Vol 27 no.2

Capable Hands: The Myth of American Independence in D.W. Gregory’s The Good Daughter

From 1892 until 1954, Ellis Island was the gateway for immigrants seeking American citizenship. Over twelve million individuals passed through the federal immigration station, underwent rushed and haphazard examinations, and eventually entered the country. Many had their names changed and ethnicities homogenized. But many thousands more were rejected for various reasons, including the likelihood that an individual would become a public charge. Historian Kim Neilsen has argued that this clause “clearly assumed that bodies considered defective rendered them unable to perform wage-earning labor.”[1] Physical or cognitive differences were literally marked in chalk on people’s backs as they passed by the inspectors, and markings such as PH (physically handicapped), X (possible mental illness), and S (senility) were grounds for rejection and deportation.[2] Strong, able bodies capable of working independently and earning wages were considered crucial criteria for American citizenship. Such assumptions of ability and dependency in relation to American identity have permeated American culture and artistic cultural representations to the extent that they have developed to mythic proportions. However, many artists are beginning to challenge these cultural assumptions and the oppressive structures which undergird them.

D.W. Gregory is a Washington D.C. based playwright who has written dozens of plays, many of which are set in rural and working-class America. She is a resident playwright at New Jersey Repertory Co. and a member of Playwrights Center in Minneapolis. Gregory is also a teaching artist and founding member of The Playwrights’ Gymnasium in D.C., and she has worked as a theatre critic for The Washington Post. Her plays have garnered numerous awards and have been developed and performed throughout the United States at theatres including New Jersey Repertory Co., Actors Theatre of Louisville, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co., and others. She conducted an interview with Caridad Svich that was recently published in the collection 24 Gun Control Plays published by NoPassport theatre alliance.[3] Drawing upon her working class roots, her plays often explore “the disconnect between the dream and reality of American blue collar experience ,” and also “frequently present an unseen offstage character as well – the economic and political forces that shape the individuals on stage.”[4] In addition to predominantly female protagonists, disability is a powerful force that permeates her plays in unique ways that challenge traditional representations of disability in drama and can offer up new paradigms for representation, understanding, and inclusion of different forms of embodiment.

D.W. Gregory’s 2003 play The Good Daughter, originally produced by New Jersey Rep and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, is a story of love and rebellion set in rural Missouri between 1916 and 1924. Critic Bob Rendell described the world premier as “a multifaceted, thought provoking traditional American play which stirs echoes of Eugene O’Neill;” others have noted similarities to William Inge’s Picnic.[5] The play also elicits echoes of King Lear as it tells “the story of Ned Owen, a pious Missouri farmer whose only hope is to see his daughters settled and his farm pass to the capable hands of one of their sons.”[6] Ned is a widower with three daughters, aged fourteen, nineteen, and twenty-one at the start of the play. The eldest daughter, Esther, survived childhood polio and now walks with a limp. Rudy Bird, a shy neighboring farmer, comes to the Owen estate to propose to Cassie, the beautiful middle daughter who has just fallen for Matt McCall, the dashing and worldly merchant trying to convince the locals to buy into a government-funded levee project to prevent floods in the Missouri River. Over the course of eight years and a great war, daughters leave home, shun suitors, get married, and get pregnant, yet nothing happens the way Ned wants it to. Highlighted with Brechtian super-titles, peppered with bible verses, and bookended by torrential floods, The Good Daughter is an epic yet intimate family tale of “a part of the country where change comes slowly, and at great price” (iii).[7] Ned’s desire for “capable” male heirs becomes a dominant trope in the play that influences how Ned treats his three daughters, their suitors, and the land itself, and  also how those objects respond to their treatment and find new expressions of agency. This essay analyzes how D.W. Gregory explodes the myths of independence and the American Dream by subverting traditional dramatic representations of disability in The Good Daughter, exploring the intersections of gender, dependency, disability, and the environment.

