Children of a Lesser God
Children of a Lesser God
MARK MEDOFF 1979
Mark Medoff wrote Children of a Lesser God specifically for the actress Phyllis Frelich. The play is important historically because it includes a lead role for a deaf performer in a drama designed for the hearing theater audience. Unlike some of Medoff’s earlier plays, such as The Wager and When You Comin Back, Red Ryder?, Children of a Lesser God examines communication problems, psychological stress, and emotional abuse, but does so without the threat of physical violence or guns. The play earned Medoff a Tony award in 1980. In 1986, a film version of the play, written by Medoff, was released; the film starred William Hurt as James and Marlee Matlin, who earned an Academy Award for her performance as Sarah.
Sign language is integral to the play. Sarah signs but does not speak aloud until the climactic scene toward the end of the play. When conversing with Sarah, James will often echo her part of the conversation and sign and speak his own responses.
Mark Howard Medoff was born in Mount Carmel, Illinois, on March 18, 1940. His father, Lawrence, was a physician, and his mother, Thelma, a psychologist. He earned a B.A. in 1962 from the University of Miami, and an M.A. in English from Stanford in 1966. Medoff has held a number of academic appointments at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, including the position of dramatist-in-residence and chair of the theater arts department. He and his wife, Stephanie, have three daughters.
Medoff has received several awards and honors for his work. In 1974, he won a Guggenheim fellowship in playwriting. He received the Outer Critics Circle Award in 1974 for When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? and again in 1980 for Children of a Lesser God. Also in 1980 Medoff won the Tony Award for Children of a Lesser God; in 1987 he earned an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay based on the stage play. Gallaudet College, the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the world, recognized Medoff’s achievement for Children of a Lesser God with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree in 1981.
The primary action of Children of a Lesser God takes place inside the mind of James Leeds. Time is not linear during the play, and characters “step from his memory for anything from a full scene to several lines,” and place changes rapidly on a bare stage that holds “only a few benches and a blackboard.” James is a speech teacher at a State School for the Deaf. He meets Sarah Norman, a cleaning woman who has been deaf from birth and has resided at the school since the age of five.
Two other students meet with James for speech therapy on a regular basis: Orin, a contemporary of Sarah who has become an apprentice teacher at the school, and Lydia, a girl in her late teens who develops a crush on James. As the relationship between Sarah and James grows, Orin distances himself from James, while Lydia becomes more infatuated with her teacher.
Sarah’s mother, known only as Mrs. Norman in the play, appears at first to be a bitter woman, one whose husband left at the same time her daughter was sent away to the State School for the Deaf. Later, James brings Sarah to her mother’s house and forces a reunion. The two women reconcile and Mrs. Norman attends James and Sarah’s wedding.
The second act begins with a bridge party at the newlyweds’ home attended by Franklin, James’s supervising teacher, and Mrs. Norman. Sarah delivers a splendid performance, suggesting that she has become integrated into the middle-class hearing world, but later tells James “I feel split down the middle, caught between two worlds.” James also experiences this struggle to feel comfortable in both worlds because he becomes exhausted serving as Sarah’s translator and finds it impossible to enjoy music because Sarah cannot share it with him.
When Orin enlists Sarah’s help in a campaign to charge the State School for the Deaf with discrimination for not hiring enough deaf teachers, the personal differences between James and Sarah become part of a larger political issue. Edna Klein, a lawyer brought in by Orin to help with the case against the school, illustrates the misconceptions and mistakes made by well-meaning people from the hearing community. Sarah begins to realize that Edna wants to speak before the commission “for all deaf people,” and that James wants to speak for her. Sarah explains that everyone has always assumed that because she cannot hear, she is unable to understand and is incapable of speaking for herself. Her own identity as a separate individual has been ignored by the hearing world in general, by Edna, and by her husband. Sarah declares: “Unless 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 do that, I will never let myself know you. Until that time, we cannot be joined. We cannot share a relationship.”
After a climactic argument in which James holds her arms at her side and forces her to speak, Sarah leaves James. James experiences remorse and begins to realize more clearly her position, but Sarah refuses to return. In order for them to be able to reconcile their differences, Sarah maintains that she and James “would have to meet in another place; not in silence or in sound but somewhere else. I don’t know where that is now.” The play ends with the hope that James and Sarah will be joined once again.
Orin is two years younger than Sarah and has been a student with her at the State School for the Deaf since he was a young child. Orin, however, has some residual hearing and practices both his lip-reading and his speech. He is described as “the guardian of all. . . deaf children because he [is] an apprentice teacher and speaks.” He is also described as someone who “wants to lead a revolution against the hearing world and thinks [the deaf] can hardly wait to follow him.”
