The furore about All in a Row raises fundamental questions about art and politics. What started out as a whisper is now a roar, even before the play has opened. But what does it all add up to?
I’ve not read Alex Oates’ new play but, as far as I can tell, it’s concerned with the family of a young boy called Laurence, who’s autistic, non-verbal and occasionally violent. The action takes place on the evening before he is to be sent off to a residential institution where, it’s thought, he’ll be better managed. I gather that the play goes out of its way to avoid the usual consolations and tries to dramatise, instead, the challenges faced by families of some young people with autism.
In many ways this is admirable. Drama which pretends that parenting a child with severe neuro-disabilities is straightforward, is simply failing the truth test, as I can testify from my own experience, among many others. Certainly the statistics of marital breakdown, depression, joblessness and illness among such families testify to extraordinary levels of stress. And the steady erosion of statutory support under austerity makes the situation even harder, while the fight for provision, believe me, becomes all consuming.
But it’s not the attempt to describe these realities that has provoked such a reaction. The fury is directed at the decision to use a puppet to represent the autistic young lad. This, the objectors argue, treats him as a non human, as an ‘other’. The writer may see Laurence as the object of his family’s concerns, their love and frustration even, but in this way of doing things he isn’t being seen as an individual in his own right, as a human being with human feelings and agency. And this artistic ‘othering’ reflects broader concerns about the way neuro-disabled people are regarded in society at large, especially in the light of the many accounts of appalling treatment of autistic people in specialist ATUs (Assessment and Treatment Units) and other ‘care’ facilities. It’s not surprising that it has triggered this reaction, as I warned last year when I first heard about it.
The producer, director and writer have, to an extent, tried to engage with their critics, though I gather that the National Autistic Society has withheld its blessing. The team states that in creating this production they sought out the opinion of many autistic people and their families, and Alex Oates insists that he’s worked as a carer of people with learning disabilities and is deeply committed to the cause. They also point to the creative potential of puppetry, and reference the power of the best puppet theatre, as well as the impact of the masked face in ancient and oriental theatre. There is, I believe, goodwill lost behind this confusion.
The creative team also suggests, perhaps with justification, that it would be hard for a very young child actor with severe learning disabilities to act this part. Of course, the same would be the case with a non-disabled child, and there are always practical and ethical issues with representing children in drama. Indeed, when I wrote (and directed) my own play, All Our Children, about the Nazi murder of disabled young people, I decided to keep the victims offstage. Not only did I know the practical challenges of introducing very young children with severe disabilities onstage, I decided to focus on the society that ‘othered’ such people in such a way that they were condemned to death for leading ‘lives unworthy of life’, and regarded these victims as the play’s silent, slaughtered heroes. And when casting Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, I was confronted with the impossible problem of a character with quadriplegic cerebral palsy who, in her mother’s dream, has to get out of her wheelchair and make an announcement while jumping with a skipping rope. Regretfully, but perhaps rightly, I opted for a non-disabled actor for the part.
The fact is the theatre is a peculiarly difficult art form and anyone who works in it knows that we’re always confronted with compromise. I gather that the author of All in a Row wants to dramatise the violence that some young autistic people are capable of (violence isn’t unique to autists, of course), and the producers were concerned that a very young disabled actor would find this too upsetting. But just as a play about the sexual abuse of children would find a way of referring to the subject without involving a child actor in its depiction, so this could have been referred to without being directly represented. There are always ways round these challenges, if you think clearly.
But the deep problem with All in a Row isn’t an aesthetic one, it’s a political one. Or rather, it’s an example of what can go wrong when aesthetic concerns are allowed to trump real life imperative. It reminds us not to commit to formal innovations without working out what the results will say about - and to - the people in the real life situation. Brecht always said that new content should inspire new forms, and not the other way round, and he was right in insisting that we should always refer our artistic decisions to the real world beyond the stage door. If you have no experience of neuro-disability but are concerned about the representation of women in the theatre, imagine a production of Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet was represented by a blow up doll and you’ll see why this decision is so offensive, such a travesty of where we all hope we’ve got to.
For, if you agree - as I repeat ad nauseam and I suspect Alex Oates would concur - that neuro-disabled people are ignored by culture and society at large, then we desperately need representations that suggest our shared humanity, the things we have in common, not what divides us. Yes, we should show the realities of segregation, division and suffering and, yes, we should be sober-minded and honest about some of the fundamental challenges posed (social, more than personal), but if we don’t find ways of communicating what unites us, our efforts will simply add to the pain that so many disabled people and their carers experience in everyday life. ‘The wall is down that parted their fathers’, Bottom declares proudly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in the world of disability and neuro-divergence, our absolute duty is to pull down walls, not build new ones. As I tried to say in my own play, all our children are worthy of dignity, love and the very best that society can give them.
It’s often said that the chief task of drama is to bring to the stage the full range of human experience, in all its scope and difference, its fragility and its visceral reality. Drama is an encounter with other lives, but through that encounter we can learn about ourselves. And so it’s dazzlingly clear to me that if you want to create a play about an autistic child and his family, by all means deny the politicians and social workers their reality, even let the parents be represented by shadowy figures, but, please, for God’s sake, give us the breathing blinking eyes of a living young boy, not the corpselike greyness of this ugly puppet.
People with neuro-disabilities deserve nothing less We all deserve nothing less.