This weekend, I went to see a play that seems to be on the way to becoming this year’s Broadway sensation. The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on the novel of the same name by Mark Haddon and adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens, made its American debut after a hugely successful run on London’s West End, which included a clean sweep of the Olivier Awards (basically, the British equivalent of the Tony Awards). The play proved to be a pretty awesome theatrical experience. But beyond the beautiful spectacle of the design, and the strong work of the actors, I left the theater with a lot of uncertain feelings about the play and the experience I had just had.
I decided to write a blog post about it, and as fate would have it, just this morning I listened to the latest episode of the fabulous movie podcast Fighting in the War Room, in which one of the topics, coincidentally and unexpectedly, was not only The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but precisely the question I was wrestling with after watching the show. So, in case you are not familiar with the material, the play centers on the story of Christopher, a fifteen-year-old British boy suffering from an unspecified disorder (most likely Asperger’s or another form of high-functioning autism), which made me think about other representations of mental disorders on art and entertainment, and how much I tend to dislike them.
Now, we all have certain pet-peeves. So matter how much we would like to be open to all kinds of art no matter the content, there are certain subject matters that we just don’t find appealing. In my case, they are narratives about people with mental disabilities. Or at least that’s what I’ve thought ever since I failed to be moved by any of the most famous and beloved “mental disabilities” movies. At one point, I was notorious amongst my friends for not liking either Forrest Gump or Rain Man. Honestly, it’s not that I don’t like them, I actually have very strong negative feelings towards them. And if we continue down this road, my worst nightmare might as well be the Sean Penn movie I Am Sam, although to be fair I think not as many people feel emotional attachment to this atrocity as they do to the two I mentioned before.
Anyway, as I was saying, for most of my life I just accepted the fact that I didn’t like narratives about this type of people as a fact. I thought there was something about not being able to have a “normal” mind that made me really uncomfortable. Some sort of fear that prevented me from engaging with these types of stories. That was until a few years ago, when I actually read Mark Haddon’s novel (on which the play I’m supposedly talking about is based). It was recommended to me by my now ex-girlfriend, who made it seem like a pretty awesome book. However, knowing that it had an autistic lead character made me hesitate about reading it. When I finally caved in, I found the novel to be one of the most entertaining books I’ve read.
I’ve heard people complain that the portrayal of autism and/or Asperger’s in the novel is not exactly the most accurate, but that is neither here nor there. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (the novel) was the proof that I could, after all, enjoy stories about people with mental disabilities. What’s important to know about the novel is that it is told by its lead character, Christopher, as a first-person account. We look at everything from his point of view, which means that while some aspects of his disability might be a little too cartoony, he is a complex character. He is not there to be cute, and for us to be heart-warmed by his quirky comments. He wants things, and most importantly, he is not oblivious about what happens around him. This is what was different between this story I liked and the many movies I detested. I didn’t necessarily dislike the subject, I disliked the fact that people didn’t seem to be able to tell good stories about it.
One of the interesting things about watching the novel transposed onto the stage, under the direction of Marianne Elliot, whose previous credits include the theatrical version of War Horse, is that it wants to present itself as much from Christopher’s point-of-view as the novel. To achieve this, the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theater has been transformed into a giant black cube, which is meant to represent Christopher’s mind, as drawings and graphics are projected onto its walls, simulating the thought process of the lead character. This creative design injects the show with an unlimited amount of energy, and it serves to create some of the loveliest stage images I have ever seen, including a beautiful moment in which Christopher dreams of flying through space.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a pretty fantastic theatrical experience, but the truth is that, as far as depictions of mental disabilities are concerned, it is on the minority. The most recent popular example of such a character is, after all, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. Now, Sheldon doesn’t officially have Asperger’s, but that is because that show wants to use the tropes and stereotypes about people that suffer from the syndrome, and apply them to a character without having to deal with the more serious issues that affect such a person. As the guys on Fighting in the War Room put it during their discussion, the show just wants to have Sheldon say socially unacceptable things and get away with it under the excuse of “he just doesn’t know better”.
Most other relatively recent portrayals of such characters have also been either too simplistic about the struggles of living under the circumstances of one of these conditions, too cutesy and romantic about the idea of a “purer” mind, or both. Examples of these are Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, or the independent romance Adam. I know that I’m putting a lot of different syndromes and conditions in one basket, but that’s because that is what Hollywood seems to be doing too. I guess that what I’m trying to say is that there is no need to be simplistic about these kinds of characters and their stories. We don’t have to be too sentimental, we don’t have to look at them and feel sorry. We should treat these characters as we treat any other, and with the respect that their struggle deserves.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a good example of how this can be achieved. Truth be told, Christopher is not the most nuanced character, but the play’s approach never feels presentational, or meaning for us to observe him like an experiment. We are meant to get into his mind not to think of how complicated or unfortunate his situation is, but simply to understand how his brain operates, and how we would approach the situation if we were him. And please don’t think that I’m saying that theater is a higher art and it has all the answers or some bullshit like that. As a matter of fact, some of the best examples of mentally challenged or disabled characters of the past decade have come from television. I’m talking, of course, about Abed (played by Danny Pudi) on Community, and Jewel (played by Geri Jewell) on Deadwood. Both are magnificent characters that show their show’s most humane, complex, and detailed eye towards storytelling.
So, please Hollywood, don’t make me believe that I don’t like people with mental disabilities. You can do better than this. You owe it to the subjects of your stories, and you owe it to your audiences. Oh, and of course, if you get the chance, don’t hesitate to get a ticket and go see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on Broadway.