William Gibson is generally credited with pioneering the modern biographical drama. He did not invent the biographical play; the lives of real people have always supplied playwrights with material. It is how Gibson combined biography with literary and dramatic techniques in The Miracle Worker that gives him the distinction of creating the model for biographical drama of the twentieth century. After winning six Tony Awards in 1960, the play has continued as one of the most popular and best-known American plays of the mid-twentieth century. This success is partially the result of the compelling nature of its characters. There is a dramatically rich conflict between a deaf, blind child who, for pity’s sake, has been allowed to behave as an animal, and an obstinate, once-blind teacher with a fierce Irish temper. Its success is also attributable to the literary qualities that give the play value as literature as well as theater.
Gibson achieved early recognition as a poet and novelist before writing the first version of The Miracle Worker for television. Each facet of his career influenced the play. As a poet, he developed a command of language and imagery. As a novelist, he developed skill in storytelling and theme development. As a writer for television, he developed facility in handling the rigors of succinct dramatic construction, character development, and theatricality. These overlapped as he discovered techniques to develop themes and to explore the thoughts of a character on stage. The end result was the creation of a language for The Miracle Worker that is almost without equal in the modern theater, at once literate and dramatic but that does not call undue attention to itself. The script, for example, is replete with religious imagery and metaphor, from the title through James Keller’s comparing Annie to the angel who wrestled Jacob, providing a great blessing after causing great pain.
In his book Shakespeare’s Game (1978), Gibson develops a theory of drama that was greatly influenced by his wife, Margaret Brenman, a psychoanalyst. The Miracle Worker is a prime example of Gibson’s theory that the roots of dramatic conflict lie in cognitive psychology, specifically examining the struggles of the individual against social and psychological isolation. Helen Keller is isolated by her deafness, her blindness, and her family’s inability to discipline her. Discipline would include her in everyday family life. Annie Sullivan is isolated psychologically when the death of her brother, Jimmie, leaves her spiritually dead, looking for a “resurrection”; she is isolated physically as the intruder facing the almost insurmountable obstacle of breaking into Helen’s world. Annie also must fight for the right to wage the battle to educate Helen. Annie’s chief weapon is language, another recurring theme in Gibson’s collective works. For Gibson, language has the power to illuminate the mind even more than eyes illuminate the world. Through Annie, he preaches language, theorizes language, and practices language at every opportunity. Even in the midst of their most physical battles, Annie never stops fingerspelling words, language, into the...
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