The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: an opinion by Richard Long

Magnificent.

That’s my one word review.  If you want a more detailed critical analysis of the play’s many virtues (the few shortcomings can be filed in the nit-picky drawer), check out Ben Brantley’s New York Times review. I agree with his assessment almost point for point, though I was offended by some of his phrasing, like his description of Christopher, the play’s teenage autistic protagonist as: “a parent’s nightmare.”

That aside, Brantley does a wonderful job describing the exceptional direction, lighting, set design, sound design, choreography, and tour de force acting of Alex Sharp in the role of Christopher. Plus, there’s a great slide show! And a video!

What can I add to the conversation? Well, I’m the father of a soon-to-be-teenage autistic girl, an avid theatergoer, extremely opinionated, harshly critical and always correct. Most pertinently, I’m a person.

One of the things that bugs me about many fictional works with autistic characters is the implied or stated assertion that a specific autistic character represents all autistic people. When Christopher says he thinks that “metaphor” is nonsense early in the play, I admit that I rankled a bit, thinking something along the lines of: Oh, so this playwright thinks all autistic people think and talk with absolute literalism! Emma clearly loves metaphor and uses it very skillfully! Then I clamped down on my kneejerk reaction and recognized that the author was telling Christopher’s truth, not Emma’s. Christopher was a person.

In or out of the theater, I’m really annoyed by the ASD label and the gross misrepresentations of autistic people with cookie cutter characteristics which are total nonsense, particularly when used to define a group comprised of millions of individuals: Lack of empathy and compassion. Literal thinking. I could just as easily write an essay describing the “symptoms” of NASD (Non-Autistic Spectrum Disorder): self-obsessed, easily bored, oblivious to their surroundings, ruthlessly ambitious (or woefully apathetic), etc. etc. etc.

Given the amount of buzz this play is generating, I’m certain most people in the audience knew that the main character was autistic. What assumptions were packed in their bias baggage when they walked in the theater? What new assumptions were bulging out the sides when they walked out? Did they go away thinking Christopher was Autism personified, the spectrum poster boy? I have no idea. Did they automatically assume that the characters of Christopher’s father and mother represented every father of every autistic kid? I certainly hope not.

My own bias baggage was bursting at the seams before the play began. I was hoping for the best (a dear and very generous friend had given us the tickets and I wanted to rave about how wonderful it was) but I braced myself for the worst: the usual onslaught of tired and untrue generalizations about autism. I was very pleasantly surprised that the words “autism” and “autistic” were never spoken by any character. The audience is told that Christopher is in a special-education type school, but there are no teachers or doctors hammering home his diagnosis.

I was relieved that many of my “autistic cliché” buttons remained unpushed, yet there were some scenes that were especially difficult for me, like when Christopher ridicules the non-speaking and more severely disabled kids in his class, calling them “stupid” and “lazy.” I found that very upsetting, since Emma would be one of the kids he underestimates in such a demeaning way. However, I was able to see that viewpoint as Christopher’s truth (or the author/playwright projecting himself into Christopher’s character), which made it less personally offensive. It did hurt to hear things like that, but the pain I experienced was much less than the anguish I felt when Christopher learns how deeply his father has betrayed him.

As the parent of an autistic person, the scenes of Christopher’s journey to London by himself were the most harrowing. Looking back now, I wonder if my experience was really so much different than others in the audience. Perhaps some of them were also parents of autistics, and knew firsthand how terrifying it is to lose sight of your child in a crowd, knowing he or she will be overwhelmed and/or confused by sensory bombardment, or worse, that your child will be unable to speak well enough to tell anyone who their parents are, or where they live.

I’m quite sure that many of the audience members were parents of non-autistics. Maybe they also knew how terrifying it was to lose their children, even though their kids didn’t have sensory or speech issues. And even if they had never experienced that kind of loss as parent, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine it. A lost child is every parent’s worst nightmare (not having an autistic child, Mr. Brantley).

I doubt that this type of situation would be difficult to imagine for people who weren’t parents at all, and never will be. Haven’t we all had a childhood experience of being lost and alone? Don’t we still fear it as adults?

I’m not sure whether these distinctions between audience members really matter, outside of one’s ability to openly experience the inner lives and outward circumstances of the characters. All the characters in this and every well-written play represent some aspect of our shared humanity. Most people can relate in some way to well-drawn characters (even the monsters), because their essential humanity or lack of humanity speaks to our own felt and imagined worlds.

