Idioglossia (play)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Written byMark Handley
T.C: psychologist
Claude: linguist
Jake: psychologist
Date premiered1987
Place premieredUniversity of Utah, Salt Lake City
Original languageEnglish

Idioglossia is a play by American playwright Mark Handley about a girl who grows up without modern culture learning how to speak.

The title comes from the medical term "idioglossia", meaning an idiosyncratic language that few speak, and associated with "cryptophasia".


In the deep back country, a local teenager boy discovers that a hemiplegic hermit has died. Local police and a doctor are taken to her primitive cabin, and discover a seemingly half-crazed woman who speaks what appears to be unintelligible babbling. At first, the woman is declared a wild child, and protective services needs to know if she is capable enough to live on her own. A linguist is called in to observe the woman to see if they can learn to speak her language. After intense interaction, the researchers learn that the woman's name is Nell, and that her distinctive speech is a combination of her mother's impairment – she'd had a stroke which paralyzed one side on her face – and an idioglottic language she'd developed with her now dead sister.


The play was inspired by Handley's own life. In the 1970s, he and his wife moved to a remote area, living in a cabin in the Cascade Mountains. Handley had a rough time living in these conditions. He said disappointment in not succeeding at that life, made me want to create a character who could succeed at it. I invented Nell so she could teach me. The play was also inspired by an article he saw in the newspaper about a pair of twins in San Diego, Poto and Cabengo, who shared a secret language.[1]

The play was first workshopped at the Sundance Playwrights Institute, and again by the Empty Space Theatre in Seattle.[2]

Production history[edit]

The first production of the play was performed in the Babcock Theater at the University of Utah, in the fall of 1985, under the direction of Kenneth Washington. It featured student actors: Michael Kirkland (Jake), Sharon Jensen (Nell), Jackie Bromstedt (TC), and faculty member Sandy Shotwell in the role of Claude. It was then selected to compete in the American College Theatre Festival's 1986 regional competition in Colorado Springs. On the strength of this showing it was selected to be presented at the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts as one of the 1986 National Winners.[3]

The play was then revived by the Group Theatre in Seattle, Washington in 1987.[2]

The play was first covered by the New York Times when it was shown at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey.[4]

In 1987 the play was performed in Washington, D.C., at the New Playwrights Theatre.[5]

The play was produced in Los Angeles by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in 1989.[6]

Historical casting[edit]

Character 1987 Seattle cast 1987 Washington DC. cast 1989 Los Angeles Cast 1992 George Street cast 1994 Film cast
Nell Kellty Annette Romano Karin Abromaitis Beth Hogan Deanna Deignan Jodie Foster
T.C. N/A Mary Ellen Nester Audree Chapman Allison Janney Natasha Richardson

Film adaptation[edit]

In 1994 the play was adapted into the film Nell starring Jodie Foster and Liam Neeson. Foster had heard of the play and purchased the rights as a vehicle for herself. Her friend and producer Renée Missel saw the Los Angeles production in 1989 and the two contacted Handley. The film script differs greatly from the stage play, with a script also by Handley, co-written with William Nicholson. Jodie Foster was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.[7][8]


  1. ^ "Entertainment & the Arts - The Story Of 'Nell' -- Jodie Foster Plays An Isloated Woman With Open Emotions - Seattle Times Newspaper". Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  2. ^ a b "Entertainment & the Arts - 'Nell' Screenwriter Drew Inspiration From Living In A Cascades Cabin - Seattle Times Newspaper". Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  3. ^ "U. honors its artistic alumni". Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  4. ^ Klein, Alvin (1992-11-08). "THEATER; A Search for Understanding and Love". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-03.
  5. ^ Idioglossia review accessed 11/23/2016
  6. ^ Los Angeles times review accessed 11/23/2016
  7. ^ Maslin, Janet (December 14, 1994). "Nell (1994) FILM REVIEW: NELL; A Woman Within a Wild Child, As Revealed by Jodie Foster". The New York Times.
  8. ^ Jodie Foster interview 1994 accessed 11/23/2016