The notion of an American identity can be thought to have formally begun with the Declaration of Independence. This was the first formal, public statement about who Americans are as a collective people: we are independent.[8] As such, the notion of dependency has been anathema to American identity since the arrival of the pilgrims. The rags-to-riches characters of Horatio Alger earned their mythical status and their financial rewards by hard work and determination, not asking for help. Yet “dependency” itself, some would argue, is an ideological term that shapes social perspectives just as much as describing them.[9] Some political conservatives argue that government entitlement programs are equivalent to hand-outs and lead to a dependency that is detrimental and contrary to the spirit of America.[10] Historian and political scholar Rickie Solinger claims that dependency, as epitomized by welfare programs, “is the dirtiest word in the United States today.”[11] To be dependent on another person for survival or day-to-day functioning is a social embarrassment and a cultural flaw that needs to be eradicated, or at least hidden away from public sight.[12] Independent American thinking holds that dependent people have no need to be educated, either, since they have no chance of success in American life , so it is no surprise that people with disabilities generally received no education, were hidden from view (if the family was able to afford such institutionalization), and if they could not be medically “cured,” then they were kicked out and forced to be beggars. The result was a great cultural anxiety towards public disability. Disability scholar Alison Kafer explores some of these cultural anxieties surrounding disability in American culture, suggesting that disability (especially when coupled with female-ness) is viewed in the United States as “an unredeemable difference with no place in visions of the future.”[13] To be disabled, and especially to be a disabled woman, was to be disqualified from the American dream and its notions of progress, independence, and ability. This worldview was especially powerful during the early twentieth century, the age of immigration, and the time in which D.W. Gregory set her play.

In The Good Daughter, Ned Owen’s obsession with hard work, moral purity, and traditional family hierarchy is representative of an American conservatism that relocates the American Dream into a more personalized vision of happiness and home. When James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “the American dream” in 1931, he explained it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”[14] This notion of physical and mental ability as prerequisite for opportunity also assumed maleness and whiteness and was, for the most part, unquestioned throughout most of American history. Douglas Baynton has observed how this primacy of ability has been central to the justification of inequality in American history. Accusations that women were incapable of being educated or that racial minorities had smaller, defective brains are based upon the assumption that the white, able-bodied, heterosexual male was both “normal” and ideal.[15] In most cases, Baynton explains, the defense against these injustices was to argue, for example, that women are strong enough to be educated or that racial diversity is not correlative with deficient brains. However, neither the oppressor nor the oppressed ever questioned the assumption that lack of disability is prerequisite for participation in civic life. The question was only who was or was not able enough to have social and political rights. Until the disability rights movements of the late twentieth century, lack of disability was always considered part and parcel to full citizenship in America. It is not surprising, then, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would not be allowed to be seen publicly in his wheelchair. As Paul Longmore describes it, “The capacity to function as a true American, an independent moral agent, is predicated upon physical and economic self-sufficiency.”[16] The disabled were not invited. Although we still have room to grow, Americans have come a long way in terms of who gets to participate in civic life, but it is within this pre-civil rights cultural understanding of disability that Gregory sets her play.

Painted on the “rich canvas of our [American] history,” Gregory’s characterizations in The Good Daughter have been described by critics as both complex and compelling.[17] Since losing his wife during the birth of their third daughter, Ned Owen stayed focused on his biblical Christian faith, tending his farm, and protecting his daughters the best way he knows how. He is a deeply flawed but loving man; he is no villain. Although Ned fits rather neatly into classical tragic constructions, his eldest daughter Esther, disabled by childhood polio, does not. Victoria Ann Lewis and other scholars have noted the use of disability in drama and literature as a character trait that immediately identifies a disabled character as either victim or villain.[18] These portrayals of disability – Tiny Tim, Captain Hook, Laura Wingfield, Darth Vader, Charlie Babbit, and many others – stem from a medicalized understanding whereby disability is a flaw to be cured, overcome, or eliminated. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder argue that the use of disability in this way in literature and drama as “an opportunistic metaphorical device” affects the way that people living with disability live and understand their lives.[19] Metaphorical representations of disability affirm and shape discriminatory attitudes from pity to euthanasia. According to Lewis, “the metaphor of disability has been so successful in the imaginative arena that it now functions as real.”[20] The modern cultural imagination now perceives disability in life the way it has been depicted in literature, that people with disabilities can either be heroic sufferers or bitter cripples, or perhaps objects of inspiration when they overcome their disability to succeed in life. D.W. Gregory, however, resists these traditional tropes in her portrayal of disability. While Esther’s polio has given her a limp, it has not reduced her to a metaphor within the play.

In act one, during a dinner scene, Ned is overly protective of Esther, the oldest daughter, age twenty-one at the start of the play. Though Esther has prepared the meal on her own for the family with no assistance, Ned orders Cassie, the rebellious middle daughter, to fetch him and Esther a “cuppa water” so as not to over exert her older sister (19). Though Cassie makes backhanded comments suggesting that everyone in the family is more than able to get their own beverage or take care of their own business, Ned insists that Cassie rehearse her domestic activities, including ostensibly taking care of the weak, since he believes Cassie is shortly to become engaged. The subtle protectiveness towards Esther is a sign that Ned perceives her as weak and in need of special care, or rather, in need of his pity towards her. Scholars and historians like Paul Longmore and Joseph Shapiro have thoroughly described the role that pity has played in the charity-driven marginalization of people with disabilities.[21] Ned treats Cassie the toughest since he sees her as the most able to perform her role: marry and have children. Ned’s special treatment of Esther could be perceived as favoritism or privilege of the elder or favorite child, but eventually it becomes clear that Gregory is crafting his patriarchal, ableist behavior as motivated by fear and pity not only towards Esther’s disability, but also to all three of his daughters.

