- Beyond “Cripping Up”An Introduction
What do we mean when we talk about disability in drama? That deceptively simple question is worth asking in part because the performance of disability in film, television, dance, performance art, and popular culture already receives considerable attention within disability studies. It is perhaps no surprise that theater and drama, somewhat relegated to the margins of literary studies generally, also receives a relative paucity of attention within literary disability studies. And certainly, much of the problem is economic and structural: when ticket prices reach the stratosphere, when theater spaces are inaccessible, and when training programs still produce too few disabled actors and playwrights, is it any wonder that there seems to be a kind of benign neglect of theatrical discourse within disability studies?
And yet, there is much in dramatic literature for disability studies: much that has been and remains to be discovered. As scholars who have been studying, producing, creating, and curating visual representations of disability for the entirety of our careers, we have appreciated and valued disability studies’ focus on art forms that have privileged the representation of the body and movement: dance, film, visual art, and performance art. These genres have open forms of narrative that rely on the viewer for much of the meaning-making they do, inviting those spectators to stare and in so doing, rewrite old assumptions about the disabled body while discovering new aspects of disability aesthetics and disability gain. In proposing this special issue we were interested, however, in thinking more about a form of art that relies on a more purposeful intersection of the body and language—specifically, dramatic literature.
The crafting of language by playwrights is a particular and unique opportunity for carefully shaped narratives to intersect with embodied performance. And frankly, disability and dramatic literature have a lot in common. Like disability, the fullest expression of these plays is rooted in the body. Like disability, drama in performance also finds itself confronting the problem of visibility: when the final product immediately evaporates upon performance, how do we recapture [End Page 121] a sense of its significance and importance? The importance of materiality and the material opportunities drama provides means that disabled playwrights, actors, and characters have been doing their own subversive, creative, and generative thing for quite a long time. And so, we thought it was important to look at as wide a range of drama featuring disabled characters as possible: from the historical canon, personal narrative, contemporary drama, documentary drama, the postdramatic, and the devised dramatic adaptation of literary works. We further thought it crucial to include drama created from both inside and outside the disability community. Each of the plays about which our contributors write deploys disability as a narrative device in ways that, in their diversity, destabilize simplistic assumptions about the history, presence, and utility of disability in drama.
Ironically, debates about one aspect of disability in drama remain as highly popular and pervasive as ever. The issue that might spring to mind immediately for most disability studies scholars when asked to consider the question “what do we mean when we talk about disability in drama?” is that of casting: more specifically, nondisabled people cast instead of disabled people in the roles of disabled characters. The question of casting has become canonical within disability studies and activism as a point of political debate; Lennard Davis’s recent Beginning with Disability: A Primer, for example, presents as one of the issues “subject to debate” for undergraduates new to the field that of “cripping up.” A recent blog post by Dominick Evans argues against comparing cripping up and blackface, working to prevent disability studies scholars from uncritically co-opting similar oppressions in a way that elides their differences. Every time a new movie comes out featuring a nondisabled actor in a disabled role, it seems, there is (with good reason) a new flurry of newspaper articles and blog posts. The discussion of casting has been going on, quite literally, for decades. But as the contributors to this special issue show, the answer to the question “what do we mean when we talk about disability in...