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Giving Voice in Mike Lew’s «Teenage Dick»: Disability in a Modern Rewriting of Richard III

Par Méline Dumot : Elève normalienne - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Marion Coste le 09/10/2020
This article examines a contemporary rewriting of Shakespeare’s ((Richard III)) by Chinese-American playwright Mike Lew. In his play ((Teenage Dick)) (2018), Lew gives a new voice to Shakespeare’s well-known villain. Noticing that one of the most famous disabled characters in theatre history is rarely – if ever – performed by a disabled actor, Lew centers his play on Richard’s experience as a disabled teenager. The play questions our current vision of disability, both in the theatrical world and in our society. This article explores the ways in which Lew adapts the Shakespearean legacy to produce a new narrative and envisions the concept of accessibility in multiple ways.

Introduction

“Why, I in this weak piping time of peace
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on my own deformity.
And therefore since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain.”
Richard III, (1.1.24-30)

From the beginning of Shakespeare’s play (supposedly written between 1592 and 1593), Richard III refers to his deformity (“cheated of features by dissembling nature,/ Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time” 1.1.21-22) and finds in it the justification for his villainy. As Katherine Schaap Williams explains in “Richard III and the Staging of Disability” (2016), the early modern period strongly tied Richard’s evil acts to his misshapen body, seeing in the latter a cause and a consequence for his lack of morality: “Richard III seemed to offer an early example of the ‘disabled avenger’ trope, or of an irregular body disabled by early modern interpretations of deformity as a sign of evil.” (Schaap Williams 1) Even in the twenty-first century, movie villains are still frequently portrayed with some kind of physical disability: Disney provides a handful of examples (Captain Hook or Ursula), as do blockbusters (Raoul Silva in the 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall, Joker, Two-Face and Bane in the Batman series in 2008 and 2012, Darth Vader and Palpatine in the Star Wars series ((Raoul Silva’s face is deformed because of a poison ingestion, Joker’s face is scarred on both sides of his lips, Two-Face’s face is burnt on one side, Bane uses a mask to breathe. Darth Vader wears a mask over his burnt face to help him breathe and survive and Palpatine’s face is cadaver-like. In all these examples, the characters’ deformity is strongly linked to their evil acts and interestingly, their disability is limited to their face – probably linking the face as a mirror of the soul to the non-humanity of the villain.))). Differently-abled bodies are often connected with an intrinsic sense of villainy and moral corruption, as if disability were either the reflection of some inner vicious and corrupted mind, or the cause for moral defects: “Two key early modern terms associated with Richard’s character are ‘deformed’ and ‘monstrous’, both part of an interpretive pattern that takes bodily anomalies as evidence of deeper moral truths.” (Schaap Williams 1) Shakespeare taps into his contemporaries’ representation of Richard’s body to create his character, and in the wake of Thomas More’s History of Richard III, makes the connection between his malfunctioning body and his moral deviance clear. ((In Thomas More’s History of Richard III (1557), one of Shakespeare’s sources, the link between Richard’s deformity and his malicious nature is clear: More describes him as “little of stature, ill featured of limes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher than his right, hard favoured of visage … he was malicious, wrathfull, envious, and from afore his birth, ever frowarde.” (our emphasis ; British Library, p.37 of More's text, first column).))

Richard’s disability has been represented in many different ways throughout the play’s history of performance: a false hump, a twisted leg, or a stiff arm have commonly disfigured or adorned the actor’s body. Spectators remember, among many examples, Antony Sher, whose costume in the RSC 1984 production was inspired by Margaret describing him as a “bottled spider” (1.3.245) ((All references to Shakespeare’s works are from the Norton Shakespeare edition.)), Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic in London (2011) with a braced leg, and more recently, Lars Eidinger’s Richard in Thomas Ostermeier’s production (Schaubühne Berlin, 2015), who wore braces and was affected with a clubfoot. By contrast, in Peter Verhelt’s (Avignon, 2005) or Ivo Van Hove’s productions (Avignon, 2008), Richard had no visual disability at all.

Lars Eidinger in Thomas Ostermeier’s production at Schaubühne in 2015 (Photo by Arno Declair. Source: Schaubühne)

