WHILE WATCHING "Children of a Lesser God" at the National Theatre recently, I flashed back more than 40 years to another play, one I saw on Broadway: "Johnny Belinda." I saw I was watching the play, not listening -- because I'm deaf, and to the deaf the eye is the ear.

The year was 1940, and I was a little boy, but already I knew about "Johnny Belinda." Like "Children of a Lesser God," it was about a hearing man and a deaf girl. But what a world of difference exists between these two plays. And the difference illustrates the changes in the status of the deaf over the last four decades.

The deaf heroine of "Johnny Belinda" was a sweet, uneducated farm girl. In the fashion of that period, the play -- and its film version, with Lew Ayres and Jane Wyman -- had a happy, uplifting end: The good doctor rescued, wooed and won the lovely and unhappy deaf girl. But once the veneer of romance is stripped from this story, some hard questions remain: How can an educated man live with a simple farm girl for long? True, he has learned the fingerspelling alphabet, and a few signs, but even if they can communicate, what is there to be communicated?

It is to Mark Medoff's credit that he asks these hard questions in "Children of a Lesser God." He makes Sarah a complete contrast to the deaf girl in "Johnny Belinda": She is a modern, liberated and intelligent woman.

But I wish he hadn't made Sarah sound so angry. Deaf people aren't like that. Or are they? Some 40 years ago a psychologist, Harry Best, called the deaf "the gamest people in the world." I realize now that he meant they are docile. Perhaps, then, Sarah should be angry. She represents, as it were, deaf people of today, who are finding a voice of their own.

Deaf culture in the United States owes its freedom and richness to the use of sign language. We are the only group of the handicapped to have our own language, American Sign Language or ASL, which provides our cultural bond. ASL, has been demonstrated by linguists to be a separate and autonomous language; after Spanish, it is the most widely used minority language in the United States.

Even so, it felt strange to see sign language used on the stage of a major theater, and I reflected on the changes that have taken place in the years since Johnny Belinda exchanged a few fingerspelled words and awkward signs with the good doctor, whereas now James and Sarah in "Children of a Lesser God" converse in fluent signs.

In 1940 sign language was a no-no. When I was a little boy, I was told to keep my hands at my sides: it was considered shameful, clownish, to be seen signing in public. Today people pay to see me sign.

This climate is due largely to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act -- the law which prohibits discrimination against the handicapped in employment and education. But even earlier the deaf had made advances on their own, in America at least. For the deaf there is no more tragic date than 1980, the year of the Milan congress of teachers of the deaf, which resolved to oppose the use and teaching of sign language throughout the world. Politically, this meant the victory of the German Method (oralism) over the French Method (sign language). In America there also arose a tidal wave of oralism supported and financed by philanthropists such as Alexander Graham Bell, but in America the deaf themselves were able to stop the spread of the wave before it condemned them to mental underdevelopment. Incidentally, Bell's original purpose in inventing the telephone was to help the deaf to hear and to improve their speech.

Only one educator had the guts to vote against the Milan resolution, and he was an American -- Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. Thanks to Gallaudet, and the college named after him, deaf culture, art and folklore survived and flourished in America, while a new Dark Age set in for the deaf in Europe and elsewhere. There the deaf are relegated to menial occupations and not permitted to have a voice in their own affairs, even though now, under the influence of American deaf leaders, here and there European deaf are developing their own leaders. The contrast is particularly obvious at World Games of the Deaf and other international meets at which delegations of the deaf from various countries are headed by their hearing "patrons," with the nearly sole exception of the U.S. delegation, which is always led by the deaf themselves.

The beauty and dignity of sign language is beginning to be appreciated by the hearing world. In theater arts -- and that is a subject of deep concern to me -- sign language is revitalizing the stage with its inherently dramatic and dynamic nature.

