Theatre / The Miracle Worker

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"I wanted to teach you- oh, everything the earth is full of, Helen, everything on it thatís 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 wonít take less!"
Annie Sullivan, Act III

The Miracle Worker 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 Londonís 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.
  • Armor-Piercing Question:
    The Captain: Miss Sullivan, do you like the child?
    Annie: Do you?
  • Based on a True Story: Dramatization strength
  • Bedlam House: According to her own retelling, Annie grew up in such a place.
  • 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.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Annie has a bad dream while on the train and it ends with her startling dramatically in her seat.
  • Corporal Punishment: Annie slaps Helen when Helen hits her.
  • Denied Food as Punishment: One of Annie's teaching methods for Helen which the mother disapproves of.
  • Disneyfication: Partly averted. The Disney version retains the physical violence and the black plantation workers, though it does tone down Anneís backstory.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Annie tells Kate not to pity her, despite the fact that Annie had grown up in an almhouse, because it made her strong.
  • Good Versus Good: Annie and the Kellers are both trying hard to do whatís 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.
  • Ironic Echo: When James mentions that Helen locked Annie in her room, the Captain asks why he didn't tell them earlier upon which James echoes an earlier line directed towards him: "Everyone's been telling me not to say anything."
  • Hand Signals: Helenís 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.
  • Handy 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.
  • Living Doll Collector: Anne Sullivan describes her own time in the orphan asylum/poor house growing up as a child. She and her brother lived in the room where the babies of prostitutes were kept until they died (of the STD's they contracted from their mothers), and were kept there until burial. She and her brother would play with them. It's unclear from the script if they stopped playing with them after they were dead.
  • Maiden Aunt: Aunt Ev.
  • Mammy: Viney.
  • No Antagonist
  • Nonverbal Miscommunication: Most of Helenís 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 Kellerís autobiography.
  • Psycho Lesbian: Alluded to in Annie's talk about the asylum she grew up in: "The asylum? [...] There were [...] some of the kind that keep after other girls, especially the young ones."
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Some viewers consider it unrealistic that Helen is portrayed saying "wah-wah" to mean ďwaterĒ 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.
  • Shown Their Work: Much of the play is taken directly from Helen Kellerís autobiography and Anne Sullivanís 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.
  • Suddenly Voiced: Helen in the final scene.
  • Sweet Home Alabama: Specifically, Tuscumbia, Alabama.
  • Teeth Flying: Annie spits out a tooth after getting smashed in the face by Helen.
  • Tempting Fate: On their second encounter, Annie tells Helen she's a "very good girl" upon which the latter smashes a vase on the floor.
  • Time Skip: The opening scene shows Helen's birth. Then we skip six to seven years ahead for the remainder of the story.
  • Too Hungry to Be Polite: Helen Keller is portrayed as having had no table manners to speak of prior to the arrival of her teacher, Annie Sullivan.
  • Training from Hell: Helen receives this from Annie. The breakfast scene in particular.
  • Trash the Set: The famous breakfast scene in which Helen trashes the dining room. Also later when Helen arrives in the garden house, she makes a huge mess of the interior.

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