Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Battles on the Body: Disability, Interpreting Dramatic Literature, and the Case of Lynn Nottage's Ruined

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Battles on the Body: Disability, Interpreting Dramatic Literature, and the Case of Lynn Nottage's Ruined

Article excerpt

Disability Studies has made significant inroads in theorizing literary representation and analyzing performance from within disability culture. Yet there is a dearth of Disability Studies work exploring canonical drama by moving beyond looking for realistic or progressive depictions of extraordinary bodies. Using Lynn Nottage's 2009 play Ruined as a case study, the article argues why examining "traditional" drama (as opposed to that coming from within disability culture) helps advance the project of Disability Studies as it moves to understand disability representation in a more nuanced manner. Theatre Studies can be likewise invigorated; whereas the ending of Ruined seems to undermine the play's feminist and postcolonial politics, exploring the presence of disability in the work complicates, reclaims, and deepens our understanding of its activism. Ultimately, this reveals a new and important way to understand more fully Nottage's work, and suggests why interpreting dramatic literature from a Disability Studies perspective is essential for critics, readers, and audience members of all kinds.

In Donald Margulies's 2010 play Time Stands Still, James, who has worked as a journalist in the Middle East, rants about a play he has just seen on the Iraq war. Taking a swipe at audiences who patronize plays about conflict in the developing world, he identifies their theatergoing as a form of romanticized liberal voyeurism:

The thing is, I know the people they put onstage [...]. I know them, I've lived with them, both of us have. So seeing them turned into anthropologic curiosities, like dioramas in a museum, bathed in this romantic Caravaggio light with, you know: hallowed, Persian-sounding music ... (Margulies 52)

After seeing Lynn Nottage's 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Ruined, which depicts the lives of female survivors of wartime rape in the Congo, I had a similar reaction. Where friends who saw it were moved, I was angry: at the horrible violence against women, but also at the play's romanticized conclusion. Why would a work that had labored to expose the violence of a war fought for the economic gain of a mercenary few (and, thanks to the conflict minerals, our own ability to purchase cheap cell phones) become transformed in the end to an individuated, happily resolved love story?

I revisited the play over the coming months, not quite able to let it go. Eventually it dawned on me that it is possible to see something more nuanced and significant happening in Ruined than is suggested by its crowd-pleasing final slow dance between two of the play's central figures, brothel owner Mama Nadi and black market salesman Christian. The key to such a reading is the presence of disability, as I came to understand when I turned my focus to the other important figure remaining on stage at the conclusion: Sophie, a disabled rape survivor. The play's representation of disability functions significantly as part of its political project, resisting the easy narrative closure of the ending. If we instead look at how disability identity is incorporated, the play's activism is much more complex and compelling, particularly during that conclusion; in this article, I want to offer such a reading. Examining Ruined through a Disability Studies perspective is an important model for what such an approach has to offer the critical interpretation of dramatic literature. Likewise, it suggests the importance, for disability scholars, of complicating our own readings of plays not written from within disability culture or with an explicit disability "message."

Disability Studies is as healthily in flux as the bodies it studies. More specifically, within the realm of Literary Disability Studies, discussions continue about how best to theorize disability representation. Should critics valorize only the progressive? To what extent should they continue identifying the presence of usually stereotypical disability archetypes in literary works? …

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