The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is playing in a delightful production that you should see, if you can, at Round House Theatre in Bethesda. It is a mystery. It is a paean to the courage of children. And it’s the kind of show that – just for an ecstatically delusional moment or two – makes you think that it might actually be fun to dust off your Algebra II books and dive in.
People will tell you that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is about a boy with autism or Asperger Syndrome. (And the play will probably – appropriately – be used to help raise community awareness of and empathy for people who live with those diagnoses. And it will serve as an affirmation for the people who live with those challenges – and those who love and work with them – that at last they are being seen and can see a true likeness of themselves on stage.) But don’t believe that’s what the play is about. That’s all well and good, but in the play that’s – as the protagonist might say – just a metaphor. Like the Whale in “Moby Dick.”
“Some people say “citizen,” “patriot” or “consumer” when what they mean is cannon fodder. Some people say “democracy” when what they mean is capitalism. Some people say “people of color” when what they mean is Black people. Some people say special needs when what they mean is dumb.” – Gregory J. Ford
One of the myths I was raised on as a Black boy growing up in the United States of America in mid-20th century, was that when he was confronted about it by his father, George Washington’s conscience compelled him to confess that, indeed, he had cut down his father’s cherry tree. Washington is said to have confessed because he “could not tell a lie.” This play follows events in the life of a boy whose primary disability makes it so that he cannot tell a lie. Think George Washington. Or maybe better: Think Tiresias or Cassandra of ancient Greek drama fame. But with a Michael Jackson beat.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Round House Theatre closes December 22, 2019. Details and tickets
The boy, Christopher John Francis Boone, is out after midnight and discovers a dead dog that has been killed in his neighbor’s yard. The neighbor, thinking Christopher has killed her dog, calls the police. After he is released, Christopher decides to find out who really killed the dog and, at the urging of one of his teachers, he decides to write about it. The story he writes is the story we are seeing on stage.
If it is not about a person with Special Needs, then, what is this play about? Is it about the special efforts and attention it takes to educate people with Special Needs, to protect them from the exploitation and provide them access to spaces easily inhabited by able-bodied people (and whether these efforts add up to being Special Rights)? I don’t think so.
One of the things that I think it’s about how far people who are considered able will go – and when I say able, we might also think privileged – to hide what they are actually doing: the amount of deception they are willing to engage in for this purpose.
The people in this play engage in complex rituals of deception and self deception. What kept me reading the book and watching the play was the ongoing revelation of the sordid secrets, and narrow desperation of the lives of the normal, able-bodied people as they continued to be revealed by someone who “could not tell a lie.” Everyone seems to be complicit in maintaining secrecy – or privacy, if you will. It is one of the strengths of this production that early on in the play we become sensitive to the metaphors as our protagonist hears them and that everyone uses throughout the day and we begin to hear them as evasions and euphemisms in the same way the protagonist does. We begin to laugh at each evasion/metaphor and we learn to wait with our protagonist to hear the simple, unvarnished truth from the people he engages with.
Our protagonist informs us: “Metaphor is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. I think it should be called a lie.”
In addition to lying, everyone seems to be unwilling or unable to see what’s in front of them. Christopher complains: “Most people are lazy They never look at everything,” the way he does.
What is the purpose of this reluctance to look and see and of this effort at deception and self-deception (through the use of metaphor/ lying)? Deception. Deception. Maybe The Glass Menagerie is relevant here. It is also a play about someone with Special Needs and an able person engaging in complex rituals of self-deception in order to maintain the illusion of the rightness, normality and possibility of the “Southern way of life” – the gentility, the remembrance of the lost cause and its grandeur: the torture, oppression and exploitation of a group of people identified as being inferior, less than able.
When faced with the testimony of Christopher, who sees everything, who cannot tell a lie, and is determined to solve the mystery of who murdered a neighborhood dog, his neighbors respond by trying to return him to a locus of control. One neighbor cautions: “You be careful, young man.” “Shouldn’t you be talking to your father about this?” is the most often stated deflection/evasion. But Christopher’s father has forbidden him from trying to solve this mystery.
I wondered: What illusion(s) are the people in this play trying to maintain? What is everyone trying so hard not to see?
In The Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin reminds us that telling lies to your citizenry, “is the very definition of the betrayal of the social contract.” Indeed, this play paints a portrait of a family, a neighborhood, a country and a society in which trust has been compromised: a society that is ravaged by fear, helplessness, self-defeat, isolation and the inability or unwillingness to connect across difference. A society in which everything that is said is a metaphor – or in our protagonist’s words, a lie.
Some people say “citizen,” “patriot” or “consumer” when what they mean is cannon fodder. Some people say “democracy” when what they mean is capitalism. Some people say “people of color” when what they mean is Black people. Some people say special needs when what they mean is dumb.
The play has a happy ending: or at least a hopeful one. Since this is a mystery, I won’t reveal the details. Suffice it to say that the play offers us an ending in which wrongs that were done are truthfully owned, acknowledged and apologized for and a commitment is made to doing the work of reconciliation and re-establishing trust.
How about that for modeling a way in which we can face the future?