Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer/Fall 2003, Volume 23, No. 3/4
<www.dsq-sds.org>
Copyright 2003 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Enlightened by Our Afflictions:
Portrayals of Disability in the Comic Theatre of Beth Henley and Martin McDonagh

M. Beth Meszaros
Southwestern Oklahoma State University
100 Campus Drive
E-mail: bmeszaro@earthlink.net


Black comedy is, to put it mildly, not everyone's cup of tea. It is a genre that discovers humor in pain, suffering, and even terror. An edgy, disquieting mode, it has no truck at all with decorum or sentiment. Even to our cool, postmodern sensibility, it hovers just one short step this side of bad taste. It is discordant, subversive, impolite. Black comedy appropriates, as its own special province, subjects that are usually off-limits, subjects that it often dismantles with casual cruelty, flippancy, sometimes even brutality. The end result is unexpectedly hilarious. However, the laughter evoked by black comedy is not the restorative laughter of comedy. To borrow the language of disability studies, such laughter neither "transcends" nor "cures." It is the laughter that knows it has no business to be laughing, but laughs on anyway, unable to suppress itself.

Disabled figures frequently traverse the landscapes of black comedy. One possible reason for this affinity of black comedy and disability has to do with their shared agenda of insubordination. In their introduction to their study Narrative Prosthesis and the Dynamics of Discourse, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder call attention to the "transgressive potential" of the disabled body (8). They speak of its "non-compliance with social expectations," (9) its "unruly resistance," [its] "interruptive force" (48). As will become evident, this non-compliant, subversive body is at home in the equally non-compliant modality known as black comedy. The no-holds-barred, no-punches-pulled black comedies of contemporary playwrights Beth Henley and Martin McDonagh are the homescapes for all manner of "walking wounded."1

McDonagh's 1997 The Cripple of Inishmaan set in the Aran Islands just off the coast of western Ireland, tells the story of "Cripple Billy," an orphaned, teenaged boy disabled by a lame leg and withered arm. The year is 1934, and news has spread among the scant population that a famous American film director has come to one of the Islands to shoot a documentary about rural life on the Arans. More significant to Billy is that the director is willing to cast talented locals for bit parts in the film. Like every other young person in the community, Billy yearns to escape this Irish outback. However, because he is unable to do the heavy rowing required to make the crossing, he must secure his passage by some other means. Trading on the fact that he has a slight wheeze, he plays on the sympathies of "Babbybobby," a boatman who has agreed to ferry the others. At first, Bobby refuses, telling Billy that "A cripple fella's bad luck in a boat" (35). Billy plays his trump and presents a letter, purportedly from the local doctor, a letter that indicates that Billy is dying of tuberculosis. Bobby, who recently lost his wife to TB, falls for the ruse and agrees to take Billy along. At this point, Billy disappears from the play for quite some time. His two foster aunts, who worry and grieve for him daily, eventually get word that he has been transported to America to undergo a screen test for a film that includes a minor role for "a cripple fella."

A few scenes later, we see Billy languishing in "a squalid Hollywood hotel room" (74). Wheezing and coughing throughout, he delivers a bathetic monologue in which he pines for his native land and self-deprecatingly anticipates his own death: "I do wonder would they let cripple boys into heaven at all. Sure, wouldn't we only go uglifying the place?" (75). At this point, the audience is sure that Billy is a goner. However, he shows up a few scenes later, back in Inishmaan, at the village screening of the completed documentary. He admits to his deception of Bobby, and he regales the onstage audience with a humorous description of his screen test. Now the off-stage audience realizes that the squalid Hollywood hotel room was actually the set for Billy's screen test: "To tell you the truth," he tells the others, "it wasn't an awful big thing at all to turn down Hollywood, with the arse-faced lines they had me reading for them… A rake of shite" (88). As things turn out, the deception of Bobby is not the limit of Cripple Billy's fabrications. Billy later tells Bobby the truth about his Hollywood misadventure: "…they didn't want me. A blond lad from Fort Lauderdale they hired instead of me. He wasn't crippled at all, but the Yank said, 'Ah, better to get a normal fella who can act crippled then a crippled fella who can't fecking act at all" (92). His eventual truth-telling only earns him a beating from Bobby. The final scene shows a bruised and bandaged Billy who, in a final reversal, ends up coughing up blood, thus becoming "the tubercular young man he had [earlier] claimed to be" (Foster 7).

