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Theatre / The Miracle Worker

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"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!"
Annie Sullivan, Act III

The Miracle Worker is a play by William Gibson (not that 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:

  • Adaptational Nationality: Anne Bancroft played Anne Sullivan with an Irish lilt. While the real Sullivan had Irish parents, she was born and raised in Massachusetts, and spoke with an American accent, as this film footage from 1928 reveals.
    • In Real Life, Bancroft used the accent because she had trouble with a New England accent, and had to unlearn the Bronx she'd been using in Two for the Seesaw for over year. By the time the film was made, she toned it down.
  • And Starring: Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker, also starring Victor Jory with Inga Swenson, Andrew Prine, Kathleen Comegys, and introducing Patty Duke.
  • Armor-Piercing Question:
    Captain Keller: Miss Sullivan, do you like the child?
    Annie Sullivan: Do you?
  • As the Good Book Says...: When asked to say grace at the homecoming party, James recites the passage from Genesis 32 about Jacob wrestling with an angel.
  • 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.
  • Casting Gag: Patty Duke played Helen to Anne Bancroft's Annie in both the Broadway version and the 1962 film, and then played Annie in the 1979 film, opposite Melissa Gilbert's Helen.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Annie has a bad dream while on the train and it ends with her startling dramatically in her seat.
  • Catch-22 Dilemma: Annie, looking in a dictionary for the word "discipline":
    Annie: What a dictionary. You have to know how to spell it before you can look up how to spell it.
  • Corporal Punishment: Annie slaps Helen when Helen hits her.
  • Denied Food as Punishment: One of Annie's teaching methods for Helen which Helen's mother, Katie, disapproves of. A mild case as she's not being truly prevented from eating; Annie is just insisting she has to eat her own food, from a separate plate, rather than going around grabbing off everyone else's plate, and as part of this is preventing her from taking other food so that she has to eat from her own plate if she wants to eat.
  • Disability as an Excuse for Jerkassery: Zig-zagged. Helen has been indulged by her parents, who pity her because of her disabilities and let her have her own way all the time, which has resulted in her becoming a Spoiled Brat. The fact that she can't communicate beyond a few basic gestures doesn't help. Annie, however, defies this trope by setting firm boundaries around Helen's behaviour, leading to a battle of wills between her and Helen. (A notable example is the scene where Annie is trying to teach Helen, who has previously been allowed to eat with her hands and to take food from other people's plates, table manners.) However, the Kellers continue to spoil Helen, and Annie eventually has to take her and move into a cottage on the Keller property so that she can work on taming Helen without being undermined by Helen's parents.
  • Disneyfication: Partly averted. The Disney version retains the physical violence and the black plantation workers, though it does tone down Anne’s backstory.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Annie tells Kate not to pity her, despite the fact that Annie had grown up in a bedlam house, because it made her strong.
  • Downer Beginning: The first scene shows the Kellers' shock at realizing that Helen cannot see or hear. The next scene shows how difficult the several years since then were for the family.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Just as described in Helen Keller's autobiography, feeling water from a pump as Annie spells out the word causes her to suddenly make the connection that the symbols are the things; everything around her has a name, and her finger game has actually been teaching her a language.
  • Famous Ancestor: Aunt Ev reminds Kate that Helen is a Keller, and that all the Kellers are cousins to General Robert E. Lee.
  • Flashback: Annie's past is revealed to the audience through multiple flashbacks. During her flashbacks, Annie hears and interacts with the voices of her younger brother and others from the orphan asylum.
    Boy's Voice: Annie, what's that noise?
    Annie: Just a cot, Jimmie.
    Boy's Voice: Where they pushin' it?
    Annie: To the deadhouse.
    Boy's Voice: Annie, does it hurt to be dead?
  • 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.
  • 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. (She had over sixty such signs (they're called home signs) long before Annie arrived.)
  • Heel Realization: Annie removes her dark glasses in response to Captain Keller's complaint. Then he learns that any kind of light hurts her eyes, and tells her to put them back on.
  • 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 half-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 in the Characters subpage.
  • Improbably Predictable: Viney predicts how the Captain will respond to the news that supper will be delayed. Indeed, he later responds exactly as she predicted.
  • 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."
  • 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: While Annie and the Kellers clash over how to teach and raise Helen, everyone is earnestly trying to do what’s best for her.
  • 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. (Again, in reality Helen had invented over sixty home signs which were understood by family; it's just that these weren't adequate means to express her whole mind and all her questions.)
  • Our Acts Are Different: As written, this is a three-act show. The physical demands of Act 2 make both intermissions almost essential.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Of the early part of Helen Keller's 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 “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: Though far more than just a "cameo". Patty Duke, who had played Helen both on Broadway and in the 1962 movie, came back to play Annie in the 1979 version.
  • Shout-Out: At the beginning of the third act, James apologizes to Kate, saying that frogs jump out when he opens his mouth, "like that fairy tail", a reference to the French fairy tale by Charles Perrault, Diamonds and Toads.
  • 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.
  • Suddenly Speaking: Helen finally talks in the final scene.
  • Sunglasses at Night: Annie wears these because any kind of light hurts her eyes.
  • 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 shows Helen the difference between "bad girl" (with a nasty face) and "good girl" (with a big bright artificial smile). She tells Helen she's a "very good girl" upon which the latter smashes a vase on the floor. (She's apparently trying to ask if this too is "bad girl", to which Annie signals that it is.)
  • 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.
      Annie Sullivan: The room's a wreck, but her napkin is folded.
    • Also later when Helen arrives in the garden house, she makes a huge mess of the interior.
  • Unbuilt Trope: This play was one of the earliest examples of Inspirationally Disadvantaged, but it demonstrates a logical consequence of putting a disabled person on a pedestal. The Kellers' refusal to discipline Helen after she lost her sight and hearing resulted in her becoming a violent brat. Annie's therapy to bring Helen out of her darkness and tone down her behavior is far from being clean and organized; it's a horrifically excruciating process for both Helen and Annie.