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Worlds of the Deaf and Blind

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Few notable modern plays have been written that demand serious consideration of the condition of life without hearing or sight. All too often the deaf or blind person in a play, such as the blind figure of Susi Hendrix in Wait Until Dark (1967), is present to provide an interesting plot angle, rather than offer any insight into the worlds of people with hearing or visual impairments. Those plays that do address these worlds directly often present deafness and blindness as disabilities that need to be overcome. A rarer type accepts deafness and blindness, not so much as limitations but as conditions that need to be more socially accepted and understood. It is the latter on which this chapter is based.

Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God was the first play written about deafness and the use of sign language. Although the National Theatre for the Deaf had previously staged numerous plays using sign language, they did not explore the controversial issue of deafness and signing versus lipreading and speaking, as Medoff’s play does; they had merely put on signed versions of plays originally written for hearing people. Medoff tries to dramatize the world of deaf people and its relationship to the hearing world in a play intended for hearing people.

Having met the deaf actress, Phyllis Frelich, who had been born deaf to deaf parents and raised with deaf siblings, Medoff was taken by the fact that she did not lip-read or speak as he expected, but relied entirely on signing. What also surprised him was that she had a hearing husband. Frelich commented to Medoff on the lack of roles for deaf players in the “hearing” theater; impressed by her evident acting skills, and intrigued by her situation, he wrote Children of a Lesser God for her to perform, and staged it with her real-life husband in the role of James. The 1986 movie version, adapted by Randa Haines, was very   successful, but made integral changes by cutting the subplot of Orin’s rebellion, and not having the protagonists actually marry.

While Children of a Lesser God provokes its hearing audience to reconsider their relationship to the deaf, William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker is a more conventional depiction of the deaf. In this, the deaf-blind protagonist is depicted as needing the aid of the hearing and sighted (albeit partially sighted), in order to become accepted into their privileged society. The play’s conventionality can be attributed to the fact that it is a much earlier piece. It was initially produced as a television drama in 1957 and made its way to the stage two years later.

The Miracle Worker is based on the real-life relationship between Helen Keller, who had become deaf and blind after an early childhood illness, and the woman who taught her how to communicate, Annie Sullivan. It is less about the challenges of being deaf and blind than about how a dedicated teacher can transform the life of her pupil through sheer perseverance, even against the overwhelming odds of severe disability. Gibson wrote a lesser known (and less inspiring) sequel to this play called Monday After the Miracle (1982), which takes up the relationship between Helen and Annie twenty years on, when Helen is attending college and Annie has become frustrated and embittered after having limited her own prospects by devoting her life to Helen.

The central protagonist of Brien Friel’s Molly Sweeney is not deaf, but a blind woman. Friel insists that she be played authentically, requesting no groping or “blind props” like canes or dark glasses in the performance, since most people with impaired vision “look and behave like fully sighted people” (1). The play is a series of monologues presented by Molly, her husband, and her doctor, showing their alternative points of view regarding an attempt to restore Molly’s sight. Friel’s presentation of Molly is sympathetic, and he asks us to consider her blindness not as a disability as much as an alternate way of life, which well-meaning people almost destroy. Through this concept of blindness, Friel also asks us to explore how we perceive our existence and relationship to others. The play’s epigraphs from Emily Dickinson and Denis Diderot emphasize this dual concern with perception and the clinical understanding of what it means to be blind, Dickinson invoking the idea of blindness versus sight as a metaphor for the way we perceive truth, and Diderot warning of the tremendous impact that sight must have on a previously blind person.

Children of a Lesser God begins with an intense quarrel between Sarah, a deaf woman who does not speak but uses sign language to communicate, and her hearing husband, James, who met her when teaching at a state school for the deaf and whom she has recently left. From this we travel back in time as James traces their relationship and tries to understand how they have come to this impasse. Each blames the other, and the play ends ambiguously, though hopefully, as they admit to a mutual love, but Sarah declares herself as yet unready to return to James.


The play expands the concept of deafness to embrace an exploration of communication on many levels, so its theme of deafness becomes more than a political statement, but a universal metaphor for the way people relate to each other. On this level it depicts a search for identity, a search that in the case of Sarah has been made all the more complicated by her condition. Deafness intensifies the problems between James and Sarah, but it does not create them. Their difficulty stems from their equal inability to accept the other as they are. Thus Medoff helps to humanize the condition of deafness, which is too often viewed as alienating and setting people apart.

