Drury Lane Theatre

Dramatic Effects: Terry F. Robinson Receives James L. Clifford Prize for Study of Deafness in British Theatre

Tanya Rohrmoser
Terry Robinson

History buffs, theatre lovers, and literary scholars alike are celebrating this award-winning research—and it’s good news for those working in Deaf studies as well. 

Terry F. Robinson, Associate Professor and Associate Chair in the Department of English & Drama recently received the 2023 James L. Clifford Prize from the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) for her article, “Deaf Education and the Rise of English Melodrama.”  

Robinson’s interdisciplinary study, published in the journal Essays in Romanticism (2022), is being touted for its “significant and pertinent contribution to the field.”  

We spoke with Professor Robinson on receiving this prestigious award—and, of course, had plenty of questions about her work. Read on to learn about the fast-growing fields of Deaf studies and disability studies in the Humanities, what surprises her students about studying this period, and how she sees the role of theatre as an agent of social change. 



OVPR: Can you tell us about your article? What does it reveal? 

Terry F. Robinson: My article centres the study of deafness in British theatre, showing how Deaf people and Deaf education played a crucial role in shaping the rise of melodrama—a sensational dramatic form that dominated nineteenth-century theatrical stages and influenced modern film and television. I reveal how two of the earliest melodramas, authored by Thomas Holcroft (1745-1809), draw directly upon the educational demonstrations of the Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée, founder of the first free, government-funded school for the Deaf—now, the L’Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris. The Abbé opened his school to visitors so that hearing people could witness Deaf students communicate via signes méthodiques (methodical signs), a gestural precursor to modern sign language. These demonstrations wowed spectators because they proved that thought and communication were possible without speech and that Deaf people have full mental capacity—facts now incontrovertible yet revelatory at the time. Holcroft’s melodramas translated these demonstrations for the English stage and, in doing so, brought the plight of Deaf and nonverbal peoples to a wider public. And because gestural expression was believed to be a more sincere and “natural” form of communication than the spoken word, it had political heft for Holcroft who, in the wake of the French Revolution, imagined the theatre, with its kindred emphasis gestural expression, as a space for enacting social reform. 


OVPR: The literature coming out of this period is often thought of as quite conservative, but work is being done that points to the progressive. Can you speak about that tension? 

TR: History is chock-full of authors who have moved the bar forward, and the period I study (ca. 1660-1830) is no exception. Such authors are fascinating not because they are “geniuses” or because their works are inherently “great”, but because they provide examples of human creativity and striving and illustrate efforts to see and make the world anew. Having said that, they are often not without flaws. Holcroft’s plays, for instance, while instrumental in transforming English drama and advancing public knowledge of Deaf people, also problematically romanticized and sentimentalized deafness and, on stage, displaced Deaf and nonverbal peoples with hearing and speaking actors who mimicked deafness and gestural communication—a practice we now call “cripping up.” When engaging with the stories people have told, even works of literature deemed influential or “great,” it's important to remember that we do not have to accept them unquestioningly but can unpack their qualities and contradictions. And there is value in doing so: in addition to developing critical thinking skills, analyzing past literatures in all their complexity (formal, thematic, socio-political) increases cultural and historical awareness, and can help us understand how we came to be where we are now. 


OVPR: This article began as a presentation on a disability studies roundtable. Could you please speak about that presentation and the direction that this research then took? Will you be expanding further on this work?  

TR: In that presentation, I analyzed eighteenth-century theatre reviews that praised actors for their “silent” eloquence—the ability to convey thought and feeling without words—and how that commentary was often linked to deafness and Deaf people. That work led to this article, which will also become a chapter in my forthcoming book, Reading the Acting Body on the Romantic Stage: Performance and Its Truth Effects, 1750-1830. I am now in the process of writing an article on deafness for The Oxford Handbook of Disability and Literatures in English: 1700-1900, edited by my colleague Essaka Joshua, and she and I are also collaborating on the creation of an edition of early nineteenth-century stage dramas about deafness with the aim of bringing Deaf studies centre stage in Romantic-period scholarship. 


OVPR: Journal articles are such a valuable way to share research and collaborate, and to work through ideas. Can you talk about the journal article as a form, and share why this award is meaningful?  

TR: You’re right. Journal articles are reflections of the state of a field—its current concerns, trends, and approaches—and are not written in a vacuum. Writing an article requires that an author draw upon and engage with the research of others and, in that way, participate in a conversation. Once drafted, an article is then peer reviewed, which means that scholars in the same field assess and respond to the ideas in it. Once an article is successfully reviewed, publication then renders it accessible to yet another, wider group of people. In this way, journal publishing at its best produces communal knowledge building.  

That my article has been voted “outstanding” is a true honour because, like scholarly publication itself, it is an endorsement from a community of scholars who believe that it deserves recognition and represents important work being done in the field. My hope is that the award will encourage even more people to read it, respond to it, and build on it. 


OVPR: On the subject of Deaf studies, disability studies, etc.: Is this part of a larger ongoing conversation taking place in the study of eighteenth-century culture across disciplines?  

TR: It is! Deaf studies and disability studies are fast growing fields in the Humanities, and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholarship is now teeming with publications by established and emerging scholars who work in these areas. This body of scholarship, like much new scholarship, is interested in re-envisioning traditional approaches to the period by showing how previously underrepresented peoples, communities, and perspectives are not peripheral but key to understanding its literatures and cultures. 


OVPR: What do you find draws students when studying this period? What are they particularly interested in? 

TR: My students are often struck by how “relevant” eighteenth- and nineteenth-century narratives are—by how much they still speak to us about art, human relations, and ongoing socio-cultural and political concerns. But these same students are fascinated not just by the similarities but by the differences between people now and then—in expression, in sentiment, and in values. They enjoy learning about how people lived and wrote about worlds both like and unlike ours. My students and I spend a lot of time engaging in mind-building discussions about those similarities and differences—about style, content, and meaning-making; about what has changed and what has not changed; and about what these kinds of discoveries can tell us today.   


OVPR: We'd love to hear what draws you to studying this period. What areas do you work on specifically?  

TR: The same thing, actually! I love learning about the past—about the concerns people had, the battles they fought, the cultures they inhabited, and the lives they created. I’m drawn especially to the way that people engaged with one another through literature, art, fashion, and performance. I began exploring these things in earnest as a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I was fortunate to learn from a group of fantastic eighteenth-century and Romantic-period scholars who were supportive of my interests. From there, I went on to build scholarly communities at the University of Oxford, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and the University of Michigan, where my interactions with mentors and peers enhanced my understanding of the period I study. Now, at the University of Toronto, I find myself in an ideal place to grow my thinking in conversations with colleagues and students who encourage and challenge me in the work I do. 


OVPR: What’s next for you in this (or another) research area?  

TR: I’m keen to continue my investigations into the theatre of the period—its actors, audiences, and impacts. I’ve just published The Visual Life of Romantic Theater, 1780-1830 (U Michigan Press, 2023), which features thirteen chapters by top scholars on the significance of theatrical visuality in an era of momentous social upheaval and aesthetic change. In addition to continuing to write about deafness and Deaf culture, I find myself thinking more and more about the role of the theatre as an agent of social change, and about the potential for theorizing and recovering the lived sensory experience of theatregoing in an age prior to recording technologies. For me, the future is exciting as I envision my work enhancing our knowledge of past worlds and ways of being.