Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
The script for The Miracle Worker begins with a general description of the set, which consists of two areas divided by a diagonal line. The area behind the diagonal represents the Keller house and includes two rooms and a porch area. The other area accommodates a variety of sets as needed. According to William Gibson, since the essential qualities of the set “are fluidity and spacial counterpoint,” the less set there is, the better.
Act 1 begins with three adults gathered about a crib. Directions are minimal: Kate Keller is described as “a young gentle woman with a sweet and girlish face,” the doctor as “elderly” with a “stethoscope at neck, thermometer in fingers,” and Captain Keller as a “hearty gentleman in his forties with chin whiskers.” The three adults are to appear with “tired bearing and disarranged clothing” to show that they have been through a long vigil. While the dialogue begins with the announcement that the child will survive her ordeal, her mother quickly discovers that the child is blind and deaf.
Although scenes are not noted as such, directions for a scene change are given using lights and distant belfry chimes. Three children and a dog are on stage when the lights rise. Two are described simply as “Negroes,” while Helen is described as “six and a half years old, quite unkempt in body, and vivacious little person with a fine head, attractive, but noticeably blind, one eye larger and...
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The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
The Miracle Worker begins as a doctor reassures the parents of the infant Helen Keller that their daughter’s fever has passed; she will survive her severe illness. After the doctor leaves, the mother notices that the baby responds neither to hand movements in front of her eyes nor to any sounds. The anguished parents futilely call her name as the stage lights quickly dim.
When the lights rise, six-and-a-half-year-old Helen is playing with children who have cut out paper dolls. Attractive but unkempt and “noticeably blind,” with gestures that are “abrupt, insistent, [and] lacking in human restraint,” she is clearly undisciplined and often temperamental. She disrupts the group’s play, unknowingly using the scissors to menace her playmates’ eyes. Despite the family’s apparent strain, her mother remains patiently protective, and her father refuses to have Helen institutionalized, though she is thought to be mentally defective. Groping around the room, Helen knocks over furniture and cries until comforted by her mother. Trying to communicate, she makes only “an inarticulate weird noise in her throat such as an animal in a trap might make.” Nevertheless, there are some signs of intelligence: Realizing that her cloth doll lacks eyes, for example, she cleverly snatches buttons from her aunt’s dress to provide some. Although other doctors have failed, Keller agrees to write to a specialist in Boston.
In the next scene,...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Keller house. Two-story farmhouse located near Tuscumbia, Alabama, that was Helen Keller’s birthplace and the home in which she grew up. Gibson’s script calls for a set consisting of two areas divided by a diagonal line. The area behind the line represents the Keller house and includes two rooms and a porch area. The other area accommodates a variety of other settings as needed. Audiences can best appreciate the simple setting by trying to imagine how a blind and deaf child who initially has no concept of human language would interact with surroundings that she can neither see nor hear.
Angry and full of incomprehension of the world outside her body, Helen lashes out at those around her until Annie Sullivan forces her to settle down, behave civilly, and begin to learn how to understand the world in terms of language, which she teaches Helen through hand movements. Shortly after Annie arrives, she and Helen have a fight, which Helen wins by locking Annie in her room and hiding the key. Annie wins the next big fight by forcing Helen to eat off her own plate with a spoon. Afterward, she takes Helen from the main house to live with her in a detached garden house, where she can exercise complete control over Helen to break her of her almost feral habits. The play’s “miracle” occurs when Annie makes Helen pump water into a pitcher, and Helen finally grasps the connection between Annie’s hand movements and water,...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
In his production notes for The Miracle Worker, William Gibson specifies that “the convention of the staging is one of cutting through time and place, and its essential qualities are fluidity and spatial counterpoint.” The stage space is divided diagonally, from downstage right to upstage left, into two areas. Behind the diagonal, on platforms, is the Keller house, in which the downstairs family room and an upstairs bedroom are visible; on the stage level, outside the porch, is the water pump. A neutral stage space in front of the diagonal is used at different times to represent various places, including the offices of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, a train station, the garden house, and the front yard of the Keller home.
Props are used to define the neutral area as needed. Thus, for example, a long table, a chair, and teaching equipment for the blind define the area as the Perkins Institute. For the scenes in the garden house, the requisite props are carried on and off stage in full view of the audience and without heed to the imaginary walls, which are themselves defined by the furniture and draperies that are brought on. Accordingly, Gibson maintains that “the less set there is, the better,” since “in a literal set, the fluidity will seem merely episodic.” He also suggests that, apart from functional requirements of props (doors with locks, the upstairs window, the water pump, and the like), the set should be constructed so...
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Prejudice and Fear in America during the 1880s and 1950s
The Miracle Worker was written in the United States during the late 1950s, which was the beginning of a period of change in American society. The country had just witnessed the paranoia of the McCarthy hearings, during which many theatre artists were charged with participating in "un-American" activities, or simply accused of being Communists. The mid-to late 1950s also witnessed the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in the southern U.S., including in Alabama, where The Miracle Worker is set. In American theatre, audiences had seen the crumbling facade of the American dream in the plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. All of these aspects are a part of The Miracle Worker in its form, origin, and focus.
Although the subject of The Miracle Worker is not the paranoia of possible Communist invasion or the civil rights of African Americans in the 1950s, both of these factor into an underlying theme of the play: prejudice and fear. In the play, the prejudice and fear that arise from misunderstanding are brought to light. The most obvious example of this is the way in which the Kellers treat Helen. They use Helen's handicap as a reason to treat her with pity and for their reluctance to discipline her. The Kellers' s fear and...
