During the ten years of its run, when asked what I thought of Mabou Mines’s Dollhouse, I’ve always responded that based on the reviews, and the video of the production, I felt ambivalent about it. Now that the show is finally closing forever, and after finally being able to see it live here in Boston, I can say unequivocally that I hated it. I hated it with every fiber of my being.
When Henrik Ibsen published A Doll’s House in 1879, it was instantly hailed as a harbinger of women’s rights and abject proof of the degeneration of family and moral values. Nora – the heroine whose husband fails to appreciate her sacrifice, and who experiences an epiphany and decides to leave him – became both a feminist heroine and an object of outrage, less than a woman and certainly not a role model. Nora’s story was based on the real-life Laura Petersen Kieler and her husband Peter Kieler. In real life, it was Peter Kieler who, according to Joan Templeton, “demanded a legal separation on the grounds that his wife was an unfit mother, gained custody of the children . . . and had his wife committed to an asylum, where she was placed in the insane ward.” Laura, as it happened, wrote her own play, which Ibsen refused to recommend to the publisher. Hardly the feminist fairy tale that Ibsen made it out to be. Nonetheless, Nora’s story, as told by Ibsen, became a classic of Western literature, and a proud torch of the feminist movement and feminist theater. It exposed the delusory nature of power, as entwined within the complex socio-economic framework of gender, work and money.
In his director’s note to the Mabou Mines’s production, Lee Breuer writes that in his version of the famous story “Ibsen’s feminism is metaphorically rendered as a parable of scale. The ‘dollhouse’ is a man’s world and only doll-like women who allow their men to feel grand can hope to live in it. ‘It’s a small world.’ Nothing here is real except the pain. Both Torval and Nora are trapped in a meta-narrative playing out an illusion of male power. Both pay the price: the death of love.” As we all know by now, in Breuer’s vision, all women are six feet tall and all men are midgets.
But is Mabou Mines’s production really about gender, or is it about something else? What is its true meta-narrative? In Breuer’s take, power is delusory because it is based on unequal physical attributes. Thus, conversely, the “real” power, according to Breuer, is tied to height and physical strength, but most importantly, “real” power, in the Mabou Mines’s production, is tied to health and disability. Men are powerless because they’re short and disabled, not because they’re morally or psychologically weak. Women are the ones who are “truly” powerful because they’re tall, physically stronger and healthy. Thus, height is connected to power, but what’s more, disability is connected to power, or rather to the lack of it. In that arrangement, the men play nothing but their “smallness” in very much the same way that for most of the last century, blacks played their “blackness” – as maids, servants, prostitutes, serial rapists, and occasionally Othello.
Would the production be equally acclaimed if men were to wear dresses or act overly feminine, while women were to wear suits and act overly masculine? Would it be equally hailed as “stunning” and “lovingly re-examined” if the power lines were drawn along race lines? By now, we are used to thinking of race and gender as social constructs, so such adaptations would on some level offend us. We are not yet used to thinking of disability as a social construct, and most likely we never will be. Disability, unlike gender or race, is rooted too much in our cultural framework; it is too much bound to its essential, biological characteristics. So, we don’t even blink or notice when, on stage, it plays itself and its own tragic history.
Historically, the disabled, midgets, dwarfs, giants and other human oddities performed as various novelty acts in circus freak shows, often making small fortunes with their acts. In the U.S., the most famous example is P.T. Barnum’s Charles Stratton, a two-foot-tall midget, whose name was changed to General Tom Thumb to attract audiences. After Stratton’s marriage to another midget, Barnum went so far as to announce the birth of their fake baby as a publicity stunt. Stratton and his family would eventually become one of Barnum’s biggest money-makers, prompting him to declare (allegedly) that “there’s a sucker born every minute.” The job of a circus freak who was disabled meant playing nothing else but one’s own freak-show body, but it sure beat begging or dying on the streets, which most of them did, and many still do all around the world.