Disability Studies constitute a relatively new field of research as they emerged in the United States at the very end of the twentieth century. ((For a more complete history of disability studies, see Gary L. Albrecht, et al ‘L’émergence des disability studies: état des lieux et perspectives’. Sciences Sociales et Santé, vol. 19, no. 4, 2001, pp. 43–73. https://www.persee.fr/doc/sosan_0294-0337_2001_num_19_4_1535 and Philip M. Ferguson and Emily Nusbaum. ‘Disability Studies: What Is It and What Difference Does It Make?’ Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, vol. 37, no. 2 (2012): 70-80.)) The International Classification of Disability by the World Health Organization, first published in 1980, opened a debate between disability researchers and specialists about the categorization and conceptualization of disability. Over the last two decades, many organizations encouraged the disability community to unite and fight for their rights which resulted in legislative action and positive change in many countries around the globe. The Society for Disability Studies, first founded in 1982, created the Disability Studies Quarterly, building a strong network of disability scholars. The Handbook of Disability Studies, published in 2001 (Albrecht et al. London, Sage Publications, 2001), is an extensive work gathering international contributions with an interdisciplinary method. According to Ferguson and Nusbaum, Disability Studies are, at their core, social (we will later expand on the social model of disability), foundational (“it is at the foundation of our understanding of the social construction of race, gender, class, and other ways in which we differentiate ourselves from one another”, Ferguson and Nusbaum 73), interdisciplinary and participatory. Disability Studies are currently taking an increasing importance in many fields of research and have come to feature as a central point of interest in Early Modern Studies. ((See for instance Genevieve Love, Early Modern Theatre and the Figure of Disability. Bloomsbury, The Arden Shakespeare, 2019; Richard H. Godden and Asa Simon Mittman. Monstrosity, Disability, and the Posthuman in the Medieval and Early Modern World, 2019; Lindsey Row-Heyveld, Dissembling Disability in Early Modern English Drama. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.)) The term “disabled” already existed in the Early Modern Period and was linked to monstrosity and deformity. Debunking theories that the concept of disability started in the eighteenth century, Allison Hobgood and David Wood explain in The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability that “classical and premodern conceptions of ideal and natural bodies in the Renaissance constructed – and privileged – both normalcy and ability, more specifically the produced […] ‘norming effects’.” (Hobgood and Wood, Chapter 3, ‘Early Modern Literature and Disability Studies’, 34). Even though the definition of disability then did not fall into our modern notions of social, cultural and medical models of disability, it still is considered by many early modern scholars as an operative identity category. Moreover, even if the term “disabled” is considered by some as anachronistic with respect to the early modern period, it allows for an exploration of “the alliance between disability and aesthetic representation across time periods.” (Love 7). The interdisciplinarity of Disability Studies thus allows for new readings of early modern characters such as Richard III.

Interestingly, as one of the most famous disabled characters in theatre history, Richard is rarely – if ever – performed by a disabled actor. Dramatist Mike Lew’s rewriting of the play, Teenage Dick, questions this fact and asks why the disabled character should necessarily be morally corrupt. Written between 2013 and 2018, Teenage Dick sets Richard, or “Dick” as he is called by some of his classmates, in the setting of a twenty-first century American high school. The play received its world premiere in June 2018 at the Public Theater in New York City with the Ma-Yi Theater Company and was later produced in London at the Donmar Warehouse by Michael Longhurst from December 6, 2019 to February 1, 2020. In March 2020, another production of the play was staged at the Wit Theater in Chicago, with just one performance before closing because of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it was made available digitally, and our analysis will focus both on the script of the play and on the livestream of this production. In Lew’s version of Richard III, Richard suffers from a mobility disability (either hemiplegia or cerebral palsy, ((Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination. In the Wit Theater production, Arney Mac Gregor, playing Richard, does not use a wheelchair but has difficulty walking and coordinating movements.)) depending on the actor impersonating Richard). He is bullied at his school, Roseland High, by “EDDIE IVY, male, seventeen, junior class president, football guy, kind of a dick” (Lew, 12) and tries to become the senior class president. His best friend is Barbara ‘Buck’ Buckingham, a wheelchair user.

Richard (Daniel Monks) and Buck (Ruth Madeley) in Michael Longhurst’s production at Donmar’s Warehouse (Photo by Mark Brenner. Courtesy of the Donmar Warehouse)

In order to become senior class president and beat Eddie, Richard tries and seduces Anne Margaret, Eddie’s ex-girlfriend. The plot thickens when Anne Margaret confides in Richard and tells him about her secret abortion, which Richard will leak on Twitter in order to push Eddie away from the election, leading to Anne Margaret’s suicide. By the end of the play, Eddie learns about Richard’s actions, beats him and leaves. Richard steals his teacher’s car keys and drives over Eddie, leaving him paralyzed. The play ends with Dick’s words:

You already decided who I was before it was mine to choose it, so what else could I do but act out the role that’s been writ? If that makes me the villain, welllll... You already knew I wasn’t the hero from the moment I came limping your way. So close your eyes and forget about me. You always do anyhow. (Lew, Scene 9, 76)

This last line reframes the play around Mike Lew’s central argument: the vision of disability as a reflection of some inner kind of evil and the erasure of the disabled experience from any kind of positive history. Interestingly, Lew shifts Shakespeare’s active form “I am determined to prove a villain” (1.1.30) to a passive one (“if that makes me the villain”), emphasizing the fact that Richard has been categorized as the villain without being given a chance to prove he is not one. As Lew explains, “Teenage Dick is meant to take the most famous disabled character of all time and challenge Shakespeare’s conception that Richard’s disability makes him inherently evil. The play attempts to explode not only that old conception but also its condescending modern-day cousin: that all disabled people are a metaphor for transcendence.” (Lew, Introduction, 6). Lew opposes an artificial form of inclusivity and seeks to “re-center [a marginalized] group so that they are the tellers of their own stories.” (Lew, Introduction, 6).

In this paper, we will wonder how Teenage Dick renews both our perception of disability and its theatrical embodiment, challenging the traditional association of physical deformity with immorality. We will first see how Mike Lew gives a new voice to the Shakespearean character, thereby questioning our social construction of disability and its representation in the theatrical world. This will in turn lead us to examine the issue of accessibility of the Shakespearean text.

1. Changing the Narrative

1.1 Giving Voice to the Disabled Experience on Stage

“Maybe I can’t play football, but I can run a play. The senior elections are upon us and from here I will vault past my inglorious station. Not by a pity vote. Not by campaigning. But by systematically destroying the competition.” (Lew, Scene One, 14) This is the plan Richard exposes in the first monologue of the play, although not in the opening lines. From the start, the vocabulary of ability and disability is put to the fore. The chiastic structure (play/football/run/play) is a way for Richard to verbally overcome his physical disability, simultaneously putting forth his playful humor and skillful rhetoric. The use of the modal “can” underlines the character’s ability, his capacity to “run” and to be the master of the situation: the play is all about power and the ways to obtain it.