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The most striking aspect of the construction of The Miracle Worker is the style in which the play is written. Although realistic in tone, The Miracle Worker often makes use of cinematic shifts in time and space to illuminate the effect of the past on the present in a manner analogous to Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman. It is clear that Gibson was influenced by Death Of A Salesman, which was written in 1949, especially in terms of his use of flashback and stage space. The realistic tone of The Miracle Worker comes through in the dialogue, which is similar to the way that people talk to each other in real life. It is Gibson's use of flashback that brings about many of the cinematic shifts within the linear action of the play. The first of these flashback scenes occurs at the play's opening, when the audience learns how Helen Keller first became deaf and blind. The scene depicts the incident which sets the wheels in motion for the rest of the events in the play. Right after this scene, the audience is taken into "real" time and the action proceeds chronologically.
After this initial scene, the use of flashback in The Miracle Worker changes. Unlike Death Of A Salesman, in which the characters actually step into the past and play out scenes, Gibson uses offstage voices whenever he wants to set past events against the action of the present. Gibson uses this device solely...
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Compare and Contrast
1880s: Alabama and the rest of the South just finished living through the period of Reconstruction (1865-77) which followed the Civil War. Southerners were suspicious of the North's methods and ideas, including rights for African Americans.
1950s: Alabama attracts international attention as the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by Martin Luther King, Jr., helped the black community to mobilize and plan a strategy to realize their goals, which included desegregation and voting rights.
Today: The United States government and much of American society has adapted to accommodate and promote the ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. There are still some citizens, however, who choose to keep their racist and separatists beliefs even though the law does not support them. Subversive groups such as the Ku Klux Klan continue to exist and promote their message of hatred and division.
1880s: African Americans in the South struggle to find their place in society. Most work as servants in the households of the wealthy white families.
1950s: The practice of segregation led to little opportunity for African Americans to receive higher education...
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Topics for Further Study
Discuss the use of food and drink as significant parts of the action of The Miracle Worker.
The end of The Miracle Worker has been described by some critics as ''too sentimental." Do you agree? What, then, does ''sentimental'' mean?
Read Two for the Seesaw. What are the qualities of Anne Bancroft as an actress that would prompt directors to cast her as the heroine of two such different plays as The Miracle Worker and Two for the Seesaw?
How many kinds of sign language are used in the U. S.? Research the methods of hand-spelling used with people who are both deaf and blind.
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The Miracle Worker was originally written for television and produced on CBS's Playhouse 90 in February of 1957. Teresa Wright starred as Annie and Patty McCormack portrayed Helen.
The film version of The Miracle Worker was produced in 1962 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was adapted by Gibson himself, directed by Arthur Penn, and stars Anne Bancroft as Annie and Patty Duke as Helen—both leads in the original Broadway production of the play. The film is available on videocassette.
The 1979 television remake of The Miracle Worker, which stars Patty Duke as the teacher Annie and Melissa Gilbert as Helen, is available on videocassette from Warner Home Video. The production bears noting, as the same script used for the original Playhouse 90 production was used for this remake.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller. Learn what this miracle worker accomplished.
Anne Sullivan Macy, by Nella Brady. A fascinating account of Sullivan's life, and an examination of what happens to a life that climaxes at the age of twenty-one.
The Seesaw Log, by William Gibson. This the author's own account of the entire process of getting Two for the Seesaw produced on Broadway. There is not to be found a funnier or more truthful book about the farce, the frustrations, and the sheer lunacy of big-time commercial play production.
The Joy of Signing, by Lottie L. Riekehof. An illustrated guide to sign language that provides a working understanding of the language of the deaf.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Brustein, Robert "Two for the Miracle," in The New Republic, Vol. 144, no. 19, November 9,1959, pp. 28-29.
Duprey, Richard A. ''An Enema for the People'' in his Just Off the Aisle: The Ramblings of a Catholic Critic, Newman Press, 1962, pp. 135-46.
Hayes, Richard. "Images" in Commonweal, Vol LXXI, no. 10, December 4, 1959, p. 289.
Atkinson, Brooks. "Miracle Worker. Two Strong Minds and Two Strong Players" in the New York Times, November 1, 1959, p. 1.
A favorable review of the play's Broadway premiere Atkinson finds favor with both Gibson's material and the performances of the lead actresses.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 23, Gale, 1983.
Provides an overview of Gibson's work, providing criticism on a number of his plays, including The Miracle Worker.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth Century American Dramatists, Gale, 1981.
An overview of Gibson's career, with insights into a number of his works.
Tynan, Kenneth. "Ireland Unvanquished" in the New Yorker, Vol. XXXV, no. 37, October 31,1959, pp. 131-36.
A mixed review of The Miracle Worker that ultimately...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Brustein, Robert. “Two for the Miracle.” The New Republic 141, no. 19 (November 9, 1959): 28-29. Argues that Gibson is a gifted writer, with literary and dramatic skills, but that The Miracle Worker is merely an essay on interpersonal relations and that Gibson’s weakness for the inspirational dooms him to the second rank.
Hayes, Richard. “Images.” Commonwealth 71, no. 10 (December 4, 1959): 289. Argues that The Miracle Worker’s message of goodness is aesthetically irrelevant.
“A Hit at 10: The Miracle Worker.” Newsweek 54, no. 18 (November 2, 1959): 97. Representative of the many favorable reviews when the play opened on Broadway. Focuses on Annie Sullivan as the exemplary teacher and on the themes of love and discipline. Like many reviews, it expresses surprise that the play succeeds in spite of its first being written for television.
Kerr, Walter. “The Miracle Worker.” In The Theater in Spite of Itself. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963. Discusses how The Miracle Worker succeeds in spite of some weaknesses.
Tynan, Kenneth. “Ireland Unvanquished.” The New Yorker 35, no. 37 (October 31, 1959): 131-136. Describes Gibson’s juxtaposition of laughter, combat, and pathos. Argues that the play affirms...
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