As this admittedly abbreviated plot synopsis indicates, Billy is hardly the Saintly Cripple. As Verna Foster points out, "The audience's sympathy for Billy is by no means merely an easy pity for the poor, sensitive 'cripple' boy. McDonagh's subversion of this stereotype precludes any such mawkish sentiment. Billy …is capable of giving back insult for insult; he manipulates Babbybobby's mourning for his dead wife; and he abandons his kindly adoptive aunts with no consideration for their feelings" (Foster 9). However, in this "insular, hardscrabble world," (Clay) a citizenry of "testy people," (Flynn) Cripple Billy is no worse (or worse off) than most, and better than some.

Far from clinging to the fringe as a marginalized figure, Billy is solidly integrated into this eccentric menagerie of characters. The only scene in which he appears to be isolated is his screen test scene. The Cripple of Inishmaan does bear witness to the fact that in the history of American film, disabled actors were rarely cast: the able-bodied American boy wins the role of disabled Irishman. On the other hand, Billy's screen test did not betoken great acting talent. Yet again, on the other hand, as Billy reasonably points out, who could do much with such a dreadful script? Billy's inability to buy into such a script has much to do with his own rejection of sappy depictions of both the Irish in general and disabled people in particular.

Billy does bear with a barrage of insults and put-downs, many of them focused on his disability, but he takes just as many gibes about his bookishness. In the context of a world in which the taunt and the bravura comeback are art forms practiced by one and all upon one and all, insults are a way of making conversation, one relief from the "poleaxing boredom of Irish rural life" (Billington). As one reviewer put it, "In this harsh backwater, everyone thinks everyone else is a 'fecking eejit'" (Clay). Billy supports this assessment: "…there are plenty around here just as crippled as me, only it isn't on the outside it shows" (92). Given this context, it stands to reason that Billy's attempt to teach young Bartley a few fundamentals about the impropriety of some laughter is not going to have much impact:


BARTLEY. …everybody laughs at her, me included.
BILLY. You shouldn't laugh at other people's misfortunes, Bartley.
BARTLEY. (confused): Why?
BILLY. I don't know why. Just that you shouldn't is all.
BARTLEY. But it's awful funny.
BILLY. Even so.
BARTLEY. We-el I disagree with you there, but you've got me Fripple-
Frapples so I won't argue the point. (89; sc. 8)

The impropriety of laughter (and the irresistible impulse to do so) in the face of real physical catastrophe is in fact the through-line for much of Beth Henley's comedies. In Crimes of the Heart, for example, two sisters double over with laughter in the midst of trying explain the critical physical condition of their grandfather to the third sister, Meg:


MEG. What is it? What's so funny?
BABE. (still laughing.) It's not--it's not funny.

MEG. Well, what is it then? What?
BABE. (trying to calm down.) Well, it's just--it's just--
MEG. What?
BABE. Well, Old Granddaddy--he--he's in a coma.
(Babe and Lenny break up laughing.)
MEG. He's what?
BABE. (shrieking) In a coma!
MEG. My God! That's not funny!
BABE. (calming down) I know. I know. For some reason it just struck us as funny.
LENNY. I'm sorry. It's--it's not funny. It's sad. It's very sad. We've been up all night long.
BABE. We're really tired.
MEG. Well, my God. How is he? Is he gonna live?
(Babe and Lenny look at each other.)
BABE. They don't think so!
(They both break up again.)
LENNY. Oh, I don't know why we're laughing like this. We're just sick. We're just awful. (Henley I, 52; III)

Henley, of course, is not the first writer to discover the awful humor of grave illness. Josephine Hendin, writing on Flannery O'Connor (a writer to whom Henley has often been compared) observes that O'Connor, in her personal letters, "joked about" lupus, the disease that was slowly killing her (9). Sue Walker, however, believes that O'Connor's "bantering" did not "conceal" but rather "heighten[ed] the impact of strategic words" (40). I believe that this observation is equally applicable to Henley's characters. Referring to Crimes of the Heart, Billy J. Harbin remarks, "Beth Henley's grave vision is both masked by and realized through a depiction of the ludicrous" (82). Alan Clarke Shepard would agree, claiming that Henley invokes "the sprezzatura of black comedy" (97).