In act two, seven years later, there is a similar dinner scene, but the relationships have shifted significantly. Esther is still living at home and tending the house, but she also holds down a part time job in a local store. Rachel, the youngest daughter, now twenty-one years old, is married and very pregnant. Ned now behaves overly protective towards his pregnant daughter rather than Esther. Since Cassie ran away seven years ago at the end of the first act, and Esther is still unfit for marriage in his opinion, Rachel is his last hope at fulfilling his American dream and having someone (male) to pass his farm on to when he dies. Yet it is not just an effort at protecting the unborn child. Rachel’s mother died in childbirth – a loss Ned has mourned for over twenty years – and he recognizes how potentially deadly a pregnancy can be. Gregory makes the subtle connection between Esther’s and Rachel’s disability in a brief exchange among all three sisters. Cassie comments to Rachel:

CASSIE: Such a change in your life, havin’ a baby. Someone dependin’ on you for everythin’. And what if you ain’t fit for it?
RACHEL: Who says I ain’t fit for it?
CASSIE: I didn’t mean –
ESTHER (cutting her off) Rachel is as fit as anybody I know. (76)

Esther recognizes the perception that both she and her pregnant sister are unfit for independent living and quickly cuts off the accusation. The infantilization and pity inherent in dependency is part of the American perception towards disability as weakness and flaw. There is even some contemporary debate and controversy about the consideration that pregnancy might be considered a temporary disability for purposes of insurance claims, discrimination practices, and/or parking places.[22] In any case, whether or not pregnancy is legally or socially considered a disability, Rachel eventually lashes out at the all-consuming nature of the pregnancy: “The baby, the baby, that’s all I ever hear is the baby” (92); she feels as if her life has become the condition itself. Ned considers the pregnant Rachel to be unable to adequately care for herself, and as such she is in need of his charitable protection. Ned is exhibiting what Lewis calls a kind of “colonial missionary attitude toward the disabled subject” that is reflective of a “larger social pattern in which the non-disabled expert […] controls the life options of the disabled person.”[23] Ned feels that he knows best and must control the actions and behaviors all three of his daughters for their own good, since he sees them as impaired and unable to do so themselves. This behavior stems from the terrifying prospect raised by disability that humans might not be in control of their own destinies. As Longmore puts it, “Disability imperils the American myth of the sovereignty of the self.”[24] If the story stopped there, if the daughters capitulated to their father’s demands, Ned’s victimizing behavior would simply be another portrayal of ableist American colonialism and the use of disability as narrative metaphor to justify oppression masked as benevolence. But Gregory does not stop there. Cassie returns from her self-imposed exile and Rachel offers her some tea, but Ned objects, saying, “‘Rachel. Let Esther do that. Rachel.’ Rachel ignores him and brings the tea tray” (65). In this brief act of defiance, Rachel momentarily reclaims her own subjectivity. It is a very subtle move, but in doing so Rachel defies the able-bodied expert, the doctors and telethon hosts who think they know what is best for disabled people and how to cure or protect them. However, a glass of tea does not a cultural revolution make; and the sexism of Ned expecting a woman to serve him tea still remains relatively unchallenged. These small acts of subjectivity, of asserting that being disabled is not the same as being useless, incapable, unfit, helpless, or voiceless, of claiming “nothing about us without us,” these small acts are the shifting of stones that can eventually lead to moving mountains.[25]

In The Good Daughter, Ned believes deeply that independent capability (read ability) is at the heart of a Bible-based American life. He quotes liberally from the Christian Bible throughout the play and never strays from his able-bodied valuations of home, hearth, and hard work. Ned soon discovers that these abelist assumptions are not fully ingrained in his three daughters. Esther has taken over many of the homemaking responsibilities since her mother died fourteen years earlier. Though she has a mild flirtation with Rudy Bird, the neighboring tenant farmer, Ned assumes that Esther’s disability essentially renders her unfit for marriage or her own family:

