Book in Focus
Four Plays about Disability"/>

11th May 2023

Book in Focus
Four Plays about Disability


By James MacDonald

Diffabilities Hour

Four Plays about Disability: Agency collects my best-received plays in a career spanning almost half a century. That career has been largely devoted to writing performance texts for undergraduate drama students of a Russell Group university, a fact in itself that is significant when we engage with the uncomfortable reality that people with disabilities are assumed incapable of doing anything of value to able-bodied people. It is significant that my disability is congenital, defining a lifetime’s experience of the world we all inhabit, and my survival denotes a gradual but definite measure of acceptance by a world where disability was once received as a monstrous freak of nature and disabled people were hidden away if not actually put to death.

These plays track the history of that journey toward acceptance, inviting students and general readers alike to open themselves up to the painful realities of disability as a living condition for those charged with the onerous task of making something of a grossly unwelcome phenomenon.

The success of the plays is a huge affirmation of the power of education, integration and commonality. Each play is about disability and is intended to work as a viable theatre piece to be enjoyed as entertainment by performers and audience, and then to become part of the machinery by which our brightest prospects are assessed to enter the workforce. The achievement is worthy of celebration, its features worthy of scrutiny for future development.

These may be the first plays about disability to be studied as core curriculum texts. Others, by generations of people with disabilities, ought to herald a time when inclusiveness and democracy are interchangeable terms to signify human aspiration, for as long as general wellbeing is a recognisable goal.

These plays coincide with the popular success of Francesca Martinez, who is another artist with cerebral palsy. Our emergence deserves to be ‘game-changing’ in the same way that other minority members have become part of the status quo, not simply to join a conscience-free scramble for personal acquisition but to lend our uniqueness to the widest awareness of human diversity. The defining statement of Fran’s groundbreaking play All of Us is that everyone is of value. My work, perhaps best summarised in Cripplegate, tries to express that value beyond mere material worth.

The year Fran was born, I received my bachelor’s degree with marks in Drama, which enabled me to study for a doctorate in Drama and, after which, I began working with undergraduates. I belong to a generation where people with disabilities were not given much incentive to seek gainful employment, having to rely instead on disability benefit. The special school I attended did not abuse the pupils, but it did not encourage them to excel. Consequently, most left underqualified to pursue employment unworthy of the name by ordinary standards.

My caveat is with the practice of assessment. To judge people who cannot walk by the standards of Olympic runners is absurdly unfair, especially if doing so leads to quasi-criminal denigration. One of my school friends went on to work as a third assistant film director, a position normally given temporary trainee status. Considering my friend’s condition, however, it is a miracle he was able to integrate at all. And ‘acceptance’ ought to include recognition of individual levels of achievement. One disabled academic once confided to me, ‘Most disabled people can do a reasonable job if given the chance’. People of my friend’s generation were given so little chance that they were even housed in hospital wards. I am not seeking Valhalla by merely saying that people with disabilities ought to be recognised for what they do by a society that purports to appreciate difference as a part of the human condition. The disabled protagonists I write about are not Shakespeare’s Gloucester, wreaking vengeance on society for their afflictions. At worst, they are mountebanks trying their best to survive. And the plays’ accusing finger turns itself on the fractured society where this interaction occurs. But the panorama is intended to be entertaining.

It is my earnest hope that these plays will be as entertaining to the larger audience as they were to the students.

Cripplegate was even performed on Zoom by a group of professional actors whose collaboration rewarded me with the greatest applause I have ever enjoyed. Entertainment is a stern medium. Approval cannot be camouflaged. The plays’ success is personally gratifying and necessary as an example of noteworthy achievement and value if people with disabilities are to be integrated as never before. We may never be able to eliminate disability, but the stigma attached to its victims ought to be part of the permanent past.

James MacDonald, born with life-defining cerebral palsy, holds a doctorate and associate fellowship in Drama from the University of Exeter, where 20 of his plays have been performed as undergraduate coursework. He is the author of Eight Performance Texts about Disability.

Four Plays about Disability: Agency is available now at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 to redeem.

Read Extract