restricted access Unfixing Disability in Lord Byron’s The Deformed Transformed
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Un‹xing Disability in Lord Byron’s The Deformed Transformed sharon l. snyder Transforming Representation Through a reading of Lord Byron’s last and un‹nished drama, The Deformed Transformed, this essay analyzes disability as a body capable of resignifying the terms of its cultural reception. The Deformed Transformed intervenes in disability’s repertoire of representations—what Judith Butler calls the “topography of construction” (28)—in order to revalue a denigrated social identity. For Byron, who was born with a condition similar to cerebral palsy,1 the rewriting of Shakespeare’s menacing hunchbacked king of Richard III, proved a personal and political necessity. As I have argued elsewhere , numerous productions of Shakespeare’s malignant avenger (Mitchell and Snyder 111) heated up the late-seventeenth-century and early-eighteenth-century theatrical stage. As a disabled writer refusing the silence traditionally associated with the cultural outsider, Byron presages the political strategies offered by many contemporary theorists of the body. The Deformed Transformed intervenes in the representation of disability to destabilize the historical portrait of Richard III as the “arch-defective in all literature” (Miller and Davis 361). Byron’s Deformed Transformed redresses the Shakespearean representation of disability a sign of malignant motivation. Rather than reinscribe this 271 sign, Byron’s play severs the relationship between deformity and diabolic intent. Disability is unleashed from its ideological mooring as a sign of personal despair, becoming a malleable source of political, intellectual, and sexual power. In doing so, the play brings the reader to the revelation that the protagonist’s disability shields him, however ironically, from the immoralities of the late eighteenth century’s version of nondisabled masculinity (and as a norm, standard, and agent of destructive cultural rituals such as war and sexual domination). It also provides the opportunity for Byron to question the meaning of physical difference as a basis for empirical observations about intangible qualities such as “moral character.” Byron recognized that a performance-based art can effectively transform “the deformed” by positing disability as a ›exible narrative entity. In doing so, The Deformed Transformed does not merely invert cultural meanings about disability by conjuring up an alternative reading; instead, the drama taps into the indeterminacy of bodily appearances by demonstrating that the meaning of disability is tethered to discriminatory cultural ideologies. Consequently , Byron’s interrogation of the habitual alignment of disability with undesirability threatens to re-form “biological facts” as linguistically constructed materiality. The restrictive yoking of disability to an irrefutable, organic, and material deviance provides the site of performative interventions. The objective of disability studies (and performance studies in a larger sense) is not to deny disability its attendant “biological” differences, but rather, to mobilize a more ›uid understanding of its meanings. The Deformed Transformed articulates a varied universe of narrative potential beyond the horizon of pathological social scripts about the body. Byron takes up this challenge by parodying outsider versions of disability. As a result, the drama poses readings alternative to the pathology of the disabled body itself. For Byron, the key maneuver is to free disability into a performative space (as in Butler’s analysis of gender) and to unmoor physical difference from its exclusively debilitating location in inferior corporealities. Staging Disability The dramatic structure of The Deformed Transformed enacts just such an intervention in the culturally assigned story of disability. Based loosely upon a popular French novel of the time entitled The Brothers Three, Byron’s play also borrows heavily from Goethe’s Faust. This appropriation of forms from both low and high culture demonstrates that Byron already recognized his subject matter as a progeny born of two discursive orders. Inherited from the ranks of the literary in works such as Shakespeare’s infamous dramatic portrait of Richard III, the story of malevolent disability was disseminated in 272 Bodies in Commotion popular Romantic literature. Consequently, The Deformed Transformed straddles two related discursive communities—literary art and popular stories— that participate in a mutually debilitating story of disability. This merger of the tragic and the melodramatic delineates a disabled space within drama: one overwrought with bourgeois angst and emblematic of the Romantic belief that suffering is the common denominator of humanity. A signi‹er for both of these detrimental registers, disability becomes a master trope of human invalidation. Byron situates disability as a body multiply displaced from any legitimate site along the normative continuum of human biology. The Deformed Transformed begins with the excess of affect common to melodramatic and tragic discourses. Byron directly cites numerous scenes in...


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