24. A book we read in high school/college and loved: Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff
List Progress: 27/30 (+3)
I am not equipped to talk about Mark Medoff’s 1979 play Children of a Lesser God. This modern classic is one of the only mainstream theatrical works to directly involve deaf culture and deaf characters, and I am a hearing woman. Medoff himself is not deaf, but the play was written specifically for and with deaf actress Phyllis Frelich. A note in the play’s forward involves a direct request from Medoff that all professional productions cast deaf or hard of hearing actors for three of the main roles. A huge portion of the dialogue is intended to be communicated in either Signed English or American Sign Language. As much as when I first read this play in college, it is a window to a type of life and a subculture that I have no real awareness of or experience in. For that alone, it is beautiful.
It is also exceptionally 80’s. I had honestly forgotten how much so.
Children of a Lesser God follows the romance between a young woman in her twenties, Sarah, who is completely deaf and does not speak, and the speech instructor, James, at the school for the deaf where they both work. Sarah is stubborn and fierce and refuses to be pitied or to let others speak for her, and the connection between her and James is as electric as it is unbalanced and problematic. Male and female, teacher and student, hearing and deaf: James has every possible structural position of power over Sarah, and as fluent of a signer as he is and as much as he works with deaf students, he will never truly understand how much of an advantage he has over her. So much of the tension of the script comes from James and Sarah just speaking past one another.
The play itself is told entirely through James’ perspective, with characters moving in and out of a fairly impressionistic mindspace, and it took me a while to get used to some of the stylistic writing, but the content itself is solid. I have some nitpicks, I think a few of the side characters are a bit underwritten, but the dynamic between Sarah and James is rich and tense enough to carry a lot.
So I have never seen Children of a Lesser God performed, and I honestly feel like I need to (or need to watch the 1986 film adaptation), because I can feel that I am missing part of the experience. Sarah communicates exclusively through sign language, and speaking characters translate or pointedly don’t translate for her according to the dynamics of the scene, as well as having signed-only conversations between deaf characters. Being able to read Sarah’s lines, I am getting information that I wouldn’t be getting as a non-signing audience member, and you can tell that some of the point for a hearing audience is to make them feel as cut off from and blocked out of conversations as Sarah and the other deaf characters do. This is a very rare moment where I wish I had less of the script. If possible, I would recommend seeing a staged/filmed version before reading the script, but it is still very beautiful on its own.
Aside from being stylistically very 80’s, I don’t know how much of the content pertaining to deaf lives has changed between the original publication and now. I honestly can’t speak to how true-to-today Sarah’s experiences of being institutionalized her whole life and craving a buy-in to mainstream culture are, but I have to imagine it’s more current than I would think. This is a powerful, eye-opening play, and while I’m reading it with a more critical eye than I did in college, it still manages to knock me back, even with its imperfections.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, but see a performed version first if possible.