The Miracle Worker Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: Drama)

William Gibson

Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Like Emlyn Williams’ The Corn Is Green (pr., pb. 1938), The Miracle Worker depicts an ardent teacher’s ability to transform her pupil’s life, as together they overcome formidable obstacles through extraordinary dedication and perseverance. Both plays were based on true stories; Helen Keller’s achievement had already become renowned through her many public appearances, articles, and books, including The Story of My Life (1902), Optimism (1903), The World I Live In (1908), Out of the Dark: Essays, Letters, and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision (1913), Let Us Have Faith (1940), Teacher: Anne Sullivan Macy, A Tribute by the Foster-Child of Her Mind (1955), and The Open Door (1957).

The process whereby the physically, socially, or psychologically disabled are brought to overcome the formidable challenges facing them has provided a consistently popular stage subject, whether the obstacles to be surmounted are socioeconomic (The Corn Is Green), physical (The Miracle Worker), congenital (Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, pr. 1977), or even pseudo-religious (Peter Shaffer’s Equus, pr., pb. 1973). Within this popular tradition, The Miracle Worker provides an accessible and affective combination of melodrama (as in its opening scene), sentimentality (Annie’s farewell to the younger blind girls at the Perkins Institute), and inspiration (the play’s end).

William Gibson’s little-known sequel to The Miracle Worker, entitled Monday After the Miracle (pr. 1982), differs radically from its predecessor in content and tone. It resumes the story of Helen Keller’s life twenty years later, when she is attending Radcliffe University, still accompanied by Annie Sullivan, who has become frustrated and embittered after years of altruistic devotion. Although the teacher marries writer John Macy, the tripartite relationship proves unsatisfactory for all involved, and their vituperativeness at times rivals that of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (pr., pb. 1962). Gibson’s work culminates with Annie threatening to kill John with a letter-knife, a scene echoing Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis clos (pr. 1944; No Exit, 1946). Unlike Sartre’s characters, however, Macy ultimately escapes the relationship. Monday After the Miracle also depicts other little-known aspects of Keller’s life, including her commitment to socialist causes.

The Miracle Worker has become the definitive popular account of Helen Keller’s life. The much-acclaimed film of The Miracle Worker (1962) featured the original Broadway cast (Anne Bancroft as Annie, Patty Duke as Helen). Arthur Penn directed both the film and the original Broadway production.