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James Leeds, a teacher in his thirties, is new to the state school for the deaf and he is assigned to teach Sarah Norman, a student in her mid-twenties who has been deaf since birth. Because of her profound deafness, learning speech is difficult if not impossible for Sarah and...

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James Leeds, a teacher in his thirties, is new to the state school for the deaf and he is assigned to teach Sarah Norman, a student in her mid-twenties who has been deaf since birth. Because of her profound deafness, learning speech is difficult if not impossible for Sarah and she resists James’s teaching methods, arguing that she does not need speech in order to communicate. At the same time, James is also teaching Lydia and Orin, both of whom have residual hearing and some proficiency at speech. Lydia, only in her late teens, has a crush on James and is jealous of the time and attention that he pays to Sarah. Orin is motivated to learn speech so that he will not be pitied and so that he can be an effective social advocate for deaf people.

Even though their teacher-student relationship is combative, James and Sarah are intrigued by each other, and they begin dating. James visits Sarah’s mother in an attempt to find out more about her; Mrs. Norman tells him about Sarah’s difficult childhood. At first, Sarah was labeled retarded. When her profound deafness was understood, she was sent to the school, where she has lived since she was five. On visits home, Sarah dated her sisters’ friends; Mrs. Norman says they treated her like she was a lady, like she was “normal.” Sarah later reveals, however, that the boys never bothered to learn sign language—they were just interested in Sarah because she would have sex with them.

When Sarah tries to avoid James, he sneaks into her dormitory to see her. She admits her fear that she would never see him again, and they make love. Orin and Lydia have heard about and seen James sneaking into the girls’ dormitory, and both try to interfere with the relationship. Mr. Franklin, James’s supervisor, warns James about his behavior. Sarah confides in James that she wants to get married and have a middle-class life, that she wants to go to school to become a teacher. James encourages her, despite warnings from Orin and Franklin that their relationship will not work. Feeling pressured on all these fronts, Sarah and James decide to marry, and they visit Sarah’s mother, whom she has not seen in eight years.

After Sarah has moved in with James, they entertain Franklin and Mrs. Norman with dinner and bridge. Franklin praises James for teaching her so well, and James confides he has not given up trying to get her to speak.

Meanwhile, Orin recruits Sarah to help him in suing the school for discriminating in hiring practices against the deaf. She finally feels a sense of purpose, and when James tries to discourage her, she becomes even more determined to speak for herself in the hearings. When James tries to help, she accuses him of pitying her, and he accuses her of using her deafness to manipulate people, of controlling others by refusing to speak. She finally uses her voice, screaming unintelligibly at James. She goes home to her mother, and James realizes that his efforts to force her to enter the hearing world were wrong. Lydia tries to seduce James, and Orin’s suit wins some minor concessions from the school, but James is focused on trying to repair his relationship with Sarah. In the end, they realize that they come from two very different worlds, but they reconcile and decide to renew their efforts to meet in “another place; not in silence or in sound but somewhere else.”

The Play

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Children of a Lesser God opens with Sarah quarreling with her husband, indicating in sign language that she has no hearing, speech, intelligence, or language, that she has only him and no longer needs him, that she can go her own way alone. Her husband, James Leeds, wondering if he has driven her away, recalls the events that led up to that moment. A speech teacher at a state school for the deaf, James has been working with Orin and Lydia, both of whom have some residual hearing and can lip-read; he has been helping them to speak more accurately and clearly. When the head teacher, Mr. Franklin, asks him to take on in his spare time Sarah Norman, a maid at the school, James finds her sarcastic and rebellious. Challenged by her reluctance to communicate with him and intrigued by her intelligence and beauty, James enters into a battle of wits that she finds engaging despite herself. Bantering in sign language, they become increasingly and irresistibly attracted to each other, fall in love despite their better judgment, have an amusing courtship, and get married.