It is mentioned on a few occasions in the play that Christopher, “doesn’t like to be touched.” As Emma’s father, I know how painful it feels to not be able to hug Emma when she’s crying after an injury or upset. I want to comfort her (and myself, if I’m being honest). But Emma doesn’t want me to hug her like that. It makes her feel even more distressed. So yes, I felt that pain acutely every time it happened in the play–and it happened a lot. But again, I suspect that people who never had a parenting experience like mine felt a high degree of empathy (with both Christopher and his parents) when he pushed away his too-huggy mother and father.

One of my favorite recurring elements in the play was a tender hand-touching-hand routine between Christopher and his parents. It was clear that they had developed this interaction as a means of conveying their mutual love, concern, understanding and trust. I wonder what our world would be like if we were obliged to communicate without words when we were hurt or upset–where only a simple, silent pressing of palm against palm had to convey all our thoughts and emotions. I suspect it would be a helpful improvement, at least for us “talkers,” as Emma refers to non-autistic people like myself.

I so often get into trouble with words. Yet as a writer, as well as a person, spoken language is my primary communication toolbox. Emma has said that she doesn’t think in words. I still don’t fully understand what that means, how Emma really does think, or perceive the world, but I imagine it’s more like Christopher than myself.

“I see everything!” Christopher exclaims on the train to London, as scenes of the countryside flash by in the windows. Then he describes everything he sees at an accelerating pace, building to a crescendo of overwhelming sound, light and sensation. Fortunately for all of us, theater isn’t limited to words. Nor was the playwright Simon Stephens and the director Marianne Elliott, who did a spectacular job of utilizing every aspect of the form, to not only entertain, but to touch us as deeply and intimately as two palms pressed silently together.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, TheEthel Barrymore Theatre

17 responses to “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: an opinion by Richard Long

  1. Sounds interesting. I wish with stuff about autistic people they would explicitly state this character is autistic without using nine million stereotyoes such as in the autistic lesbian werewolf book i must finish.

    • I think there’s value to both approaches Cranky. In this case, it was a plus for me that they let Christopher define himself, since the book was also written in a first-person perspective. In the fictional book I’m writing, the story is told from the first-person perspective of an autistic girl’s non-autistic teenage brother and I found it much more fitting that he says she’s autistic.

  2. great review, Richard. As you were concerned that audience members would assume all fathers were like the one in the production, I was infuriated by the mother’s self involvement and seeming inability to behave in the way her son, so obviously needed her to.
    I loved the production and thought they did a wonderful job. And yes, it was a relief to see an Autistic person handled in a way that was not just a lot of stereotypical behaviors.

  3. I wonder how much it differs from the book, which I had my feelings on at the time – years ago now. Have either of you read it?

    • No, none of us have, though our son was given it for his high school english class.
      What did you think of it?

      • Ah, well…at the time, it wasn’t something that seemed very representative of our kids. The author was a teacher (I think), who had worked with special needs kids, and the book, I thought, was rife with those stereotypes and presumptions. The beauty of rewriting it into a play, I suppose, gives the story a chance to be given a better hand. I’m being polite about the book, mind you…but I wonder who else here has read it?

  4. I enjoyed your comments more than I might have enjoyed the play itself! Thanks for sharing.

  5. I think in the book the intent was to show that we are all flawed and frail and needing support – and we all have our strengths, our unique gift. It’s really a beautiful story if you look at the big picture. If you left the production feeling the mother was a bad parent then the book wasn’t portrayed as well as it should have been.

    • Completely agree Lisa, I too have read the book. In fact it sits by my nightstand to revisit when I like.
      The book definitely portrays the vulnerability and flaws in all of us. Definitely recommend reading the book.

      Great review though Richard xx

  6. I agree with much of what Richard says. I have not yet seen the Broadway production, but it sounds similar to the London one, which I saw in HD broadcast.

    I read this book nearly 10 years ago, and it is what started me on the search for my identity, since I identified so strongly with Christopher. Discovering that I am autistic has been a wonderful and transformative process. This story will always have a special place in my heart, despite any shortcomings it may have.

  7. I hope the play comes out to California. It was one of the first books recommended to me to read as we entered the world of diagnosis and treatment.

  8. Richard thank you so much for this excellent review. Have been thinking of going to see this in NY, appreciate the time you took for it!

  9. I did not like the book because of the rather stereotypical presentation and it was written in a linguistic style that my own brain just could not engage pleasantly with (sorry at this stage of verbal-breakdown, I am unable to articulate with much clarity why), and I have not experienced the stage version. However, I have heard so many good reviews about the latter, especially the artistry of the effects. I would love to someday see this – thanks for an honest and insightful review, Richard.

  10. Mark Haddon, the writer of the book says that Christopher isn’t autistic, says he knows nothing about autism and did no research into it, says he wishes that the word “autism” had never appeared on the book jacket, and says that “Christopher is just Christopher”.

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