The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway has been a tremendous success. Seven Olivier Awards is an impressive haul. There are good reasons for this, and all involved rightly deserve applause for their work.
This is a play about an autistic fifteen-year old. The original novel was written by a non-autistic, and the stage adaptation was completed by a non-autistic. The director isn’t autistic either. That’s fine—people write and direct works outside their immediate personal lived experience all the time. This is fiction, not an instructional video we’re dealing with. The objective is to reveal and explore possibilities and truths.
The lead actor, Alex Sharp, is not autistic either. Even that is not a major problem, though I can feel many others from the autistic community flinch at those words. Alex is a professional actor, and a fine one at that, whose job is to play the part of individuals with life experiences outside his own, and he is doing a good job.
It may fairly be asked, then, why so many within the autistic community feel deep unease at the prospect of a non-autistic playing an autistic role. Some hold the opinion that not using an autistic actor is in some way not fair; others suggest that this play is an opportunity to make a statement of some sort about autistic capabilities or autistic rights. However this is a play, not propaganda. What matters is touching some truth, revealing that truth to the audience, and giving them something that enriches their understanding of the human experience in all its diversity.
The consensus opinion, though, seems to be a feeling that it is not proper in some way for the part to be played by a non-autistic. That seems to touch on a desire for not just authenticity, but a deeper truth. Let’s turn that into a question.
Is it appropriate for a non-autistic to play the part of an autistic?
A parallel which has been suggested more than once, and which puts this question somewhat into perspective, is this: Is it appropriate for a white actor to wear black-face makeup to play a black character?
In both cases there are life experiences that make an actually autistic and an actually black actor better suited to playing the role in question. More than that, though, there is the simple issue of credibility. We expect a black character to be played by a black actor. We do not expect an autistic character to be played by an autistic actor, however, and we should be asking why. There is no doubt that this situation hasn’t arisen often so we should not be surprised that there is no clear precedent to refer to, but the question remains.
Another question which has been asked: Can an autistic act? The flippant response is that we have to act every day, just to get by in a world designed for other people. A better answer may be that some autistics can act, just as some neurotypical people can act. Most cannot, much as most neurotypicals cannot. Daryl Hannah is probably the best-known example of an autistic actor, but there is also Lizzy Clarke who is believed to be the first autistic to play an autistic character, in the BBC’s dramatization of Dustbin Baby.
Let’s ask some more questions. What is the play about? Playwright Simon Stephens has described the play as a way of revealing the thoughts and memories of Christopher as he retells his story. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a play about Christopher’s mind, not about Christopher. This is important.
Simon Stephens has spoken of the distinction he sees between writer and playwright. He notes—correctly—that a playwright should speak of having wrought a play. He emphasises the shaping and crafting—the giving of form to the process by which characters move through experiences and events, striving towards their objective. By doing so he has defined a fundamental difference in how he, as a wright, and the novel’s author Mark Haddon, as a writer, think about and experience the story. It is the same story, presented differently, and that directly shapes the experience for the audience. This, too, is important.
What Christopher experiences is dependent on how his brain works, and his brain is wired differently than most peoples’ brains. In fact, his whole nervous system is different. The mix of different nerve types, the strength of the signal they send to his brain, and how those signals interact is different. That, essentially, is what being autistic is all about. The “autistic experience” is something distinct, it is something which at a very fundamental level, is indescribably Other.
How do you explain the difference between the feeling of nauseating yellow light and waxy-textured blue light on skin? Or how they change subtly at night compared to the daytime? What words should be used to describe feeling the electromagnetic field of fluorescent light (“awful” is a good start) as opposed to that of a TV on standby? How do you give someone a sense of the spiraling silent spark and crackle of thoughts as they flit around each other—or the intensity of joy or distress their dance brings, or the overwhelming seismic internal roiling caused by a bustling city street? Certainly anyone can read those words and imagine what that may be like, but there is no shared frame of reference here—those words may be evocative, but they fall far short of the actuality.
Simon Stephens has created an exceptional play. The big box works wonderfully. But there is a neurotypical actor playing the part of an autistic, and that autistic is the central character. If the actor, his movement, his expressions, his words, and tone were not significant to the process of telling this tale of one autistic’s experience, we could dispense with him altogether and let the screens do their thing. Clearly that will not work: we need that actor. We also need that actor to be “true.”
It is my considered opinion, from an autistic perspective, that that trueness cannot be achieved by anyone who has not directly experienced it. Simon Stephens’ playwright mind was necessary to create this play in a way a novelist (or a wheelwright) could not. Similarly, it takes an autistic mind to truly represent an autistic character in a way a neurotypical mind simply cannot. That autistic mind is central to the play.
Some people will read this and have lingering doubts. That doubt is exactly my point. There is no shared frame of reference. From an autistic viewpoint this is not in doubt. I am asking people to take a step into the unknown, just as Christopher did.