As is often the case in black comedy, Henley's characters are scripted to employ a language of deadpan understatement even as they describe the most dire events. Here is "Popeye" Jackson in The Miss Firecracker Contest explaining how she came by the epithet "Popeye":

See what happened was my brother Lucky, he threw a handful of gravel in my eyes and they started stinging and then he gave me this brown bottle a' drops t' put inside my eyes and telling me it's eye drops but, in fact, it's drops for the ears and then this burning sensation come into my eyes, causing me to scream and cry out like the devil and after that I got me a pair a' glasses and my eyes was bulged out a bit; so folks was calling me Popeye and the name just stuck with me….(Henley I, 160; I sc.1)

The cartoonish allusion tends to distract the listener so that attention is temporarily deflected from the stupidity, pain and cruelty embedded into the tale. Popeye's child-like style of narration likewise momentarily obscures the gravity of the situation. Like a young child, she relies mostly on "and" and "then" as connectors. There is no attempt to analyze causality until the final sentence: "So folks was calling me Popeye." This flattened rendering of catastrophe occurs often in Henley's dramaturgy, and it lures less perceptive audiences into believing that nothing is really wrong despite evidence to the contrary. Another reason why disability so often hides in plain sight in Henley's plays is that it is so frequently narrated rather than dramatized.

These stories of accident and impairment erupt spontaneously with seeming casualness yet remarkable regularity into the conversations of Henley characters. The narratives interrupt so frequently as to form a subsidiary text of their own, a running gloss that comes to assume an urgent authority, this despite the fact that they are just enough over the top to sound like so many tall tales. For example, in Abundance, set in the Wyoming Territory and spanning the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the laconic Will Curtis tells his mail-order bride the story behind his missing eye and his dead wife:


WILL. …I see you see it's missing.
MACON. Oh, your eye…oh, well I did observe it'd been removed.
WILL. Man knocked it out with a mining pick. It was an honest mistake… I got something for you. It's a ring… It was my wife's.
MACON. Your wife's.
WILL. Yes, she died…
MACON. What's she die from?
WILL. No one could say for sure. She took to bed. A long time I stood by her. One night she coughed up both her lungs. There was nothing to be done…
MACON. Well, I don't think I want her ring… Could have her sickness on it.
WILL. She never wore the ring when she was sick. She only wore it the first year of our marriage.
MACON. Why's that?
WILL. She lost three fingers in a sheep-shearing accident. One of 'em was the ring finger.
MACON. Well, y'all certainly see t' be plagued with all sorts of disfiguring misfortunes around here. (Henley, II 10--11; I sc. 3)

These stories well up out of the subconscious terrain of even the most taciturn characters. As in Popeye's story, the tale seems to tell itself even as the teller emotionally disengages from it. The cumulative effect is both funny and awful.

The stories told about and by Meg McGrath in Crimes of the Heart are particularly instructive in terms of delineating Henley's responses to both physical and affective disorders. Early on in the play, Babe tells Lenny how Meg behaved in the aftermath of her mother's suicide:

…[B]ack when we used to go to the library, Meg would spend all her time reading and looking through this old black book called Diseases of the Skin. It was full of the most sickening pictures you'd ever seen. Things like rotting-away noses and eyeballs dropping off down the sides of people's faces and scabs and sores… She'd force herself to look at the poster of crippled children stuck up in the window at Dixieland Drugs. You know, the one where they want you to give a dime. Meg would stand there and stare at their eyes and look at the braces on their little crippled-up legs--then she'd purposely go and spend her dime on a double scoop ice cream cone and eat it all down. She'd say to me "See, I can stand it. I can stand it. Just look how I'm gonna be able to stand it." (Henley, I 35--36; II)