During their relationship, James learns much about Sarah’s values and gains a view of the world from the perspective of the deaf: In one moving scene, he tries to explain music to her, and she explains how she perceives it; in another, he tries to muffle his ears and experience a world of utter silence. Still, he continues to try to make her over into a lip-reader and speaker who can function in the hearing world, while she continues to resist. As he explains to her mother, he is trying to “force” on Sarah “the ability to function in the same world you and I do.” When Sarah insists that her language is just as good as his, he replies that it is just as good among the deaf but not in the broader world. Yet she cannot altogether give up what he calls her “angry deaf person’s license.” James does bring about a sort of reconciliation between Sarah and her mother, who gradually loses her hostility and guilt and accepts her daughter insofar as she is willing to return, but Mr. Franklin, though Sarah beats him resoundingly at bridge, remains skeptical and unaccepting of the marriage between Sarah and James, arguing that James is uprooting Sarah from the only community in which she can function.

Sarah is not the only one who is rebellious. Orin, an apprentice teacher as well as a student, is a militant with a large chip on his shoulder, resentful of instructors who, he says, only pretend to help while really wanting to glorify themselves and who think that because they want to change their students, the students want to be changed. Orin wants instead to change the system. Increasingly he combats James, with Sarah as a battlefield. Orin is not in love with her (he is not in love with anybody), but he wants to use her as a weapon. He brings in a lawyer, Edna Klein, to investigate alleged injustices at the school and to bring a complaint before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to force the school to hire deaf teachers. Though resentful of James, Orin also wants to recruit him to make telephone calls for the cause. Orin tries to persuade Sarah that James is an outsider, that the fight for “her people” is more important than her happiness. He succeeds sufficiently to insert a wedge into their marriage.

Sarah complains that all three of them treat her like an idiot, that all of them try to manipulate her into roles for her sake, when she wants only to be herself. In particular, she does not want others to decide for her and to insist that she owes them something. She is fed up with having others speak for her. Orin and Miss Klein are catalysts to bring about an explosion between James and Sarah, who will not let him criticize her or translate for her. No longer will she be “the creation of other people,” and she tells James that “until you let me be an individual, an I, just as you are, you will never truly be able to come inside my silence and know me. And until you can do that, I will never let myself know you. Until that time, we cannot be joined.” He in turn, accusing her of vanity and pride, demands that she speak, and she explodes into incoherently shouted words that lead to the rupture with which the play opens.

Tracing Sarah to her mother’s, James attempts a reconciliation, confessing that her silence frightens him, that he needs her help and will let her say that she can hurt. The play ends ambiguously, with Sarah not yet ready to come home because she is now afraid that she would continue trying to change him, but there is a note of hope in their mutual admission of love and their recognition that neither of them can create anyone in his image.

Dramatic Devices

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Opening directions indicate that the play, acted on a stage that is bare aside from a blackboard and a few benches, “takes place in the mind of James Leeds,” from whose memory characters appear for a few lines or an entire scene. Except for James’s and Sarah’s opening speeches, from which the rest of the play is a flashback, the drama proceeds in a chronological fashion, but the open staging and memory device allow Mark Medoff to move about more freely than a straightforward realistic staging would permit, and to provide quick cuts and brief flashes of memory, along with fully developed scenes. In a sense, the device is cinematic, though the motion picture based on the play did not use it and was filmed in a conventionally realistic way.

What makes Children of a Lesser God distinctive is the entirely new device of having James and Sarah communicate in a combination of Signed English and American Sign Language. In the printed play, Sarah’s dialogue, though mostly meant to be signed, is written out; parts of a line that are signed but not spoken are enclosed in brackets. In performance, she speaks only once and otherwise signs all of her dialogue. Though James, Orin, and Mr. Franklin also sign when speaking to her, they say their lines aloud and also repeat aloud the lines she has signed. For the audience, it is necessary that they do this, but it is not altogether realistic. Since James is trying to get Sarah to lip-read, it is not entirely implausible for him to speak his dialogue, but it is unlikely that he would speak hers as well. In the printed text, the play suffers a bit by having Sarah’s lines repeated in this fashion, but in performance the play is enriched by the additional dimension of signing, which can provide visual as well as verbal images. American Sign Language spells out words letter by letter, but Signed English, using a word-by-word method, may be grammatically elliptical and is more conceptual and pictorial, and this kind of signing predominates. Rather than slowing down the action, the dual language totally involves audience members, who must focus on every movement and gesture. Some of the signs are very graphic, very amusing. Sign language is a language of gestures, for which there is sometimes no precise English equivalent. It adds a visual richness to the play.

