Illustration of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan

The Miracle Worker

by William Gibson

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The Miracle Worker is not only one work but can be appreciated in three forms: the published script, live performances, and television and film versions. The vast majority of scripts are only read by people involved in preparing a performance. The Miracle Worker is one of the scripts written in the twentieth century that has obtained the status of literature. Nevertheless, reading a script as literature is a strange, if not unnatural, activity; it is akin to reading an operation’s manual for a product one does not have and cannot obtain. A script is most useful in preparing a play; it can also aid in understanding, analyzing, and evaluating various performances. Yet, even the best script is not an adequate replacement for a performance.

At the time that the play was written, Helen Keller was still alive and was known to most of the educated public. Most theatergoers knew that she graduated from college and, after learning to speak, toured the vaudeville and lecture circuit in the early twentieth century. Her autobiography was widely read, and her name provided an instant image of achievement despite enormous handicaps.

From a historical perspective, Annie Sullivan’s description of her own youth in the state almshouse is more indicative of the way in which handicapped children were treated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than either the indulgent defeatism of the Kellers or the persistent pursuit of the “impossible” by Sullivan. Since no one knew how to reach a child with multiple major handicaps, most people considered the task impossible.

Purchase of the script of The Miracle Worker does not include any performance rights. Payment of royalties is required even for amateur performances, and even “lecturing” and “public reading” are specifically prohibited on the copyright page. Nevertheless, drama departments in high schools and colleges, as well as community drama groups, sometimes choose to produce The Miracle Worker. One reason is the flexibility and low cost of the set.

The successful production of The Miracle Worker requires a child actress capable of playing the strenuous role of Helen and a teenager or young woman who can be a believable Annie; merely adequate or even poor performances by other actors will not jeopardize the play, and considerably less is required of the other roles in both time and talent. The flexible number of roles of children from the Perkins Institute permits a large group where children are readily available or a small group where child actors are limited. Any work that deals with real people with established racial identities can cause problems; the stereotypical and condescending attitude toward the black characters in The Miracle Worker, while historically correct, may be offensive to people in some schools and communities.

The 1962 black-and-white film version of The Miracle Worker won Oscars for Patty Duke, who played Helen, and Anne Bancroft, who played Annie Sullivan. A copy is available for rent or purchase at various stores, but such rental or purchase does not include the rights to public performance. As with any copyrighted work, rights for educational use must be investigated before the videotape can be played in an educational setting. One advantage of the 1962 film version is that Gibson adapted his play for the screen. While the sets are more elaborate than those prescribed for the play, the black-and-white photography seems appropriate for the time period and the biographical nature of the plot.

The Miracle Worker in any form—script, play, or film—provides an introduction to the lives of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. Hopefully, this introduction will encourage readers to turn to more in-depth biographies of the two women, such as Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life (1903), or one of the biographies of Sullivan, such as The Touch of Magic (1961).

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)