This story would appear to offer a very unusual interpretation of the politics of the stare. If we can trust Babe's analysis, the point seems to be that such images are not fetishistic for Meg. For her, the act of staring at an image of physical disability is an act of fury and defiance in the face of a cosmos that allows such pain and injustice. Babe believes that Meg was "afraid of being a weak person" (Henley, I 36). As things turn out, it is indeed Meg who is so very vulnerable. When she finally relates the story of her emotional breakdown, the image of the crippled child surfaces once again:

I had one hell of a time over Christmas… I went nuts. I went insane…I couldn't sing anymore, so I lost my job…And I had a bad toothache… For days I had it, but I wouldn't do anything about it. I just stayed inside my apartment. Then one afternoon I ran screaming out of the apartment with all my money and jewelry and valuables and tried to stuff it all into one of those March of Dimes collection boxes. That was when they nabbed me. (Henley, I 44_45; II)

The gesture of giving so much so wildly is perceived as an incontestable sign of madness by a culture that perceives dime collection boxes as the socially sanctioned way to deal with crippled children.

Some of Henley's storytellers tell tales of enfreakment. For example, Carnelle Scott of The Miss Firecracker Contest renders a lurid account of the final days of her Aunt Ronelle:

…[S]he had this cancer of the pituitary gland, I believe it was; so what they did was they replaced her gland with the gland of a monkey to see if they could save her life… Of course, there were some dreadful side effects… She, well, she started growing long, black hairs all over her body, just, well, just like an ape…But she was so brave. She even let them take photographs of her. (Henley, I 151--152; I sc. 1)

Set as it is in the context of a beauty pageant/carnival, Miss Firecracker is replete with the imagery of the circus side show. As a kind of follow-up to the story of the hirsute lady, Popeye narrates a tale of two midgets:

I once knew these two midgets by the name of Sweet Pea and Willas. I went to their wedding and they was the only midgets there. Rest a' the family was regular-size people. But they was so happy together and they moved into a midget house…Then Sweet Pea got pregnant and later on she had what they call this Cesarean birth…Well, come to find out, the baby is a regular-size child and soon that baby is just too large for Sweet Pea to carry around and too large for all a' that mite-sized furniture. So sweet Pea has to give up her own baby for her Mama to raise. I thought she'd die to lose that child. It about crushed her heart. (Henley, I 169; I sc. 2)

The allusion to the story of "Sweet Pea" as told by "Popeye" again invokes the violent fantasy world of the cartoon. However, Belita Moreno, the actress who played Popeye in the original production, claims that the story is true and that she had shared it with Henley: "It is an odd story but my mother and I had actually attended their wedding years before…This is an example of how Beth brings to her plays real events that might seem impossible but are based in truth. In my opinion, it is what makes her plays so strong and yet so fragile. The simple, painful truth in Beth's plays is the key to entering her world" (Henley, I xi).

Although Henley relies heavily on reportage in order to introduce the theme of disability into her plays, she also peoples her work with characters who are visibly and non-visibly disabled. In fact, in some of her plays, almost every character is afflicted in some way. A particularly striking example is MacSam, the carnival balloon man in Miss Firecracker, a figure who describes himself with calm indifference as "rotting in the July sun" (Henley, I 193). Dying of syphilis, tuberculosis, and alcoholism, MacSam's interest in his own illness is purely aesthetic. "Look at that clot [of blood] there," he invites Carnelle, "It's a nice pinkish-reddish sorta color" (189). In response to Carnell's commonsensical advice that he get some shots and so get cured, he responds "I don't care t' be cured" ( Henley, I 178).

