William Gibson wrote The Miracle Worker in 1959. It’s a play that has had countless performances around the world, no doubt because of its subject matter. The play is taken from Helen Keller’s autobiography The Story of My Life.
Helen Keller was born in 1880 and contracted meningitis (or something like it) when she was 19 months old. The illness left her blind and deaf. When she was seven years old, Annie Sullivan was brought to the family’s home to try to teach Helen. The prognosis at that time for a deaf, dumb and blind child was bleak but, with Annie’s care and dedication, Helen learned to communicate, eventually receiving a Bachelor of Arts, writing books and articles and becoming a famous lecturer.
It’s an inspirational true story, but I was most interested in reading the play to see how closely Gibson had stuck to the original material.In her autobiography, Helen writes about her attitude before she met Annie in the following way:
My hands felt every object and observed every motion, and in this way I learned to know many things. Soon I felt the need of some communication with others and began to make crude signs. A shake of the head meant “No” and a nod, “Yes,” a pull meant “Come” and a push, “Go.” Was it bread that I wanted? Then I would imitate the acts of cutting the slices and buttering them. If I wanted my mother to make ice-cream for dinner I made the sign for working the freezer and shivered, indicating cold. My mother, moreover, succeeded in making me understand a good deal. I always knew when she wished me to bring her something, and I would run upstairs or anywhere else she indicated.
Yet, in Gibson’s play, Helen has only one sign with which to communicate: the sign for mother. She has no words, doesn’t speak at all and is a feral child, disobedient, willful and destructive if she doesn’t get her way. It makes for more drama and conflict, certainly, but with such an incredible real story as its basis, I wonder that it needed exaggerating.
There’s a scene in The Miracle Worker where Annie has to battle Helen’s family to try to instil some discipline and boundaries in Helen’s world.
ANNIE: I know an ordinary tantrum well enough, when I see one, and a badly spoiled child –
JAMES: Hear, hear.
KELLER: (Very annoyed.) Miss Sullivan! You would have more understanding of your pupil if you had some pity in you. Now kindly do as I –
ANNIE: Pity? […] For this tyrant? The whole house turns on her whims, is there anything she wants she doesn’t get? I’ll tell you what I pity, that the sun won’t rise and set for her all her life, and every day you’re telling her it will, what good will your pity do her when you’re under the strawberries, Captain Keller?
With its large cast and moving, inspirational story, it’s not surprising that The Miracle Worker has been so popular, especially in community and amateur theatres.
Publisher: Samuel French
Cast: 4M, 5F and numerous children