Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 592 words.)

The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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....

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Deafness is a unique condition; its effects are not immediately visible. Individuals whose bodies bear an outward sign of impairment or...

(The entire section is 397 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Children of a Lesser God is a drama set "in the mind of James Leeds." Characters in the play step from his...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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


(The entire section is 90 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the following and discuss the contribution of each to the world of theater: The National Theater of the Deaf, Louie Fant, Bernard...

(The entire section is 240 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Children of a Lesser God was adapted as a film in 1986. The screenplay was written by Medoff and Hesper Anderson. Randa Haines...

(The entire section is 60 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Adams, Elizabeth, "Mark Medoff" in Contemporary American Dramatists, edited by Jim Kamp, St. James...

(The entire section is 141 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 302 words.)