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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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The abbé has Clementina check the paper to see that Theodore has written the question correctly. She notes his animated visage and concludes that he will answer intelligently.

[The. rises, presents the paper to Cle. and makes a sign requesting she will read it. Fra. and his mother approach with great curiosity. The. places himself close to the Abbé and anxiously observes them.]

The.—(Reads.)—“Question: Who is in your opinion the greatest man at present living in France?—Answer: nature names Buffon; the sciences d’Alembert; truth and feeling speak in behalf of Rousseau; wit and taste of Voltaire; but genius and humanity loudly declare,—the Abbé de l’Epée. Him I prefer to all.” (22–23)

In this example, the abbé communicates by signing, and Theodore understands what is being communicated. Theodore then communicates by signing and writing. Signing and writing are linked, revealing and containing deafness through the staging of the abbé as “interpreter.” Davis notes that “writing is in effect sign language, a language of mute signs” (EN 57). Here, language is doubled, and the exact moment of communication slides among different registers—movement, signing, reading, and speaking. It is through Theodore’s writing that communication is verified; the hearing meet the deaf and the deaf meet the hearing. This new approach to including the deaf-mute character brought “deafness” further into the public space, but it also contained the other body—making it safe. As we saw, Clementina is profoundly suspicious of the ability of a deaf-mute to communicate; yet, once she witnesses Theodore’s ability, she becomes hopeful about the implications of what she has just witnessed.

Against the backdrop of writing and reading as signing, in the display of the signing body as it moves, silent and gesturing, the body evokes and activates images as well as rhythm, pacing, and accents. As audience members, we “hear” and “feel” the moving bodies through our eyes. Examples of this kind of gestural articulation and use of the body include sign language itself in performance that allows us to read the action or to translate it into a discursive analogue. However, there remain indeterminate areas of the signing body where we know the body gestures, but exactly toward what is not clear. The relative certainty of textuality is cast next to the uncertainty of the moving body. This use of the signing body depends on the ability of a “deaf” reader. Additionally, however, the proof of understanding lies in what Theodore has written, not what transpires body to body. Communication is mediated by various orders of the body, text, and eye.

This scene in The Orphan restages the proof of what had been a common occurrence at the Abbé de l’Epée’s Institute. In the 1770s and 1780s, these showings drew so much attention that, although they were first scheduled for 7 a.m. until 12 noon on Tuesdays and Fridays, the abbé eventually had to add an evening session. This exchange provided a forum for key philosophers and scientists to extend their discussion about language acquisition and thinking. Although there was some consensus about the value and power of using a gestural system to communicate, the tendency of the philosophers was to naturalize that type of exchange. Condillac, Diderot, and Rousseau—among others—considered the use of signs as the “common language before words.” Despite the fact that one purpose of the lecture was to provide evidence of a state prior to spoken language, the interest in this ability of a natural language also raised deaf people to a new status as “exemplars of natural virtue and pure thinkers untainted by the corrupted language of the present world” (Rosenfeld 158).

Nevertheless, even while people who were deaf were extolled as ideal citizens, there was also a growing concern about their ability to understand the law. Numerous court cases not only tried the accused deaf individuals but used the opportunity to philosophize about the ability of the deaf population to understand and abide by the law. The play, as it were, takes the demonstration of ability and its rhetorical staging of the right of a deaf-mute to his inheritance, his property, out to the people and poses the question to the general public. In this case the play succeeded in creating a contact zone alternative to the schools and courts between the hearing population and the deaf population.[4]

4. I am indebted to Sophia Rosenfeld’s work, “Deaf Men on Trial: Language and Deviancy in Late Eighteenth-Century France.”
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