In the opening of the play, the scene is set in a classroom, in which Richard attends a class on Machiavelli. The parallel between Richard and Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) is not new in the history of analysis and performance of Richard III. ((Thomas Ostermeier, for example, inserted a long excerpt of The Prince in the booklet for his production of Richard III and insisted on the importance of this text in his work with the play.)) The comparison is explicit in Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI ((Richard III was conceived as a sequel to the three Henry VI.)), when Richard, so confident in his own arts, declares that he will “set the murderous Machiavel to school” (3.2.193). Lew plays with two possible meanings of the expression “set to school” here. On the one hand, Richard could teach Machiavel his ruthless politics, but, in a more contemporary understanding of the expression, the dramatist takes his Shakespeare literally as Machiavelli is now set in the school’s curriculum. In Teenage Dick, Richard re-centers The Prince around his own experience:  “Machiavelli says cruelty is at times warranted but that over-cruelty generates hate. But what if you’re hated to begin with? If cruelty is a viable tool then why stop being cruel if you’ve always been hated since birth?” (Lew, Scene 1, 19) Here, the audience is given a key to understand Richard. What has been imposed on him is not his disability but other people’s perception of it as abnormal and as a sufficient reason to bully and hate him. Whereas in Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI Richard laments the love he has always been denied, Lew focuses on the hatred Richard has always been given.

Thus, the contemporary playwright voices Richard’s experience of disability and makes it the core of the play. Moreover, his take on Richard III goes against the traditional representations of disability in literature, challenging usual patterns of narrating disability. “Scholars have argued that disability is commonplace as a metaphor (figuring blindness as lack of insight, for example in Shakespeare’s King Lear) or trope (such as the ‘disabled avenger’ character – think of the arch-villain in nearly every superhero film), but that these representations rarely reflect the experience of actual people with disabilities.” (Schaap Williams 1) Choosing an American high school as a setting is not a trivial decision: when disabled characters are represented in teen movies or TV shows, they are often lifted in the air at the end of a football parade in an artificial attempt to demonstrate inclusivity, rather than as a true will to give a voice to a marginalized group. By writing the first role for a disabled character and making his experience of disability the core of the play, Lew circumvents the usual tropes used in the teen movies grappling with disability. More generally, Lew rejects the vision of disability as metaphor. In Shakespeare’s history plays, Richard is part of a cycle: coming after the three parts of Henry VI, Richard III marks the climax of an unnatural civil war. His abnormal body is a metaphor of unnatural wars which will end with Richmond’s final victory and the advent of the Tudor dynasty. By making his rewriting of Richard III a stand-alone play, Lew inscribes his play against a vision of disability as a metaphor of either unnatural evil or transcendence. But Teenage Dick is not only giving voice to the disabled experience through Richard’s character. It is also meant as a manifesto for disabled actors rather than as a sign of inclusivity and good conscience for the majority.

1.2 Challenging the History of Performance

In his note to the future directors and producers of the play, Lew is explicit: “Cast disabled actors for Richard and Buck. They exist and they’re out there. […] In no case should able-bodied actors ‘play’ disabled”. (Lew, Note, 13) The text offers two versions of the play: one for an actor with cerebral palsy and another one for an actor with hemiplegia, while the role of Buck (Buckingham) is meant for a wheelchair user.

Richard (Daniel Monks) in Michael Longhurst production’s at Donmar’s Warehouse (Photo by Mark Brenner. Courtesy of the Donmar Warehouse)

Lew indicates that actors with other disabilities should feel free to adapt the text to their specific needs. He evokes in the introduction to the play the process of “tailoring” the text to Daniel Monks, the actor who played Richard in the Donmar Warehouse production (Lew, Introduction, 7). Choosing a disabled actor to play Richard is very new in the play’s history of performance. “Many able-bodied actors have approached the role of Richard III and used the character’s disability as a means for displaying their acting chops. But few disabled actors have gotten the chance to take on the role. In this sense, the original play uses disability as both a thematic metaphor and (for the actor) some kind of ‘acting challenge’ – the disability is performative as opposed to an experience that’s actually lived.” (Lew, Introduction, 5-6.) When considering the representation of marginalized groups in Shakespearean performances, one can see more and more all-female casts or people-of-color casts – a production of Richard II by a company of women of color is a recent example at Shakespeare’s Globe (2019). ((For more examples of cross-gendered casts in Shakespeare’s plays in the last few years, see the Guardian’s article: ‘All the Women Players: Cross-gender Shakespeare’, 2018 : https://www.theguardian.com/stage/gallery/2018/nov/23/all-the-women-players-cross-gender-shakespeare-in-pictures?fbclid=IwAR2KdkBFdmpg_qHGkE1TTjmc545qfAbkojh4GWQjnS2OpmpHmDRzDQgizSA)) Actors with disability, however, are still marginalized on the theatrical stage and nobody is surprised to see an able-bodied actor playing Richard and faking disability. This phenomenon is not proper to the theatrical world: the same is true on screen (to cite only a few: François Cluzet in the French blockbuster Intouchables (2011), Patrick Stewart in the X-Men saga (2000-2010) or Kevin McHale in the TV series Glee are all able-bodied actors playing wheelchair users). Mike Lew’s play therefore not only gives a voice to the disabled experience but also acts as a conversation starter about acting and disability in the theatrical and acting world in general, an issue which has gained prominence recently.

