Toward the end of August, I traveled to Edinburgh to catch the end of the annual Fringe Festival, a month-long celebration of theatre, dance, comedy, music, spoken word, and street performance that takes over nearly every corner of the city. Some of the shows are gems, while others are duds; the programming is voluminous, uneven, chaotic, and on the whole, wonderful.
I was particularly eager to watch some theatre; for me, there’s nothing equal to the transporting power of a play, and there were some promising offerings that weekend. The first production I settled in for was an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1894 Little Eyolf. I have a soft spot for Ibsen and his moralizing, and was eager to see what this adaptation might do with one of his final works.
The play turned out to be a student effort that treated us to some unusual decisions: a giggle-inducing translation (“What a joy it is to be a road worker!”), a young woman who took her top off at regular intervals for no apparent reason, a Sufjan Stevens track running through some needlessly complex set changes—you get the idea. But it was the Fringe, after all. Student work happens. I was onboard for whatever these folks wanted to do for the next hour or so.
At least, I thought I was. My feelings changed when the title character, Eyolf himself, came onstage.
Eyolf, for those unfamiliar with the play, is a nine-year-old boy with the long-term goal of becoming a soldier, and with the more immediate passions of learning to swim and watching the local rat-catcher at her work. He uses a crutch because he has one immobilized leg. The original text of the play describes Eyolf as having beautiful, intelligent eyes.
What came clattering onto the stage was anything but the character that Ibsen had written. What emerged from behind the curtain was a large puppet.
Someone in the theatre company had constructed a grotesque, child-sized doll using jointed wooden dowels for limbs and what appeared to be a paper mâché bowl for a head. The person playing Eyolf’s mother manipulated the puppet from behind, and spoke all of his lines as though through the featureless, stark-white head-bowl.
I felt my stomach coil in on itself. Was this some kind of gross joke? I glanced around the rest of the audience, my face no doubt contorted in the universal expression for “are you seeing this?” I didn’t find that look reflected on any of the other theatre-goers’ faces. The character of a disabled person was being played by an inanimate object, and we were all, apparently, going to pretend that it was okay.
I hadn’t expected this show to provide the most nuanced portrayal of disability I’d ever seen. But I had expected the play to—at a very low minimum—feature a human being.
Like a lot of disabled people, I’ve gotten used to the fact that we rarely get any representation onscreen or on stage. Even when roles do exist for disabled characters in films, shows, or stage productions, those roles are almost always filled by able-bodied actors—ones who are lauded for their “sensitive” or “brave” portrayals of what the disabled actors denied those roles experience daily. Yet nobody, even those who rightly call into question casting choices that put white actors in minority roles (see the conversation generated by Emma Stone’s playing Allison Ng in Aloha for one recent example), seems to care about whether actually disabled people get to play themselves.
For a long time, I couldn’t understand why that was the case. If it’s creepy and weird for Stone to play Ng, surely it’s equally creepy and weird for able-bodied Glee star Kevin McHale to play the paraplegic Artie Abrams.
Yet over time, as I saw critics heap praise on able-bodied actors playing disabled roles, I began to understand. It was the way that reviewers couldn’t help but gush about these actors that showed me what a lot of people really think of disabled folks: when Eddie Redmayne starred as Stephen Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything, the Guardian said that “to look on as his face and body distort is to feel, yourself, discomforted, even queasy.” Or when Daniel Radcliffe played Billy in the alarmingly-titled play The Cripple of Irishmaan, a Chicago Tribune review said that Radcliffe “delivers a Billy with one heck of a limp, a body-twisting contortion that, when in motion, is quite the theatrical thing to behold.”
These reviews would be laughable if the truth lurking behind them weren’t so disappointing: the sight of disabled bodies is distressing enough to viewers that they’d prefer not to see the real thing. Worse still, the presence of able-bodied actors allows viewers a pass in voicing how disgusted they are with our “distortions” and “contortions.” No one (I hope) would say they feel queasy at the sight of RJ Mitte—one of the rare, actually disabled actors on television—playing Flynn in Breaking Bad. Surely no one would write that his body is theatrical to behold in its motion. But (I fear) they’re thinking it.
With such a mentality at work in the world, I’ve had to accept the idea that I’ll never see much screen or stage representation of people like me. Allowing disabled actors to be cast as themselves on a regular basis is a social development I don’t think I’ll see in my lifetime. Yet I have to draw a line at puppetry; to suggest that a blank-faced doll with rattling dowels is good enough? That’s something none of us should accept.
Kelly Davio is the Poetry Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. She is the author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013) and the co-editor of the anthology The Poet’s Quest for God. Her work appears in venues including The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Best New Poets, and more.