NED: Esther ain’t never gonna marry. You know that.
CASSIE: She ain’t so bad lookin’ if she’d just smile once in a while.
NED: No man gonna marry a crippled girl. Man wants a girl can give him a family.
CASSIE: Not every man.
NED: Any man worth havin’. Now, that’s a painful thing for her to accept. But it’s a hard, sad fact of this world. Just like it’s a hard, sad fact of this world that a girl who puts off settlin’ on one fella or another pretty soon ends up with no fella at all. (24)

Cassie, the rebellious middle daughter, does not perceive Esther’s limp as a disqualifier for marriage, nor does Cassie think that marriage and childbearing are the only viable life options for a woman in the new century, but Ned takes the assumption that Disability historian Paul Longmore has critiqued, “that disability corrupts one’s capacity for responsible choices.”[26] Solinger agrees and argues that dependency, especially in women, is seen as “inconsistent with sensible choices.”[27] Ned is insistent on instilling his patriarchal version of common sense and teaching what he thinks are the truths of life: that every woman needs a man, and crippled girls can’t produce a family. Thus Cassie needs to settle down and start a family – since Esther cannot do so and the youngest daughter, Rachel, is still a little too young – so that Ned’s version of the American dream can be fulfilled and passed on to an able-bodied, male heir.

Ned’s views and behavior represent the way ableist attitudes can establish and reinforce barriers that are disabling. This social model of disability – that regardless of impairments or physical difference, one only becomes disabled when social constructions or physical barriers (such as lack of curb cuts or accessible transportation) prevent one from equal participation – is a socially significant mode of understanding disability, one that provides an important corrective to more oppressive and problematic medical models. The social model serves to implicate society in the nature of disability, calling for reasonable accommodations so that everyone can engage with society independently regardless of differential embodiment. Many scholars, including Tobin Siebers, are critical of a purely social model, arguing that it does not pay enough attention to the lived realities of different bodies.[28] In The Good Daughter, the behavior of Ned’s daughters is a critique of a purely conceived social model (as well as moral or medical models) by bringing more attention to the reality of their interdependence without ignoring the power of ableist expectations to impede social agency. In this way, Gregory is perhaps resignifying independence in ways similar to Ed Roberts and the early disability rights activists of the 1970s, changing the definition of independence to mean what is possible for you with the right assistance. Gregory’s representations and explorations of disability in The Good Daughter can thus influence how we understand the nature of independence itself by challenging Ned’s ideology of ability.

Ned’s assumption that disability makes Esther incapable of bearing children and having a family represents the desexualization of disability that is prominent in American culture. Many scholars have noted and explored the way people with disabilities have been desexualized throughout American history.[29] From the forced sterilization of people with cognitive and developmental disabilities and the eugenics movements of the early twentieth century to assumptions that young women paralyzed in a car crash will no longer need her birth control pills (since what “normal” guy would want to sleep with a paraplegic?), the relationship between sex and disability has been anxiously ignored at best and surgically outlawed at worst.[30] As recent as 2010, a young couple was married in New York state, but because they are living in a state-sanctioned group home and have mental disabilities, they are not allowed to share a bedroom (lawsuits by the couple’s parents are still pending).[31] Abby Wilkerson notes how “a group’s sexual status tends to reflect and reinforce its broader political and social status.”[32] Sexual agency is thus correlative with political agency and respectable social standing. In Ned’s perspective, Esther’s body has been physically and culturally pathologized by her polio. In the eyes of her father (who is representative of an ableist American culture), her marked body is inherently flawed and no longer fit for sexual participation in marriage, or, by extension, any subjective participation in American culture outside the protective enclave of her father’s home.

Since Esther is viewed as unable to marry and have children, she also cannot fulfill what Ned believes is God’s plan for her gender. Ned’s deep faith contributes to his fears that his middle daughter, Cassie, might also become lost in the same stigmatized state of childlessness, so he forces her to read a Bible passage from 1 Timothy 2:14-15. “Adam was not deceived. But the woman bein’ deceived was in the transgression […] Notwithstandin’, she shall be saved by childbearin’, if they continue in faith, charity and holiness with sobriety” (25). Cassie is hesitant as she reads, yet she still submits to her father’s patriarchy at this early point in the play. This bible verse is Ned’s warning to Cassie that in order to avoid Esther’s tragic condition, Cassie must fall in line and submit to male authority, marry, and have children. Otherwise she cannot be saved, just like a desexualized and physically disabled Esther cannot be saved. Ned’s ableism has not only desexualized and pathologized Esther’s body, but it has also damned her to hell. In this regard, disability is both socially and morally constructed, and Ned sees Cassie’s rebelliousness and desire to reject marriage as equally disruptive as Esther’s polio. He couldn’t save Esther from her polio, but perhaps he can save Cassie from herself. This patriarchal and charity-driven attempt at control simultaneously desexualizes and strips agency from his daughters.

