the end, Sarah’s triumph is to recognize that oppressive trait within herself. She no longer wants to have deaf children, because not even she has the right to re-create someone in her own image.
When Medoff decided to write this play for deaf actress Phyllis Frelich, he did not realize he would have to devise a new literary technique to communicate to both the play’s theatrical and reading audiences. Like the actress, the play’s main character, Sarah Norman, communicates exclusively in ASL. The theater audience would not be able to understand her signing; the reader would not be able to understand a direct substitution of English words for ASL (English: “I have nothing; no hearing . . . no language . . . I have me alone.” ASL: “Me have nothing. Me deafy . . . English, blow away . . . Think myself enough”). The reader’s problem was solved when Medoff decided to write Sarah’s lines in English, instructing theaters to use sign language experts to develop their own appropriate ASL. The translation problem for performance was solved by having another character, usually James, repeat in English everything that was signed. (Sarah [ASL]: “What I really want is pasta.” James [speaking]: “What you really want is p-a—-pasta. Now we’re talking.”) That Medoff was able to write this kind of double-speak without interfering with the natural flow or emotional build of the dialogue was remarkable. This device also succeeds because the story is told in flashback, as James’s memory. Medoff uses a cinematic style of writing that blends one scene, one memory, with the next, without the need to stop the action to establish passage of time or locales. Some critics have labeled this a “feminist” play because the man who wants to help his wife becomes her oppressor. That argument can be made, but it is a rush to judgment, ignoring the author’s intent and the richness of the play’s depiction of deaf education and culture. If the gender of every character was reversed, the story would still be true, because it is a story of deafness and not one of feminism.