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, the head of the Perkins Institute for the Blind prepares twenty-year-old Annie Sullivan for her new job as Helen Keller’s governess; herself partially sighted because of trachoma, Annie has been educated there. The younger schoolgirls present her with a doll for Helen and smoked eyeglasses for herself.
Arriving by train in Alabama, Annie is met by Mrs. Keller, who is astonished at the teacher’s youth. First, Annie says, she intends to teach Helen language— although, as she admits to her new pupil’s mother, no deaf-blind child has yet been taught even one-tenth of what an ordinary child learns.
At the homestead, Annie meets Helen and allows her to feel her hand, dress, and face. Together, they take her suitcase inside, where Annie allows her to open it with the key. Soon, she finds the elegant doll. Using the alphabet for the deaf, Annie signs the letters d-o-l-l into Helen’s palm, and her pupil imitates the gestures. When she takes the doll away, Helen...
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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, thus discovering the concept of language. The play thus ends with her on the threshhold of full entry into human society.
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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Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
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....
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