A similar sentiment is echoed by Bess Johnson in Abundance. During the time lapse of the play, Bess is abducted by Indians. She lives among them for five years, during which time she is married and bears two children. Bess is marked as an Indian bride by the tattoos which are inscribed on her chin and arms. Though she is rescued and brought home, her tattoos reify the story of her captivity. Here Henley is working with historical material. Christine Braunberger explains: "Beginning in 1882... A handful of women became heavily tattooed so that they could travel with circuses and sideshows… [T]he stories describing how they were tattooed consisted of tattoo rape. Each woman was kidnapped and forcibly tattooed by savages, often cast as American Indians" (9). Bess is taken under the wing of an entrepreneur who shrewdly packages her for public display. From thereon, Bess's fortune is made. Prior to her capture, the most pitiable figure in the play, she now becomes the most powerful. Here again, Henley is faithful to historical fact. As Braunberger points out, "In contrast to their stories of victimization, women who made their living off their tattoos had more independence, money, and opportunity for travel than were otherwise available to women…In effect, their tattoos and the tales they told about them spoke one reality while they experienced quite another" (10--11). Macon points out the theatrical power differential between mere stories and ocular evidence. She tells Bess, "People lap up them atrocity stories. They read them all the time in them penny dreadfuls. Now you go and give 'em the real factualized version. Ya even got the marks t' prove it. People'll get up and get outta their homes and come… to see them marks. Them tattoos. People thrive on seeing freaks" (Henley, II 47). Bess taunts Macon, the woman who has always heretofore had it better than she: "I guess you just never had any [adventures]…[M]aybe you would like to be …[author's ellipsis] remarkable. But you're not…You're settled, staid, and dreamless. I see how it haunts you how ya can't compare t' me. To Bess Johnson, the woman who survived five years of Indian captivity" (Henley, II 47). Like MacSam, Bess has no desire to be "cured." Fifteen years later, it is Macon's face which has been scarred by "some syphilitic disease" which has "broken out all over her face" (Henley, II 51).

As my quick survey of some of Henley's work demonstrates, Henley's figurations of disability, like those of McDonagh, are neither sentimental nor reassuring to normate audiences. Some of her disabled characters, like MacSam and Bess Johnson, defiantly "don't care to be cured." Popeye, consistently associated with glasses, telescopes, magnifying lenses and binoculars, recuperates her disability as good fortune, for now, she says, she can hear wonderful, magical voices through her eyes. In terms of sheer numbers alone, Henley's disabled characters, rival (if not outnumber) her population of non-disabled characters. More significantly, characters who buy into normate power paradigms are generally unsympathetically portrayed--the appearance-obsessed "Chick" Boyle of Crimes of the Heart and the former beauty queen Elain Rutledge, who advises Carnelle to see the hairy Aunt Ronelle as having been "enlightened by her afflictions," are self-centered and thoroughly unenlightened. For both of them, a disabled person is a object lesson, while disability itself is the entailment of behaving, as Chick puts it, like "cheap Christmas trash."

Given Henley's disposition in this regard, it is surprising (well, maybe we should not be surprised) that while commentators have readily noticed how often Henley populates her plays with disabled figures, few observers have considered this presence a matter for analysis and none have applied a disability studies perspective. Early reviewers in particular decided that such characters were merely "eccentric," grist for the hilarity mill, and let it go at that. Academic critics have been more attentive to the pain behind the wisecracks. For example, Billy Harbin concludes that Henley's "antic imagination covers her serious tracks so successfully" that audiences might not be aware of her "grave vision." Unfortunately, he goes on to interpret the disabled figures in Henley's plays as "a grotesque gallery" (89), an "emotionally impoverished" (93) "assortment of peculiar people, the maimed and estranged of society" (92). In a similar vein, Nancy D. Hargrove, in her essay, "The Tragicomic Vision of Beth Henley's Drama," interprets the "staggering number of physical deformities and diseases" in Henley's drama as a metaphor for "man's corruption" (62). Such an analysis, insensible to the offensive construction of disability (whether physical or affective) as a signifier of moral weakness or turpitude does need to be challenged and overturned by the deployment of a disability studies methodology.

Most of Henley's plays and McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan work against the "compartmentalization" of disability. Unlike the popular films described by Paul K. Longmore in his seminal essay "Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People," such a dramaturgy does not allow normate audiences either to screen out disability or to perceive it as an isolated phenomenon, a "manageable," containable "problem" that belongs to someone else (32). The uncomfortable audience laughter that accompanies stories of sheep-shearing accidents and cancers of the pituitary gland is a response to a world in which all human beings are, at best, temporarily able-bodied.

