Caleigh McClain LeschhornEnglish 11: American Literature 14 January 2018 What You Can and Cannot See: Norris’s Exploration of Mental Illness Mental illness plays a key role in Clybourne Park to represent how certain people and groups can be isolated for different reasons.
Although the overarching theme is racism, Bruce Norris chooses this sensitive ideal to show how society tries to adapt to things that are different but fails in the end. The visible disabilities such as Kenneth’s PTSD and Betsy’s lack of hearing are incorporated into the plot so that the audience can see how society reacts. Invisible disabilities such as Russ’s anger and depression show how society overlooks and ignores certain issues instead of addressing them.
- Thesis Statement
- Structure and Outline
- Voice and Grammar
Norris uses this idea of disability to show how things that are poorly understood attempt to be “handled” but never resolved because, like racism, this is another way that people can be isolated from community and acceptance. During a time of social tension and segregation, this play surrounds itself on the idea of how society copes with those considered abnormal. As learned later in the play, Russ and Bev’s son, Kenneth, hung himself as a result of PTSD. Norris chooses to incorporate this into the play because the audience can see how even one’s closest friends tend to talk around sore subjects. Russ even discusses how society has “this tendency, tendency to brood about stuff” and “is– well, short answer, it’s not productive” (Norris 35). Russ acknowledges the issue our society has with handling things that are different and make people uncomfortable.
One symbol that is continuously used and referenced throughout the play is the trunk full of Kenneth’s belongings. The trunk represents how the feelings and sadness of Bev and Russ are contained. When discussing how the trunk is going to be moved, Russ suddenly becomes defensive and dismisses Francine. He tells her that he is “going to move the gol-darned trunk… (FRANCINE exits Discomfort)” (Norris 25).
The trunk is a tender point in both Act 1 and Act 2, Norris uses this to show how incorporating certain things into a conversation can lead to discomfort. It is interesting that Norris set this during the time of communism and the atomic bomb, “the bomb that hovered over American culture in these years” (Cayton). This can represent how the overarching fear and thought of communism is similar to mental illness lingering over the heads of our society in the 1950s. Communism was excluded from the community as were mental disabilities. By setting the unexplained disease of PTSD into the play, Norris shows inclusion and exclusion and how society unintentionally does it to those that are hard to comprehend. Similar to Kenneth’s PTSD, Betsy’s deafness causes inconvenience, discomfort, and exclusion from her community.
Although it is evident that Karl is very good with sign language, he still treats Betsy as though she is a young child instead of a grown woman. Norris uses sensitive language and conversation topics to give the reader a taste of how exclusion and segregation can inflict on someone’s innocence. When Russ makes fun of Betsy, “She’s deaf, Karl!!! Completely–(waving to BETSY, fake-jolly) Hello, Betsy! Go fuck yourself! (BETSY smiles, waves back),” the reader feels disgusted and anger towards Russ (Norris 91).
This can relate back to the theme of racism with how tension and anger are evident in the segregated African-Americans during the 1950s. Betsy and Kenneth’s mental illness both can symbolize communism’s influence on America after the Korean War. Communism “contributed to a climate of uneasy apprehension in the 1950s, stifled dissent and controversy, and it deepened the mood of caution and restraint” (Cayton). Although all disabilities weren’t feared like communism, they still made people on edge and were sometimes treated as if they didn’t exist. With pretending that certain things don’t exist, humankind inserts itself into its own protected bubble without discomfort and tension. This can be demonstrated with Russ’s anger and depression in Act 1.
Since he does not have a marked disease or illness, the characters in the plot tend to look over his actions instead of seeking help. Many people like his wife and friends think that Russ is troubled as Karl says on page 90, “I think you’re unstable, Russ. I really do” (Norris). Although Russ tends to say and do things that are quite rude, like cursing at Betsy and reading his son’s suicide note, no one seems to act on the pain and loss he’s feeling. Norris explores different visible and nonvisible illnesses to help the reader relate Clybourne Park to the current events in the 1950s, whether it concerns racism or the influences in the postwar period. With things that are poorly understood like disability and mental illness, Norris can show isolation and discrimination in Clybourne Park. He shows that although most people try to accommodate and adjust to things that are different, society ends up isolating certain groups whether it’s become of race, wealth, or stability. Since this play is set during the 1950s when the fear of communism was at its peak, Norris can subtly compare these two things within the plot.
Like communism, mental illness and disability is something that causes great discomfort and uneasiness in American society. By building off of Raisin in the Sun, racism is explored and represented by the tension and isolation of those that are mentally and physically ill in Clybourne Park.