Illustration of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan

The Miracle Worker

by William Gibson

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William Gibson's Theatrical Skills

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William Gibson has published fiction, poetry, plays, and autobiography, but he is best known for two stage works: Two for the Seesaw, a successful comedy-drama produced on Broadway in 1958; and The Miracle Worker, a classic American play— and later a popular television play and film.

Though not ranked alongside Eugene O'Neill Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams Gibson has carved an impressive niche for himself and will not be overlooked by history. The distinguishing features of his work are an uninhibited combination of humor and seriousness, often with a touching emotional effect; an elegance of style which resides not in fancy language but in a fine-tuned sense of the absolutely appropriate word or gesture; a flexibility of approach which permits him to move from solid realism to an almost Shakespearean use of the stage's capabilities; and a notable skill in orchestrating dialogue, actor movement, sound, and especially lights to produce effective theatrical moments.

Some of these aspects of Gibson's ability will become apparent in this analysis. But all of his skills, and some of his weaknesses, can be seen better by reading the entire text of The Miracle Worker—and best by seeing a decent stage production.

The Miracle Worker is certainly Gibson's best known and most widely-produced drama. What is not commonly known is that the play was originally created as a drama for television: it first appeared on Playhouse 90 on February 7, 1957, with Teresa Wright as Annie Sullivan and Patty McCormack (known for her role in the Broadway play The Bad Seed) as Helen Keller. The stage version, with Patty Duke as Helen and Anne Bancroft as Annie, began its Broadway run in 1959. The story next became a motion picture, adapted by Gibson and directed by Arthur Penn. The film won Academy Awards for Bancroft as best actress and Duke for best supporting actress, as well as nominations for Gibson, Penn, and Costumer Ruth Morley. Completing a circle more odd than vicious, The Miracle Worker resurfaced as a television feature production in 1979. The chief reason for this revival was apparently to give Patty Duke, now a grown woman, a turn on the other end of the seesaw: she played Annie to the Helen of Melissa Gilbert, who is best known for her role on the television series series Little House on the Prairie.

The Miracle Worker is a well-titled play. It tells part of the story of Helen Keller, who, though blind and deaf from childhood, became a noted writer, public figure, and source of inspiration for many people. However, the title refers not to Helen and her miracles—they are still in the future when the play ends—but to her teacher, Annie Sullivan. The story concerns the first year in the professional life of Annie (formerly blind herself but partially cured through many operations before she was out of her teens) and her extraordinary efforts in one short year to make a teachable child out of the utterly spoiled, crafty animal that Helen had become.

The play is based on real lives, and Gibson feels strongly that the necessary "shaping" of the material for the stage must not interfere with its basic truth or reality. He cites biographies of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy in his foreword to the play, and says, "The main incidents of the play are factual: I have invented almost nothing of Helen's, or of what passes between her and Annie, though often I have brought together incidents separated in time."

Space too is telescoped in the play. Gibson describes the stage as being divided into two areas by a diagonal line. The area upstage of this line is on raised platforms and always represents the Keller house; inside we see, down right, a family room, and up center, elevated, a bedroom. The downstage area is neutral ground; when not simply the yard of the Keller home, it "becomes" various places at various times—The Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, the Garden House, and so forth. In this downstage area, near center stage, is a water pump. Readers interested in stage design will recognize the similarity of this arrangement to that of Miller's Death of a Salesman, with the Loman household on levels upstage and the downstage area serving as back yard, offices, a restaurant, and other venues of the play. A paradoxical concept of staging—one area stays reliably the same, the other is fluid—was becoming acceptable to American audiences. It should particularly be noted that Gibson has placed the water pump near the center of the entire stage area, reflecting the fact that the pump, Helen's favorite spot and the place where the most crucial dramatic moment of the play occurs, is central to the play itself.

