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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 330-331

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Peering Behind the Curtain: Disability, Illness, and the Extraordinary Body in Contemporary Theater. Edited by Thomas Fahy and Kimball King. New York: Routledge, 2002; pp. xiii + 179. $75.00 cloth.

This study's strengths and weaknesses both derive from its being the first volume to explore the intersection of dramatic criticism and disability studies. It claims neither comprehensiveness in its treatment of disability in theatre nor exclusivity in its definition of disability theatre. The varying quality of the essays is frustrating but balanced by the volume's potential to invite readers to explore the history and theorization of disability in performance.

Because the book may well introduce disability studies to theatre scholars unfamiliar with the field, I wish that the introduction had more carefully defined disability concepts. Basic ideas such as the difference between impairment (the condition of physical difference) and disability (the social construction of "Otherness" that is premised on that difference), and understanding the difference between the medical and moral models of disability (disability as something to be cured vs. disability as an indicator of innocence or infamy), are directly relevant to understanding the construction of the disabled body on stage. Still, many important ideas in disability studies and theatre are reflected within the collection.

The volume opens with Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren's essay "Between Two Worlds: The Emerging Aesthetic of the National Theater of the Deaf," which represents current cutting-edge thinking in disability performance by asking how disability can be the catalyst for deepening our understanding of theatre in general. Robert Spirko's essay "'Better Me Than You': Children of a Lesser God, Deaf Education, and Paternalism" points out what is lost in making disability issues palatable for a wider audience, detailing what happened when Children of a Lesser God moved from stage to screen. "[I]ssues of deafness and power [were] glossed over in the face of the love story about a romance between a hearing speech teacher and a deaf student" (17). Spirko invites us to understand how Mark Medoff's play, by contrast, draws important parallels between the "Othering" of the deaf with that of the female and/or postcolonial subject.

Other useful essays include Pamela Cooper's "Violence, Pain, Pleasure: Wit," which shows how Wit, while superficially a critique of punishing medical systems, specifically privileges bodily wholeness, female beauty, and anti-intellectualism to reassure rather than challenge audience members. Sarah Reuning's "Depression—the Undiagnosed Disability in Marsha Norman's 'night Mother" makes a strong case for the presence of depression in Norman's play, thereby showing the ways in which disability and feminist readings can clash, yet why it is essential they be conducted in tandem. Thomas Fahy's "'Some Unheard-of Thing': Freaks, Families, and Coming of Age in The Member of the Wedding" explores how Carson McCullers's text questions what disability studies critic Lennard Davis has defined as society's compulsion to "enforce normalcy" through linking the similarly confined fates of queer and disabled bodies.

Not all the essays are informed by a full familiarity with disability studies as an epistemology. Johanna Shapiro's "Young Doctors Come to See [End Page 330] the Elephant Man" does a good job of deconstructing the medical gaze as she recounts studying The Elephant Man with a group of her medical students. It is therefore disappointing to read that her students conclude that the medical gaze must ultimately be infused "with love," a paternalism seeming to counteract other, more complicated insights reached by the same group of students. Ruby Cohn's essay "'It Hurts?': Afflicted Bodies in Beckett's Drama," while usefully detailing Beckett's images of disability, reifies disability stereotype through its analysis of his so-called "afflicted" bodies when, for example, Beckett's characters are described as behaving "with psychological credibility, particularly with respect to their handicaps"; they are "acrimonious," "'obliged to each other,'" and hardened by "cruel affliction" (49). The connection of Tess Chakkalakal's "Making an Art out of Suffering: Bill T. Jones's Uncle Tom...


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