Challenge 572 Response
Disability and Comedy
with Sherman Smith
In Sherman Smith’s “A Blind Man and a Clown,” Stub Wilcox has an unnamed neurological disorder. Is any character in Two Blind Men and a Fool not handicapped in some way?
[Sherman S.] Stub Wilcox has Tourette’s Syndrome. It is not named directly because in the 1940’s it was more often diagnosed as a form of mental illness not clearly understood. I elected not to use the symptoms often shown in movies, e.,g. uncontrolled swearing; I gave Stub some tics as well as a sound-induced uncontrolled reflex. When Earl hits a certain key on the piano Stub’s arms flies up.
Vocal tics are actually manifestations of motor tics that involve the muscles required for vocalization. Simple vocal tics include stuttering, stammering, abnormal emphasis of part of a word or phrase, and inarticulate noises such as throat clearing, grunts, and high-pitched sounds.
Complex vocal tics typically involve the involuntary expression of words. Perhaps the most striking example of this is coprolalia, the involuntary expression of obscene words or phrases, which occurs in fewer than one-third of people with Tourette’s Syndrome. The involuntary echoing of the last word, phrase, sentence or sound vocalized by oneself (phalilalia) or of another person or sound in the environment (echolalia) are also classified as complex tics.
Why is Stub in the story?
As I approached the end of the novel I knew that there had to be a final showdown between Stella and Elroy. Earl and Stella have become too endearing to harm, and yet Elroy demands his pound of flesh.
Our favorite blind man can’t take out a bad guy twice in one novel — make that three times. And Ivory still needs validation as a character. Thus, Stub was created as a sympathetic character, designed to be likeable from the start.
The characters even take a moment to laugh at themselves. Stub has one real purpose in the novel to take the bullet from Elroy. Stub’s being shot by Elroy without warning is almost as emotionally powerful as having either Earl or Stella shot, which I couldn’t do.
Having either Stella or Earl save the day is predictable. Ivory’s arrival at the last moment, and the use of his artificial leg, to overpower Elroy brings a nice surprise element as well as a heart moment, because Ivory is able to repay the debt he owes Stella and Earl for helping him regain the will to live.
The last two chapters were written in one sitting, letting the characters work out the ending. It also allows for Stub and Ivory to return in the sequel, “Stella’s Serenade.”
[Don W.] Thank you, Sherman; very informative, as always!
That’s interesting, that chapters 53 and 54 were written all at once. For the benefit of all our contributors, I’ll recall some proverbs: “Strike while the iron is hot.” And the carpenter’s rule: “Measure seven times and cut once.” The writer’s rule is phrased the opposite but is really the same: “Write once — and rewrite seven times.”
Of course you’re right that Tourette’s Syndrome has many different symptoms. They’re mostly but not necessarily verbal, and they vary widely in severity. And you’re right, too, that Tourette’s is not necessarily characterized by uncontrolled swearing; that’s only an isolated symptom.
In fact, one of the works that readers have responded to most frequently in the history of Bewildering Stories has to do with a form of Tourette’s: Donald Schneider’s “Pride’s Prison.” The main character’s symptom is logorrhea; he can’t stop talking. He time-travels to the past to teach his younger self how to overcome it.
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Is any character in Two Blind Men and a Fool comic? It is true that comedy is based on the principle of “matter over mind.” But that’s a rather crude formulation. Rather, comedy is based on external circumstances’ thwarting intentionality, usually an unstated but commonly understood norm.
Comedy and tragedy are poles on a spectrum; they differ in degree, not in kind. Slip on a banana peel, fall, and then get up; that’s slapstick comedy. Fall and break a leg; that’s tragedy.
Shakespeare’s Richard III is normally a tragedy. However, I’ve seen it played for laughs by none other than Hume Cronyn. It was a brilliant display of acting as well as of playwriting. And it illustrates the principle that comedy and tragedy differ in degree.
Physical disabilities are not comic. They were objects of humor, derision, and fear in the superstitious blame societies of Antiquity and Middle Ages. They aren’t, today. Thus, you are right: Stub Wilcox is endearing for his efforts to function despite his disability, and he is not a comic character.
On the other hand, Elroy Hawks is a stock comic character, all scowling evil all the time. The Woody Woodpecker image makes him a caricature even or especially for reading audiences familiar with film cartoons of the 1930’s and 1940’s. As Woody Woodpecker, Elroy is no longer sinister; he’s merely a buffoon with a gun. If it weren’t for Elroy’s shooting Stub, chapter 54 would qualify as 19th-century melodrama. A truly sinister character would not put on a vaudeville show; he would act like Brooks.
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Arguably, all the characters in Two Blind Men and a Fool are handicapped in some way. For example:
- Physically: Earl and Brooks are blind. Ivory has lost a leg. Gibby has a heart attack. Stub has a neurological disorder.
- Psychologically: Earl, Brooks and Ivory have post-traumatic stress flashbacks. Elroy is a psychopath. Herbert Mann is a tyrant.
- Socially: Henry is subjected to racism.
- Morally: Stella doesn’t know her own mind and dithers until it’s almost too late.
Even the minor characters, the ones who are named but appear only briefly, may not have handicaps, strictly speaking, but they are all limited in some way. The story is a kind of operatic epic in which handicaps and limitations are defeated or overcome.
Copyright © 2014 by Sherman Smith
and Bewildering Stories