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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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As a result of this interest, the play also led to the restoration of Abbé Sicard to his position at the deaf school in Paris. Sicard had been l’Epée’s successor as director of the Institute after Abbé l’Epée’s death, but in 1792 he fell into political trouble and was narrowly saved from being killed by Jean Massieu, who stepped in because he believed in Sicard’s work with deaf. Sicard was removed from his post in 1792, restored to the position in 1793, and then forced into exile in 1796. Sicard’s political and educational agenda with the deaf population revolved around his belief that deaf citizens needed an opportunity to claim their rights. He also promulgated the value of sign language and asserted that people who were deaf could learn to communicate very well through a “language of action if given sufficient opportunity to build their language skills through habitual communication” (Rée 187). All claims about the insufficiency of the sign language to communicate complex ideas had more to do with lack of a community than any sort of inherent limitations in the potential of sign language itself.

Bouilly had, in fact, written the play precisely to foster more sympathy for Sicard. During the second showing, toward the end of the play, when the Abbé l’Epée knows Theodore has regained his wealth and he leaves to return to his “needy” students back in Paris, the audience stands up and demands that Abbé Sicard needs to be returned to his students (Rée 182). This action mobilized the interest around Sicard’s return to the Paris school for the deaf, and in a campaign led by Massieu, after twenty-eight months of forced absence, Sicard was granted amnesty by Napoleon in 1800.

The Orphan examined challenges to a legal, communicative model based on the prioritization of logocentric speech, and it attempts to evoke new relations to alterity. The play makes evident the idea that the deaf citizen can understand and communicate through the use of a mix of devices. In 1799 Joseph Marie de Gérando argues for the power of sign language as a language in action that invokes a “simultaneous profusion of vivid spatial ideas” (Rée 185). Accordingly, Gérando considers sign language to be a potent method for developing the imagination. Yet, questions about the ways in which sign language could also be a source of complex thinking continued to trouble Gérando and other thinkers in the early 1800s, and the legitimacy of sign language as a language continued to be questioned, so much so that in his last years as a deaf educator Sicard was to shift away from his support of manualism to oralism.[5]

Despite the emphasis during the Enlightenment on the deaf citizen as ideal, confusion about the place and capabilities of deaf people persisted for many reasons. In the continuing drive to build the nation-state and to extend its reach, the noise and silence, metonyms for the unknown other at the outer regions of society, had to be brought under control or erased. The failure to intercalate this sonic dissonance has led to its redirection and splitting rather than a complete erasure. Deafness “marked the outer limits of Europe’s knowledge of itself” (Joseph SM: 211) and the presence of the deaf population within the local citizenry—despite continuing consideration of the potential of sign language as being on par with spoken language—began to threaten growing expectations for the development of a cohesive nation-state. Additionally, as a part of the Enlightenment project for ordering human variation and understanding the limits of human capacity and its presumed natural state, feral children—that is, abandoned children who had grown up in the “wild” at the edges of society—were captured and brought in for study and exhibition. Victor d’Aveyron, often known as the Wild Boy of Aveyron, was, in fact, housed at the Sicard’s Institution and studied by a young doctor, Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, who believed that he could teach him to communicate (1799).[6]

The threat of the racialized other, another of the categories of the cultural margins, became collapsed with the two other categories. One of the undersides of the Enlightenment was the colonialist project aligned with the emergence of the nation-state.


5. This play led to the inclusion of deaf and mute characters in melodrama, a popular theatrical form that grew out of pantomime. For more, see Peter Brooks’s The Melodramatic Imagination, particularly on the aesthetic of muteness.

6. We now know that he was autistic. For more on this, please see Harlan Lane’s The Wild Boy of Aveyron. For a contemporary account of a related story, see Susan Schaller’s A Man without Words.


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