Commentary on the purpose of black comedy often contends that the form serves a palliative function. For example, Benedict Nightingale, in reviewing McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, offers this assessment: "When you can't change or leave a mean, bleak world, what better way is there of surviving it than laughing at the sheer frightfulness of things?" (1747). Lisa J. McDonnell argues that the form "provides a way to cope with things that one is afraid to confront seriously, to maintain a certain amount of dignity, to shrug off, at least momentarily, burdens that are too heavy to bear" (101). However, I would contend that black comedy is not about survival, evasion, or coping; rather, it provides a mechanism whereby an audience is lured into grappling with matters it has heretofore deemed unthinkable. In essence, black comedy is a literature of intense engagement that pretends to do otherwise. The modality of black comedy allows Henley, as it allows McDonagh in The Cripple, to attend to disablement in a fashion that is intellectually honest and aesthetically engaging. The works I have been describing here are the much-needed dramatic equivalents of those postmodern "disability counter-narratives" that Mitchell and Snyder describe and desire. There will be more of them.

Notes

1While the term is a common one, it is specifically invoked by Edith Oliver in her review of Henley's Crimes of the Heart. See "Off-Broadway" New Yorker. 11 June 1984: 112--113.

2Henley's plays have received a number of feminist readings. In fact, responses to her work generally fall into this category.

Works Cited

Billington, Michael. Rev. of The Cripple of Inishmaan, by Martin McDonagh, dir. Garry Hynes. Royal Court Theatre, London. The Guardian. 8 Mar. 1996. The Royal Court Theatre Reviews of Past Productions. 19 Apr. 2002. http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/reviews/beautyqueen.html

Braunberger, Christine. "Revolting Bodies: The Monster Beauty of Tattooed Women." NWSA Journal 12.2 (Summer 2000): 1--21.

Clay, Carolyn. "Cripple Kick: McDonagh's Man of Inishmaan." Rev. of The Cripple of Inishmaan, by Martin McDonagh, dir. Scott Ziegler. American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Boston Phoenix 27 May 1999. The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. 19 Apr. 2002 http://www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/theater/99/05/27/THE_CRIPPLE_OF_INISHMA...

Flynn, Joyce. "Stage, Screen, and Another Ireland." ART News. 20 Jan. 1999. American Repertory Theatre. 4 Apr. 2002. http://www.amrep.org/past/cripple/cripple1.html

Foster, Verna. "(Up)staging the Staging of Ireland." Unpublished Essay, 2001.

Harbin, Billy, J. "Familial Bonds in the Plays of Beth Henley." Southern Quarterly 25.3 (1987): 81--93.

Hargrove, Nancy D. "The Tragicomic Vision of Beth Henley's Drama." Southern Quarterly. 22.4 (1984): 54--70.

Hendin, Josephine. The World of Flannery O'Connor. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1972.

Henley, Beth. Collected Plays Volume I: 1980_1989. Lyme, NH: Smith and Kraus, 2000.

-----. Collected Plays Volume II: 1990_1999. Lyme, NH: Smith and Kraus, 2000.

Longmore, Paul K. "Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People." Social Policy 16 (Summer 1983): 31--37.

McDonagh, Martin. The Cripple of Inishmaan. Vintage Books-Random House, Inc., 1998.

McDonnell, Lisa J. "Diverse Similitude: Beth Henley and Marsha Norman." Southern Quarterly 25.3 (1987): 95--104.

Mitchell, David T. and Sharon E. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan P., 2000.

Nightingale, Benedict. "A New Young Playwright Full of Old Irish Voices." Rev. of The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh, dir. by Garry Hynes. The Royal Court Theatre, 1997. London Times. Rpt. in The Bedford Introduction to Drama, ed. Lee Jacobus. New York: Bedford Books/ St. Martin's Press, 2000: 1744--1747.

Shepard, Alan Clarke. "Aborted Rage in Beth Henley's Women." Modern Drama 39 (1993): 96--108.

Walker, Sue. "The Being of Illness: The Language of Being Ill." The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin. 25 (1996--1997): 33--58.



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