Children of a Lesser God

by Mark Medoff

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Individual Attitudes Toward Hearing, Speech, and Deafness

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"In the beginning, there was only silence," James Leeds says at the very beginning of Children of a Lesser God, "and out of that silence there could come only one thing: Speech. That's right. Human speech. So, speak!''' he could not have been more wrong.

In this opening speech, James appears to establish silence, and by extension deafness, as "bad," and speech and sound (and hearing) as "good." This is the distinction which most deaf people learn at a young age. Sarah learned this distinction from her mother and her teachers, but chose as an adult to reject this explanation and establish a definition of her own: "Deafness [is] a silence full of sounds ... the sound of spring breaking up through the death of winter.'' The words that make this phrase are beautiful; the signs that give this phrase life are deeply moving.

The struggle, then, throughout the play becomes one of making those who have ears, however residual their hearing might be, able to hear. Orin and Lydia have some hearing—not enough to allow them to function in the hearing world without assistance but some hearing nonetheless. Lydia has a crush on James and refuses to listen to anything but her own heart strings. She is oblivious to how her behavior affects Sarah and she will not listen to James's voice or Sarah's signs when they not so indirectly talk to her about watching television.

Orin is deaf to anything that does not fit his vision of protecting the deaf. As a deaf man who speaks relatively clearly and reads lips, Orin is a good candidate for one to bridge the deaf and hearing worlds. But, he is entirely wrapped up in his "cause": deaf teachers for deaf children. When James takes Sarah out to dinner for the first time, Orin becomes jealous and begins to refuse to listen to James. What had once been a vibrant student-teacher relationship disintegrates into posturing and jockeying for position. Orin is so consumed with his "cause" that he turns a deaf ear (pun intended) to Sarah as she tries to explain what it is that she wants to say.

Mr. Franklin, the supervising teacher, is one of the hearing people whose job it should be to hear what his charges have to say about issues that affect them, but none of the deaf people in this play have any respect for the man. Franklin does nothing to earn that respect, either. He is a skilled signer; he reads Sarah's signing at the bridge parry. But throughout the play he refuses to sign in the presence of any of the deaf people, particularly Sarah, always forcing someone else to sign for him. His patronizing attitude will not allow him to hear what Sarah or anyone else (including the Commission) has to say.

Poor Ms. Klein walks into what she thinks is a routine appearance before the Equal Opportunity Commission and finds herself in the middle of a four-way argument about who doesn't listen to whom and who will do the talking for whom. She means well and has none of the mean-spiritedness that seems to come from Franklin, but for all practical purposes in this situation, she is utterly clueless. She fails to hear Orin and Sarah as they try to assert their position. Granted, Klein has limited experience with the deaf population compared to the rest of the characters, but it takes Sarah calling her speech the "same old shit" and threatening to walk away from the Commission hearing to get Klein to hear what she and Orin have...

(This entire section contains 1114 words.)

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to say.

Mrs. Norman has struggled for 26 years with Sarah and her deafness. Her early attempts at "normalcy" for Sarah were pathetic. She wrote on a pin-up photo of singer Ricky Nelson in her own handwriting: "To Sarah. Good Luck. From Ricky.'' She demanded that Sarah's sister, Ruth, ask her boyfriends to find companions for Sarah. To Mrs. Norman, the steady stream of male companions meant that Sarah appeared "normal." In reality, the boys came for sex, which Sarah was willing to provide. When Sarah and James decide to marry, Mrs. Norman and Sarah attempt a reconciliation. Each appears to accept the other at face value, and, at the end of the play when Sarah leaves James, she goes to her mother's house. Mrs. Norman has stopped trying to make Sarah into something she is not and relates to her on a more human level.

James is the most complex character of the drama. He is the detached intellectual who falls in love. He cannot shape this woman into an image that suits him. He cannot make her accept speech and sound. As a speech teacher, James's professional responsibility is to work diligently with the population of the State School for the Deaf. He has achieved outstanding success with both Orin and Lydia; even Mr. Franklin recognizes that Orin never worked that hard for him. But with Sarah, James faces a challenge that he cannot overcome. That is because Sarah is a human being with dignity and integrity and individuality who refuses to play the "dearie" game.

