I am not a theatre buff, so I won’t try to write a review of Judith Thompson’s play The Thrill, currently at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. It is a “what if” play, taking its inspiration, starting point, and much of its material from a New York TimesMagazine article by Harriet McBryde Johnson entitled “Unspeakable Conversations.” The 2003 article describes Johnson’s exchanges with Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer between 2001 and 2002, when she spoke at Princeton on assisted suicide.
In her article Harriet Johnson made a throw-away comment about her “head being turned” by Singer’s polite, respectful and appropriate behavior on their meeting at Princeton. The playwright spins out the scenario of “what if” the two fell in love.
In the first act, Thompson introduces Elora Dixon, a lawyer and disability rights activist with strong beliefs, smarts, southern style and the heart of a poet. Her personal assistant, Francis, is a devoted friend and counselor who shares her earthy sense of humour. Compared to Peter Singer, the character of Julian Summer is “more of a humble pop philosopher with one mega-hit book” who teaches at McGill University. Elora and Julian meet when he stops in Charleston, South Carolina to promote his book and visit his aging mother, Hannah. Julian’s book describes the short life of his youngest sister who died of a neuromuscular disease. Julian’s mother Hannah has mild dementia and is living with her daughter. Julian often uses the threat of sending her to a nursing home as a lever to force Hannah to behave.
The actor playing Elora does a very good job, but she does not have a disability. She is shown being spoon fed, having her hair brushed, and having her torso washed while clothed. All the same, my companion Liz Carr said the mostly non-disabled audience seemed withdrawn into their seats as they watched. Whether they were trying to avoid the subject of death, the frank talk about disability, or both, we couldn’t tell. The heavier topics were offset by laugh-lines delivered mostly by Elora, Francis and Hannah.
As the second act opens, Elora has had to accept a feeding tube, which she believes is the “beginning of the end” for her. Her doctors have told her she will lose her sight, her hearing then her mind before she dies; she does not question this. Though she is in love with Julian she still mistrusts his motives, and rejects him when he returns after his book tour. Meanwhile Julian decides his mother is a danger to herself and puts her in a nursing home, where she soon dies.
Afraid to face her worsening illness, Elora decides she wants to die. She asks Julian to “put his money where his mouth is” and kill her, by kissing her until she suffocates. Julian doesn’t want to do it but is eventually convinced because Elora claims it is “her choice.” He tries, but can’t go through with it, saying he loves her too much to do it. Elora decides to soldier on until the end with Francis at her side, sending Julian away for the last time.
In her essay about writing the play, Judith Thompson says she had a seizure disorder during adolescence, and wore the identity of “an epileptic.” And while it’s clear she admires Harriet Johnson, the play seems like it was written by someone whose understanding of disability rights is skin deep. We talked afterwards with someone involved with the production, who said that the group really struggled with the ending, and changed it many times.
Elora’s sudden desire to die seemed a truly bizarre choice (except when viewed from a non-disabled perspective), chock full of dangerous subtext. It reinforces the view of non-disabled people that somewhere deep inside, disabled people really hate their lives and want to die. Worse still, it suggests that disabled opponents of assisted suicide really think about assisted suicide exactly the way non-disabled people do.
I knew Harriet Johnson, who died in 2008, through phone meetings and her writings; I may have met her at one of the early Not Dead Yet actions, I’m not sure. I can’t speak for her. Like all people with disabilities who face constant oppression, she probably had moments of depression, frustration and rage which when turned inward, can become self-hatred and even a wish to be done with it all. I know those feelings, we all do. But it’s a long stretch between feeling worn out and defeated, and asking someone to kill you.
I also think that people who work against assisted suicide who become suicidal would kill themselves rather than asking someone else to do it for them. The distinction between suicide and assisted suicide seems lost on the playwright, who opts to have Elora betray the cause as soon as the issue touches her personally.
While it’s good for non-disabled people to see a character based on Harriet Johnson, (even if she’s a little over-the-top and short on substance) make the disability arguments against assisted suicide, the plot twist in the second half undermines the credibility of those arguments. In the end, it’s the non-disabled character’s unwillingness to go through with it that sets her straight, another tired plot device to show that people with disabilities can’t run their lives and need a non-disabled person to guide them. The play leaves me very worried about its effect of the play on non-disabled audiences.
The author refers to Not Dead Yet several times during the play, with an NDY banner on the back of Elora’s wheelchair, even showing her assaulting Julian with the chair during a demonstration. Ms. Thompson should have had the courtesy to contact NDY before borrowing the name and image, and to learn more about Harriet and NDY’s philosophy and tactics. NDY uses non-violent tactics and NDY activists do not use their wheelchairs to threaten anyone.
The Thrill is part of a larger “forum” within this year’s festival that features performances and discussions on the “right to die.” The only person with an identified disability involved in the forum is a workshop moderator. Alex Bulmer is a playwright with a visual impairment who is leading a panel discussion on August 15 entitled “writing about the right to die.” The forum is a perfect example of the problem with the debate on end-of-life issues – disabled people, whose lives are at stake, are not leading the discussion. – Amy Hasbrouck