Friday, March 3, 2017

'It's not just for Joey, it's for a better world'

By Louise Kinross

British director Stephen Unwin is set to direct his new play All Our Children—about a German clinic in 1941 that sends disabled children to their death as part of the Nazis' killing program. BLOOM interviewed Stephen in 2013 about his role directing Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, a 1967 comedy about parenting a child with profound disabilities. Both plays strike close to home because Stephen’s son Joey, 20, has intractable epilepsy, severe learning disabilities and no speech. All Our Children will run April 26 to June 3 at the Jermyn St. Theatre in London. Stephen recently became chair of KIDS, a British charity that provides services to young people with disabilities from birth to age 25. BLOOM spoke to Stephen about All Our Children.

BLOOM: Why did you decide to write this play?

Stephen Unwin: My mom is German Jewish. She was born Jewish in Nazi Germany and came to Britain at age three. So at the back of my mind the Holocaust was always something in the environment. I read a huge number of books about that period and how that catastrophe happened. I was brought up Catholic in Britain, and although I’m an atheist who believes in science, I do have some respect for what the best of the religion Catholicism does when it tries to help the vulnerable. I was reading a book about the Third Reich and I came across something about a bishop who had opposed the murder of the disabled. It struck a chord in me. I thought this is so interesting because it brought together my German Jewish background, my Catholic background and the issues I face with my son Joey.

BLOOM: What is the play about?

Stephen Unwin: It’s set in a pediatric clinic for disabled children in 1941. Before the Nazis, the clinic tried to house and help the profoundly disabled. With the implementation of the eugenics program,  a number of the kids were taken each week by bus to Hadamar, one of the killing centres.

The clinic is run by a pediatrician in his 50s who’s dealing with a world gone completely mad. He thinks he’s a doctor not a murderer. He has a maid who’s a Catholic with three children. She doesn’t know the clinic children are being murdered, but she’s glad her kids are ‘normal.’ 

There’s a Nazi administrator who’s 22, who views disabled people as disgusting, and the mother of one of the disabled children. The mother turns up in Act 1 to thank the doctor for looking after her child so well, and then in Act 2 comes back with a letter saying her child has died. She’s the emotional punch of the play. She’s feeling her way to realizing what's happening.

The other character was a real person, the Catholic Bishop of Münster, Clemens August Graf von Galen. He belonged to one of the oldest aristocratic families in Germany. He was one of the real heroes in the battle for the rights of the disabled. He impressively comes up with sermons in which he says ‘You cannot kill the most vulnerable. These people are our brothers and sisters.’ 

At the end, the mother discovers what's happening and she says ‘They are all our children, there’s nothing special, they’re just children,’ which is what I think. We have to move beyond the normal and abnormal characterization. And what I really feel is that the religious come up with an answer of sorts, and those of us who aren’t religious need to find our own version of that answer. This is a philosophical play talking about how do we secure our moral foundations?

The main defense of the Nazis was ‘these people are too expensive.’ I sometimes find myself talking to myself about Joey, and yes, he’s really expensive, and will never earn any money or pay tax, but that’s, I guess, why you and I pay tax. So that when people have a disability like Joey, or develop dementia or lung cancer, we have a responsibility to these people with extreme vulnerability.

The play is quite particular, in that it’s got a bit of atmosphere about that terrible, dark place, but I actually hope and want it to speak to now. Not to say that disabled kids are being treated like that, they’re not. It’s a different set of issues, but some of the thinking is parallel. I actually touch on the philosopher Peter Singer’s writing, his idea that my dog has as many abilities as one of your profoundly disabled children, so why do we give the child rights when we don’t give the dog rights? And some of the Nazi thinking resonates with what we’re hearing today in the U.K. about disabled people being scroungers, that they’re not really disabled.

BLOOM: What is it like to be recreating a time when your own child would have been killed because of his disability?

Stephen Unwin: People who know Joey will recognize some of Joey in the child, Stephan, in the play. I wanted to bring a kind of reality to it. There’s a moment when the doctor signs off on 30 kids being taken away to be killed, and he looks at each piece of paper with a photograph and says ‘yes,’ tick, tick, tick, and then ‘no, he’s not ready yet.’ I want an audience to remember and feel that this is an individual, not a category, and to do that I need to think about my son Joey in that situation.

The Nazis used to talk about how these were mercy killings, and that anyway, the child wouldn’t know what was happening. It’s a terrible truth to say this, but if Joey was put into one of those buses and taken off he wouldn’t know what was happening, and he wouldn’t even be scared, because he likes buses. That’s the truth, and we have to bear witness to this extreme vulnerability and we absolutely have a responsibility to these people.

I got fed up with the narrative in disability, and in disability dramas like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, of ‘don’t worry, these people are mathematical geniuses.’ That narrative of consolation has dangers, and is as dangerous as a narrative of catastrophe. These are real people. Joey isn’t a metaphor. The disabled were taken as a metaphor for everything Germany hated – weakness, vulnerability and ‘ugliness’—and it has to be done away with.

I’ll probably cry a lot in rehearsals, but I’ve been working in the theatre for 35 years, so it’s not like someone doing it for the first time.

BLOOM: I know that sometimes I find it emotionally exhausting to write about some of the popular thinking about disability. I just wrote a piece about Peter Singer’s latest writing.

Stephen Unwin: It is emotionally exhausting. But the way my brain works, it’s part of clarifying what I think. I’m trying to understand what the issues are, trying to work it all out. And working it carefully out is weirdly, for me, part of recognizing and accepting and acknowledging the challenges. I live a life full of books and words and ideas, and then there’s Joey, who isn’t books and words and ideas. And I want to find a way of bringing those two things together. I think it’s our duty. I feel Joey needs a spokesman and in all the complicated ways I exist, I feel a real duty to be his spokesman. And it’s not just for Joey, it’s for the other kids like Joey. Some of those kids have parents who don’t have English as a first language. It’s not just for Joey, it’s for a better world.