25th February 2021

Book in Focus

Eight Performance Texts About Disability

Eight Performance Texts about Disability serves to push back the boundaries of diversity inclusion through its concentrated focus on disability as a means of exploring crises in 21st century culture. The book is the result of author James MacDonald's over 40 years of experience in writing plays that seek to challenge the public’s awareness of the phenomenon of disability.

The texts included in the volume pose vital questions about the nature of inclusion, what it means to be ‘different’, and how equipped we are to accept diversity. Each was performed as part of an undergraduate module in interpretive performance in Exeter University’s adventurous drama department, and they offer challenging roles for each cast member, providing ample scope for ensemble acting and group production.

In this edition of Book in Focus, Dr MacDonald opens up on the historical and continued challenges faced by those with disabilities and offers his perspective on what more needs to be done to improve inclusion for the disabled, not only in drama, but in wider society as well.

By James MacDonald

Joyce Carol Oates said that the rights of the disabled are the new frontier of activism. Indeed, film producer Ken Ross recently called for greater representation of the disabled on screen. BBC Four has featured Crip Tales, about the struggles of performers with disabilities. However, it has been a long, slow process to place disability on the agenda of social awareness. The Glass Menagerie remains the classic play about disability, despite its being written by an able-bodied writer. Activists Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell have characterised disability as “the master trope of social disqualification”, and a triumphant challenge to this assertion has yet to occur, though Oates’s claim looks to be affirmed at some point in the future. The Cost of Living, boasting disabled performers, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2018, though, again, its author is able-bodied. The tacit conclusion to be drawn from this is that disabled people are not sufficiently able to speak for themselves. It remains a notable anomaly that able-bodied academics are permitted to teach Disability Studies, especially when so few students with disabilities are accepted as undergraduates. If ever there was a legitimate case for positive discrimination, university matriculation ought to be given pride of consideration. Disability will continue to be synonymous with disqualification as long as people with disabilities are denied access to social advancement. Physical disability should not be confused with mental disability, however much longer it takes for a physically disabled person to do a job than an able-bodied person. Unless disabled people are privileged with the same proactive attitude that informed the advancement of other special-interest groups, disabled people will remain mere observers of ordinary life or “useless eaters” as they were described by Nazi eugenicists. In this discouraging context, social disqualification could be seen as an effective form of eugenics in the age of political correctness.

These are the circumstances underpinning the issues in these dramatic texts. Forty years ago, esteemed play agents expressed genuine interest in placing my plays professionally, provided I did not write about disability. The National Student Drama Festival, a forum for generations of professionals at the beginning of their careers, produced my first performed play in 1980. Jane Prowse directed its production at that year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. However, audiences were shocked because my portrayal of the single-parent family confounded both those who welcomed the discussion of disability and others for whom disability was an entirely strange theme. A few even questioned my disability. My approach to disability consciously resembles the approach of African American authors Richard Wright and Amiri Baraka in their depiction of racial tensions. For example, Wright’s Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Native Son, is found guilty of killing a young white woman, and the author’s statement is that Thomas is the victim of an inherently prejudiced society. In my case, people sympathetic to disability advancement took vehement issue with my portrayal of the disabled adolescent as tyrannical toward his mother and sister. This may continue to be a controversial issue as disability claims more of the public’s attention. Beyond Victims and Villains, a collection of plays by disabled authors, explicitly aims to portray disability beyond received stereotypes. Disabled people need to be accorded agency (the right to speak for themselves).

Play agents have remained reluctant to take up my plays, presumably because disability remains uncommercial. However, they have applauded my initiative to write about disability for undergraduate drama students. It is important that 20 of my plays have been published and that the vast majority were written as syllabus texts for an undergraduate course in Drama. It is important that the module has run for more than a decade and has been annually oversubscribed. The students have all been able-bodied, and the performances have been directed by an able-bodied director. However, the plays and the statements are mine, arising directly out of congenitally disabled experience. The first play in the collection, Calliper, was performed in London, and the first two rows were reserved for people in wheelchairs, two of whom told each other, “He’d have to be disabled to know that,” reinforcing the esoteric nature of the statement.

Reaction to my work continues to stress its originality, a natural consequence of people’s unfamiliarity with disability. It is worth stressing that attitudes toward disability have undergone a radical shift from viewing it as an illness to be corrected to seeing it as a living condition to be accommodated as far as possible. Before he died, scientist Stephen Hawking advised disabled people, “Concentrate on what you can do, not on what you cannot.” Disabled activist Tom Shakespeare has said that most disabled people can do a good job in the ordinary workplace if given a chance.

Graeae, the theatre company of disabled performers, has been in existence for more than a generation. Drama groups throughout the world need to engage disabled performers and writers who promote disability awareness. As far as possible, disabled people deserve to lead the initiatives. Integration needs to be the predominant issue, as much as it is for other special interest groups. Diversity needs to be the new status quo.

The plays in this collection were all well-received when first performed, and reaction to the publication has been laudatory. Disability is not straightforward. The issues surrounding it are complex. However, the genie is now out of the bottle, and acceptance cannot be reversed without irreparable damage. The phenomenon of disability deserves to take its place in cultural awareness.

James MacDonald was born with life-defining cerebral palsy and has been writing performed plays for 40 years. He holds a doctorate and a fellowship in Drama from the University of Exeter, UK, and has been working with drama undergraduates for more than 30 years. His essays on disability have been published in Boulevard and Studies in Theatre and Performance.

Eight Performance Texts About Disability is available now. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout for a 25% discount.