2. Evil, Disability, Impairment

As mentioned above, Lew debunks the trope that disability and evil are bound together. But where may we trace the origin of that trope? Did Shakespeare aggravate or challenge it and how does Lew adapt the Shakespearean legacy?  

2.1 Richard III in the Early Modern Period

In the early modern period, highlighting the historical Richard’s disability was a political necessity. Katherine Schaap Williams evokes Thomas More’s History of King Richard III, written between 1513 and 1518, a source that Shakespeare probably drew from: ((Editors of William Shakespeare’s King Richard III have identified More’s History of King Richard III as its main source. See James R Siemon, ed. (Arden Shakespeare, 2014, 3) and John Jowett, ed. (Oxford University Press, 2000, 1).)) “This text is politically complicated, because More’s History needs to disavow Richard in keeping with the Tudor monarchy in power at the time of writing. […] It is difficult to separate the history of Richard’s disability from representations that work as propaganda.” (Schaap Williams 1) Interestingly, a counter discourse, rare in Shakespeare’s time, insists on Richard’s innocence, claiming that he was not disabled: ((See for instance, after Shakespeare’s time, William Hay, Deformity: An Essay. Printed for R. and J. Dodsley, and sold by M. Cooper, 1754, one of the first instances of a first-person account of the disabled experience. Hay insisted that Richard was “misrepresented by historians” (Hay in Schaap Williams 1).)) “Richard’s bad actions meant that his body had to be deformed” (Schaap Williams 1) and if his crimes were a fiction, so was his disability. One could argue that by emphasizing Richard’s deformity, Shakespeare at least partly aimed at pleasing his audience by conforming to a shared vision of Richard as evil and deformed, that had already been developed by More and Holinshed. ((“In keeping with early modern clichés about the body expressing the soul, Richard was rendered hunchback, lame of arm, crabbed of feature and natally toothed.” (Siemon 3))) Did the history of performance just conform to this equivalence between evil thoughts and disability? Or is there more to it in the original text? What is fascinating about Richard is the way he uses his disability as a form of power. When he declares “Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass, /That I may see my shadow as I pass.” (1.2.249-250), he is his usual ironic self, pretending to be enamored of his own shadow, but he also transforms negative assumptions about him, embraces his deformity to turn it into power, into a tool to manipulate opponents. The association between Richard’s evil plans and his deformity is made clear in the discourse of several characters of the play. Lady Anne calls him a “foul devil” (1.2.50) who made “the happy earth [his] hell” (51), a “lump of foul deformity” (57) and characterizes his deeds as “inhuman and unnatural” (60). She thereby very clearly links his evil nature with his deformity. However, one might argue that there is more to the play’s vision of disability. Richard uses his “form” and de-formity to form, inform and deform the truth, to manipulate. William West underlines that “[Richard’s] deformity as a negative quality turns into the pure potential of the ability to ‘change shapes with Proteus for advantages’” (West 18). According to him, “[w]hat matters in Shakespeare is the ability of the player, the playwright, the playgoer (these are not mutually exclusive groups […]) to inform and deform each other, and to be in turn informed or reformed by their mutual form and pressure.” (West 20) Richard is a per-former who does not consider his deformity as a hindrance to his evil plans, but on the contrary as a possibility and as key to his success. Whether in 3 Henry VI or in Richard III, Richard frequently lays emphasis on his deformity: he evokes his “misshaped trunk” in 3 Henry VI (3.2.170) but associates with it his head which he wants to “be round impalèd with a glorious crown” (171). Thus, his disability becomes a prop, like the crown, that he can use in order to obtain power. Ostermeier’s Richard III is a case in point: Richard gets naked in front of Lady Anne, revealing a false hump – whose shocking effect turns out to recede when compared to Eidinger’s frontal nudity, which he flaunts in the rest of the scene. The “envious mountain” (3 Henry VI, 3.2.157) on his back is a prosthetic, a prop that can be used to manipulate and to obtain power.

Lars Eidinger as Richard in Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III at the Schaubühne (2015). Photo by Arno Declair. Source: Schaubühne)

The focus on Richard in Shakespeare’s play is thus not only on his disability but on how this disability can serve him to affirm his identity as a powerful political ruler.

2.2 De-forming and Re-forming Richard

If Richard III is more than the exploration of the disabled villain’s trope, what about Mike Lew’s reading of the play? Might he be reducing the play to this problematic when the original text exceeds it? What possibilities does his play actually explore? One of the biggest changes made to the original story is the role of Lady Anne in the play. Anne Margaret is a driven 17-year-old, Eddie’s ex-girlfriend, whom Richard needs to seduce in order to eliminate his rival from the race and become senior-class president. But to his surprise, Anne Margaret actually likes him and comes to value their relationship. When she confides in him about her abortion, Richard faces a choice: either drop from the race for the election, as Anne asks him to do, and have a relationship with her, or betray her by revealing her secret on social media and win the campaign. By choosing the latter, Richard causes Anne’s suicide.

