The two main characters of On the Face of It both have a physical disability, but they react to their disabilities in very different ways. The fourteen-year-old Derry had half of his face badly burned by acid in an accident, while Mr. Lamb lost one of his legs in World War II. Because he has been treated poorly by society as a person with a visible physical disability, Derry avoids others and assumes that everyone either pities or fears him. Mr. Lamb, on the other hand, sees disabilities as something that don’t matter when it comes to one’s humanity, and his conversation with Derry offers the boy a different perspective. The play ultimately advocates a shift in perception about disability—both on a societal and an individual level—to more fully embrace the value and dignity of all people, whatever their experience or appearance might be. This also includes changing the perspectives of people with disabilities themselves so that they might stop seeing their own disabilities as something to be hated or ashamed of.
People treat Derry differently because of his burned face, and so he feels a bitterness towards both his injury and other people. He believes that everyone finds him hideous and either pities him or fears him, and many of his experiences seem to confirm this. Some people try to comfort him with platitudes or fairy tales (like “Beauty and the Beast”), while most simply avoid him. He is also clearly hurt by an instance of two women whispering to each other that he has “a face only a mother could love,” and by hearing someone else say that he should have stayed at the hospital with others like himself. Derry rightly blames others for this, but it also makes him hostile to the idea of any kind of human interaction at all; he tries to flee the garden as soon as he realizes Mr. Lamb is there, assuming that the old man will treat him like other people do. Unfortunately, Derry has also internalized society’s view of him, saying that he even fears himself when he looks in a mirror. He tells Mr. Lamb, “you think I’m ugly as a devil. I am a devil.” Derry considers himself fundamentally different from other people because of his disability, and feels only shame and anger because of this.
Mr. Lamb’s disability is not as immediately obvious as Derry’s—as Derry points out, Lamb can cover up his leg, while Derry can’t cover his face—but he also has a fundamentally different perspective about it than the boy does. Mr. Lamb’s view is somewhat subtle. He doesn’t deny the difficulty of being physically disabled, or pretend that things aren’t sometimes different and harder for him and Derry than for most people, but he also doesn’t define either of them by their disability, and doesn’t let himself feel ashamed or like he is less valuable because of it. Regarding his leg, Mr. Lamb says several times that “it doesn’t signify”—meaning “it doesn’t matter.” Obviously his disability matters in some practical ways, like putting him in danger when he climbs a ladder, but it doesn’t matter in terms of his humanity, and isn’t somehow definitive of who he is simply because it’s a visible part of his body. To illustrate this point, he makes various comparisons between physical disabilities and other fundamental aspects of life, like saying that hatred is worse than any acid or bomb (the respective causes of Derry’s and his disabilities), and comparing the difference between his tin leg and Derry’s burned face to the fact that Derry is standing and Lamb is sitting. There are certainly differences between people, but there’s no reason to use some of these differences as an excuse to elevate some and oppress others. As Lamb says about the plants in his garden, which would be considered weeds by some and flowers by others, “It’s all life…growing. Same as you and me.”
The play doesn’t offer much specific social critique regarding how society treats people with disabilities, other than inviting all people to be kinder to each other and not look down on people different from themselves—there is no mention of laws, organizations, or civil rights. Instead, its structure of an intimate conversation between two characters largely focuses on a change in perspective on the part of both individuals with disabilities and the ableist society in which they live. Instead of seeing disabilities as things to be hated, hidden away, or ashamed of, they can be treated as simple facts of certain people’s experience, and addressed as such without degrading people’s humanity or dignity. The play’s title, which most clearly refers to Derry’s burned face, also asks its audience to look beyond what is “on the face of it” when dealing with disability.
Disability and Perception ThemeTracker
Disability and Perception Quotes in On the Face of It
MR LAMB: You want me to ask….say so, then.
DERRY: I don’t like being with people. Any people.
MR LAMB: I should say….to look at it…. I should say, you got burned in a fire.
DERRY: Not in a fire. I got acid all down that side of my face and it burned it all away. It ate my face up. It ate me up. And now it’s like this and it won’t ever be any different.
MR LAMB: Some call them weeds. If you like, then….a weed garden, that. There’s fruit and there are flowers, and trees and herbs. All sorts. But over there….weeds. I grow weeds there. Why is one green, growing plant called a weed and another ‘flower’? Where’s the difference. It’s all life….growing. Same as you and me.
DERRY: We’re not the same.
MR LAMB: I’m old. You’re young. You’ve got a burned face, I’ve got a tin leg. Not important. You’re standing there…. I’m sitting here. Where’s the difference?
DERRY: […] Do you know, one day, a woman went by me in the street — I was at a bus-stop — and she was with another woman, and she looked at me, and she said….whispered….only I heard her…. she said, “Look at that, that’s a terrible thing. That’s a face only a mother could love.”
MR LAMB: So you believe everything you hear, then?
DERRY: It was cruel.
MR LAMB: And is that the only thing you ever heard anyone say, in your life?
DERRY: Oh no! I’ve heard a lot of things.
MR LAMB: So now you keep your ears shut.
DERRY: I think you’re daft….crazy….
MR LAMB: That’s a good excuse.
DERRY: What for? You don’t talk sense.
MR LAMB: Good excuse not to come back. And you’ve got a burned-up face, and that’s other people’s excuse.
DERRY: You’re like the others, you like to say things like that. If you don’t feel sorry for my face, you’re frightened of it, and if you’re not frightened, you think I’m ugly as a devil. I am a devil. Don’t you? [Shouts]
[Mr Lamb does not reply. He has gone to his bees.]
DERRY: [Quietly] No. You don’t. I like it here.
DERRY: I hate it here.
MOTHER: You can’t help the things you say. I forgive you. It’s bound to make you feel bad things….and say them. I don’t blame you.
DERRY: It’s got nothing to do with my face and what I look like. I don’t care about that and it isn’t important. It’s what I think and feel and what I want to see and find out and hear. And I’m going back there. Only to help him with the crab apples. Only to look at things and listen. But I’m going.
MOTHER: You’ll stop here.
DERRY: Oh no, oh no. Because if I don’t go back there, I’ll never go anywhere in this world again.
[The door slams. Derry runs, panting.]
And I want the world….I want it….I want it….