Orin is angry that Sarah appears to have abandoned him and the deaf world in favor of James and the hearing world. But he enlists both of them to join him in a complaint against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleges discriminatory hiring practices against teachers who are deaf. He is single-minded in pursuit of his goal, convincing a lawyer, Ms. Klein, to advise them about the case. He wants Sarah to leave her “little romance” and fight with him for deaf rights. Because of his lip-reading and speaking skills, Orin acts as a bridge between the two worlds, although it is apparent from his thoughts and actions that he feels more comfortable in the deaf community.
Mr. Franklin is the Supervising Teacher at the State School for the Deaf. He is one of the “Great White Fathers” of deaf education. He takes a condescending attitude toward everyone. He views all the deaf, even the adults like Orin and Sarah, as needy children who need his protection and guidance. However, his compassionate, benevolent pretense is weakened when he says to James: “Mr. Leeds . . . we don’t fornicate with the students. We just screw them over. If you ever get the two confused. . . you’re gone.” Later, when James goes to him to attempt to broker a settlement in the discrimination case, Mr. Franklin refers to the deaf as his “subjects,” and promises that no matter what the commission might decide, he will make Orin and Sarah take him to court, and if they are successful there, he will appeal the ruling, tying them up in litigation for years.
Ms. Klein is a lawyer who helps Orin with his claim of discrimination against the State School for the Deaf. She does not know how to sign or how to communicate with Orin or Sarah. She plans to read a speech that she has written before the commission but is accused by Sarah of writing “the same old shit”—that deaf people are helpless and need hearing people to get along in the world. Ms. Klein is well-intentioned, but recognizes neither Sarah or Orin as human beings who can speak for themselves.
The play takes place in the mind of James Leeds. As happens to Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, characters step from James’s memory “for anything from a full scene to several lines.” James Leeds is a speech teacher at a State School for the Deaf. He is bright and articulate, but struggles throughout the play to understand the “other language” of Sarah and her deaf counterparts. A former Peace Corps volunteer, James is attracted to support occupations “because it feels good to help people.” For the whole length of the play, James tries to “help” Sarah, to make her value speech. James wrestles with his motives, struggling to determine whether they stem from a desire to help or a desire to control.
Lydia is a State School for the Deaf student in her late teens. She, like Orin, has some residual hearing, and she faithfully practices her speech and lip-reading skills. However, she is not as mature as Orin and throws herself at James throughout the play. As one of James’s students, Lydia has frequent contact with him, but that contact turns into a schoolgirl crush. After James and Sarah marry, Lydia is given Sarah’s former job as “maid.” Lydia often appears at the Leeds’s residence to “watch TV” and be closer to James. She wants to appear “hearing,” and even chides James after Sarah has left: “You need a girl that doesn’t go away. You need a girl that talks.”
Mrs. Norman is Sarah’s mother, a hearing woman whose husband left her not long after Sarah was sent to the State School for the Deaf. Mrs. Norman appears to be a bitter woman at the beginning of the play. She has been frustrated and challenged in trying to parent a deaf child, and seems disinterested in what James has to say to her about Sarah and her intellectual capabilities. She complains of “feeling like another mandatory stop in some training program for new teachers at the school.” Mrs. Norman does reconcile with Sarah after James forces a visit between the two women. She attends their wedding and joins James and Sarah as Mr. Franklin’s partner for the bridge game at the beginning of Act II. She welcomes Sarah with open arms after she leaves James.
Sarah is a woman in her mid-twenties who has been deaf from birth; she works as a cleaning woman at the State School for the Deaf. She refuses to speak and rejects James’s attempts at therapy because “I don’t do things I don’t do well.” Sarah signs throughout the play, speaking only in the final climactic scene. She uses American Sign Language
- 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.
(ASL; a conceptual, pictorial expression) rather than the Signed English (a word-by-word, grammatical rendition) technique favored by James.
The physicality of the language itself provides a certain eloquence to the dialogue that speech alone cannot deliver. Even though Sarah turns in a splendid performance at the card party at the beginning of Act II that tests her integration into the hearing world, she confesses to James: “I feel split down the middle, caught between two worlds.” This is the central problem for Sarah. Like Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, she declares her own identity as a separate person, telling James: “Until you let me be an individual, an I, just as you are, you will never be able to come inside my silence and know me. And until you do that, I will never let myself know you. Until that time, we cannot be joined. We cannot share a relationship.”