To Jeremy Wechsler, Producing Artistic Director at the Wit Theater, this sequence of actions is the real tragedy of the play. ((This point was made in an online Zoom post-show discussion on April 12th 2020, accessible to those who had purchased tickets for this night of the performance.)) At that point in the play, Richard has the possibility to experience love and be happy, but years of bullying and rejection forbid him to renounce his ambition. Teenage Dick is not only about power and manipulation, it is also about revenge. Richard wants to crush Eddie, to annihilate his shiny future as a successful quarterback. Mike Lew therefore shifts the paradigm of the play in his adaptation. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard’s body fits in a medical model of disability: the focus in his or others’ discourses is not on how the external world molded his disability, but on how far out of the norm his body is (“my legs of an unequal size” (3 Henry VI, 3.2.159); “shrink mine arm up to a withered shrub” (156) “disproportion me in every part” [160]). In Teenage Dick, Lew’s vision of Richard shifts to a social model of disability: Lew considers how social factors shape our vision of disability. Alice Hall, also reflecting on these medical and social models, differentiates impairment (the lack of a limb or a defective limb/organ) from disability:

Disability […] is created through a social process: through the relationship between an individual with an impairment and the society in which they live. Society ‘disables’ individuals by excluding or discriminating against them and creating affective, sensory, cognitive or architectural barriers. Put in stark terms, a social model view suggests that wheelchair users might have a mobility impairment, but they are disabled by the lack of provision of ramps and appropriate access facilities. (Hall 21)

Lew’s vision of Richard is based on this social model. When Anne Margaret asks Richard how his body feels, he answers: “To be honest ‘how it feels’ is probably how you feel. My brain thinks that all of me’s moving. Though my severed nerves and atrophied muscles might disagree. But to me my movement feels normal. ’Til someone reminds me I’m not.” (Lew, Scene 3, 37) The conclusion of the play is clear: the audience, and society, make Richard disabled because they categorize him as such when they notice his impairment (and by extension, they make him a villain by associating his disability with a flawed morality). Lew does not fall into the trap of a “disembodied notion of disability”, where disability is only existing because of social barriers and of society’s lack of inclusivity (Hughes and Paterson 300). He actually balances two visions: he acknowledges the physical pain resulting from Richard’s disability, but he also underlines that it is his surroundings that remind constantly Richard of his disability, not his body.

A crucial moment in the play is when Anne Margaret teaches Richard how to dance. She does not see his body as weird or abnormal, as Richard’s other classmates seem to do, but as possibilities that are to be discovered and explored through dance. Richard evokes the physical pain caused by his hemiplegia when talking with Anne Margaret: “And it is painful. Moving this way. Joint pain from the torquing. Muscle pain from my left leg being so overworked.” (Lew, Scene 3, 37) Lew manages to balance the bodily reality of Richard’s impairment and the social context in which he evolves, constantly reminding him that he is disabled and does not fit at Roseland. Lew’s point is that Richard is not made inherently evil by his disability, but that the continual experience of his classmates’ cruelty leads him to betray Anne Margaret and to make Eddie paralyzed by running over his body with a stolen car. Interestingly, the character who almost saves him from his tragic fate is named Anne Margaret, colliding Shakespeare’s Lady Anne and Queen Margaret into one character. In Shakespeare’s play, Margaret forms and deforms Richard’s body in her curse speech:

Margaret: Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog,
Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell,
Thou slander of thy heavy mother’s womb,
Thou loathèd issue of thy father’s loins,
Thou rag of honor, thou detested—
Richard: Margaret!
(1.3.230-35)

As West suggests, by completing Margaret’s sentence, Richard grammatically reverses the curse and turns his deformity onto Margaret’s body. Nevertheless, Margaret constructs Richard’s deformity for the audience through these words. Anne Margaret, on the contrary, deconstructs Richard’s disability: “I’m obsessed with movement, and the way that you move – there’s this definite poetry to it.” (Lew, Scene 3, 37.) She enquires about his bodily experience and allows him to re-form his body and construct his identity outside of his disability. While Eddie and his other bullies call him a “dick”, she is central in the process of naming him Richard and in building our sympathy for his character. Richard, in Teenage Dick, does not seduce us with his wit (although he is witty) and his evil schemes, but through the hope that he will renounce his plans for revenge. The core of the tragedy is that others have already defined him as evil before he gets the chance to truly define himself as anything else than the disabled villain: Richard cannot escape the trope in which he has been trapped.

3. Making Shakespeare Accessible

3.1 The Dramatic Intensity of High School

Art by a disabled artist, […] is often seen as being tied to the artist’s disability status: the art either recognizes a presumed triumph over that status or responds to the assumed tribulations of disabled daily life. Sometimes, counter to the artist’s actual focus, audiences assume that the artist’s work is intended to educate nondisabled people about disability rights and etiquette, or to nudge people to think differently about disability and equity in the world. This is limiting. Linking art so directly to social change can detrimentally tie cultural production to broad societal narratives, making it hard for everyone to understand art outside the lines of those stories.

Alice Sheppard, “I Dance Because I Can”, The New York Times, 02. 27. 2019

Reading these words from dancer Alice Sheppard, we can only wonder about Teenage Dick’s place in a wider conversation about disability. Whom is this play written for? Does Lew try to educate his audience about disability? When considering this play only through the frame of disability, do we fail to grasp what it actually is? Lew’s own writings about the play leave no doubt about the fact that the play is meant to tackle the question of disability. However, its narrative arc is not a story of “triumph” over disability: on the contrary, Richard cannot escape the disabled identity that he has been ascribed by others. One should not see in this play an attempt to give a true account of “disabled daily life” either. Lew makes it very clear that his play is a rewriting of Richard III. Richard’s opening monologue (“Now that the winter formal gives way to glorious spring fling we find our rocks-for-brains hero Eddie – the quarterback – sleeping through his job as junior class president.” Lew, Scene One, 14.) instantly channels the reminiscence of Shakespeare’s play. ((“Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this son of York” (1.1.1-2).))  The words “now”, “winter” and “glorious” are enough to remind the audience of Richard III’s famous opening lines. This clear parentage with the Shakespearean text indicates that the play is also a dramatical work and not (only) an account of a disabled experience. Richard’s running over Eddie is not meant to be understood as a “typical” experience of disability, but as the rewriting of a tragedy.