Ned’s world, dominated by fear, patriarchal conservatism, and able-bodied privilege, is girded by an extremely oppressive power matrix in which his three daughters and their suitors must navigate. However, Gregory is not content to simply portray or exploit oppressive power structures in her play. She works subtly through her female characters and the ecological environment to radically explode these power structures from within. Esther could remain single and lonely and become a tragic or heroic sufferer, a common trope for disabled characters throughout literature. She could be rescued by a charitable man, like the neighbor Rudy Bird or the idealistic merchant Matt McCall, and try to fulfill her God-given calling as a procreative woman. These would be the traditional paths that disabled dramatic characters might follow. Gregory leads us down that path before radically reorienting our perception. At the end of act one, Ned has arranged for Rudy Bird to marry Cassie, whom he deeply loves, but Cassie is in love with Matt McCall. When she asks Matt to run away with her, he reveals that he is going off to fight in the war, so she runs away by herself. Seven years later, in act two, Cassie comes home to help Rachel with the end of her pregnancy, and Matt is now courting Esther. When Cassie reappears, however, Matt is still not fully over his heartbreak until (or perhaps even though) she brings him closure face to face and encourages him to do right by Esther. At dinner the next evening, after Matt and Esther had some alone time, everyone assumes Matt was going to propose to Esther, but when she returns alone, she begins to cry:

NED: I knew it!
RACHEL: Esther. What happened?
NED (to Rachel): I’ll tell you what happened… He let her go! That’s what!
CASSIE: He didn’t ask?
NED: I knew he’d never ask.
CASSIE: I thought sure he’d ask!
ESTHER: HE DID ASK! He did ask! (a beat) I said no.
CASSIE: You turned him down?
RACHEL: Esther. What in the world. Why?
ESTHER: I ain’t gonna be the one who’s settled on. I will not have a man who’d marry me out of duty. Or pity […] I ain’t gonna be no man’s second choice. (89-90)

Like Cassie says to Rudy early in the play, Esther says “no.” She has the opportunity to be “rescued,” to get the happy ending and “overcome” her disability through marriage where she can become a wife and perhaps mother and pass as “normal” in her American culture. But she says no. She rejects pity. She defies her father’s assumptions about her, and she defies an American culture that defines her agency in terms of her womb and the symmetry of her appendages. In her cry of “no pity,” Esther makes a powerful and political action that asserts her own subjectivity in terms that she defines for herself.

Ned’s reaction to Esther’s rejection of Matt’s proposal is particularly telling, especially if he is viewed as a representative of the ableist American cultural milieu. First, when Esther cries, he claims he knew that Matt would never propose, reiterating his previous claim that “no man gonna marry a crippled girl” (24). Then, he shifts and adopts an “I told you so” attitude to try to spin the situation back towards his culturally normative corner. Ned tries to regain control of the situation and solidify the dominance of his perspective, but Esther will have none of it:

NED: Maybe this is for the best, Rachel. I worried how Esther’d take to marriage.
RACHEL: She’d take just fine, Pa.
NED: Marriage is a strain on a woman. Esther’s frail.
ESTHER: Frail?
NED: I know it’s a painful thing to accept, but Esther, maybe you ain’t really fit for marriage.
ESTHER: Ain’t fit? I do a full day of work. Never ask nobody to do nothin’ for me. Every spring I put in that garden by myself. Clean this house top to bottom, carry half the furniture out into the yard. Don’t you tell me I’m too frail. Don’t you tell me I ain’t fit. Nobody knows what they’s fit for till they try it. (91)

Ned tries to reshape the event to fit his previous explanation of reality, that Esther is dependent and thus unfit and unable to have cultural agency. Yet Esther claims she has never asked for help or needed help. In this moment, it appears as if Gregory is simply writing Esther to reject her own disability, to claim traditional independence, and to accept the vilification of dependency as anathema to American identity. This could be a highly problematic character twist and would indicate that Ned’s ableism has permeated deeper into Esther’s worldview than originally thought. But yet again, Gregory craftily subverts this easy and oppressive plot device. But this time, she uses an Act of God.