Sarah is very intelligent and is wasting her life as a cleaning woman, but has been consigned to such a position because she cannot (and refuses to) speak. As an individual she does not want to conform to social expectation, and this alienates her from those who expect her to conform, like her mother and James. The play’s title, taken from the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, refers to the way people have a tendency to force others to conform to their own expectations. This is exactly what James attempts as he pressures Sarah to learn lipreading and speech to fit in better with the hearing world. But Sarah questions such a scheme, insisting that the hearing world should adapt itself to include her instead, and accept her as she is.

Sarah resists lipreading and speaking because she considers signing a genuine language. She views those who cannot sign as handicapped, and so places herself in a dominant rather than subservient position. To preserve this, she perhaps unfairly rejects James’s largely pragmatic concern for her future, and James himself. However, her accusations do highlight a disturbing tendency in the hearing world to equate deafness with stupidity, and society’s often unfair pressure on everyone to embrace a certain “norm,” which frequently undermines our true selves.

James is a kind and loving man with the best of intentions, despite an initial difficulty in understanding his wife’s perspective. Contrary to Sarah’s accusations, he is not teaching her to lip-read and speak as a game or power play, but out of love and a desire to allow her greater opportunities in life. His intent is entirely altruistic. He has been attracted to her from the start by both her beauty and her intelligence, and he has not seen her deafness as any kind of obstacle that must be removed. He views her as a challenging equal, and not some charity project. Sarah teaches James (and the audience) a lot about the world of the deaf from the perspective of the deaf, so he becomes as much the student in their relationship.

The play not only educates its audience about the life of deaf people in general, but also about the communication options open to them, by having James and Sarah communicate in a combination of Signed English and American Sign Language. While American Sign Language spells out words letter by letter, Signed English uses a more pictorial approach, with signs for whole words. The latter actually predominates among the deaf and adds an interesting visual layer to the play. Rather than slowing down the action, the signing tends   to more closely involve the audience, who find themselves focusing on every gesture.

Sarah signs throughout the play and speaks aloud only once during the performance. This “speech” tales the form of an incoherent rage against James’s demands, which has no discernable language except that of its emotional charge. In some sense the audience’s reaction to this is an attempt to turn the tables, by having them feel the restrictions of not being able to understand Sarah, and having to reconsider how they communicate, rather than always have her be the one who is expected to try to make herself understood. James, Sarah’s fellow student Orin, and the school’s supervisor, Mr. Franklin, all speak aloud what Sarah signs for the audience, and although this is unrealistic, it provides Sarah with additional ammunition in her charge that James is trying to recreate her in his own image, when she insists that he no longer translate for her, but let her “speak” for herself in her own way.

A subplot to the central relationship of James and Sarah is the rebellion of Orin, a student with some residual hearing who lip-reads, and who James has been helping to speak more clearly. As a campaigner for deaf rights, Orin may be overly militant, and he has a decided chip on his shoulder, but he does point to a number of valid inequities in the way the deaf are generally treated. He expresses resentment toward instructors whom he feels have chosen this profession merely for their own self-satisfaction and self-glorification in being viewed as helping the “less fortunate.” He sees them as too keen to assume that they know better than their deaf students, just because they have full hearing. Wanting to change the system, he apprentices to become an instructor himself, and brings in a lawyer to complain before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to force the school to hire deaf teachers.

The Miracle Worker takes us from her parents’ discovery that their daughter, Helen, is deaf and blind, through an indulgent childhood in which the undisciplined Helen behaves disruptively, up to her first experiences with Annie Sullivan, a partially sighted and newly trained governess. Annie perseveres through Helen’s antagonism to teach her discipline, and to finally make her understand how language works, which will allow Helen to better communicate and expand her range of experience.

Having been raised by overly indulgent parents who have never tried to restrain her in any way, Helen is very temperamental and lacking in self-discipline. Because of this, she is thought to be mentally defective in addition to deaf and blind, though her father refuses to have her institutionalized. But we are made to see that young Helen, despite her wild appearance and behavior, has intelligence and an elemental understanding of the world she can neither see nor hear, when she performs such actions as taking the buttons from her aunt’s dress to make eyes for her cloth doll. Also, her stubborn and initially successful resistance to Annie suggests something more complex than ani-   malistic cunning, and makes her a worthy adversary rather than an abject figure of pathos.