Though it is possible to have the deaf characters played by hearing actors who have learned to sign, in most productions they have been portrayed by deaf or hearing-impaired players, who would naturally be fluent in signing. Actors playing James and Mr. Franklin must learn signing and become competent in it. Orin and Lydia, who can lip-read, can and do also speak. To them James does not sign, but he does speak directly into their faces and enunciates with special emphasis.

Historical Context

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Deafness is a unique condition; its effects are not immediately visible. Individuals whose bodies bear an outward sign of impairment or disability are recognizable in the world at large. And the community recognizes, more or less, what should be done to assist these people to fuller participation in the larger society. How does society as a whole include the deaf in its activities and discussions? That question has had a variety of answers since the 19th century.

In the mid-1800s, two camps argued over how to include the deaf in the wider community: the oralists, who opposed sign language and forbade children in their schools and programs from using it, advocated teaching deaf individuals the skills needed for success in the hearing and speaking world; conversely, manualists held that communication was paramount, and fostered the use of sign language in both instructional and social settings. "Culture wars" erupted between the two factions, the remnants of which exist to the present day.

In all of the battles concerning the deaf, one constant remained—hearing people were the ones who made the decisions. Deaf people were viewed as incapable of speaking their own minds or making their own decisions. Most states established residential schools for deaf children, most of whom attended from the age of five to the age of 18, leaving only for Christmas breaks and summer vacations. These schools were run by hearing men (like Mr. Franklin), many of whom had attended teacher-training programs together. These autocratic educators, referred to in some circles as the "Great White Fathers," ruled every aspect of the lives of the students in their charge. Most teachers were hearing and had little knowledge or expertise in sign language. Deaf people were not considered capable of teaching children because they would not be able to teach speech. Occasionally those deaf people who were able to speak well—like Orin— were allowed to become teachers, but those—like Sarah—who did not speak or lip-read were relegated to jobs as kitchen helpers, laundry workers, and maids at these schools. A series of scandals in the 1970s rocked several of these residential schools; as a result, new people from outside the closed circle of selected hearing people who worked with the deaf were brought in to manage these schools. More deaf students were encouraged to pursue post-secondary educational courses of study, including teacher preparation programs.

Literary Style

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Setting
Children of a Lesser God is a drama set "in the mind of James Leeds." Characters in the play step from his memory for a few lines or an entire scene. There are two "places" where the action occurs: the State School for the Deaf and James Leeds's house across the road. In Act I, time is "fluid." Scenes from past and present blend together often without the audience realizing what has happened. In Act II, the sense of time is more linear, although not completely so; there is more of a sense that one scene comes to a conclusion before another scene begins The audience is better able to follow plot movement as the action progresses from the card party, to James's frustration of serving as Sarah's constant interpreter, to the complaint before the Commission, to the climactic scene in which James forces Sarah to speak. The lack of a set and the use of few props beyond a chalkboard and some benches allow characters to come and go easily.

Flashback
Because the action of the play takes place "in the mind of James Leeds," time does not always move forward. Scenes from the past, like the visit to Mrs. Norman's house in Act I, weave themselves into the fabric of the action. The entire play can be seen as a flashback: the actions and words of the beginning of the play come back again near the end.

Imagery
"Deafness isn't the opposite of hearing it is a silence full of sounds.'' This is the central image of the play. Sarah tries to show James that the relationship between the deaf and hearing worlds is not an "either-or" situation, but rather one with its own distinct and unique possibilities and components.

Much of the imagery of this play is not contained in the words of the characters but rather in the sign language they employ. Sign language in this play provides both visual and verbal imagery for the same idea. "Join, unjoined" is the principal sign image, used at both the beginning and end of the action (and also graphically represented on the cover of some print editions of the text of the play).

Language
The story that takes place in Children of a Lesser God is told primarily using two languages, spoken English and American Sign Language (ASL), although a third variety, Signed English, is present as well. ASL is a conceptual and pictorial language, and Signed English is more grammatical and dependent on word order—one sign equals one word— for meaning.

When Sarah "speaks" her lines in this play during conversations with James, James provides a simultaneous translation from ASL to spoken English. However, when James speaks to Sarah, he signs what he says (unless he is purposely excluding her from the conversation) using Signed English. When James speaks to Orin and Lydia who can both lip-read, James does not sign; he enunciates carefully. Mr. Franklin, who as the supervising teacher at the State School for the Deaf is a competent signer, refuses to sign for Sarah's benefit, forcing James into the role of continual interpreter. Mrs. Norman has struggled to learn sign language but has not been successful.

