Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2005, Volume 25, No. 1
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Fahy, T. & King, K. (Eds.). Peering Behind the Curtain: Disability,Illness, and the Extraordinary Body in Contemporary Theater. New York: Routledge, 2002. 288 pages, $80.95, Cloth 0-4159-2997-0.

Reviewed by Jennifer Parker, Florida State University

Theater is one of the areas in which disability theory has been most fully explored, due to the inescapable interaction between a disabled actor's physical presence on stage and the societal construction of "disability" placed upon him or her by the (primarily nondisabled) audience. Peering Behind the Curtain offers not only a selection of critical essays but also in-depth artistic profiles of four disabled theater artists, as well as a full-length play, Balance is Stillness, by James MacDonald. The collection presents a variety of perspectives on disability in the theater and attempts not simply to "lift the profile of disability theater," but also to "[examine] some of the ways that disability theater challenges the culturally constructed images and meanings ascribed to disability by nondisabled people" (p. xiii, p. x). In so doing, the volume also makes a strong statement on what can and should be considered disability theater.

The range of material included in this anthology highlights the range of current debates in disability studies. Kanta Kochlar-Lindgren and Robert C. Spirko both look closely at how cultural constructions of deafness are displayed in the work of the National Theater of the Deaf and Children of a Lesser God. Kochlar-Lindgren's article, which opens the collection, is one of the high points of the volume, offering a clear introduction to specific issues within the deaf community and theatre in addition to a specific examination of production examples. The spectacle of pain is explored through Ruby Cohn's examination of "afflicted bodies" in the plays of Samuel Beckett, Tess Chakkalakal's reading of Bill T. Jones and victim art, and a discussion of the interplay between Margaret Edson's Wit and the paintings of Francis Bacon from Pamela Cooper. The first section, made up of critical essays, is brought to a close with an examination of "freakishness" in The Member of the Wedding by Thomas Fahy and Johanna Shapiro's clinical perspective on the doctor-patient relationship through the lens of Bernard Pomerance's The Elephant Man.

The second part is unique in its attempt to present examples of current work in disability theater. Profiles of three disabled artists from interviews with Lilah F. Morris offer descriptions of the work of specific artists, while Nancy Bezant discusses the challenges she has faced personally as a blind actor. Thomas Fahy's interview of James MacDonald sheds light on the specifics of disability theatre in Great Britain, then, MacDonald's play Balance is Stillness closes the volume. The presence of such a section in this anthology is particularly interesting, as most such anthologies are focused solely on either critical or artistic works. The effort to bring together both kinds of work from an emerging field is well-intentioned, but the second section seems too slight to be presented as a true complement to the critical essays. The biggest disappointment of this section was in the lack of range offered in the profiles of disabled artists. Instead of focusing on artists with similar disabilities, a more diverse portrait of disabled artists would have been interesting for both the new student of disability studies as well as the seasoned scholar.

The criteria for the works deemed appropriate for examination in this collection is, of course, organized around disability. Editor Thomas Fahy defines disability theater as "drama written and performed by disabled artists and/or staged works about disability and the social constructions of physical difference" (p. x). Therefore, the inclusion of "Depression—the Undiagnosed Disability in Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother" was somewhat surprising. This attempt at inclusion of mental illness as one field of inquiry in disability studies is laudable; however, 'night Mother does not fully meet Fahy's own definition of disability theater. The attempted application of theories useful for dealing with apparent physical difference was strained when applied to an "invisible" illness like depression. The explicit connection of articles by Ruby Cohn and Pamela Cooper on the plays of Samuel Beckett and Margaret Edson's Wit (respectively) to disability theater was also obscure. A more inclusive definition of disability studies may have made these articles seem more at home in this collection, but instead they seemed quite out of place.

While the inclusion of some articles is one cause of concern, another is the lack of attention paid to performance artists. Disability theater is dominated by performance artists, partly because of the obstacles that exist for disabled artists to achieve success in "traditional" theater. The only works performed by disabled artists that are considered in the critical section of the volume are Bill T. Jones's Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land and the works of the National Theater of the Deaf. Even the artists profiled in the second section of the book are attempting to succeed in traditional theatrical forms. Because performance art is particularly suited to subversion of stereotypes and cultural assumptions, the absence of any critical consideration of such work as an integral part of disability theater is particularly disheartening and surprising.

Overall, Peering Behind the Curtain is a valuable attempt to bring together critical and practical perspectives on disability theatre, although it fails to provide a wide range of critical articles on disabled artists in the first section or a diverse collection of views from disabled artists in the final section. This anthology would be most useful to scholars with some previous knowledge of disability studies, if not disability theatre. A newcomer without such a background might find several of the critical articles out of reach, although the section on artists and their work is highly accessible to all readers.