The Figure of Friends and Flirts

On teasing (asteismus) and on the hearing-unhearing boundary in Mark Medoff’s play “Children of a Lesser God”. Also, James Bond loves asteismus.

Today’s Quote is from Mark Medoff’s play Children of a Lesser God (1979), a romantic comedy exploring the conflicts arising in the professional and personal relationship between a former student, Sarah Norman, and her teacher in a State School for the Deaf, James Leeds. He is thirty-ish, she is in her mid-twenties. James is enthusiastic about his job at the school and motivates his students to speak through humour and fun. Sarah is deaf from birth, and she refuses to learn lip-reading, let alone to try learning how to speak; she communicates exclusively using Sign Language.

Prior to the Quote, James and Sarah have been going back and forth, between jokes and misunderstanding. He isn’t as good at signing as she is, nor is he as quick. She obstinately refuses to acknowledge any of his humour, and mocks his attempts to communicate with her.

It is assumed the average theater-goer doesn’t know Sign Language, therefore James vocalises Sarah’s lines for the audience; he signs and speaks his own words simultaneously.  (I have inserted square brackets into the text to help remind you, as you read, that her words are not spoken but signed.)


SARAH.  [Your timing is terrible and your signing is boring.]
JAMES.  My timing is terrible and my signing is boring. If you could hear, you’d think I was a scream.
SARAH.  [Why scream?]
JAMES.  Not literally “scream.” That’s a hearing idiom.
SARAH.  [But I’m deaf.]
JAMES.  You’re deaf. I’ll try to remember that.
SARAH.  [But you’ll keep forgetting.]
JAMES.  I’ll keep forgetting. But you’ll keep reminding me.
SARAH.  [But you’ll still forget.]
JAMES.  I’ll still forget. But you’ll still remind me.
SARAH.  [No. I’ll give up.]
JAMES.  Maybe you won’t have to give up.
SARAH.  [Why?]
JAMES.  Maybe I’ll remember.
SARAH.  [I doubt it.]
JAMES.  We’ll see.

In 1987, the play was made into a film of the same title starring  Marlee Matlin as Sarah (she received an Oscar for the role) and William Hurt as James. If you’d like to get an idea of the dynamic—she signs, he repeats her line vocally, then he signs and speaks his lines—you could watch the first thirty seconds of the clip, up until he says “I’ll buy that”. Do not watch more, because it might ruin the film/play for you. (I couldn’t find a more appropriate clip, for example, one with the words from the quote, and I couldn’t truncate this video easily.)

Important point: In the instructions before the play the author insists that in any professional production of the play the role of Sarah and two other characters be performed by deaf or hearing impaired actors. (Indeed, Marlee Matlin has been deaf since she was 18 months old.) This is the reason I chose to discuss Children of a Lesser God; it may be a challenge for a play to explore the boundary of the hearing-unhearing world, but it can be done, with great success—a fact not so well-known, perhaps.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Gentle mocking, witticism, parallel structures.

If you were watching the play or the film, unless you know Sign Language, you would only hear his lines.

  1. JAMES.  My timing is terrible and my signing is boring. If you could hear, you’d think I was a scream.
  2. JAMES.  Not literally “scream.” That’s a hearing idiom.
  3. JAMES.  You’re deaf. I’ll try to remember that.

The first three lines are flirtatious, teasing, and gentle mocking (you’ll have to go along my interpretation or else read the play yourself). Even though she was making a statement about his signing, he makes it personal and pretends to defend his sense of humour. There are two parts to his witty comeback If you could hear, you’d think I was a scream. Firstly, he uses the word scream to mean funny, which she doesn’t understand (or pretends not to; she’s feisty and contrary). He could have stopped at that and said: My timing is terrible and my signing is boring, but I’m a scream normally. Instead he inserts the if you could hear, which is a tease about her stubbornness. He then says that it’s a hearing idiom—although it’s an idiom that uses a hearing word—and she deadpans with I’m deaf. (If it were an actual description of a sound, then there would be a genuine obstacle and his words would be cruel.) Throughout the book she wants to be treated the same way as hearing people, so her ducking into an non-excuse is unlike her. She’s teasing him back.

3.  JAMES.  You’re deaf. I’ll try to remember that.
4.  JAMES.  I’ll keep forgetting. But you’ll keep reminding me.
5.  JAMES.  I’ll still forget. But you’ll still remind me.
6.  JAMES.  Maybe you won’t have to give up.
7.  JAMES.  Maybe I’ll remember.
8.  JAMES.  We’ll see.

