This summer, Fourth Line Theater near Millbrook Ontario produced The Wounded Soldier, a play depicting the damage World War 1 had on the human spirit. The military didn’t know about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and used electric shock treatment on the tongue of one of the main characters (Billy) to make him speak. The horror of what he had seen and done had turned him mute.
The play weaves Billy’s struggle with his demons with that of his friend Johnny who is fighting his own battle – bigotry. Johnny (Sean Towgood) has cerebral palsy and uses a wheel chair - in the play and in real life. The two men were childhood friends and become reunited when Billy is sent to a military hospital adjacent to the Idiot Asylum where Johnny lives.
Johnny is certainly not an idiot; he writes poetry and talks about the life he wants. “I want to live my own life my own way,” he states with conviction. When he and Billy are expressing mutual interest in the same attractive woman, Johnny’s nurse, he reveals his sexuality and sense of humour, saying, “I’m the same as you.”
In the play, Johnny refers to himself in the language that others have used to describe him, an “idiot,” an “imbecile.” We are shocked by the labels but then it’s early 1900’s in England so we make allowances. In Canada, however, the same attitude prevailed until recently. The Huronia Centre – Ontario’s oldest institution for people with “mental retardation” and other disabilities was originally called the Orillia Asylum for Idiots. It wasn’t until 2009 that the last institution was closed – a place where sensitive and creative people like Johnny were “housed.”
The message in The Wounded Soldier is timeless; it isn’t only wars that wound soldiers, how we treat people with disabilities creates woundedness. At the end of the play, the asylum is being converted into a military hospital and Johnny is being shunted to another institution. He knows he will never see his friends again and life stopped being worthwhile. He wasn’t asking for a lot. He just wanted people to hear his voice, and to be recognized as a human being with feelings, desires and gifts to share. It’s a universal reality for people living with a disability – no matter what the era.