Lessons in Laughter: Autobiography of a Deaf Actor tells the story of Bernard Bragg, a deaf person who became a world-renowned performer and artist despite his disability. Growing up in New York City during the Great Depression to deaf, working-class parents, Bragg’s story is told through a series of stories and anecdotes about his life as a child, his experiences at the New York School of the Deaf, and more. After graduating from Gallaudet University, he started entering the world of theater, particularly as a result of working with Marcel Marceau, one of the most famous French mimes of all time. Working his way up in the world of theater, Bragg eventually co-founded the Theatre of the Deaf, making that the primary home for his work. Through many different hardships, including finding love and dealing with his mother’s illness in the hospital, Bragg maintains a sense of honesty and naked emotion throughout the book.
Reading this book, I gained a tremendous number of insights about Bernard Bragg, and learned a lot about his life. Bragg himself is an incredibly courageous figure, working hard to achieve what he wants despite the stigma and communication issues that come with being deaf. The way Bragg channeled his hardships and struggle through theater is incredibly inspiring, as he found a degree of solace in the art of performance that few people achieve even without disability. Through Bragg, I gained a tremendous amount of respect for deaf people and deaf culture, as they must work all the harder to get through everyday life. Furthermore, the learning and performing of American Sign Language is incredibly complex, as Bragg details the many controversies and difficulties that come with even deciding what syntax to use. In addition to that, I learned that many deaf people cry out for a feeling of self-determination; because of their disability, all too many people want to coddle them and treat them like they are disabled, when they simply want to be able to do things and build lives and careers on their own. The stigmatization and ‘othering’ of deaf people is one of the biggest setbacks to being deaf, as few people will treat you like a normal person.
I found myself really liking the book, particularly Bragg’s uniquely informal way of writing. The stories he tells are detail-oriented and feel immediate, making it infinitely easy to read. I felt for him and the other deaf people featured in Bragg’s stories, including their frustration to be heard and acknowledged; it is easy to understand just how much harder Bragg had to work to be taken seriously as an actor and a person. I could have maybe stood to learn more about the artistic process that went into more of his works, but there is still plenty to pick up in the book itself about his work in theater.
Overall, I was extremely pleased to read Lessons in Laughter, as I felt inspired by this hard-working individual who overcame so much and achieved a great deal despite circumstances beyond his control. At the same time, it was clear that he was also a relatable, vulnerable human being, making his struggles all the more heartfelt. Based on this, I would love to learn more about similar figures in the Deaf community who have achieved in other fields, as well as more discussion of the development of ASL and the many schools of thought that exist in that arena.
Bragg, Bernard. Lessons in Laughter. Gallaudet University Press, 2002. Print.