Even if it is set in the context of a twenty-first-century American high school, there is no doubt that the story follows the plot of Shakespeare’s text, using the recognizable core of a very well-known play and weaving in the themes of bullying, disability, abortion and adolescence. In spite of radically different environments (the Wars of the Roses in fifteenth-century England vs. Lew’s twenty-first-century America), Richard is in both plays compared to a child or a teenager, as when he rejoices like a child after wooing Lady Anne in Shakespeare’s play. ((Richard gleefully exposes his evil plans throughout Shakespeare’s play. He cannot contain his excitement in his monologue after having conquered Lady Anne, hardly believing she was so easily seduced: “And yet to win her, all the world to nothing! Ha!” (1.2.225).)) However, in Lew’s vision, Richard, rather than a child, is a teenager who had to grow up quickly in a harsh environment. The play is set against stereotypical representations of disabled teenagers in American teen movies, constructing a multi-faceted character who has to deal with love, sexuality, friendship and violence. One could wonder about Lew’s use of high school tropes. His vision of high school and teenagerhood appears extremely stereotypical, with the beautiful and popular quarterback (a key element in any American high school romance), and the beautiful but different girl (Anne) who prefers the “nerd” (Richard) to the handsome but superficial football player (Eddie).

Why choose such stereotypical elements to rewrite the play? What purpose do these high school tropes play? When asked for their opinions about Shakespearean adaptations set in American high schools, namely O (a rewriting of Othello by Tim Blake Nelson in 2001) and Teenage Dick, undergraduates and graduate students from Northwestern University felt that these adaptations did not reflect at all their experience of American high school and that the representation of adolescence was overdramatized and exaggerated. ((These observations (which do not constitute a representative survey) were made by undergraduate and graduate students in two Shakespeare classes in February and April 2020 at Northwestern University.)) First, let us underline that although the characters may feel stereotypical or part of a trope, the themes that are tackled by the play are actual high school problematics: bullying and cyberbullying, sexual relationships, abortion and suicide. These issues have been raised in recent popular television shows such as Netflix’s successful 13 Reasons Why (2017) and other Shakespearean adaptations have used high school environments to address shootings, racism and rape such as Tim Blake Nelson’s O. ((Several of Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted into teen movies. Elizabeth Klett quotes for instance: “Never Been Kissed (1999, dir. Raja Gosnell, an adaptation of As You Like It), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999, dir. Gil Junger, The Taming of the Shrew ), ‘O’ (2001, dir. Tim Blake Nelson, Othello ), and Get Over It! (2001, dir. Tommy O’Haver, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) (2008, p. 71). Abigail Rokinson-Woodall adds to this list “She’s The Man (2006, dir. Andy Fickman, Twelfth Night) […] but also High School Musical (2006, dir. Kenny Ortega, Romeo and Juliet) and Were the World Mine (2008, dir. Tom Gustafson, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), all of which are set in high schools and feature contemporary teenagers as their protagonists.” (Rokinson-Woodall, 198).)) However, in Teenage Dick, such issues are raised through the voice of Richard, shifting the narrative voice from a usually white abled boy to a disabled teenager. This shift in the narrative shakes up high school tropes and brings a fresh insight into them. The representation of sexuality is particularly representative of this dynamic. A realistic representation of sexuality in teen movies is often inexistent, as if teenagers’ sexual life started after their adolescence (for example, the question is carefully avoided in High School Musical [2006] although the plot aims to resemble that of Romeo and Juliet, a play rife with sexual innuendos), or presented as a mistake that teenagers should avoid at all cost by not becoming sexually active too soon. ((I.e. before being married (Jane the Virgin [2014], Princess Diaries [2001], Julie Mayer in Desperate Housewives [2004]).)) Sexuality is often verbally evoked, but rarely represented in a realistic way. If teenagers’ sexuality is often pushed to the margins in teen movies, the sexuality of disabled people is non-existent in the teen genre – and in cultural productions in general. Lew takes exception to this unwritten rule and his very title, Teenage Dick, sounds programmatic in this respect. When Anne Margaret brings Richard to her bedroom and starts to kiss him, Richard is shocked that having sex can be a possibility for him. He addresses the audience: “Wait. Is this happening? Is what I think’s happening actually happening?! Whether sparked by my piteous state or by pheromones, Anne is taking me to her bedchambers. Ye Gods! O rapture! O culmination of all my fantastical yearnings! O... bollocks. I never thought I’d make it this far. How do – how do I even... uh-oh.” (Lew, Scene 5, 46) In the following scene, Richard lets Anne know that he is wearing a diaper and that he does not know how his body might react sexually, bringing to the fore questions that are rarely evoked in teen contents. Setting Teenage Dick in a high school is a forceful way for Lew to tackle the question of disabled people’s sexuality and intimacy, setting his play far from the stereotypes of high school experiences. Moreover, choosing a high school environment also presents the advantage of making the play accessible to younger audiences.