Movement in time and space onstage is accomplished by the use of properties and set pieces (the Garden House where Annie isolates herself with Helen is assembled onstage before the eyes of the audience), by the movements of the actors, and by changes in the lighting. How Gibson unites these theatrical tools shows the confidence and control of his craftsmanship: in one remarkable sequence, the audience is taken, in a few seconds of stage time, from a crowded farewell party for Annie in Boston to a solitary moment in which Annie hears, from the past, the voice of the younger brother from whom she was tearfully separated at an orphanage, to a voice summoning her for departure, to the sounds of train travel, to the Keller home where Annie is awaited. Technically, these rapid changes may seem like mere film editing, but the special quality of the stage for these transitions—its specifically spatial counterpoint—is seen when Annie starts into her painful memory as the party laughter recedes; and when Annie answers, "Coming!" to the voice summoning her for the train—and Helen's mother Kate, "faraway" in Alabama, "stands half turned and attentive to (Annie's voice), almost as if hearing it."

The essential conflict in The Miracle Worker is between Annie and Helen, with Annie trying her every resource—humor, patience, cruelty, kindness, and above all perseverance—to make Helen communicative enough so that the teaching process can, in earnest, begin. But while that conflict is the core of the play, there are important secondary conflicts. Helen's father has given up on the child, while her mother, Kate, refuses to do so. Of doctors trying to treat Helen, the Captain says:

KELLER: Katie, how many times can you let them break your heart?

KATE: Any number of times.

Kate's attitude makes her an ally of Annie's, and she often intervenes to prevent Keller from firing the upstart Irish girl. But the Captain is completely authoritarian, and Annie's high-handed ways with the entire household regarding their treatment of Helen—no more being "bountiful at her expense"—leaves him angry and unaccepting for most of the play. If trying to reach Helen is the ultimate test of Annie's native wit, guile, and stamina, then her confrontations with the Captain are the test of her integrity and her faith in her methods; for it is because of her thorny refusal to budge from her standards that she is threatened with the loss of her job and her pupil.

A more subtle problem surfaces between Kate and Annie. In making Helen totally dependent upon her as the conduit of all communication, particularly during the period in which the two are completely isolated in the Garden House, Annie inevitably puts herself in the position of mother to the child. This change makes the women not antagonists but simply uncertain about how to behave. This is seen poignantly near the end of the play, when Helen makes her first real breakthrough. Just as the struggle appears lost, Helen starts to work the pump in the Keller yard and the "miracle"—her mind learning to name things—happens as she feels the water and the wet ground. Annie and the others realize what is happening as Helen, possessed, runs about touching things and learning their names, finally, to her parents' great joy, the words ''Mother" and "Papa." The frenzy slows as Helen realizes there is something she needs to know, gets Annie to spell it for her, and spells it back. It is the one word which more than any other describes the subject of The Miracle Worker: "Teacher."

But Annie's discomfort is not yet banished. As Helen's parents fall to their knees to embrace her, Annie "steps unsteadily back to watch the threesome" in their family-shared joy and wonder. The pain of Annie's loss of her brother Jimmie, present in recurrent memories throughout the play, had led her to say that she could never love another human being and that God owes her a resurrection. In reaching Helen, she finds that she is capable of love. But it is not clear whether the resurrection is of Annie, restored to full humanity, or of Jimmie, since Annie now sees Helen as a sister rather than a daughter, conveniently removing Annie as a kind of mother-competitor to Kate. The play ends with Annie saying to Helen, as she used to say to Jimmie, that she loves her ''forever and ever." She says this as the two are the last to leave the stage, and it is a moment of intense emotional power.

Powerful as it is, this ending reflects one of the weaknesses of Gibson as a playwright: he has often been accused, and not without justice, of excessive sentimentality. There are critics who feel that the basic material and conflicts of The Miracle Worker are themselves so powerful that the addition of poor, pathetic Jimmie, whose offstage whimperings we hear (through Annie's memory) many times during the play, is a sort of emotional overkill. Helen's breakthroughs at the end of the play are intensely moving, and together with Annie's discovery that she can, at last and indeed, love Helen, they are enough to render unnecessary the emotional baggage of Jimmie's "presence" in the play. It must be said in fairness, however, that many critics, honoring the indisputable power of the play, do not find it over sentimental.