In lines 4 and 5, we get the parallels of him forgetting and her reminding him, which bind the two of them together despite their previous arguments, until they reach a consensus, that maybe it’ll all work out, that it’s not worth arguing about, but will become apparent in time.

Image strips taken from image b<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">y Michał Grosicki</a>

What is at the core of the Quote?

Antithesis, asteismus.

Antithesis is the juxtaposition of opposing ideas or words expressed in parallel structures. I’ll try to remember that. But you’ll keep forgetting. But you’ll keep reminding me. But you’ll still forget. But you’ll still remind me.

An asteismus is a type of gentle, urbane mockery or badinage that plays on words, a type of pun. It usually means deliberately misunderstanding another speaker’s word, or replying using the same word with a twist. It’s also known as “civil jest” and “merry scoff” and should not be sarcastic or rude. I’d say large parts of the conversations in the play are a variants of asteismus (although there is sarcasm, too).

The Children of a Lesser God deviates from the usual plot arc of a modern Hollywood romantic comedy. I haven’t seen the film, but according to Diane Ackerman in her book A Natural History of the The Senses, the play was made into an equally powerful movie. (Ackerman’s book led me Medoff’s play.) So, perhaps, if you haven’t the time and energy for reading a play, you can watch the adaptation.

Reading Recommendations

  1. Children of a Lesser GodMark Medoff.
  2.  A Natural History of The Senses, Diane Ackerman. Because she explores all the senses.
  3. My post Swirling Sahara and an Apricot Whoosh about Ackerman’s book. Because you’d like to see a sample of her writing.






Post post fun

If you’re wondering how to separate asteismus from the tangled mess of other figures, here’s a way to remember its meaning, if not its name. Think of it as the James Bond Figure of Speech. (The on-screen Bond, not the book version.) Here are some examples.

 Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, and Bernard Lee in Dr No (1962):

James BondDon’t worry. I’m not supposed to be here either.
Honey Ryder: Are you looking for shells too?
James BondNo, I’m just looking.

M: When do you sleep 007?
Bond: Never on the firm’s time sir.

Sean Connery and Claudine Auger in Thunderball (1965):

Domino: What sharp little eyes you’ve got.
Bond: …Wait ’til you get to my teeth.

George Lazenby (as Bond) and Gabriele Ferzetti (as Draco) in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969):

Draco: She likes you! I can see that!
Bond: You must give me the name of your oculist…

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

8 thoughts on “The Figure of Friends and Flirts”

  1. I remember this play from the late seventies when it caused much discussion here. I never got to see it or the film; I’d still like to see it.

    Loved learning about asteismus – such a great word in its own right, though ‘civil jest’ and ‘merry scoff’ are so expressive! Using Bond’s humour to illustrate it further is inspired. I’ve always found his brand of humour so specific.

    Another thoughtful and enlightening post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I too thought the asteismus was fun 🙂 Let me know if you ever see the film and what you thought of it. It seems like it might be tender and beautiful and uplifting.

      Now, finally, Bond’s humour can be named (in my head at least)!

      Oh yes, and the merry scoff and civil jest. I don’t know why but those labels sound so quaintly … Shakespearean?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha ha, exactly what I thought! Delighted to now have a name for Bond’s humour. (I shall be able to slip it into conversation with my partner when next we watch a Bond!) And I almost said in my initial reply that the scoffing and jesting sounded very English – hard to imagine any other group using such humour. Shakespearean? Certainly, but I suspect there would be plenty of examples in the past century too. We Brits seem to have very particular sense of humour at times – probably because it’s the type I’m most familiar with!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I should have English, you’re right 🙂

        If you enjoy this kind of humour (and like reading about words), you should try one of Mark Forsyth’s books. For example, she said looking at her currently-reading bookshelf and thinking how to interest someone in read the same thing, the Etymologicon. I’m halfway through it now, and it’s hilarious. Most of his sentences are some variant of asteismus — you’d think it get old after page one, but it doesn’t!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. That’s a book I think I would love! (Mark Forsyth’s – not sure if this reply will appear in the correct place in the thread.) Thank you! It’s on the list

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great to have a more challenging read which really makes you think about expressions and phrases. Love the examples from ‘007’. Keep up the education of the blog masses!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! I was hoping the the Bond quotes would lighten the post, even while lengthening it.

      I’m continually amazed by how many figures and tricks there are if you scratch the surface. Lots to be gleaned—glad to share it with anyone who’s interested 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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