3.2 Shakespeare’s Text and Accessibility

The question of accessibility is central in Teenage Dick: the play cannot be produced by theatres if they do not hire two disabled actors to play Buck and Richard. Lew explains:

In the play’s further life, to me the success of Teenage Dick will not just be about adding a new perspective on disability onstage (which I think is important because there’s so few available); it will also be in the way that theaters interacting with this play will have to shake up their business practices. Because in order to produce this play you have to find and hire two disabled actors. You have to make sure your physical plant is accessible. (Lew, Introduction, 8)

But the question of accessibility is also interesting when we look at the play through the lens of its setting. Shakespeare’s works are a mandatory part of the syllabus in most high schools, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Lew works at making the story of Richard III accessible to teenagers by blending popular expressions, everyday English and Shakespearean expressions. Richard’s language is set apart from others, for instance when he speaks to himself: “Hush you now these tremulous notions. Steel thy resolve and silence thy mewling incertitude.” (Lew, Scene 7, 63). Richard speaks a proto-Shakespearean language, which might be a way to gain the audience’s sympathy: we are charmed by Richard’s poetry and wittiness, set to the fore by the contrast with the mundane way other characters speak. This is also a way to bind Lew’s rewriting with Shakespeare’s play, in which Richard is already characterized as a Vice figure, a buffoon deftly playing with words and manipulating the other characters through his cleverness. ((On Richard and the Vice figure, see Richard Preiss, Clowning and Authorship in Early Modern Theatre. Cambridge University Press, 2014 and David Wiles, Shakespeare’s Clown: Actor and Text in the Elizabethan Playhouse (1987). Cambridge University Press, 2005.)) Thus, the play works through a double referencing system. For instance, the high school’s name, “Roseland high”, functions both as a stereotypical high school name and as a reminder of the War of the Roses. Lew thus works simultaneously with two types of audiences. On the one hand, he pleases a young audience, targeting the play towards teenagers who are going to recognize stereotypical elements of their daily life and their language in the play. On the other, he satisfies the audience who knows the Shakespearean text and comes to see a rewriting of Richard III more than a play about teenagers. When Richard has to choose between becoming class president and being Anne’s lover, he wonders: “Is it the flower of love that unfurls before me?” (Lew, Scene 7, 62). This sentence may appeal to the audience who will recognize Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” (2.1.33). These references do not prevent the play from being accessible to a young audience unfamiliar with Shakespearean plays, but it includes those who recognize them.

One can also imagine a pedagogical use for Teenage Dick, as an entry point to Shakespeare’s play. The play may become educational material taught alongside its source, so that ultimately a young audience comes to appreciate the underlying Shakespearean text as well. Thus, Richard’s high-flown language, although he does not use the iambic pentameter, works on several levels: Lew explained in an interview that it helps characterize Richard as smarter and more well-read than the others, therefore highlighting his feelings as different or misunderstood. It also constantly reminds the audience of the original text, constituting a patchwork of different languages. Thomas Cartelli evokes “the growing exhaustion of the plays’ capacity to speak clearly to their many publics in the original language and formats in which they were authored, edited and continue to be disseminated, or in faithful translations of the same.” (Cartelli, 20) According to him, Shakespeare’s language, even for English-speaking audiences, is getting ever closer to a foreign language, to the point that it has become inaccessible to most twenty-first-century audiences, which explains the increasing use of digital practices in performance and rewritings. German director Thomas Ostermeier refers, for instance, to an “era of acceleration”, requiring the theatre to adapt to new narrative forms, with more unexpected plot twists, quick actions and accelerated exits and entrances. (Ostermeier and Boenish, 17) His use of digital media in his Shakespearean productions is a direct answer to this need for acceleration. ((“In order to acknowledge our accelerated cognitive abilities, which are trained through film and television, narrative can and must get faster and more complex.” Ostermeier and Boenish, The Theatre of Thomas Ostermeier, London: Routledge, 2016, 17.))

In a 2020 SAA seminar, Cartelli wondered: “is the Shakespearean text obsolete?” ((“Performing Digital Shakespeare”, a seminar led remotely on Zoom by Aneta Mancewicz on May 22nd 2020 as part of the 2020 SAA Conference.)) Is Teenage Dick an indicator that the Shakespearean language needs to be rewritten? By setting the play into a high school context, Shakespeare is made accessible and understandable to all. This is part of Lew’s work and reflection on accessibility, but it also testifies to Shakespeare’s forbidding aura for a younger audience – and maybe even a lack of appeal when not translated into new forms of language and of storytelling.

Conclusion

Culturally specific works like disability art can have meaning in a number of different realms. As people invested in nuance and complexity, we owe it to ourselves and the creators of the work to educate ourselves in the traditions and legacies of the community so we can appreciate the work outside the narrowness of such framings.

Alice Sheppard, ‘I Dance Because I Can’, The New York Times, 02. 27. 2019

Teenage Dick is a fascinating rewriting of Richard III: the disabled experience takes center stage and Richard is given a new voice. Alongside Richard’s experience, Lew underlines another vision of disability through Buck’s character. Buck is Richard’s foil: she is appreciated by Eddie who protects her from bullies, calling her his “lil buddy”. (Lew, Scene One, 15) Contrary to Richard, she does not think her situation could or should change.

Richard: “Do you believe our social station is circummountable, or is it immutable?”
Buck: “Good question. Immutable.”
Richard: “But... no, but don’t you believe we can rise past our station, given sufficient cunning and skill?”
Buck: “Nope no I don’t. I’m not like you, yearning to fly beyond nature’s boundaries like some kind of disabled nerd Icarus.” (Lew, Scene 2, 22-23)

Two visions of the disabled experience are opposed in this passage: on the one hand, Buck seems happier than Richard, trying not to get involved into anything that could bring her enemies or problems. On the other hand, she never challenges the pigeonhole in which others have put her. Lew explores these oppositions without solving them, thus leaving his audiences free to decide what each character represents.

