Several characters in Clybourne Park deal with illness and disability, both visible and invisible. Especially in the first act of the play, which takes place in 1959, before any widespread conversation about disabilities and mental illness, able-bodied characters are unsure how to interact with those who are not mentally and physically well. Although mental illnesses and developmental and physical disabilities were as common then as they are today, in 1959 there was little social or legal acknowledgment of it. The play’s first act takes place twenty-one years before Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was recognized as a condition, and thirty-one years before the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed into law. As a result, people with disabilities and illnesses are tolerated by the characters in the first act, but those people nevertheless remain less-than-fully integrated into society. The one exception to this rule would be for family members: characters are accommodating of the limitations of their loved ones, but fail to extend this empathy outside their families.
Russ and Bev’s son Kenneth seems to suffers from PTSD or depression in the wake of his military service and dishonorable discharge. Although his parents do their best to accommodate and care for him, in the end their efforts are not enough to prevent him from taking his own life. In the aftermath, they blame themselves, but they also place blame on their community, which they feel contributed to their child’s suffering and feeling of isolation by failing to extend its care and support. Russ laments that his son didn’t receive the comfort he needed after returning from Korea, and Bev describes her son as “sick.” By contrast, Jim (the local pastor) feels little sympathy. He points out that he was also in the armed service, and didn’t snap or return home traumatized—suggesting that Kenneth’s suffering was his own fault. At one point, Russ uses an offensive term when he describes how the grocery store was willing to hire a “goddam retarded kid, but my boy? Sorry. No work for you, bub.” He uses this as an example of the ways in which the community was not accepting of Kenneth—which is slightly ironic considering how he displays his own troubling lack of acceptance for the disabled bag boy, Mr. Wheeler. Even Russ and Bev, although they understand something changed in their son while he was away, are unable to fully grasp what happened. Bev refuses to believe he killed the people he was said to have killed, and while Russ does, neither seems to know how to handle Kenneth upon his return, and it is unlikely (though unclear) that he received any sort of medical or psychological treatment.
Similarly, Betsy’s deafness prevents her from fully integrating into her community. Karl clearly loves her and does his best to accommodate her, but he and other characters constantly talk down to and patronize her. Her husband assumes she’s extra fragile, and her friends seem to think her incapable of understanding even basic conversations. Karl appears to be fluent in sign language, so that during group conversations, where it is difficult for Betsy to read lips and interpret the direction of the discussion, he often translates for her. Still, he treats her as though she is constantly in danger, and unable to fend for herself. Some of the characters do their best to accommodate Betsy’s deafness. Jim tries to sign to her, and although he is not very good, it’s a kind gesture. Later in the act, Bev uses a pad and paper to converse with Betsy. However, in a particularly heated moment of conflict, Russ mocks Betsy for her deafness in response to Karl’s assertion that he will not tolerate swearing in from of his wife. Russ makes the point that Betsy can’t hear him, but then tells her to “go fuck [her]self,” only to have her wave sweetly back. Once again a disabled character and her disability become the butt of a mean-spirited joke.
Russ is likely dealing with his own mental illness. Whether it’s grief at the death of his son or clinical depression, his wife and his neighbors have noticed changes in his behavior. No one understands what is happening to Russ, and no one seems able to help. Russ is in a unique situation because doesn’t seem to believe there is anything wrong with him, even though he is acting noticeably erratically—staying up late, lashing out at his wife and his friends, and disregarding proper social behavior. In conversation with Jim he complains about the fact that “a lotta people today have this tendency, tendency to brood about stuff, which, if you ask me, is, is, is—well, short answer, it’s not productive,” for which he offers the following solution: “get up offa your rear end and do something.” In doing so, he shows a lack of regard for or awareness of the study of psychology and the illnesses that psychologists treat. Karl understands that Russ is “indisposed,” but worries that he has some kind of infection he could pass on to Betsy because Bev has been telling people that Russ is sick, when really he seems to be struggling with some form of depression. Repeatedly, the people around Russ pathologize and condemn his behavior rather than treating it as a sign that he may need help and support.
Disability and mental illness are poorly understood, particularly in the first act of the play. Characters attempt to accommodate their friends, spouses, children, and neighbors, but in nearly every instance these efforts fall flat. In the late 1950s, understanding of these diseases and disorders is still limited, and as a result even the most open-minded of the residents of Clybourne Park do not know how to interact with Betsy, Kenneth, and others. Just as the residents of Clybourne Park divide themselves according to race—remaining segregated from groups they feel are unlike them—they also segregate themselves more subtly according to who is able-bodied and who is not. Throughout the play, Norris makes it clear how isolating illness and disability can be—and how essential communication and empathy are in bringing all the members of a community together.
Disability and Inclusion ThemeTracker
Disability and Inclusion Quotes in Clybourne Park
But that’s nice, isn’t it, in a way? To know we all have our place.
Tell ya what I think. And I’m not a psychiatrist or anything but I do think a lotta people today have this tendency, tendency to brood about stuff, which, if you ask me, is, is, is — well, short answer, it’s not productive. And what I’d say to these people, were I to have a degree in psychiatry, I think my advice would be maybe, get up offa your rear end and do something.
Bev: Well, you’re being ugly, and I don’t like ugliness.
Russ: — private matters, matters that are between me and the memory of my son —
Bev: I think his mind has been affected, I really do.
Russ: — and if the two of you want to talk about Kenneth on your own time, if that gives you some kind you comfort —
Bev: And what’s wrong with comfort? Are we not allowed any comfort anymore?
Karl: Bev, they are one hundred percent. And if I don’t know how much time any of you have spent in Hamilton Park, but Betsy was waiting in the car and I can tell you, there are some unsavory characters.
Karl: But in the case of Gelman’s: I think there was some mistrust at first, having been Kopeckne’s Market for such a long time, but in the end of all Murray Gelman found a way to fit in.
Bev: And they hired the Wheeler boy.
But you know, I think things are about to change. I really do. I know it’s been a hard couple of years for all of us, I know they have been, but I really believe things are about to change for the better. I firmly believe that.