In "Children of a Lesser God," my own impression and that of the deaf people I talked with is that only about one-half of the dialogue could be understood by deaf spectators. Linda Bove as Sarah and Richard Kendall as Orin signed clearly and naturally. But Peter Evans as James Leeds was far from always understood by deaf viewers. In fairness to Evans, who is not a native signer to begin with, simultaneous interpreting involving both speaking and signing is a technically insurmountable problem. What compounded the problem was that some 20 percent of the dialogue was not signed at all. But then "Children of a Lesser God" is designed chiefly for viewing by the general public, rather than the deaf.

The National Theatre of the Deaf has helped to confer legitimacy on sign language in the eyes of the hearing public and it has staged many impressive and highly artistic performances. Although deaf audiences enjoy seeing signed versions of classical and modern plays, they wanted and needed, in addition, plays about themselves. The Model Community Theatre of the Deaf in Washington aims to produce plays about the deaf, written by the deaf themselves. Its first play, "Tales From a Clubroom," has shown to standing ovations in several cities, and in New York the audience rushed onstage after the play and mobbed the actors, thanking them for a play that finally mirrored their own lives.

My own light comedy, "That Makes Two of Us," about a love affair between a signing deaf man and a non-signing oralist deaf girl, has played at the Gallaudet College Theatre and in Boston and elsewhere. Eugene Bergman is writing an ambitious new play, "Fish Nor Fowl," which deals with the peculiar milieu of the oralists, who are "neither fish nor fowl."

Thus deaf theater is finally coming of age. In 1940, when "Johnny Belinda" was performed, deaf theater was a closet theater kept alive by a handful of dedicated amateurs, including my father, who inspired me with love for the theater.

For all its intensity and other merits, "Children of a Lesser God" is not deaf theater, since it was written by a hearing playwright and since it deals with the relationship between the hearing and the deaf (and even more, with the psychological problems of a hearing teacher) rather than with the deaf among themselves.

The deaf in general have mixed feelings about this play. Only about 5 percent of the deaf marry the hearing, but still the deaf would agree with the play's final premise, expressed by Sarah, when she tells James: "If you help me, I'll help you . . . we join." If the hearing will approach us halfway, so will we, or if we make the first move, they should make the second.

More recently, another hearing playwright, John Basinger, wrote a play, "The White Hawk," dealing with the problems of the deaf. The deaf protagonist of Basinger's play, a talented actor, has been aiming all his life to break through into the hearing stage, but when his moment of glory is about to arrive, it is snatched from him by others who are not genuinely deaf -- or is it? The play leaves the question unanswered. It was staged last March by an experimental production workshop under the direction of Daniel Freudenberger, formerly director of the Phoenix Theatre in New York. Repeat performance of this play will be presented at Gallaudet College on May 9 and 10.

It is interesting to watch the workings of Medoff's mind in "Children of a Lesser God." According to Medoff, it isn't the deaf alone who feel misunderstood. The hearing also feel frustrated in their attempts to understand the deaf. James expects much less from Sarah than she expects from him; in a world they never made, the deaf are dependent on the hearing to a greater extent than are the hearing on the deaf. It's natural, the play implies, for the hearing to subconsciously resent this burden of dependence. But it seems to me that this viewpoint is one-sided and rather typical of hearing professionals working with the deaf. The real concern of Medoff's play is not conflict between two people but conflict between two worlds -- the hearing and the deaf -- a conflict as deep-running as that between Basques and Spaniards, or between Poles and Russians.

As a more visceral level, watching "Children of a Lesser God" reminded me of my personal experience with a hearing girl. I had known her for a year and was engaged to her. Then one day I had to fly to New York on business and there I met some deaf friends who wanted to give a party for me and my fiance. I wired her, asking her to join me in New York, and she wired back, "I'm marrying only you, not your friends." This ended our engagement. What she failed to understand was that she would be marrying only part of me, since my deaf friends are part of me, too. The engagement was broken off.

The interplay between hearing and deaf worlds was left out "Children of a Lesser God." It is still a great play, because it skillfully touches on the subject of communication between two people in a close mutual relationship. But those who want to gain some insight into what the deaf world is like advised to see a real deaf play.