In addition, the play not only examines the story of Richard as a disabled teenager, but also questions our theatrical practices, particularly the place for disabled actors in the current theatrical world, and more broadly tackles the notion of accessibility. Who has access to Shakespeare? How may we achieve more inclusivity to open up to audiences who feel “traditional” productions are too disconnected from their experience and expectations? The extended free online streaming of the Chicago Theatre Wit production in March 2020, an impromptu alternative in the dire circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, also unveiled another accessibility issue. As actress Tamara Rozofsky (playing Buck) underlined in a post-show discussion, an online production turned out to be the most accessible form of theatre for disabled people, for whom access to theatres is still a challenge.

Notes

Bibliography

Albrecht, Gary L., et al. ‘L’émergence des disability studies : état des lieux et perspectives’. Sciences Sociales et Santé, vol. 19, no. 4, 2001, pp. 43–73. https://www.persee.fr/doc/sosan_0294-0337_2001_num_19_4_1535

British Library. ‘Thomas More’s History of King Richard III’. The British Library. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/thomas-mores-history-of-king-richard-iii.

Cartelli, Thomas. Reenacting Shakespeare in the Shakespeare Aftermath: The Intermedial Turn and Turn to Embodiment. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

Daston, Lorraine, and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 2001.

Donmar Warehouse. TEENAGE DICK. www.donmarwarehouse.com/production/7415/teenage-dick/.

Ferguson, Philip M., and Emily Nusbaum. ‘Disability Studies: What Is It and What Difference Does It Make?’ Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, vol. 37, no. 2 (2012): 70-80.

Hall, Alice. Literature and Disability. London, New York: Routledge, 2015.

Hay, William. Deformity: An Essay. Printed for R. and J. Dodsley, and sold by M. Cooper, 1754.

Hughes, Bill, and Kevin Paterson. ‘The Social Model of Disability and the Disappearing Body: Towards a Sociology of Impairment.’ Disability and Society, vol. 12, no. 2, 1997, pp. 325–40.

Lew, Mike. Teenage Dick. New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc, 2019.

Love, Genevieve. Early Modern Theatre and the Figure of Disability. London: The Arden Shakespeare, Bloomsbury, 2019.

Ostermeier, Thomas, and Peter M. Boenisch. The Theatre of Thomas Ostermeier. London: Routledge, 2016.

Schaap Williams, Katherine. ‘Richard III and the Staging of Disability’. The British Library, 15 March 2016, https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/richard-iii-and-the-staging-of-disability.

Shakespeare, William. King Richard III. Edited by James R Siemon, London: The Arden Shakespeare, Bloomsbury, 2014.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard III. Edited by John Jowett, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Shakespeare, William, The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. ed. Stephen Greenblatt, New York, London: W.W. Norton, 2008.

Sheppard, Alice. ‘I Dance Because I Can’. The New York Times, 27 Feb. 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/27/opinion/disability-dance-alice-sheppard.html.

West, William N. ‘What’s the Matter with Shakespeare?: Physics, Identity, Playing’. South Central Review, vol. 26, no. 1/2, , 2009, pp. 103–26. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40211293.

For further reading

On Disability Studies

Albrecht, Gary L., et al. Handbook of Disability Studies. London: Sage Publications, 2001.

Barker, Clare, and Murray, Stuart, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Goodley, Dan, et al. ‘Dis/Entangling Critical Disability Studies’. Culture – Theory – Disability, edited by Anne Waldschmidt et al., Transcript Verlag, 2017, pp. 81–110. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1xxs3r.10.

Iyengar, Sujata. ‘Shakespeare's 'Discourse of Disability'.’ Disability, Health, and Happiness in the Shakespearean Body. Ed. Iyengar. New York: Routledge, 2015. 1-19.

Koppelman, Susan. ‘Thinking About Disability’. Off Our Backs, vol. 32, no. 11/12, 2002, pp. 16–17. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20837697

Waldschmidt, Anne. ‘Disability Goes Cultural: The Cultural Model of Disability as an Analytical Tool’. Culture – Theory – Disability, edited by Anne Waldschmidt et al., Transcript Verlag, 2017, pp. 19–28. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1xxs3r.5.

On Teenage Dick

Donmar Warehouse. TEENAGE DICK., www.donmarwarehouse.com/production/7415/teenage-dick/.

Jones, Chris. ‘“Teenage Dick” at Theater Wit: The Show Goes on, with a Review of the Video-Streamed Play. Kudos!’ Chicago Tribune, 20 Mar. 2020. https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/theater/reviews/ct-ent-teenage-dick-theater-wit-livestream-0320-20200320-l6jx5bw6fnbmdk2d5aypiqg6si-story.html

Pierce, Jerald Raymond. ‘Streams Before the Flood?’ AMERICAN THEATRE, 27 Mar. 2020. https://www.americantheatre.org/2020/03/27/streams-before-the-flood/.

On Youth Culture

Hulbert, Jennifer, et al. Shakespeare and Youth Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Méline Dumot, "Giving Voice in Mike Lew’s «Teenage Dick»: Disability in a Modern Rewriting of Richard III", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), octobre 2020. Consulté le 30/11/2020. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/Shakespeare/giving-voice-in-mike-lew-s-teenage-dick-disability-in-a-modern-rewriting-of-richard-iii

Mots-Clés
  • Richard III
  • disability studies
  • accessibility
  • accessibilité