Chapter 24. A Performance of Special Education Meetings: Theatre of the Absurd

Jessica Lester and Rachael Gabriel

Jessica Lester holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Jamestown College in North Dakota, and a master's of education degree in special education from the University of Mary in North Dakota, where she also taught in middle school and special-education classrooms. At present she is a doctoral candidate in the Applied Educational Psychology program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, while also working with pre-service teachers. Her research focuses on the social, cultural, and historical understandings of disabilities and inclusive pedagogies.

Rachael Gabriel holds a bachelor's degree in english and psychology from the University of Rochester, and a master of arts in teaching from American University in Washington DC, where she taught middle-school English. She is a doctoral candidate in literacy studies in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her research focus includes supports for struggling adolescent readers, innovations in teacher preparation and development, and exploring the sources and effects of education policy.

With this quote, “What do I know of man's destiny? I could tell you more about radishes,” Samuel Beckett evokes the spirit of the theatre of the absurd (Esslin, 1961); a dramatic tradition focused on that which is constructed as absurd, specifically in terms of language use and the ways in which plot is constructed and theatrical conventions challenged. After World War II, a group of playwrights including Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Tom Stoppard, and Harold Pinter, among others, wrote plays in a particular absurdist style called the Theatre of the Absurd (Esslin, 1961). This style of theatre took up the philosophy of existentialism and the notion that human existence has no meaning or purpose; thus, communication inevitably breaks down. Plots in absurdist plays, often takes an illogical, circular, or repetitive structure, as do the lines of the individual characters. For example, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a well-known example that follows the tradition of the theater of the absurd, has a series of repeated phrases, characters who talk to each other without having a clearly cohesive conversation, and a plot that ends where it begins. Further, one of the features commonly associated with this style is that of experimentalism. Pirandello, for example, famously challenged the dramatic convention of the “fourth wall”—the suspension of disbelief involved in imagining an invisible wall separating the audience from the world of the stage, as though the audience is behind a fourth wall.

Though Pirandello wrote in the earlier part of the 1900s, his work is considered a precursor to the Theatre of the Absurd style, as it pioneered many of the techniques playwrights used to challenge theatrical conventions. Characters in his work were often created as stereotypical, archetypal, or composites; language was repetitious or nonsensical; and plots had nontraditional structures. In Pirandello’s 1921 play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, character names invoke archetypes (Father, Manager, Mother, Stepdaughter, Son, etc.), and the characters themselves take over the play from the director, arguing with him about the story that should and will (eventually) be told. With a hope to transgress convention in our own production and representation of research findings, we were drawn to all the theatre of the absurd offered, as it eschewed the theatrical conventions of actor versus director, “real” life versus play, and the notion of stock or archetypal characters. Ultimately, Pirandello’s play served as a mentor text for us as we constructed a performative text around what we oriented to as absurd and nonsensical in our research—where we noted problematized boundaries between archetypes, official versions of ability and dis/ability, and unexamined assumptions.

More particularly, we came to this work as educators and qualitative researchers engaged in an ongoing project focused on the experiences of individuals who participate in the special education meetings that ultimately result in the naming of a child as dis/abled (Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, 2000). Situating our understanding of dis/ability within a social-relational model of disability (Thomas, 2004), we view dis/ability as a social construct, which often functions as a “form of oppression involving the social imposition of restrictions of activity on people with impairments and the socially engendered undermining of their psycho-emotional wellbeing” (Thomas, 1999, p. 60). While not denying the reality of bodily impairments, for us the notion of “disability” comes into play when a restriction is placed on one’s activities or way of being. As such, for the purposes of this project, we aimed to problematize the very practice of labeling one’s way of being dis/abled, particularly learning disabled (LD). We named such technical practices a “theatre of the absurd” in hopes of conveying, at least partially, the inexplicable universes that exist in many special education meetings and in much of what we as qualitative researchers examined.

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Key readings

Bial, H. (Ed.) (2004). The performance studies reader. London: Routledge.

Beckett, S (1974) First love and other shorts. New York: Grove.

Bochner, A. P., & Ellis, C. (2003). An introduction to the arts and narrative research: Art as inquiry. Qualitative Inquiry, 9(4), 506-514.

Clifford, J., & Marcus, G. E. (1986). Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Conquergood, D. (1989). Review essay. Poetics, play, process, and power: The performative turn in anthropology. Text and Performance Quarterly, 1, 82-95.

Conquergood, D. (1998). Beyond the text: Toward a performative cultural politics. In S. J. Dailey (Ed.), The future of performance studies: visions and revisions (pp. 25-36). Washington, DC: National Communication Association.

Denzin, N. K. (2003). Performance ethnography: Critical pedagogy and the politics of culture. London: Sage.

Ellis, M. (1965). Absurd drama. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.

Madison, D. S. (2008). Narrative poetics and performative interventions. In N. K. Denzin, Y.S. Lincoln, & L. T. Smith (Eds.), Handbook of critical and indigenous methodologies, (pp. 391-405). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Roberts, B. (2008). Performative social science: A consideration of skills, purpose and context. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 9(2), Art. 58, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0802588.