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 hands of Helen. At the climax of the play, it is language that bubbles up and out of Helen’s mind just as the underground water bubbles up and out of the downstage pump, the play’s omnipresent symbol of Helen’s miracle. The social and psychological isolation of both teacher and student are resolved through language, and both receive the new life Annie had been seeking.
Each of Gibson’s themes is reinforced via a parallel conflict between the Captain and his son, James. The Captain wants desperately to teach James to stand up to the world, but James, who wants to be accepted as a man, fights like a child, wounding with words, throwing a quick barb and retreating. The Captain uses the very techniques on James that he cannot abide to see Annie use on Helen. When the Captain and James debate the Confederate Army’s eventual defeat in the Battle for Vicksburg, their own conflict is developed while their argument becomes a metaphor for the teaching of Helen. The Southern General Pemberton represents the Kellers, Vicksburg becomes Helen, and the stubborn General Grant is Annie. Grant won because, despite his lack of training, he never gave up, foreshadowing Annie’s eventual victory in the battle to teach Helen. In the end, James also learns to use language to stand up to the Captain and end his own psychological isolation.
The play’s climax is both exhilarating and wrenching. The Miracle Worker successfully illuminates the human condition while avoiding most of the pitfalls of sentimentality. In the end, it is not the pathos of the characters that wrings emotion from the audience but the triumph of the human spirit.