Ned’s fears are part of a carefully constructed house of cards that Gregory has structured in the play. Ned is afraid of God’s punishment; he is afraid that his daughters will not produce an heir to his estate; he is afraid that Cassie will run off and abandon her womanly obligations; he is afraid Rachel might have the same pregnancy problems that took his wife; and he is afraid of the technological progress that is happening in the agricultural community within the play. Abby Wilkerson has said, “Beneath the moral stigmas attached to pathologized bodies lies fear: the fear of bodily alteration, and even death itself – and to the extent that the singular human body represents the body politic, the fear of social upheaval and chaos, the loss of all social order.”[33] This is the fear that undergirds Ned’s – and perhaps by extension, America’s – ableist attitudes and behaviors. Ability is understood as part of the American status quo; it is prerequisite for, and part of, stability. Gregory imagines this chaos and loss of social order through visions of the natural world, the farms, and the ecology of Missouri river. Critic Bob Rendell describes, “The entire play has a backdrop of drought, flood, the mechanization of agriculture and a growing ability to bend nature to our will.”[34] Matt McCall’s job is to convince the local farmers to support the construction of new levees to rein in flood waters. The biblical images of floods and rain are prominent constructions in the play which highlight notions of complete human impotence and complete ecological destruction. However, the relationship of these images to disability is somewhat less obvious.

The notion of disability as personal catastrophe is a common trope in literature and drama, as well as in social situations. A person’s disability is seen as either something to be heroically overcome, or something that consumes her with bitterness, hence the victim and villain tropes described by Lewis and discussed earlier. Disability is seen as a personal tragedy, or perhaps, a kind of natural disaster that could befall a person. This understanding of disability as a kind of natural disaster permeates traditional dramatic literature, much contemporary thought, and Ned Owen’s world view. But Gregory subverts this traditional calamitous mode of understanding disability by juxtaposing it against literal images of natural disasters. For farmers like Ned, the Missouri river is the giver of life and the bringer of destruction. Independent human efforts to control it are unable to rein in its mighty power. The river can give, and the river can take away. And when the river floods, it becomes a natural disaster – like Ned’s view of disability – that can wash away all of our efforts of forging the American dream. This is how Gregory depicts Ned’s world view. He clings to his own power to outlast the flood by refusing help from his family to get to higher ground. If he accepts their help, he believes, he acknowledges his lack of independence and his unworthiness to have the American Dream, which for Ned is a bigger disaster than a deadly flood. The understanding of disability as natural disaster is related to the moral or religious model of disability depiction, “in which the physically different body is explained by an act of divine or demonic intervention.”[35] But in The Good Daughter, the divine intervention serves not to explain disability and by extension dependency, but rather the Act of God purges the rejection of disability and dependency, in a way that disavows the whole notion of independence itself as a fallacy.

In the torrential floods that bookend the play, Ned comes face to face with a kind of natura ex machina that is the great equalizer to the exaltation of independence. As the waters rise, Ned stays put in the barn, refusing to accept the help of his family. As Longmore describes the denial of dependency in relation to disability, “Americans cling to visions of absolute personal autonomy and unlimited individual possibility while, it seems to many of them, their power over their individual lives evaporates like a mirage.”[36] Ned has survived many floods before, on his own, and he believes he will survive this one just the same. But in fact, the only way to survive is to accept his interdependence with those loved ones trying to help him make it to safety before the levees break. Esther realizes the value, necessity, and ubiquity of interdependence and makes it to safety with her family. Ultimately she is able to resist Ned’s world view. Clinging to his notions of independent moral superiority, the lights fade on Ned as the flood waters rise. With this Act of God, Gregory turns the tide on the myth of independence and claims the necessity of interdependence in life and death. Eva Feder Kittay acknowledges not only that independence is a fallacy, but it is contrary to the human condition, and refusing to acknowledge this fact is unjust and has damaging effects on people and relationships. She says,

Independence, except in some particular actions and functions, is a fiction, regardless of our abilities or disabilities, and the pernicious effects of this fiction are encouraged when we hide the ways in which our needs are met in relations of dependencies. On the other hand, this fiction turns those whose dependence cannot be masked into pariahs, or makes them objects of disdain or pity. It causes us to refuse assistance when it is needed. It encourages us either to deny that assistance to others when they require it or to be givers of care because we fear having to receive care ourselves. In acknowledging dependency we respect the fact that as individuals our dependency relations are constitutive of who we are and that, as a society, we are inextricably dependent on one another.[37]

We are all inextricably interdependent, and the notion that dependency is grounds for marginalization and evidence of loss of subjectivity is not only a fallacy, but a rejection of the reality of the human condition and a pernicious perspective that can hurt everyone. In The Good Daughter, Ned clings to his notions of independence that have splintered his family as the flood waters crash around him. His death is not tragic because he never has a realization or change of heart. His death is becomes heartbreaking because Cassie and her unborn child stay with him, refusing to accept the help of their family. In one sense, Cassie’s death could be read as a kind of self-sacrificial womanhood, refusing to let her father die alone, affirming our interdependence in life and in death. But it is also possible to read Cassie’s actions as being just as pitiable as Ned’s, in that they both so attached to traditional notions of independence that they reject the possibility of life (however messy it may be) in an interdependent community with their family.

