Disability Theatre and Modern Drama: Recasting Modernism

Disability Theatre and Modern Drama: Recasting Modernism. Kirsty Johnston. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2016; Pp. 240.

Kirsty Johnson’s Disability Theatre and Modern Drama: Recasting Modernism is an invaluable resource. Having previously written Stage Turns: Canadian Disability Theatre, Johnston offers in her latest book an impressive range of approaches to disability theatre scholarship. Beginning with disability theorist Tobin Sieber’s assertion that modern art is preoccupied with twisted bodies, Johnston asks what considerations might emerge when framing disability as a key feature of modern drama. Her provocation ranges from critiques of twentieth and twenty-first century drama featuring themes of disability to contemporary performances created by artists with disabilities.

In order to achieve this breadth, Johnson divides the book into two parts. The first section lays the groundwork for the critique ahead, providing a well-structured and accessible overview of disability studies aimed at a wide readership. Chapter one contextualizes disability theatre as a social project that simultaneously constructs and critiques popular representations of disability. As examples, Johnston points to the American-based groups Phamaly and DisAbility Project, the British companies Extant Theatre Company and Graeae Theatre Company, and the Australian Back to Back. Johnston uses this overview to inform her work in the second chapter, “Critical Embodiment and Casting.” Here, she queries the ethics of actor training and casting practices specific to disability theatre. While noting that different bodies require different material considerations, Johnston observes that contemporary performance practices often assume a normative body, rendering the rehearsal process inaccessible to performers with disabilities. Additionally, disabled characters are often portrayed by able-bodied actors, furthering exclusion while engaging in uncritical representations of disability.

Chapter three, “Staging Inclusion,” argues for a reconfiguration of normative production practices in order to accommodate a wider range of bodies and abilities. Johnston closes this section of the book with an examination of Graeae Theatre Company’s productions of Federico García Lorca’s Bloodwedding and Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, as well as Theatre Workshop Scotland’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Through these case studies, Johnston demonstrates the prevalence of characters with disabilities within twentieth and twenty-first century dramatic literature, and how careful attention to these representations can prompt fruitful readings of familiar scripts. Johnston refutes critics’ claims that configure disability as added layers to understanding modern drama. Rather, she suggests that these layers are “important features of the text that have been there all along” (106).

While the first section offers readers a clear, single-authored, scholarly argument, the second section, “Critical Perspectives,” deviates from this form, featuring two critical essays, an interview, and a script. This sharp shift in structure might make readers crave more connective tissue, yet the multifaceted nature of the section exemplifies how Johnston’s critical considerations might be taken up by scholars and applied to modern drama. “Critical Perspectives” opens with “‘Every Man His Specialty’: Beckett, Disability, and Dependence.” Written by Michael Davidson, author of Concerto for the Left Hand, this chapter employs disability theorist Lennard Davis’s concept of dismodernism to show that Beckett’s inclusion of disability serves to position the modern subject as disabled. Ann M. Fox’s chapter is a standout of the volume, generously offering an alternative perspective of The Glass Menagerie through a disability studies lens. Fox persuasively argues that an understanding of disability history, when applied to production practice, highlights the material conditions of disability that inform Laura’s actions in Tennessee Williams’s play. This reading suggests how future productions might position Laura as an empowered individual when presenting the audience with a nuanced critique of disability.

One successful strand of Johnston’s investigation is her attention to disability theatre companies, particularly Graeae Theatre Company. Taking the form of an interview with the company’s artistic director, Jenny Sealy, chapter seven provides a probing profile of the company. Here, Johnston asks Sealy a range of questions about the company’s mission, training methods, and production practices, focusing on Blood Wedding and Threepenny Opera. Although the introduction to the interview format requires an adjustment in reading style that is largely unmarked, the chapter effectively integrates previous material, providing examples of how theoretical inquiry shapes production practice.

Drawing on earlier discussions of The Glass Menagerie, the final chapter is comprised entirely of the script of Shattering the Glass Menagerie, a play that Terry Galloway, M. Shane Grant, Ben Gunter, and Carrie Sandahl first performed in 2003. The performance toggles between discussions by Sandahl and Galloway (playing themselves) and performances of scenes from The Glass Menagerie, bringing critique to bear in live performance.

Curiously, the book ends with the script, not a formal conclusion. Perhaps this is strategic in that Johnston resists presenting disability theatre as a monolith, instead taking a multi-vocal, multi-genre approach to the subject that honors its contested and relatively new status as a field within theatre and performance studies. Furthermore, the arc Johnston builds throughout the book serves as a primer for future disability scholarship. Indeed, Johnston’s strength as a scholar lies in her consistent focus on grounding theories of disability in rigorously-researched theatrical practice. The wide range of resources provided in the text, including a robust collection of endnotes, positions Disability Theatre and Modern Drama: Recasting Modernism as a foundational text for scholars and artists from performance, history, literature, and disability studies.

Alexis Riley
University of Texas at Austin

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 31, Number 1 (Fall 2018)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2018 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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