Not so Happy with Happy: Examining Disability Issues in Theater

April 21, 2016

As I sat on the hard plastic of a rigid chair in the auditorium of the Walsh Black Box Theater, watching the twists and turns of “Happy” unfold before my eyes, I couldn’t help but wonder at the incredible wave of unhappiness that surged through my veins.

For a play that attempts to address the struggles of life and calls our attention to the question of happiness, I was shocked to find the play to be structured on such incredible ignorance and prejudice. At a time when we are working to build an understanding of the disability community and help the world recognize persons with disability as fully fledged persons and not pitiable beings shoved to the side of society, it is sad to watch the theatrical production of “Happy” continue to perpetuate those harmful stereotypes and impede positive progress.

The play is structured around the characters of Eva and Alfred, who are thrown together for an uncomfortable evening. Eva is the new girlfriend of Alfred’s best friend. Alfred has been happily married to his wife for more than fifteen years. Eva announces to the audience that she is entirely unhappy; her brother committed suicide and she has just escaped an abusive relationship. Alfred appears happy; he is a teacher at a local high school in order to support his wife and his teenage daughter with cerebral palsy.

The two characters hold dramatically different perceptions of happiness, leaving the audience to expect a final monologue which will finally flesh out the truth. By the end of the play, the audience watches Alfred succumb to the frustrations with his life and his resentment of his daughter. We are left with the understanding that “happiness” is not only unattainable, but that it is also a false idea that we are enticed to believe.

Alfred’s final monologue gives us the impression that life with a disability is impossible and riddled with unhappiness. But what the play fails to realize is the possibility that it is not the disability that makes Alfred unhappy, but his own inability to recognize and value his life and the people in his life. We are made to believe disability is the root cause of Alfred’s misery, which influences the audience’s perception of disability and undermines the progress toward equality and acceptance of disability.

Life with a child with a disability is difficult, but not impossible. Yes, you might have to push them around in a wheelchair, you might have to give up your dream job for something else, and you might even have to change their diaper every night. But life is not meant to be easy. We all face our own challenges. We may not always be happy, but we are capable of rising to the occasion. The play completely undermines the possibility that a family can learn to cope with the extra challenges that come with a child with a disability. A person with a disability is a person, first and foremost, and to reduce their lifestyle to a dark and bleak image is both regressive and prejudiced. The play paints disability in one, flat, depressing shade of gray and fails to recognize that there are beautiful bursts of color in the life of a person with disability.

Today we are seeing the disability rights movement make further progress both politically and socially. The “Spread The Word To End The Word” movement has taken off with the help of the media, and persons with disabilities continue to advocate for equal access and opportunities. But we still have not reached true equality. A curtain of ignorance and prejudice separates the disability community from achieving full equality. We must increase dialogue surrounding ability and disability to generate a greater understanding and appreciation of the individual lifestyle of each person.

Yet this play undermines all of this progress by shrugging off the possibility that people with a disabilityreal people with lives that have the potential to be just as fulfilling as anyone else’sare inherently less able to be happy, all because they have a disability. I left the Walsh Black Box Theater in tears, not because the final monologue was so poignant and riveting, but because I was surrounded by an audience who thought that my siblings were incapable of being happy. That I was incapable of being happy with them.

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