Co-opting the Voice of Autism
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on Mark Haddon’s novel, has received accolades in its theatrical iteration written by Simon Stephens, including the Tony Award for Best Play in 2015. It tells the story of Christopher, a fifteen-year-old with “behavioral issues,” as he attempts to solve the murder of the next-door neighbor’s dog only to find even more mysteries along the way. The show is oft promoted for its claims on immersion—the idea is that the audience sees the story through Christopher’s mind. Although it’s never explicitly stated in the book or the play, it is most commonly consumed as a story of a boy with autism. Therefore, the feel-good theatrical adventure boasts the opportunity to “experience” autism for two and a half hours. While I was completely wrapped up in the performance, rooting for and identifying with Christopher, not to mention crying on cue, I left with a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. This show, whose multimedia and strobe lights make it clear that those with autism are not the intended audience, doesn’t seem to give much of a voice to those with autism either.
The story is crafted much like a good whodunit novel, beginning with the spectacular image of a dog impaled by a pitchfork (an ode to Sherlock Holmes from which the play derives its name). Thus begins the series of investigatory scenes that compel the plot. And like many such novels, where the reader receives clues along with the detective, this story is told only through the eyes of Christopher. He is exceptionally gifted at math and has an interest in astronomy, but he cannot understand metaphor and therefore finds it hard to engage in typical human interaction. This, paired with his violent hatred of being touched, gets Christopher into quite a bit of trouble. Let’s just say the police do not like a gangly teenager resisting their grasp. And the police respond accordingly. Christopher’s own resistance in this scene and others reveals his unique perspectives that translate into great theatre with accentuated highs and lows and consistently significant stakes. At the same time, it merits the question of whether this inherent theatricality is the purpose behind Christopher’s characteristics, rather than any affiliation with autism itself. Many have turned to Haddon’s novel as a sort of textbook for understanding people with autism. But Haddon resists this classification stating, “I know very little about the subject. I did no research for Curious Incident.” Haddon goes on to say that the book is about difference rather than disability. He emphasizes that its purpose is to see the world through a different set of eyes, even though these eyes are marked with a widely known and recognizable disorder, about which a multitude of writing is available. Perhaps unintentionally, Haddon’s fictional voice has become the voice of a disorder, without any research on the disorder or input from those with the disorder themselves.
The theatrical form of Curious Incident plays with the first-person perspective of Christopher by projecting the workings of his brain onto the stage, a three-walled box within which technologically-aided magic happens. The walls function as graph paper upon which Christopher draws visuals. And LED lighting reveals the subway station or the neighborhood street as Christopher understands it. The street appears as an architectural ground plan with the house numbers prominently displayed, while the subway station appears as a frenzied onslaught of bright signs and visuals that bombard Christopher and the audience. The production is therefore not the fully immersive theatre in the physical sense that we have come to know in the popular Sleep No More or Then She Fell. Rather, it attempts to immerse the audience’s aural and visual perception into the sights and thoughts of someone else. It attempts to bring the audience into a first-person perception that a novel might provide, but through a sensory mode of identification with the character.
Interestingly, this first-person story about “difference” is approached as a universal story, with the assumption that everyone can identify with this character of difference. Indeed, many reviews point to how highly relatable Christopher is in his comfort in routine and his wish to be isolated from others’ feelings. The play’s emphasis then is not difference, but sameness. Perhaps there’s power in highlighting points of contact between those with autism and those without, yes. But are these points of sameness so visible because the words are originally written by someone without any experience with autism? Indeed, they are created out of the imagination of someone without autism, and the only points of contact would be the things that he himself can comprehend.
Of course, artistic liberties must be taken in this quest for immersive perception, most specifically because Christopher clearly states that he does not understand metaphor or like acting. Therefore, the play makes use of multiple metatheatrical conceits. For instance, Christopher’s behavioral aide, Siobhan, functions as part-narrator, ostensibly reading from the book that she had asked Christopher to write. Later, the book turns into a play upon the aide’s request, even though Christopher does not like acting “because it is like pretending that something is real, when it is not really real at all, so it is like a kind of lie.” In moments such as this, the audience is pulled from any state of immersion to see the fabricated world they are viewing: an actor playing a character who states that he does not like acting in a play, supposedly as a child with autism, although it is necessarily crafted with the empathy that the child does not possess.
Yet, the play continuously switches between this self-critical metatheatrical mode and a complete theatrical commitment to realism. After the play’s happy ending, which I won’t fully give away here, and the bows have been made, the actor playing Christopher returns to the stage as Christopher to explain the math problem that he so proudly solved during his math exam. The scene brilliantly communicates Christopher’s excitement about the subject with booming sounds, bright lights, and confetti that few with autism would be comfortable experiencing. The scene accomplishes this while simultaneously showing the audience the images in Christopher’s head, which he used to solve the problem.
But the scene also encourages the theatrical pretense that Christopher is real. After the bows, convention dictates that the actors return to their identities as actors, but in this case, the actor remains as Christopher. The audience, then, is given the opportunity to maintain the false notion that this brilliant actor, who is physically impressive, collaborative, charismatic and wildly empathetic is an autistic boy. It is easier to pretend to understand autism, then, when the picture presented is so wondrously attractive. Which is not to say that autism shouldn’t be presented as attractive. Christopher is the hero of the story, and a sort of superhero—he is proud of his mathematical abilities and knows that he sees and remembers things others can’t. These qualities are not uncommon traits of people on the spectrum, although every case of ASD is unique.
And I remain slightly ambivalent, as the play is a spectacular, well-crafted piece of theatre that does succeed in much of its attempts at immersion. Not to mention, it teaches people about autism, entering into the ongoing conversation about disabilities in the arts. The problem is that the portrayal of an autistic character is more of a plot device for the sake of good theatre than it is in the effort to give someone with autism a voice, and people may leave thinking that they understand something about autism through this experiential show, when they actually understand something about the non-autistic artists’ imagining of autism. As Siobhan says, “Some people find things which are kind of true in things which are made up.”
Let’s not forget that it’s made up and who made it.