Today in American culture, every historically marginalized group has its own theoretical and vernacular language of social and political struggle, the vocabulary of “us” versus “them,” the military language of loyalty, treason and betrayal. African-Americans have their “uncle Toms” and their “oreos.” Gays have their Roy Cohns and Ted Haggards, the two extreme closeted icons of tragic self-loathing. Feminists have their Playboy bunnies, their Palinistas and other nemeses. These vocabularies, terminologies and identities reflect the many tensions in the contemporary minefield of identity politics, but most of all they reflect a real tension between “we” – the recognition of common history and struggle – and “I” — the human need to assert one’s existential and ethical singularity. The disability community is no different from all other minority groups. It has its own complex and subtle vocabulary of loyalties and belonging.
I have always tried to straddle the thin silver line between “we” and “I,” often playing and arguing both sides of the fence. As Milan Kundera tells us, life on the border can be a lonely journey, but this is the path I’ve consciously – if somewhat romantically and self-righteously – chosen. But, to borrow from Condoleezza Rice, I’ve been disabled my entire life, and no one can teach me or tell me what it means to be properly disabled. Perversely, I have always felt stronger as “I” than as “we” – perhaps for no reason but my own puerile belief in the strength of my willpower and an equally puerile suspicion of all collective endeavors. But I have never resented the many disabled who chose to perpetuate the freak-show tradition – whether in theater or on reality television – simply because for many of them it is the only stable and viable source of income. It is extremely difficult – often impossible – to become a respected three-foot-tall judge, or doctor, or anything else for that matter. I’ve never resented the mini Lady Gagas or Saint Patty’s leprechauns, though I did pity them, while also fully aware of how extremely difficult they make it for the rest of us, those who are trying, via some kind of dignified back door, to run away from the circus.
Where in all this does Mabou Mines fit? While trying to make a statement on gender relations, “playing out an illusion of male power,” the production takes from disability what it gives to gender. Was the trade-off necessary? In many ways, Mabou Mines’s Dollhouse is nothing but a midget novelty act, an extension of the circus freak show, a reality-television, Ivy-League version of the Howard Stern show, wooing its audiences with the promise of a titillating, if slightly more sophisticated, kinky midget-sex tension.
A few years ago at the opening reception of a theater production, a fairly well-known international actor asked me bluntly in the middle of casual chitchat how I take a shower. Pretending to misunderstand his question, I answered with an innocently perverted blend of Shirley Temple and Dita Von Tesse: “Naked, of course – why? Do you want to watch?” The multilayered mockery in my voice was lost on him, as was the brazen buffonery of his voyeuristic impulse.
For someone who has tried her entire life to escape the circus, watching Dollhouse felt like being trapped in a nightmare, the kind I lived in the backward Polish countryside more than thirty years ago. It made me simultaneously nauseous, angry and defeated, pushed onto the margins outside of the human race. This is how W.E.B. du Bois would have felt watching a southern Minstrel show. Indeed, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Spike Lee’s famous, heartbreaking montage of racist cartoons in his iconic-by-now movie Bamboozled. This is how Walter Benjamin must have felt watching any production of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in Nazi Germany…
The longer I watched the Mabou Mines’s production of Dollhouse, the more I couldn’t stand it. There it was: my own nightmare montage complete with oversexed dwarf with Satyr-like horns and whimsically crooked dildo – an image familiar from ancient art and medieval woodcuts: the tall man’s fearful fantasy of the dwarfish man’s mythically large penis (parallel to the all-too-familiar white man’s fear of the black man’s sexuality). Playing on the medieval iconography – without the least bit of ironic self-awareness – Mabou Mines’s discourse on power, sex, and the body is as reductive and unsophisticated as the medieval iconography it so freely employs and exploits for easy laughs.