Language and Meaning
Children of a Lesser God forces its audience to struggle with the problem of language, specifically resulting from the differences between spoken English and American Sign Language (ASL) and those who employ these languages. James becomes exhausted
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the following and discuss the contribution of each to the world of theater: The National Theater of the Deaf, Louie Fant, Bernard Bragg, and Phyllis Frelich.
- Alexander Graham Bell was a teacher of the deaf long before he invented the telephone. He is well known for devising “Bell’s Visible Speech.” Find out more information on this topic and pay particular attention to the chart, if available.
- Through the years there has been an ongoing argument between the oralists (those who favor speech and lip-reading only) and the manualists (those who support the learning of sign language). The Clarke School for the Deaf in Massachusetts and the John Tracy Clinic in California are good sources of information for the oral point of view. Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, is an excellent resource for the sign language camp. Consult these resources and use the information you obtain to show how Sarah’s character has been influenced by the two opposing factions.
- Just as there are dialects in spoken language (the southern drawl, the New England twang), there are dialects and differing ways to say the same thing in sign language. Research American Sign Language (ASL) and the varying forms of signed English. Show how these signing dialects play an important role in the play.
- Compare the characters of James and Anne Sullivan (from William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker). How does each approach the role of teacher? How do their teaching strategies compare?
trying to act as bridge between the two. Mrs. Norman lost her daughter for eight years because of the misunderstandings and lack of communication between herself as a hearing person and her deaf daughter. Mr. Franklin is skilled at ASL but refuses to use it, especially in social situations. Orin and Lydia seem to abandon ASL for speech. Sarah refuses to speak and converses only in ASL. And Ms. Klein is confused when people seem less than enthusiastic about her having learned three signs.
English has its own grammatical structure, its own rules, its own way of putting thoughts into communication. ASL has a different grammatical structure, one that linguists say is more like Chinese than English. ASL follows a different set of rules, rules more often made by the speakers themselves than by teachers and writers. ASL uses the entire body to bring the thoughts of its user to the world at large.
Much of the conflict in this play comes from an unwillingness to accept the language system of “the other.” James signs, but he is always trying to get Sarah to speak, to use his language. At the end of the play, he forces Sarah not to use her hands. Sarah then realizes that even though she loves James and he loves her, James at some level refuses to accept her as she is. “Am I what you want me to be?” Sarah speaks in her own barely intelligible voice. There is a hope for reconciliation at the conclusion of the play, but for the moment the chasm separating the spoken and the signed word is too wide to be bridged.
Search for Self
Sarah’s mother demanded that her other daughter’s boyfriends’ friends act as companions to Sarah when the girls were younger. She enthusiastically recalls: “These boys really liked Sarah, treated her the same way they treated Ruth, with respect, and . . . and if you didn’t know there was a problem, you’d have thought she was perfectly normal.” Mrs. Norman did not realize that none of these boys were interested in Sarah herself, but only in how she could meet their needs; their sole reason for going out with her was to engage in sexual intercourse, which she was willing to provide.
Sarah says that she has always been seen as less than valuable, that, because she cannot hear, she is somehow defective, “and that’s bad.” When everyone tries to speak for her at the hearing before the commission, Sarah realizes that the integrity of her own identity as a distinct, separate individual human being has been ignored. She expresses this when she says: “Unless 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 do that, I will never let myself know you. Until that time, we cannot be joined. We cannot share a relationship.” When Sarah leaves James, she does so with the knowledge that she can say that she hurts and “won’t shrivel up and blow away.” She will have to “go it alone.”
Manipulation and Control
James is a speech therapist. He works with Orin and Lydia to improve their speaking skills. (He even corrects Orin’s pronunciation of “sushi” when Orin expresses his anger that he too has eaten “hearing food.”) James’s job becomes convincing Sarah to speak. But Sarah has an agenda of her own, and does not place any value on learning to speak in order to appear “normal.”
Mrs. Norman would go to great lengths for Sarah to appear normal: demanding her other daughter’s male friends become companions to Sarah, forcing Sarah to attend lip-reading and speech classes, even signing Ricky Nelson’s name to a pinup photo she put in Sarah’s room. James’s mother used a religion “heretofore unknown to mankind” to control her son.
Ms. Klein, the lawyer, assumes that she will speak for the deaf at the commission hearing and has already drafted her remarks. Orin attempts to learn the tools of the hearing world so that he can “change this system that sticks us with teachers who pretend to help but really want to glorify themselves.”
James pins Sarah’s arms to her sides and demands that she speak. In the same manner that others might have used violence or sex to control a partner in a relationship, James makes language a weapon of control. Sarah rebels against this blatant attempt at control and leaves to “go it alone.”