Just before the calamitous resolution of the play, Cassie and Rudy have a heart to heart about why she left and where their true feelings lie. Cassie confesses that her journey was one of self-discovery:

CASSIE: I just had to see what was out there.
RUDY: See where the river took you.
CASSIE: This is as far as it went.
RUDY: River took us all places we didn’t expect. (96-97)

Her quest took her back home, back to her father, and she sits with him in the final moments, ready to die tragically with her father and her unborn child because she failed to find what she thought was true independence. Her quest for independence teaches us that the ecology of our American Dreams defy expectations. The disability rights movement has gone a long way in changing cultural perceptions of ability and redefining independence to included interdependence, but these cultural notions were decades away from being brought to the public eye during the time in which The Good Daughter was set. For Ned Owen, the perception of disability in his family – Esther’s limp, Cassie’s rebellion, Rachel’s pregnancy – became a damaging metaphor that caused him to doubt his own future and his own version of the American dream. However, Gregory ultimately reverses this paradigm and explodes Ned’s American dream from the inside out, exposing the fallacy of independence and reclaiming notions of interdependent subjectivity that are inherent and positive aspects of disability. Esther initially appears to be cast as the innocent victim, but she is not. She is a caretaker in the family as well as a care-receiver, she chastises her sisters for their misbehavior, and speaks up against her own mistreatment. Though her circumstances may conspire against her subjectivity, her quest for agency within her oppressive and pitying father’s worldview serves not as a metaphor but rather as an embrace of the lived realities of her culturally situated experiences with disability. Gregory’s subversion of literary tropes and dramatic constructions of disability are demonstrative of a subtle but tectonic shift that is happening in mainstream dramatic representations of disability, exploding the myth of independence within cultural ecologies of American identity.

Bradley Stephenson earned his Ph.D. in theatre at the University of Missouri. He has also earned a Master of Divinity and a Masters in science education from Wake Forest University, as well as a Masters in theatre from Northwestern University. He has been published in journals such as Ecumenica, Studies in Musical Theatre, and Theatre Topics. His current scholarship explores the intersections of disability and identity in dramatic literature. Bradley is also a director, playwright, actor, husband, and father.


[1] Kim E. Neilsen, A Disability History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), 108.

[2] Neilsen, A Disability History, 104.

[3] D.W. Gregory, “The Artist as Activist – Take it to the Street or to the Stage?” in 24 Gun Control Plays, ed. Caridad Svich and Zac Cline (Southgate CA, NoPassport Press, 2013), n.p. The interview was originally written for her blog before being published in this collection.

[4] http://www.dramaticpublishing.com/AuthorBio.php?titlelink=10106  accessed 8 May 2012.

[5] Bob Rendell, “A Very Good Daughter World Premiers at New Jersey Repertory,” www.talkinbroadway.com, accessed 8 May 2013; and Robert L. Daniels, “Legit Review: The Good Daughter,” Daily Variety Gotham, November 12, 2003.

[6] http://dwgregory.com/. Accessed 8 May 2013.

[7] D.W. Gregory, The Good Daughter, unpublished PDF manuscript (2003). Used by permission. All subsequent references are indicated in parentheses.

[8] I use the first person pronoun “we” not to be exclusionary, patriotic, or culturally ego-centric, but simply because I am an American citizen and I can only write from my own perspective. Using third person descriptions of Americans seems inauthentic and unnecessarily distancing from my lived experience.

[9] Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon, “A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State,” in The Subject of Care: Feminist Perspectives on Dependency, edited by Eva Feder Kittay and Ellen K. Feder (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002), 15.

[10] http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/11/the-2013-index-of-dependence-on-government accessed 7 July 2014.

[11] Rickie Solinger, “Dependency and Choice: The Two Faces of Eve,” in The Subject of Care: Feminist Perspectives on Dependency, edited by Eva Feder Kittay and Ellen K. Feder (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002), 61. Solinger argues that “dependency” is coupled with “choice” in ways that continue to keep women vulnerable to control and censure.

[12] For more perspectives, analysis and unpacking of notions of dependency, care, and disability, see Eva Feder Kittay and Ellen K. Feder, eds., The Subject of Care: Feminist Perspectives on Dependency (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002).