James falls in love with Sarah, in some part because of her feisty nature. In a kind of role reversal, it is the man who thinks he can change the woman into the prize, the perfect middle-class housewife. Sarah's success at the bridge party appears to prove James right. It is when Sarah decides that she will "speak" for herself at the Commission hearing that James's vision of the perfect housewife begins to crumble. In frustration, he clamps her arms to her side and demands that she speak: "Shut up! You want to talk to me, then you learn my language! .. . Now come on! I want you to speak to me. Let me hear it. Speak! Speak! Speak!"

James's call for speech from Sarah's silence destroys the relationship he had built with Sarah. The insistence that she speak creates a rift so deep that not even love can mend it. Sarah realizes that even though she loves him, she cannot stay with him. Maybe, she muses, they will be able to meet somewhere "not in silence or in sound but somewhere else. I don't know where that is now."

Out of that silence came speech, but it was forced and pained. Out of that silence also came love, strength, self-knowledge, and beauty. James's demand that Sarah be "normal" refuses to acknowledge the idea that normalcy is in the mind and eye of the beholder.

Source: William P. Wiles, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
Wiles is a teacher with over twenty years of experience in secondary education.

Adaptation Loss: Minor Miracle Worker

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Children of a Lesser God both moves and disappoints. Directed by Randa Haines, whose television experience includes Hill Street Blues and the film about incest, Something about Amelia, Children provides a bare-bones story about an angry young deaf woman (Marlee Matlin) and a teacher (William Hurt) determined to get her to speak. Their romance is compelling, especially because of the verve and pain of their "dialogue" through sign language. But Haines makes their love stand too much alone, leaving a thin feel. The movie never delivers what it promises.

Partly this results from changes made in Mark Medoff's play—changes which he presumably approved as co-screenwriter. Of course, what works as a play doesn't always work as film. A play has to be opened up, dialogue simplified, scenes added, etc. Nevertheless, both stage play and screenplay require a strong, rich story, and it is unfortunate that Medoff succumbed to pressures to simplify his, which has been adapted, not into a film, but into television film, with a lowest-cornmon-denominator plot, reduced list of characters, and pro forma happy end. As a result, it lacks the ambition, rawness, and hard-earned optimism not just of its source, but its prototype, The Miracle Worker.

Hurt and Matlin make the film worth seeing. As with his Oscar-winning role in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Hurt took a pay cut to make this film. He is at his best in classroom scenes with deaf students, when he tries to coax them from negativism via an idealism that Hurt, both by age and look, seems to have memorized from the 1960s. He also has a hard task to master: since Marlee Matlin won't speak, he has to interpret her rapid (often tempestuous) sign language in a deadpan fashion to avoid stealing any of her thunder. Matlin has remarkably severe black and white coloring, and taut, expressive cheekbones. She also uses her thick black boots for punctuation and to embody frustration. Between her and Hurt some real heat gets generated, especially in one scene of angry lovemaking where she vehemently overwhelms him.

But they are limited by the thinness of the plot. Hurt's egoism is introduced, but never explored, so that he comes across as too pure a hero. Matlin can rely on no more than petulant perfectionism (or as she explains in sign language,"I won't do anything I don't do well'') to explain her refusal to vocalize. Some strong minor characters, like the school principal (Phillip Bosco) and Matlin's mother (Piper Laurie), are also left undeveloped, as though Haines had to hold the story to a strict diet of characterization.

Moreover, Haines uses landscape symbolism unevenly. At first her touch is light, with mood scenes showing Hurt's tap by ferry to the peninsula where the school is located. The water imagery is deepened, poetically, with some beautiful scenes of Matlin's nude swimming; the suggestion is even made that she has developed other, extraordinarily sensuous capacities as compensation for deafness. But the water imagery is overdone, especially in a stupid scene where Hurt "descends" into her pool. Save us.

Also uneven is Haines's use of music. Hurt's love of Bach and his attempt to teach some of his students rock music through rhythmic vibrations are deftly exploited. But the script is over-heavy with rock songs and teenage behavior. There is a line between appealing to adolescents and pandering to them. There is also a line between adaptation and dilution. Unfortunately, Children of a Lesser God often crosses both lines.

Source: Tom O'Brien, "Adaptation Loss: Minor Miracle Worker" in Commonweal, Volume CXIII, no 16, September 26,1986, pp. 500-01

The Play You Are Not Allowed to Dislike

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Mark Medoff s Children of a Lesser God (Longacre) 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 by trying to help; 3) Love Reversal, the moment the conflict between these two characters ends in an embrace; 4) Terrific Breakthrough, when the protagonist reveals that he/she can speak/feel/read lips/walk; and 5) Inspirational Theme, after we learn we all share a common humanity, regardless of our defects. The impact of this on the tear ducts is dynamite. I haven't seen audiences leaving a theater with such glistening faces since the last revival of Bette Davis in Dark Victory, or perhaps since Peter Sellers rose from his wheelchair in Doctor Strangelove (after a ferocious struggle with his mechanical hand) to announce to the American president, "Mein Fiihrer, I can walk."

