Well, tonight is the last of the previews for All Our Children.
Audiences have been small. I suspect people fear—incorrectly—that the play is going to show disabled children being wheeled into gas chambers, and are nervous about coming. Then, it’s a long run (closes June 3rd), so people haven’t yet got their act together. And people are waiting for the reviews to see whether they want to stump up the money and time to come and see it.
I’ve directed enough plays to know that there’s something to savour in that moment when audiences are watching with an open mind, when the actors are still exploring the text, when everybody involved is still working on the weirdly messy and creative process of giving birth to a new production. It’s provisional, it’s free, it’s unencumbered by reputation or settled opinion.
But having written this as well makes the whole thing doubly fascinating.
Various things have struck me: first the quality of listening in the audience. There’s a real sense that this stuff matters, that there’s a conversation going on which, for all the historical and cultural distance, has a worrying relevance to our own times. After all, the Nazi persecution of the disabled was driven, above all, by arguments over cost. Looking after such people was just too expensive, it was said, and such views can sometimes be heard today.
The second thing is the sense that the fate of the disabled is just the most clearly defined example of a broader problem: the reduction of human beings to their productive capacity, and the contempt for those who can’t work, for whatever reason. When an old friend gave me a huge hug after the first preview, I said that I’d written it for Joey. He knew what I meant – he’s met Joey - but said it was bigger than that, and I suspect he was thinking of his wife, who has Alzheimer’s.
But the thing that’s really touched me are the responses from parents of children with disabilities. Several have come already, and I know others who’re planning to come. They know the scale of the struggle, they know how much it has radicalised them, they know how it’s made them question everything they thought they knew about society. And their responses mean more to me than I can say.
On Saturday night the wonderful Caroline came with her husband. She’s looked after Joey probably more than anyone outside of his family – through epilepsy, illnesses and all his vulnerability, as well as the joy, the laughter and silliness – and she was in floods of tears, not for Joey but for all the kids who need care, who need help, who in so many ways cannot help themselves. And we agreed that if the play showed anything, it was that fighting for a better world had made a difference. The courage, not just of Bishop von Galen but thousands of people ever sincewho’ve campaigned and fought for the rights of the profoundly disabled to live a decent life, has not been in vain.
It would be absurd to claim that disabled children face anything like this level of discrimination today. Nevertheless, there is a huge amount to be done to ensure that they’re given the same opportunities as their able-bodied siblings. It’s often said that you can judge a society by the way that it treats its most vulnerable. If Nazi Germany failed that test in the most abject way imaginable, we should never forget its terrible lessons.
Who knows what the press will make of it. It’s all such a bloody gamble, and no doubt some of them will savage it. What I do know is that I’ve seen more this last week about the ability of 90 minutes of drama to engage with some people’s lives than I thought possible. And I’ll always be proud of that.