Androcles and the Lion: How Theater Made an Identity for the Deaf

Authored by Kylie Feiring

Androcles and the Lion program
Marymount Manhattan College and St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf, Androcles and the Lion, 1971, Marymount Manhattan College, Collection #009, Box 2.

In 1971, Marymount Manhattan College and the St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf united forces to present “Androcles and the Lion,” written by Aurand Harris and adapted by Dorothy Dodd. Harris’ plays for children are remarkable, as he had a deep and real understanding of children’s interests and concerns, what they find funny, and what they find important (McCaslin 1984, 115).

The St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf opened in 1960, and aims to educate deaf children to recognize their full potential psychologically, physically, socially, and emotionally (St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf, 2019). The school recognizes that these children need to experience the ordinary pleasures of childhood in order to grow as well-adjusted individuals, and so with the help of Marymount Manhattan College, they presented this play.

From the 1860s to the 1960s, deaf people were enrolled in oral programs, teaching them to communicate through spoken language rather than through sign language (Gannon 2012, 361). It took some time for sign language to grow in popularity, and it took until the 1970s for it to become the normal approach to deaf communication (Gannon 2012, 367). The children attending this performance would have been among the first ones taught to communicate in sign language, rather than orally. This educational shift often caused children to feel isolated in their disabilities; adults did not appear deaf in the way they did, so who could relate to them (Cohen 1989, 70)? 

This is why deaf children’s theater around 1971 is so significant. By providing entertainment in sign language, the theater showed these children that they were not isolated in the world of the hearing. In fact, such a project was pivotal in establishing a “deaf ethnicity” (Ladd and Lane 2013, 566). An ethnicity is marked by a number of properties: “language, bonding to one’s own kind, culture, social institutions, the arts, history, territory, kinship, socialization, and boundary maintenance” (Ladd and Lane, 566). A performance such as this appears to promote all of these ethnic properties.  Eckert and Rowley, in fact, discuss the term ‘audism’—referring to discrimination against deaf people—using the same language that one would discuss racism (Eckert and Rowley 2013, 103). Denying deaf children the same entertainment offered to hearing children, simply because it would be too much trouble otherwise, would be an example of subtle audism in society; this performance takes an active stance against audism.

It is obvious, then, that Marymount Manhattan College and the St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf were leaders in the movement to establish a unique deaf culture. At the beginning of what could be termed a deaf revolution, the two schools provided deaf children with the chance to see their language in a play, showing them that they are both valid and remembered.

References

Cohen, Hilary U. 1989. Theatre by and for the Deaf. TDR (1988-) 33, no. 1: 68–78. https://doi.org/10.2307/1145945.

Eckert, Richard Clark, and Amy June Rowley. 2013. Audism: A Theory and Practice of Audiocentric Privilege. Humanity & Society; Thousand Oaks 37, no. 2 (May): 101–30. http://dx.doi.org.jerome.stjohns.edu:81/10.1177/0160597613481731.

Gannon, Jack R. 2012. Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Ladd, Paddy, and Harlan Lane. 2013. Deaf Ethnicity, Deafhood, and Their Relationship. Sign Language Studies 13, no. 4 (Summer): 565–79. https://doi.org/10.1353/sls.2013.0012.

McCaslin, Nellie. 1984. Aurand Harris: Children’s Playwright. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 9, no. 3: 114–16. https://doi.org/10.1353/chq.0.0512.

St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf. 2019. About. St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf in Brooklyn. Last modified 2019. https://www.sfdesales.org/about.

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