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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Hearing Difference: The Third Ear in Experimental, Deaf, and Multicultural Theater

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that the Abbé de l’Epée called “writing in air” (cited in Mirzhoeff 581). In the contact zone between deaf and hearing, this sensorial transpositioning of writing and reading created sites where the ambivalent cultural body unfolded. This practice can best be understood as articulated along the bivalent lines crossing back and forth between the sites of hearing and deafness.

The theatrical example par excellence of the intersecting ontologies of seeing-hearing and the demarcation of a new space for citizenship for people who are deaf was the 1799 production of Jean Nicolas Bouilly’s Abbé de l’Epée, or the Orphan that opened at the Théâtre de la République and that was performed in Paris on a regular basis to sold-out audiences.[3] The play is a fictionalized account of an actual 1779 court case of Count Solar, who, deaf and mute, had used pantomime to communicate his history and circumstances. The stage version revolved around Abbé de l’Epée, his student Theodore, a deaf and mute young count who was dispossessed of his fortune after being left for dead in Paris, and their efforts to reclaim his wealth. The part of Theodore was played by an actor “who was coached in sign language” by Jean Massieu, a deaf-mute assistant of Abbé Sicard, the director of the Deaf Institute after Abbé l’Epée. The play weaves together two stories. One is the abbé and Theodore’s arrival in the city of Toulouse, which Theodore recognizes as his place of birth, and their ensuing efforts to confront those who may recognize him and get a confession from his uncle, Darlemont. The other is that of the frustrated love story between Darlemont’s son, St. Alme, and Clementina; Darlemont wants his son to marry into money. In both cases the literally and metaphorically dispossessed “sons” attempt to persuade the misguided “father” to correct his position about their identities.

Despite the interest in the love story, the play puts greater emphasis on exploring the acclaimed prowess and renown of the teacher and the skills of the exemplary student. Although there are numerous indicators of Theodore’s learned ability to communicate, there is a scene—a play within the play—that demonstrates his skill in much the same way as the public demonstrations did in the Paris lectures at the school. Theodore demonstrates his ability to communicate through a complex system of signing, writing, and speechreading, and on that demonstration rests the conviction that he is able to articulate who he is and where he has come from. The scene explores questions of the limits of language, and, as a consequence, his demonstration of his understanding of the law, which entitles him citizenship and the return of his property.

Cle. But how is it possible that one who is deaf and dumb, should comprehend and express—
Abbé. He can even answer any question on the spot. I’ll give you an example. (Strikes The. on the shoulder to awake his attention, points with the fore-finger of his right hand to his forehead, then to Cle. and finally seems to write some lines on his left hand.)
(The. makes a sign that he understands him—seats himself at the desk and prepares to write.)
Abbé. Now ask any question. Through the interpretation of my signs he will comprehend it, and write on paper his answer below. He awaits your commands.
Cle. I scarcely know what question—
Abbé. The first that occurs to you.
Cle.—(After a moment’s consideration.)—Who is, in your opinion, the greatest man now existing in France?
Abbé. Now have the goodness to begin once more, and repeat the words slowly as if you were dictating them to himself.
[The. attends and writes.]
Cle. Who is—
[Abbé throws both hands forward, spreading his fingers, and then with the fore-finger of his right-hand, describes a semicircle from right to left.]
Cle. In your opinion.
[Abbé points to his forehead—then to The.]
Cle. The greatest man.
[Abbé raises his right-hand thrice, and then both hands as high as possible—then lets them sink to his shoulders, and thence over his breast quite to his waist.]
Cle. Now existing.—
[Abbé describes life by drawing his breath deeply several times and placing his hand on his pulse.]
Cle. In France. (22–23)


3. By the end of the eighteenth century this show had been performed more than 100 times, and it was the second-greatest success after Beaumarchais’s Marriage of Figaro.
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