Woodcut or engraving showing blind characters in historicl garments standing and sitting amidst the trees of a forest
An engraving of the blind characters waiting in the forest, by Nicholas Roerich (1906).

Lera Auerbach’s The Blind (1994) is based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s one-act play Les aveugles (1890).

The story features twelve nameless characters, referred to only as ‘the oldest blind man’, ‘a young blind man’, ‘a mad blind woman’, and so on.

Having lost their guide, the priest, the blind characters ponder his whereabouts with increasing anxiety. The audience knows throughout that the priest is dead, and so the piece creates dramatic tension as we watch their quandary unfold. You can find an English translation of the play’s text here.

Maeterlinck prioritises ambience and character over plot, creating an arresting drama of waiting and wondering. The play is a symbolist study of the human condition, where blindness serves as a metaphor for disempowerment.

This is a prime example of narrative prosthesis, in that the plot relies on the helplessness of the blind characters for dramatic effect. Moreover, the characters are waiting to return to an asylum, where they are excluded from ‘normal’ life and unable to contribute to the fabric of society. Such details might be justified given the historical and cultural backdrop against which Maeterlinck wrote his play.

A poster for the 2013 performance of the blind, music by lera auerbach, directed by john la bouchardiere. A black and white image of a woman’s face, half of her face is obscured by shadow and her eyes are covered by a white strip with the words ‘the blind’ in a blurred font.
A poster for the 2013 performance of ‘the blind’, music by Lera Auerbach, directed by John la Bouchardière. Over a black and white image of a woman’s face, half-obscured by shadow, a white strip is torn away with the words ‘the blind’ in a blurred font.

Lera Auerbach’s ‘a capella opera’, based on the play, is a 60-minute work for twelve singers, with no instrumental accompaniment. The work was directed by John La Bouchardière for the Lincoln Center Festival in 2013.

This particular production was described as a ‘multi-sensory performance installation’. The event promised to ‘redefine the boundaries between audience and performer, bringing theatregoers a heightened experience of opera and all of its possibilities’. The announcement was accompanied by this caveat:

“Please note: As an intrinsic element of this production, the audience will be blindfolded for the duration of the performance.”

Petra Kuppers writes about these kinds of disability ‘simulations’ in ‘The Wheelchair’s Rhetoric‘:

“Even supposedly educative disability simulations are problematic. In these exercises, nondisabled people get to wheel around in a wheelchair for an hour, or are blindfolded. These performances of disability show more about nondisabled differently-adapted bodies than about the ‘real’ situation of an experienced wheelchair user, or a visually impaired person navigating her world. Instead of bringing a wheelchair user’s or a blind person’s life nearer and showing it as a dignified life full of potential and specialized skills, many simulation exercises merely reinforce negative stereotypes of disabled people as victims. These simulations provide experiential evidence that being a ‘real’ disabled person means being every day in the frustrating position that a nondisabled person first using a chair or being blindfolded usually experiences when faced with a steep ramp, with nonautomatic doors, or with insufficient audio or textural clues to her world.”

Disability simulation exercises are widely critiqued in disability studies scholarship. When integrated into theatre, the questions raised about such practices are complicated by the parameters of performance.

Lit dimly in blue, a blonde guide with a headset leads a blindfolded person to their seat
Lit dimly in blue, a blonde guide with a headset leads a blindfolded audience member to their seat. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Not surprisingly, the production amassed criticism regarding its use of disability simulation.

The critic for the New York Times wrote ‘…I did not like the implication that in order to enter into an experimental opera, I had to handicap myself artificially […] If the music had been compelling and original, I would have been drawn in with no resistance. But then I would not have needed a blindfold.’

William Peace of the Bad Cripple blog referred to the performance as an example of ‘ableism run amuck’ and ‘intellectual masturbation’.

Elsewhere, the disability advocate and poet Stephen Kuusisto suggested that ‘[t]he blind are less powerful than the organized deaf, less apparent than wheelchair racers, and since blindness is a low incidence disability its easy to talk about us without hearing an informed response’.

As far as I can tell, neither Auerbach or La Bouchardière responded to criticism about the use of disability simulation in the production. The composer did suggest that some critics had ‘missed the point’. Apparently the work is not about actual blindness, but instead, it is ‘a metaphor for our nearsighted existence’.

In another interview, however, she said this:

“Physical disability as a metaphor is a subject of discussion in our politically correct times, but book burning may also be frowned upon by those who care about an open society. If we were to rewrite literary masterpieces with the eraser of a politically correct censor, we would end up in a castrated and culturally sightless world.”

Inside an opera hall corridor, a guide offers blindfolds to a crowd of amused operagoers
Inside an opera hall corridor, a guide offers blindfolds to a crowd of amused operagoers.

On the one hand, I do agree that censoring works that include insensitive representations of disability doesn’t provide much of a solution. This is particularly complicated when such works already exist in the canon of literature/music. But productions such as this run the risk of perpetuating and even aggravating negative stereotypes.

In a review of the play at the Vortex Theater Company in 2005, David Kornhaber suggested that ‘To present the drama unchanged is to exploit a damaging stereotype of the helpless blind man or woman for the purposes of dramatic tension’.

The question of censoring works that include negative representations of disability is a complicated one. In opera, if we were to do so, half of the canon would be off-limits. As Kornhaber implies, perhaps altering texts is the answer, though I think this is a post for another time…

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