Part of Annie’s charm is her youthful enthusiasm. She is determined to teach Helen language, even though she knows what a challenge a deaf-blind child will be: “Words can be her eyes ,” she declares, “to everything in the world outside her, and inside too” (101). Although some of Annie’s treatment of Helen may seem almost abusive—indeed, that is how Helen’s parents see it—we know that Annie is a caring person who was much beloved by the younger students at the Perkins Institute for the Blind where she trained. Annie recognizes that before Helen can have any hope of learning to communicate with others, she must first learn to discipline herself. Annie sets out to do what Helen’s parents should have done, but felt too guilty to do: teach Helen that there are rules and boundaries governing acceptable social behavior. Once Helen can learn to be part of society on a physical level, she can then begin the slow process of discovering how to join society on an intellectual level and communicate through sign language.

Partly out of a sense of guilt that they may have prevented Helen’s condition, her parents have exacerbated her condition by being overprotective and not attempting to restrict her. Helen is depicted as an anguished child despite this apparent freedom, trapped in a dark world from which she has no means of effectively communicating with others. It is a world from which Annie’s persistence will partially release her, by restricting her wildness to a level where she can begin to learn the discipline of sign language. Formerly, at mealtimes, Helen’s parents allowed her to roam around the table, fingering other people’s food. This is one of the first things Helen refuses to allow, although it sends Helen into a violent tantrum. However, despite Annie’s youth and the objections of Helen’s parents, Annie stands firm, insisting that Helen learn “reasonable” discipline. The two remain locked in the dining room where they physically and emotionally confront each other until Helen learns to better govern her behavior.

Helen’s process of civilization does not occur instantaneously; it takes two weeks of isolation with Annie, as the pair move into the Kellers’s garden house together, and Helen is tricked into thinking she is far away from her home and any parental refuge. After two weeks, the change in them both is evident; Helen appears neat and tidy, self-restrained, and apparently obedient, even able to crochet a little. By contrast, Annie is exhausted and frustrated.

Annie has taught Helen the signs for twenty-one words, but has not been able to get her to associate these with the things to which they apply, and thus to make Helen understand the basic concept of language. Annie begs the parents for more time, but they will no longer allow her to dominate their daughter in what they suspect is a pointless endeavor. It looks as if Helen will be allowed to revert to her previous behavior until suddenly, in one final confrontation with Annie, who has yet to give up, the title miracle occurs: Helen makes the connection between the sign for water and the thing itself. It is a   virtual baptism as Helen excitedly wants to learn more, and signs m-o-t-h-e-r and f-a-t-h-e-r for the first time.

The play is filled with recurrent images of keys and locks, emblematic of the key of language Helen needs to acquire in order to free herself from the closed space of her deafness and blindness, and satisfy her previously restricted intellect. On Helen’s first encounter with her teacher, she significantly discovers Annie’s key and unlocks her suitcase to find the unexpected treasure of a doll Annie has brought her. So too will Annie unlock more treasures for Helen if she can only learn the self-restraint to embrace them. Unfortunately, after this initial unlocking, Helen chooses to reimprison her opportunity as she locks Annie in her room and throws away the key. Fortunately for Helen, Annie refuses to allow her to dismiss this opportunity so casually, and perseveres until Helen finally holds the “key” she needs to free herself: an understanding of language.

Molly Sweeney relates the experiences of Molly—blind since infancy—before and after an operation to restore her sight, from the points of view of Molly, her husband Frank, and Doctor Rice, who performed the operation. Molly nostalgically recalls her experiences as a blind woman and the resulting confusion that sight brings, which ends in a psychological condition the doctor calls “blindsight” in which Molly withdraws into her sightless memories and ceases to function in the real world. Alongside that we witness her husband’s initial enthusiasm but subsequent loss of interest as her case goes awry and he deserts her for a another cause, plus the doctor’s suspicions that somehow he failed his patient even as he managed to rekindle his own career.