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.
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.
“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).
The story that takes place in Children of a Lesser God is told primarily using two languages,
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 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.
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.
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.
Robert Brustein, writing in The New Republic; called Children of a Lesser God a “supreme example of a new Broadway genre—the Disability Play,” in which, regardless of our defects, the audience learns that we all share a common humanity. He further noted that speech in this drama “operates not to inform and reveal but rather to manipulate emotions and reinforce conventional wisdom.” Paul Sagona declared in Dictionary of Literary Biography that Medoff “exploits a stark, absolute communication problem,” but does so “without the threat of physical violence” or guns. Sagona identified Medoff’s plays, especially Children of a Lesser God, as addressing the problem of “self-isolated personalities making themselves felt without disintegrating.”
Other critical commentary centers on how the characters’ inability to communicate with one another works as an effective means of illustrating the both the problems caused by prejudice and those caused by language. Some critics have expressed reservations about Medoff’s dramatic work, citing his tendency toward gratuitous use of violence or overly sentimental plot devices and dialogue. Children of a Lesser God has been singled out as an example of Medoff’s best work, in large part because of Medoff’s ability to present the demoralization of the deaf population by a generally ignorant society that assumes that those who cannot hear are somehow mentally or otherwise inferior. The stark reality and emotional intensity of the play have been praised by critics who affirm that Children of a Lesser God is evidence of Medoff’s exceptional talent as a playwright.
William P. Wiles
Wiles is a teacher with over twenty years of experience in secondary education. In the following essay, he explores the characters’ individual attitudes toward hearing, speech, and deafness in Children of a Lesser God.
“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.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The Miracle Worker, a play by William Gibson, explores the early education of Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan. The play confronts the issues of the link between language and communication, and the struggles of both student and teacher to make that link.
- Brian Clark’s play Whose Life Is It Anyway? examines the idea of allowing individuals who are impaired to make decisions for themselves through the story of Ken Harrison, a sculptor. After he is involved in a car accident and is paralyzed from his neck down, all Harrison can do is talk. He says he wants to die; in the hospital, he makes friends with some of the staff, and they support him when he goes to trial to be allowed to make his own decisions, even if those decisions include ending his life.
- In This Sign, a novel by Joanne Greenberg, is the story of a deaf couple and their hearing daughter and their struggle through life. The characters are neither heroic or extraordinary, but they are very real and very human.
- Based on the true story of John Merrick, a 19th-century Englishman afflicted with a disfiguring congenital disease, Bernard Pommerance’s The Elephant Man explores the issue of the integrity of one’s identity. With the help of kindly Dr. Frederick Treves, Merrick attempts to regain the dignity he lost after years spent as a side-show freak.
- In the play A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, Nora Helmer committed a forgery in order to save the life of her authoritarian husband Torvald. She is blackmailed, and lives in fear of her husband discovering her crime and of the shame such a revelation would bring to his career. But when the truth comes out, Nora is shocked to learn where she really stands in her husband’s esteem. Nora’s confrontational scene with her husband is echoed in Children of a Lesser God.
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 party. 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 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 pinup 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 “deafie” 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.
O’Brien reviews the film adaptation of Children of a Lesser God, which Medoff cowrote. While he praises the performances, the critic was less
pleased with the translation from stage to screen, feeling that certain elements of Medoff’s original text were misused for the screenplay.
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 Martin) 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,
“JAMES’S DEMAND THAT SARAH BE ‘NORMAL’ REFUSES TO ACKNOWLEDGE THE IDEA THAT NORMALCY IS IN THE MIND AND EYE OF THE BEHOLDER.”
which has been adapted, not into a film, but into television film, with a lowest-common-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 Martin 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 Martin won’t speak, he has to interpret her rapid (often tempestuous) sign language in a deadpan fashion to avoid stealing any of her thunder. Martin 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. Martin 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 Martin’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 trip by ferry to the peninsula where the school is located. The water imagery is deepened, poetically, with some beautiful scenes of Martin’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.
In the following review of Children of a Lesser God’s original Broadway run, Brustein offers a positive review of Medojfs play. The critic categorizes the work as part of a dramatic subgenre that he terms the “disability play”—a drama whose intentions are so well-placed and politically correct that a viewer feels morally compelled to speak positively of it.
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 Führer, 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
“CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD BOTH MOVES AND DISAPPOINTS.”
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
“ONLY A STONY HEART COULD REMAIN COLD TO SUCH A STORY.”
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.
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.
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.
DeafNation 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://dww.deafworldweb.org/asl/.
Among other things, contains a dictionary of signs grouped alphabetically and categorically.