All the world's a stage, but not everyone gets access
One of the more admirable achievements of Irish writing is that it broke new ground for people with disabilities. Thanks in large part to extraordinary mothers, Christy Brown, Christopher Nolan and Davoren Hanna didn’t just find their own voices; they also gave voice to human experiences that had been shrouded in a millennia-long silence.
It was not unreasonable to think these heroic pioneers would be followed by more and more writers, artists and performers – to think, indeed, that the arts might now be at least as important an arena for people with disabilities as sport has become. But it is hard to avoid the sense that this first wave was a wave indeed – a thunderous force that crashed on to the shore and then receded.
It’s true, of course, that the relationship between arts and disability is not simple. We don’t tend to define Joyce or Borges (or even the legendary Homer) as “blind writers”, Carolan as a “blind musician” or Beethoven as a “deaf composer”. Hilary Mantel’s two Booker Prize wins don’t count as triumphs for “disabled fiction”, even though Mantel did speak of how the understanding of suffering in her work is shaped by the constant pain of the endometriosis she endures. There may well be a higher incidence of mental illness among artists than among the general population, but most do not wish their condition to be seen as central to their public identity – a choice artists must always be free to make for themselves.
Two things remain true, nonetheless. One is that artistic expression often is crucial to the emergence of a group identity, whether or not artists want to claim that identity as a key part of their work. The other is that in some areas of the arts this isn’t really a matter of choice. A gay actor can act straight, but a person with cerebral palsy can’t pretend to be able bodied. Tom Cruise can play a wheelchair user in Born on the Fourth of July, but it’s unlikely a real wheelchair user is going to get the lead role in Mission: Impossible. In mainstream movies, people with disabilities are typically (a) pure evil or purely heroic and (b) played by able-bodied actors in search of Oscars.
I recently went to see a staged reading of Rosaleen McDonagh’s fascinating play Mainstream at Project Arts Centre, in Dublin. McDonagh is disabled, the play is largely about disability and all of the characters are disabled.
Much of the action and emotion in the piece depends on the physical realities of how the people look and speak. But just one of the four actors, Donal Toolan, uses a wheelchair. The other three – Derbhle Crotty, Don Wycherley and Liz Fitzgibbon – are able bodied. It was like watching a play about the experiences of black people in which three of the four characters were played by white actors.
This is not a criticism of the excellent actors themselves, still less of Jim Culleton and Fishamble, who saw the piece through to a public performance with admirable commitment. Fishamble and McDonagh were faced with a stark choice: stage the reading with a mostly able-bodied cast or don’t stage it professionally at all. It was entirely the right decision to go ahead – the play is tough and challenging and bursting with ideas – but this is not a choice anyone should have to make.
McDonagh wrote about the dilemma in Irish Theatre Magazine. She uses the term “crip” – a reclamation of “cripple” in the same way that gay and lesbian writers reclaimed “queer” – and extends it to “cripping up”, the equivalent of the old practice of blacking up: “Should a disabled writer hold their work back in the belief that there may be emerging disabled performers who someday will bring their work to the stage? Or has a writer to compromise to establish their work?”
The answer to those questions will be slow in coming. Ireland – at least the Republic – is far behind Britain in the development of “disability arts”. Access to theatres and galleries for people with disabilities has improved significantly. Writing and the visual arts, where bold figures like Mary Duffy, Gene Lambert and Corban Walker opened up the ground from the 1980s onwards, are fields in which it is possible for individual brilliance to force a way through. But, as McDonagh’s experience shows, there is only so much that anyone working in theatre or dance can do alone. There has to be a conscious effort to train performers with disabilities up to professional level, just as disabled athletes have been given the chance to achieve rigorous standards of excellence.
As it stands, anyone seeking to cast a role in which the character is disabled – Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney, for example, or the hearing-impaired Sarah in Translations, or the developmentally disabled Rose in Dancing at Lughnasa – has two choices: look abroad or cast a “normal” actor. Something, surely, is lost in this, not just for disabled performers but also for the range of human experiences that can brought to bear on a piece of theatre.