"The past is valid only in relation to whether the present recognizes it"
This quotation comes from Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, one of the short-stories in a collection by the white South African writer Nadine Gordimer, which was published in 2007. It demonstrates how differing interpretations of the past can easily become a politicized battleground. A new chamber opera which looks at disability history through a highly politicized lens demonstrates both the pitfalls and the possibilities of this approach. The Paradis Files was created by Graeae Theatre Company and tells the story of Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824), an Austrian composer and pianist who went blind at around the age of three, and who wrote at least five operas, two cantatas, fifteen keyboard works, several songs and a piano trio. Graeae was founded in 1980 by the disabled actor Nabil Shaban, specifically to counter prejudices and popular myths about disabled people. It was named after the Graeae of Greek mythology - three sisters named Deino (dread), Enyo (horror), and Pemphredo (alarm) who shared an eye and a tooth between them.
Figure 1 - The three sisters Graeae with one eye and one tooth. Credit: https//www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Monsters/Graeae/Graeae.html”>Graeae:
GreekMythology.com</a> - May 16, 2022.
According to its website,
Graeae is a force for change in world-class theatre, boldly placing Deaf and disabled actors centre stage and challenging preconceptions.
A series of unfortunate events
I conceive of a site of memory as encompassing not only the specific geographic location of a historical event but also the assemblage of cultural artifacts that accumulate around it over time (ibid.).
Literature plays a particularly important role in this dynamic process as a singularly self-reflexive medium of memory that foregrounds questions of representation and respresentability (ibid.).
Must constantly assert themselves in the face of the dominant memory culture, particularly when the latter becomes politicized and instrumentalised in the interest of hegemony (ibid.).
Cutting, bleeding, heating and freezing!
The psychological relationship between a physician and his chronic patients is a difficult one…Medicine is a science, and…both doctor and patient must believe in the power of the doctor. The chronic patient challenges this belief (Gallagher 1990: 199).
At the end of the nineteenth century, the fledgling specialty of orthopaedic medicine was unable to do much to relieve its paralysed and deformed patients. …It prescribed an array of bizarre braces, casts, and confining devices, hideous and tortuous, with which to torment what it could not cure (ibid.).
The Germans are not ‘different’ from the Americans in any critical sense … How they treated their insane, handicapped and retarded during the Third Reich was certainly extreme behavior – tragic and appalling – but it was not inconsistent with patterns of social behavior that can be traced throughout the history of the disabled throughout the centuries. The German physicians actually acted on the basis of feelings which are common, to a greater or lesser degree, to most men and women in most societies (ibid: 24).
I also remember you bringing in ping pong balls and various sharp things … demonstrating the scenes of torture she [Paradis] had to go through…It is an all too familiar narrative with disabled people, the need to ‘fix’ us. I was sent away to be ‘cured’ but I was completely okay with being Deaf (ibid.).
A modern-day audience can easily distance itself from the events of the Second World War and deny any responsibility.
The present as a substitute for the past
This man should be in prison (ibid.).
The other thing we all loved was the mother-daughter relationship…Throughout history and still today, women are ‘blamed’ for having a disabled child…Hilde was desperately trying to navigate the world for Theresia, to protect her, but she failed her in many ways (The Paradis Files 3: In Conversation).
Softely, R. (2008) Review of Nabil Shaban, The First to Go. Disability Arts Online.