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The Incorporeal Corpse: Disability, Liminality, Performance


The Incorporeal Corpse contends that the image of actual disabled bodies in film and theatre brings a visceral response that alters viewers’ perceptions of disability in unaccounted ways. I extrapolate Mitchell and Snyder’s idea of “narrative prosthesis” outward from their focus on written work, to my focus on the presence of disabled bodies in performance on stage and screen. I explore these issues as they pertain to the making of narrative-driven theatre and film, further theorizing connections between expectations of the disabled body and expectations of what performance should accomplish. Using Victor Turner’s ideas of liminality, I discuss how performances of disability place the disabled body into a liminal space between life and death, and that because performance is geared toward moving through liminality toward a new point of stasis, the performance of disability comes with expectations that it will be resolved into either recovery or death. The presence of disabled actors complicates the theatrical and cinematic processes because the material fact of disability’s existence both in and out of performance. Furthermore, non-disabled actors playing disabled characters reifies the recover/die expectation in that audience members find a sense of security in feeling that the disability has been overcome as the actor steps away from the role. I call this state of affairs the Incorporeal Corpse.

To explore manifestations of the Incorporeal Corpse, I analyze Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, historic representations of Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man), horror films (such as The Changeling) using images of empty wheelchair to postulate life and death bleeding into each other through disability, portrayals of the freak show in Freaks and American Horror Story, and recent theatrical performances (namely Cassandra Hartblay’s I Was Never Alone) which focus on countering the incorporeal corpse. I ultimately argue that that conscious presence of actual disabled performers in the rehearsal room and on set challenges notions of disability as tragedy and begins to break apart the idea of disability as Incorporeal Corpse.

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