[13] Alison Kafer, “Debating Feminist Futures: Slippery Slopes, Cultural Anxiety, and the Case of the Deaf Lesbians,” in Feminist Disability Studies, ed. Kim Q. Hall, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 222.

[14] James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1931), 404 (my emphasis). For a fascinating and nuanced analysis of the American dream in relation to dramatic criticism, see Cheryl Black, “‘Three Variations on a National Theme’: George O’Neil’s American Dream, 1933,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre 22 no. 3 (2010), 69-91.

[15] Douglas C. Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History” in The New Disability History, ed. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umanski (New York: NYU Press, 2001), 33-57.

[16] Paul K. Longmore, “Conspicuous Contribution and American Cultural Dilemmas: Telethon Rituals of Cleansing and Renewal,” in The Body and Physical Difference: Discourses of Disability, ed. David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 137.

[17] Rendell, www.talkinbroadway.com.

[18] Victoria Ann Lewis, ed., Beyond Victims and Villains: Contemporary Plays by Disabled Playwrights (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2005).  The portrayal of disability in cinema is more well documented than in theatre. See, for example, Christopher R. Smit and Anthony Elms, eds., Screening Disability: Essays on Cinema and Disability (New York: University of America Press, 2001); Martin Norden, Cinema of Isolation: a History of Physical Disability in the Movies (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994); and Sally Chivers and Nicole Markotić, eds., The Problem Body: Projecting Disability on Film (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2010).

[19] David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 47.

[20] Victoria Ann Lewis, Beyond Victims and Villains, xxi.

[21] Longmore, “Conspicuous Contribution.” Joseph Shapiro, No Pity: How the Disability Rights Movement is Changing America (New York: Times Books, 1993).

[22] See, for example, Shawn Dean, “Accessible Parking for Pregnancy? Count Me Out,” EasyStand blog, www.blog.easystand.com, 11 April 2011, accessed 8 May 2013; and Stacie Lewis, “Do You Consider Pregnancy a Disability?” Baby Center Blog, www.blog.babycenter.com, 10 January 2012, accessed 8 May 2013.

[23] Victoria Ann Lewis, Beyond Victims and Villains, xvii.

[24] Longmore, “Conspicuous Contribution,” 153.

[25] “Nothing about us without us” was another rally cry during the disability rights movement.

[26] Longmore, “Conspicuous Contribution,” 152.

[27] Solinger, “Dependency and Choice,” 75.

[28] See Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008).

[29] See, for example, Margarit Shildrik, Dangerous Discourses; Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); and Kim E. Nielsen, A Disability History of the United States.

[30] See Abby Wilkerson, “Disability, Sex Radicalism, and Political Agency,” in Feminist Disability Studies, ed. Kim Q. Hall (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).

[31] Frank Eltman, “Disabled Rights: Couple Fights for Right to Live Together at Group Home,” Associated Press, www.huffingtonpost.com, May 7, 2013. Accessed 9 May 2013.

[32] Wilkerson, “Disability, Sex Radicalism, and Political Agency,” 195.

[33] Wilkerson, “Disability, Sex Radicalism, and Political Agency,” 193.

[34] Rendell, www.talkinbroadway.com.

[35] Lewis, Beyond Victims and Villains, xxi.

[36] Longmore, “Conspicuous Contribution,” 154.

[37] Eva Feder Kittay, “When Caring is Just and Justice is Caring: Justice and Mental Retardation,” Public Culture 13 no. 3 (2001), 570.




“Capable Hands: The Myth of American Independence in D.W. Gregory’s The Good Daughter

by Bradley Stephenson

ISNN 2376-4236

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 27, Number 2 (Spring 2015)
©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Editorial Board:

Co-Editors: Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Managing Editor: Phoebe Rumsey
Editorial Assistant: Fabian Escalona

Advisory Board:

Bill Demastes
Amy E. Hughes
Jorge Huerta
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Beth Osborne
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf
Esther Kim Lee

Table of Contents

  • “The Best Actor for the Role, or the Mythos of Casting in American Popular Performance” by Brian Eugenio Herrera
  • “Visibly White: Realism and Race in Appropriate and Straight White Men”  by Kee-Yoon Nahm
  • “Capable Hands: The Myth of American Independence in D.W. Gregory’s The Good Daughter” by Bradley Stephenson
  • “Rooting Out Historical Mythologies; or, William Dunlap’s A Trip to Niagara and its Sophisticated Nineteenth Century Audience” by Samuel Shanks



Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2015 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The Graduate Center CUNY Graduate Center
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New York NY 10016


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