Theatre: The Miracle Worker
“I wanted to teach you- oh, everything the earth is full of, Helen, everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it, the- light we bring to it and leave behind in- words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know- and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave. And I know, I know, one word and I can- put the world in your hand- and whatever it is to me, I won’t take less!”The Miracle Worker
—Annie Sullivan, Act III
is a play by William Gibson. Written in 1956, it tells the true story of how Anne Sullivan became the teacher and companion to deaf-blind Helen Keller.The play premiered in 1957 in a Playhouse 90
broadcast. In 1959, it was shown on Broadway with Anne Bancroft
as Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller. In 1961 it was performed in London’s West End starring Anna Massey and Janina Faye.
There have been three movie adaptations. The best known is the 1962 version, with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke assuming their Broadway roles. Both actresses won Oscars for their roles; Bancroft for Best Leading Actress and Duke for Best Supporting Actress (who at 16, was the youngest Oscar winner at the time). In 1979, Patty Duke took on the role of Anne Sullivan and Melissa Gilbert played Helen. In 2000, Disney took its shot at the story, with Alison Elliott and Hallie Kate Eisenberg. The 1979 and 2000 versions were released direct to TV.
The play has been critically acclaimed, making the cover of Time
magazine, and has won several Tony Awards.
The Miracle Worker contains examples of:
- Adult Fear: Dealing with a violent child who cannot communicate and frequently puts herself and others in danger.
- Based on a True Story: Dramatization strength
- Bilingual Bonus: Annie and Helen frequently finger-spell throughout the play.
- Bilingual Dialogue: Annie and Kate have a conversation switching back and forth between English and finger-spelling. Justified, as Annie is trying to encourage Kate to learn to spell with her fingers.
- Corporal Punishment: Annie slaps Helen when Helen hits her.
- Deadpan Snarker: Anne, James and Captain Keller
- Disneyfication: Partly averted. The Disney version retains the physical violence and the black plantation workers, though it does tone down Anne’s backstory.
- Good Versus Good: Annie and the Kellers are both trying hard to do what’s best for Helen, but they clash over what that means.
- Hidden Depths: The whole premise of the film helps to show off how much Helen emulates this, in-universe. Additionally, James Keller (Helen's condescending step-brother) also demonstrates this in the film's climax, being the only one to realize that Helen's attempts at misbehaving are just a way of testing Anne. See Jerk with a Heart of Gold, below.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: James Keller starts off the film as an apparent JerkAss who cares little for his half-sister, recommending that she be sent off to an asylum, and is rather condescending to Anne in his reference to her as someone else "to look after" after discovering that she's partially blind. That said, as the film goes on and Helen's gradual process in communicating becomes clear, James softens somewhat and sees Anne's presence as beneficial. It gets to the point where, right after his father insists on having her removed again in the film's climax, James actually defends Anne's methods and calls his father out on finally being wrong for once in his life.
- Hand Signals: Helen’s most effective means of communication before learning language. Most notably, she strokes her cheek to indicate that she wants her mother, and adults nod or shake their heads against her hand to indicate yes or no.
- The Handicapped and the Helper: Likely the Trope Maker. The Real Life Anne Sullivan was herself visually impaired enough to go to schools for the blind, and was completely blind in later life.
- Maiden Aunt: Aunt Ev
- Mammy: Viney
- No Antagonist
- Nonverbal Miscommunication: Most of Helen’s attempts to express her wants and needs are either misunderstood or disregarded by those around her. Conversely, she understands very little of what her family tries to tell her.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: Of the early part of Helen Keller’s autobiography
- Reality Is Unrealistic: Some viewers consider it unrealistic that Helen is portrayed saying “wah-wah” to mean “water” when she was too young to learn to speak before her illness. However, according to her autobiography, Helen was 19 months old and had begun to speak when she became sick. She did indeed say “wah-wah” and claimed that she retained that word for a long time after most memory of speech had faded.
- Remake Cameo: Patty Duke, who had played Helen both on Broadway and in the 1962 movie, came back to play Annie in the 1979 version.
- San Dimas Time: Anne is given two weeks to work alone with Helen in the cottage house. Anne doesn't think that's enough time, but she eventually agrees nonetheless.
- Shown Their Work: Much of the play is taken directly from Helen Keller’s autobiography and Anne Sullivan’s letters. The letters are occasionally used as monologue for Anne's character.
- For the most part, the finger-spelling is correct and consistent with real ASL, though a few errors can be spotted if one looks closely.
- Signed Language: Specifically, the manual alphabet, which is part of American Sign Language.
- Sweet Home Alabama: Specifically, Tuscumbia, Alabama.