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Active differences: disability and identity beyond postmodernism

Conroy, Colette


Colette Conroy


This article looks at the recent examples of the uses disabled performers have made of freaks. It examines the strategy of linking freaks and disabled political subjects through the discussion of three performances: Graeae and Fittings' production of Mike Kenny's play The Last Freakshow; and Mat Fraser's two performances, Sealboy: Freak and Thalidomide! A Musical.

The article argues that these three performances enable us to develop negotiations between identity (modelled as representational stasis) and endless alterity (modelled as perpetual flux). It is tempting to frame disabled performers as modern-day freaks, but that analysis doesn't work within the context of disability performance. There is a tension between political disability identity politics and the act of performing, especially when one claims a history that one never really had. Lyotard warns about strategies that incorporate the outside/other into the inside/same. Lacan offers a way to think about the perception and understanding of difference that can usefully be applied to the appropriation of freakshows. In these performances we experience significatory slippage in performance, and not just as disconnected theory. The performances that are discussed in this article are appropriations of ideas and images gleaned from the historical freakshow, with their particular constructions of performer/spectator relationships. Each of the three performances offers a contestation of meanings, a multiplicity of confusions surrounding the act of watching other bodies in a way that is legibly political.

This article suggests that the process of negotiating meaning between freakishness and disability in these performances could point towards a critical and analytical practice for the future, enabling us to explore instability and incoherence without the loss of political possibility.


Conroy, C. (2008). Active differences: disability and identity beyond postmodernism. Contemporary Theatre Review, 18(3), 341-354.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jul 9, 2008
Online Publication Date Jul 9, 2008
Publication Date 2008-08
Print ISSN 1048-6801
Electronic ISSN 1477-2264
Publisher Routledge
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 18
Issue 3
Pages 341-354
Keywords Visual Arts and Performing Arts
Public URL
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