Edna Klein knows no sign language and is quite proud that she has learned to sign "How. Are. You?'' and "I. Am. Fine''; Sarah, Orin, and James are unimpressed by her efforts. James points out that Edna must be precise in her hand placement or she will say the opposite of what she intended. This illustrates that hearing people often view ASL as "cute,'' a diversion along the lines of a party game. Sarah's reaction to this particular scene ("More cuteness?") underscores the feeling deaf people have that their language is not taken seriously.

Compare and Contrast

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Early 1980s: Deaf schools are run by hearing administrators, many of whom know no sign language.

Today: Many schools for the deaf, including Gallaudet University, now have deaf leaders.

Early 1980s: People with hearing handicaps are routinely discriminated against for jobs, in housing, and in access to services.

Today: With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, hearing impaired individuals have the necessary leverage to find success in the job market, obtain decent housing, and utilize a wide range of services to assist them in pursuit of their goals.

Media Adaptations

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Children of a Lesser God was adapted as a film in 1986. The screenplay was written by Medoff and Hesper Anderson. Randa Haines directed, and the film starred William Hurt as James Leeds, Marlee Matlin in an Oscar-winning performance as Sarah Norman, and Piper Laurie as Mrs. Norman. It is available through Facets Home Video in both VHS and Laser-Disc formats.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Adams, Elizabeth, "Mark Medoff" in Contemporary American Dramatists, edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994, pp. 443-45.

Brustein, Robert, Review of Children of a Lesser God in the New Republic, Vol. 187, no. 23, June 7,1980, pp. 23-24.

Sagona, Paul, "Mark Medoff" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale, 1981, pp 82-86.

Further Reading
Gallaudet University Home Page, http://www. gallaudet.edu.
This home page to the largest and best-known school of higher learning for the deaf provides information on deafness and links to a variety of sites associated with deaf culture.

Deaf Nation Links Page, http://www. deafnation.com/ Deaflinks html.
An extensive compilation of links related to deafness and deaf culture.

Deaf World Web & ASL Dictionary Online, http://www.deafworldweb org/asl/.
Among other things, contains a dictionary of signs grouped alphabetically and categorically.

Bibliography

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Brustein, Robert. “Robert Brustein on Theater.” The New Republic 187, no. 23 (June 7, 1980): 23-24. Satirizes the play as part of a new genre, the politically correct disability play. Argues that one cannot dislike such plays without being labeled hearingist or sexist.

Erben, Rudolf. Mark Medoff. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1995.

Gill, Brendan. “Without Speech.” The New Yorker 56, no. 8 (April 14, 1980): 101-106. Proclaims Children of a Lesser God to be not only successful but also a work of art. Focuses on the honesty of a story that portrays a seemingly perfect union but that is destroyed by ingrained flaws that the passion of the moment had at first minimalized.

Guernsey, Otis L., Jr. Curtain Times: The New York Theater, 1965-1987. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1987. Focuses on the uniqueness of the point of view of a minority that does not want to become part of the mainstream.

The Nation. Review. CCXXX (April 26, 1980), pp. 508-509.

Simon, John. “April on Broadway: Indoor Showers.” New York Magazine 13, no. 15 (April 14, 1980): 85-86. Describes the play’s attempt to deal with weighty issues as shallow, falling short of melodrama, and functioning as mere soap opera. Simon cannot accept that James would become involved with the deeply troubled Sarah.

Weales, Gerald. “Belatedly, the Tonies.” Commonweal 107, no. 18 (October 24, 1980): 595-596. Accuses the play of being the standard didactic play with the hearing-impaired replacing blacks or homosexuals as the new misunderstood minority.

Wilson, Edwin. “Broadway: Two Openings and One Closing.” The Wall Street Journal, April 1, 1980. Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews 41, no. 6 (March 24, 1980): 303. Points out that the play is three stories: Sarah’s life, the rights of deaf people, and the romance. Argues that the play is worthy of serious critical attention.

Vos, Nelvin. “The Witness of Silence: The Testimony of Children of a Lesser God and The Caretaker,” in Cresset. XLIV (February, 1981), pp. 17-19.

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