The Pick - Shall I Say a Kiss?

June 23, 2011

Shall I Say a Kiss?

BBC Radio 4, 28 June, 2.15pm

Morris met Eva at Warrington Deaf Club in 1936 and soon decided he "should like to claim (her) as my girl" and ask her to make a new life with him in the US. But the course of true love never did run smooth. Their transatlantic correspondence got bogged down in misunderstandings and disagreements about money and dates. The American immigration authorities, although they never said so openly, were not keen to admit a woman who was Jewish and working-class as well as deaf. And her family kept suggesting that she might be better off with "Nat Alper's son", a nice local boy from Leeds.

At first, Morris was the more ardent and spent his time in Brooklyn looking at "the list of foreign mailings and mail steamships with the fastest liners on the walls of all the post offices" so as to ensure that his letters reached Eva as quickly as possible. She was warier but, after a few desultory dates with Isadore Alper, realised that she loved Morris "very deeply", and began to "look forward to the day when you will be telling me that there is too much pepper and not enough salt in the soup!"

All this would have been completely forgotten if it were not for Morris and Eva's son, Lennard Davis, professor in the English department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Long interested in disability issues, he published My Sense of Silence: A Memoir of a Childhood with Deafness and Shall I Say a Kiss?: The Courtship Letters of a Deaf Couple 1936-1938 (both 1999).

At moments when Morris and Eva's relationship seemed to be breaking down, Davis writes in the introduction to the latter, "I felt myself begin to evaporate, grow translucent, and fade into non-existence, only to return to life in the next letter, in which my parents reconciled".

Yet Morris and Eva's story also has wider significance. "Just as outsiders demand that films and literature about gays, African Americans and so on be 'about' the identity issue," Davis continues, "so too might hearing readers seek to find their normality confirmed by the fact that 'abnormals' can think of nothing else but their putative 'lack'."

But Morris and Eva, who never wanted to "separate the two worlds" of the deaf and the hearing, were totally focused on their on-off, long-distance romance.

Shall I Say a Kiss? has now been adapted by Vanessa Rosenthal as a Radio 4 Afternoon Play starring deaf actors David Bower and Emily Howlett, as well as Miriam Margolyes as Eva's mother. There will also be a sign-theatre version of the play on the BBC website.

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