London

Untold story of Alexander Graham Bell's deaf wife and mother focus of new London play

A new play at London's Grand Theatre offers audiences a new take on the life of Alexander Graham Bell through the untold perspective of two women who knew the telephone inventor better than anyone else.

The telephone inventor's patent revolutionized communication, but his wife and mother couldn't use it

Actors Catherine Joelle MacKinnon (left) and Tara Rosling (right) as their on-stage personas Eliza and Mabel during a production of Silence at London's Grand Theatre. (Claus Andersen/the Grand Theatre)

A new play at London's Grand Theatre offers audiences a brand new take on the life of Alexander Graham Bell through two women who couldn't actually use the invention for which Bell is best known. 

Bell is well-known as the man who patented the telephone, a device that revolutionized the world by allowing millions of people to communicate over vast distances from the comfort of their homes or businesses. 

Less known however is the fact his mother Eliza and his wife, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, couldn't actually use a telephone because they were deaf. 

"It's a love story exploring communication and when people are connected and when they disconnect," Tara Rosling, the actor who plays Mabel told London Morning guest host Jennifer Hall. 

Silence actors Tara Rosling and Catherine Joell MacKinnon speaking on CBC Radio One's London Morning, with guest host Jennifer Hall. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"She is a person of extraordinary strength and courage," she said. "We meet her as a young girl, 16, who contracted scarlet fever when she was five-years-old, so she had a foundation of speech and became deaf at the age of five." 

"It was in a time period when people who had any kind of affliction were institutionalized, but her parents refused to recognize her as a deaf person and she was taken to all kinds of teachers, she was taken to Europe for training and their focus was she would be viewed as a hearing person."

Silence relies on Mabel as the filter through which the entire story unfolds, even using the way she senses the world around her to convey the story to the audience, according to Rosling. 

"Mabel relies on lip reading for communication, so as soon as she can't see people's lips, she's not receiving any communication," she said, noting the audience will experience the same thing her character experiences through some highly choreographed scenes throughout the production. 

"As soon as she turns away the world of the play on-stage goes silent," Rosling said. "So you see people speaking but you don't hear anything, so it's what Mabel would experience. 

Silence tries to be kind to its audience, especially if they're deaf. The production was designed with closed captioning so that a deaf person could attend at any time. (Claus Andersen/the Grand Theatre)

The play follows Mabel over the course of her studies to when she meets Alexander Graham Bell, who was one of her teachers and they fall in love, Rosling said. 

"We see them both chart highs and lows and how they build love over the course of time," she said. 

The play also features the perspective of Bell's mother Eliza Bell, who was also deaf, according to deaf actor Catherine Joelle McKinnon, who spoke to London Morning guest host Jennifer through an interpreter.   

"Eliza was a very interesting character," she said. "She became deaf when she was young as well, but her situation was different than Mabel's. She didn't learn to speak or use speech reading, she used double-handed manual British sign language to communicate with her son."

McKinnon said that Eliza had a strong influence on the life of Alexander Graham Bell. 

"She home schooled him when he was younger, until he attended to high school," McKinnon said. "She helped him to dream and follow through on his goals and aspirations."

Roles 'opening up' for deaf performers

McKinnon said as a deaf actor, the opportunity to play a character like Eliza was a role she called "a dream come true." 

"Indeed that's true," she said. "In Canada it has been difficult getting roles, but the doors are starting to open up to deaf performers in the last few years."

"This is definitely a dream come true. I never imagined in my wildest dreams I'd be here, but here I am," she said. 

"I can very much identify with this character as a deaf person and I think back in her time, in her era she experienced a lot of oppression as well and yet she wanted freedom from this dilemma she was in. Her world was not kind to her."

Unlike the world of Eliza Bell, Silence tries to be kind to its audience, especially if they're deaf. The production was designed with closed captioning so that a deaf person could attend at any time, according to Tara Rosling. 

"For instance if Elsa is signing, the words will be projected on the walls," she said. "There's overlapping verbal, oral, signing information and projection information, so I think it will be a very extraordinary and rich experience."

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