Rice perceives at once that the Sweeneys are not well matched, and Frank only sees Molly as one in a series of causes, many of which he has embraced and dropped through the years; even Molly acknowledges that Frank married her less out of love than from a fascination with her blindness. Their very natures seem antagonistic, with Frank’s ebullience a constant threat to Molly’s calm equanimity, which is borne out by the fact it is Frank who pushes for the operation. When persuading Rice to take her case, he asks, “What has she to lose?” and answers himself, “Nothing” (6), but we learn that he is wrong. His limited perception blinds him to Molly’s contentment with her condition, insisting that she has to wish to be able to see. He wrongly equates vision with knowledge, viewing his wife’s blindness as a limitation that needs to be overcome. But it turns out to be sight that limits Molly, as it destroys her confidence and independence.

When Rice is reticent over their chances for success, Frank gets angry, insisting that Molly must gain vision to acquire “a new life for both of us” (17). However, it seems that he has little regard for what Molly wants: he just wants one of his causes to finally succeed and for his life to be changed, since he is incapable of staying content for long in one place. He continues to demand the miracle of perfect sight, even when the possibility of partial sight is the best that can occur; by constantly setting his sights so high, his constant failure becomes easier to understand, even while he himself cannot see this. His final abandonment of Molly to pursue a new cause in Ethiopia comes as little surprise.

Molly trusts Rice because he seems more understanding of her position than her husband is. Instead of quizzing her about what it is like to be blind, or telling her that she lives in a world of touch, as other doctors have done, he just asks if the idea of sight excites or frightens her, recognizing the possibility that a blind person may not long for vision. Rice understands the dangers of giving sight to a blind person, yet proceeds with the case, less out of a concern for Molly than as an opportunity to regain the prominent position he once held in the medical community. It is a position he lost through blinkered vision, concentrating too much on his work and neglecting his wife, who eventually ran off with a colleague who paid more attention to her, causing him to have a breakdown, abandon his career, and become a reclusive drunk. Molly has given him the motivation to reenter the mainstream of his profession, but it is through the sacrifice of Molly herself, and he knows this before he does the operation. He talks about the frivolous ease with which he and his former colleagues had pursued their careers, and little has changed, despite his time away.

Other perceptions constantly change throughout the play. Molly describes a childhood spent mostly in the sporadic company of an affectionate father, who taught her to recognize flowers by their scent and feel, and use her hearing to create a more detailed sensibility of her world, skills in which she delights. Her mother seems to have been either quarreling with her father, or hospitalized with a nervous condition, and had little relationship with her daughter. However, as events unfold, a new picture of the family emerges, in which roles are reversed. The father becomes the villain, empty of passion, refusing to allow her the benefits of a Blind School out of miserliness, and she begins to see her mother in a far more sympathetic light.

As a blind woman, Molly feels no self-pity or even resignation because she honestly feels no sense of deprivation. As she tells us, “I knew only my own world” (14), and she is content with that, deriving intense pleasure from actions like swimming, from which she secretly suspects she gains more pleasure than sighted people, innately knowing that seeing changes the experience. She only goes along with the operation to keep Frank happy. Even after the operation, all she asks for is “a brief excursion to this land of vision; not to live there—just to visit” (36), clearly out of curiosity not discontent, to increase her understanding with the knowledge of what things look like. Her disappointment is indicated by her reaction to the Baby Blue Eyes she buys—the flowers had held a special place for her when she was blind, but visually she decides they are not very pretty.

Rice speaks about sight being a chore for Molly that takes work. It is something Molly has to want enough to make the effort, or it cannot happen, and it soon becomes evident that Molly does not want sight. She finds it too dazzling to accept and begins shutting her eyes for a while, until she feels calm and has the courage to reopen them. But she will soon retreat entirely into her sightless world.

Given the nervous period of reckless desperation, mood swings, and disorientation she goes through when trying to learn to use her sight, her regression to blindsight may seem like a victory for Molly in some sense; she seems at least content. But if we compare the descriptions we get of this motionless, bed-ridden figure, scarcely able to communicate, with the Molly we hear about from the party the night before her first operation—socializing with friends as an equal, dancing a crazy hornpipe with, “No timidity, no hesitations, no falterings” (24)—such a view is hard to accept. Rice’s vision of Molly as a lost soul, caught between the worlds of the blind and the sighted, now confined to a psychiatric hospital, is more chilling and probably more accurate. In her immobility, she has lost touch with the tangible world she once relished, and her former existence, ironically, has been seriously reduced rather than expanded by the attempted acquisition of sight.

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