I had thought that in terms of theater and film representations of the disabled, we were at the same point of progress that African-Americans and gays were during the 1960 and 1970s. That is, the current iconography operates mostly via stereotypes, with an occasional pleading tear-jerker, topped with the redemptive death of the freak at the end of the story: e.g.,Water for Elephants (2011), Simon Birch (1998), and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). The disabled midget characters in these stories are sacrificed so that the main hero can reach his goal (usually through gaining the inner strength to do what’s right); they are viewed as narrative stepping stones, and never as partners, people in their own right, with their own drives and ambitions. But watching Mabou Mines’s Dollhouse, I have realized that we’re not even in the twentieth century yet. Coco Fusco, with Couple in the Cage, and Susan Lori Parks, with Venus, made us aware of the complex and painful relationship between voyeurism and exploitation of the ethnic body. But, so it seems, we’re still a very long way from becoming aware of the voyeurism and exploitation of the disabled body. To quote my friend, Dollhouse “isn’t some post-modern quotation of offensive traditions; it’s an act of injury in its own right.”
When Martha Nussbaum was writing her book Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, I had a conversation with her about its main ethical premise: the notion that the disabled had a philosophical responsibility to justify their biologically flawed existence by freely dispensing heaps of inspiration, awareness and wisdom unto the healthy, and thus gleefully unaware, crowds. The disabled are obliged to perform this social service with sincere generosity and heartfelt conviction, while maintaining the illusion that it is their desire to be understood that propels their generosity in order to allow the normal Others their cathartic moments of faux nobility and self-awareness. Why do you, I asked Martha, assume that I have a burning desire to be understood by you? What makes your understanding so special, so superior that I must seek it? The fact is, many disabled don’t have a burning desire to be understood by the majority of people simply because the kind of understanding they seek is beyond the limits of most of those people’s bodily imaginations. Our contemporary theater is the best proof of that (and the fact that Hollywood’s surest road to the Oscar is a moving portrayal of the cripple–such portrayals are simply beyond the acting abilities of most actors).
Peter Weiss’s metatheatrical Marat/Sade comments on the tradition of exhibiting the mentally ill and their antics for the viewing pleasure of French audiences, but the shows at Charenton mental hospital depicted in Weiss’s play are merely one more anachronistic reflection of our own contemporary sensibilities, from Robert Wilson’s Deafman Glance, through Mabou Mines’s Dollhouse, to the most recent Not By Bread Alone— a performance by Nalagaat, an Israeli theater ensemble of deaf and blind actors — or Ganesh Versus the Third Reich by the Back to Back Theatre of Geelong, a group of mentally challenged actors from Australia, performing under the watchful eyes of Bruce Gladwin. As the New York Times recently noted: “These younger companies embrace the awkwardness and even amateurishness to emphasize the separation between performers and performance.”  In this context, disability functions as a formal quality of an avant-garde theater in the same way that “blackness” functioned as a formal quality in 19th-century art: to emphasize the aesthetic (and Other) difference between the viewer and the object looked at. Disability is not incidental; it is the essential and the only quality of an object.
All of these shows are directed by “normal” directors, and their main appeal is the promise of voyeuristic access to the intimate world of the freakish Other, on safe, controlled and predictable terms. The official politics of this freak-show spectatorship revolves around the clichéd notion of “spreading awareness.” Awareness of what? If you want to be aware of what it means to be blind, deaf or in a wheelchair, spend a week being blind, deaf or in a wheelchair. Don’t turn me into your “magic cripple” (to borrow Spike Lee’s concept of the “magic negro”), whose sole raison d’être is to guide you toward greater moral self-awareness and enlightenment.
Originally posted at HotReview (10/11/12).
Photos copyright Richard Termine
1. Joan Templeton, Ibsen’s Women (Cambridge UP, 2001), 136.
2. Lyn Gardner, “Ibsen’s classic gets shrunk in the wash: Mabou Mines DollHouse,” The Guardian, Aug. 27, 2007, 32; Robert Dawson Scott, “Absurd in its perfection,” London Times, Aug. 28, 2007, 14.
3. Ben Brantley, “Theater Talkback: Defying Expectations Off-Broadway,” The New York Times, Jan. 27, 2013, AR6.