The other built-in success factor is that the species is really a subgenre of a time-tested Broadway artifact, The Play You Are Not Allowed to Dislike. In the past, this used to be a political drama, people resisting a corrupt political system, or fighting for the loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War. More recently, it has featured almost exclusively ethnic and sexual minorities, thus increasing the quota of moral extortion. To fail to respond to plays about blacks or women or homosexuals, for example, is to be vulnerable to charges of racism, sexism, homophobia, or getting up on the wrong side of the bed. Now that the handicapped have organized themselves into another minority pressure group, they have access to the same kind of blackmail. Meanwhile, the theater becomes another agency for consciousness raising, with audiences being alternately tutored and entertained for considerably less than a healthy contribution to an effective rehabilitation program.

Medoff's version of this formula is partly successful because it combines the features of two current offerings you are forbidden to dislike: the disability play and the feminist play. Its male hero is James Leeds, a speech therapist who works in a clinic for the "non-hearing'' (the word deaf having been consigned to the same dusty lexicon of archaic English as Negro and Mrs.). One of his charges is a feisty woman named Sarah Norman, deaf and dumb since birth, who absolutely refuses to learn to speak or read lips (they communicate entirely through signing). Not only this, she dislikes everybody who does, including the baffled Leeds, who can't understand why the recalcitrant Sarah continues to refuse his help. Nevertheless, he continues to offer it, and, endlessly, to discuss it (help is the most frequently uttered word of the play). A former Peace Corps officer, he is attracted to support occupations "because it feels good to help people.'' When he goes to bed with Sarah, it feels even better, and his efforts at helping enter a new phase.

Eventually, they get married. Leeds, who leans toward pop psychoanalysis, concludes that Sarah's hatred of "hearing" people is related to her hatred of herself, while she confesses that she has refused his therapy because "I don't do things I don't do well." Although sex is not among these (she has had an active history before she married him), the two soon fall to quarreling. He hasn't turned on his stereo in months, and she seems more interested in fighting for the rights of "non-hearing" people than in the marriage. These personal battles lead to two dramatic revelations. His is an admission that he feels guilty over the suicide of his mother, not surprisingly since it occurred right after he announced to the unfortunate woman that if he lived with her for one more day, he would put a gun to one of their heads. Hers arrives when he forces her to utter sounds, and she confesses that she has been reading lips for years. In a scene you may recognize from about 50 other plays (beginning with A Doll's House), she then tells her husband that until she becomes an "individual," "we cannot be joined, we cannot share a relationship." The payoff comes when Leeds, after trying to help Sarah for the whole length of the play, is forced to admit his own dependency ("Help me, teach me ... be brave, but not so brave that you don't need me anymore''). She leaves anyway. Will she return? Tune in tomorrow. In the ambiguous conclusion, Sarah reaches out to James in a half-light, signing, "I'll help you if you help me," following which the spectators helped themselves to their handkerchiefs and I helped myself to my coat.

Obviously, only a stony heart could remain cold to such a story, especially when it is delivered with such conviction by the two principal actors, John Rubenstein and Phyllis Frelich. Rubenstein, who has the sharp angular features of a young Fred Astaire, carries the burden of virtually the entire play on his talented shoulders, since he not only speaks his own lines but translates Miss Frelich's signs as well. This double task he discharges with such wit and passion that he almost succeeds in forcing some suppleness into the cardboard goody-two-shoes he is forced to impersonate. As for Miss Frelich, she is an accomplished mime, with a mischievous smile and an instinct for deviltry that remind one of Harpo Marx, and she demonstrates how well spiritual beauty and intelligence can be manifested without the aid of speech. Indeed, the whole play is a good argument for the return of the silent film. Expertly crafted, and directed with considerable skill (by Gordon Davidson), it successfully disguises its soap-opera origins by being a chic compendium of every extant cliche about women and minority groups, where speech operates not to inform and reveal but rather to manipulate emotions and reinforce conventional wisdom.

Source: Robert Brustein,' "The Play You Are Not Allowed to Dislike'' in the New Republic, Volume 182, no 23, June 7, 1980,pp 23-24


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