There is one other aspect of the play which may keep it, not in reading but in terms of actual production, from realizing its full potential. It suffers from what might be called the "Lear Syndrome." The actor John Gielgud is supposed to have said that if you are young enough to play the demanding title role m William Shakespeare's King Lear, you are not old enough to understand it, and vice versa. The part of Helen simply cannot be played by most child actresses: any girl young enough to play Helen at six is unlikely to understand the character except shallowly; and any child actress who can understand Helen, and go convincingly from savagery to lovability, is likely to be not only intelligent but very willful and nearly impossible to direct. This may sound trivial, and is certainly not a criticism of the play as literature. But we remind ourselves that plays are created to be performed first (and read secondarily) and that anything which hurts their possibilities for production must be recognized.

Whatever Gibson's (debatable) weaknesses as a playwright, they are overshadowed by his virtues: skillful characterization, psychological sensitivity, humor, strong dramatic conflicts, and a craftsman's control of the working tools of theatrical production.

Source: Stephen Coy, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997. Coy is a retired educator who has continued his instruction of drama with numerous contributions to textbooks and journals.

The Miracle Worker

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If it is sometimes difficult to make ugliness palatable, it is even more difficult to make goodness persuasive.

All audiences love to have their emotions stirred in the theater, and all audiences hale to have their emotions stirred too easily. The greatest danger author William Gibson faced in telling the story of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker was that of arousing the quick, instinctive resentment of people who might come to feel that they had opened their hearts to a setup.

The materials for too many tears, too easily drawn, were there. The child Helen Keller, deaf, dumb, and blind, was at once an object of pity. We were apt to be on guard, determined not to surrender our compassion too swiftly, when we met her. Annie Sullivan, her twenty-year-old nurse and teacher, invited very nearly the same obvious sympathy: she was orphaned, unlettered, the victim of haft a dozen operations on her own eyes. The spectacle of these two misfits, cut off from the kindness of the rest of the world and from each other as well, moving in sorry circles toward a moment of communication that might never come, was in one sense irresistible; in another sense it was the very sort of patent bid for pathos that generally causes us to set our jaws, stiffen our backs, and defy The Little Match Girl herself to make us cry.

Mr. Gibson won our consent to the harrowing adventure, and then our open surrender to the full-throated chords it dared to sound, by one right stroke of craftsmanship. He did not deal tenderly with images that were already rich in wistful appeal. He dealt roughly with them.

The most direct question posed during the earlier stages of the evening, as a harassed family tried to cope with the small inarticulate monster that moved among them, was spoken by one of Helen Keller's parents to the other.

"Do you like her?" was the question. It was not answered, though the silence, of course, constituted an answer in itself. Love, perhaps, was possible, in some dim maternal way, for the pale, spastic creature whose fingers went flying like thousand-leggers over the faces around her, searching out frantic identifications. But honesty forbade the pretense of liking. Patty Duke played the near-animal who crawled like a frightened crab across an Alabama front yard to hurl a stolen key into a well and then pound herself fiercely on the head as a sign of secretive delight. And she played with a taut mouth drawn back from defiant teeth, with hands that were quicker to strike than they were to receive caresses, with a directionless energy that was doubled by a despair she could not understand.

Nor was any sentiment wasted on the problems Anne Bancroft faced when, as the inexperienced Annie Sullivan, she settled down to the task of breaking a fierce, unintelligent will. "A siege is a siege" said this indestructible battering-ram, rolling up her sleeves and lunging at the locked fortress with a ferocity that might have distressed Attila. There was a long pantomime passage in the middle of the second act during which Miss Bancroft was determined that Miss Duke would eat her dinner, eat it with a spoon, and thereafter fold her napkin. Miss Duke was ready to kick, scratch, bite, tear chairs to splinters and the tablecloth to rags before any such eventualities took place. No known holds were barred, no shreds of flesh spared; the sounds were the sounds of bodies grunting under impact and of furniture cracking under assault; two naked wills wound up on their knees, like dogs panting twice before moving in to the kill; the holocaust was total, not merely physical but spiritual.

When it was over, Miss Bancroft quietly reported to the waiting parents, "The room's a wreck but her napkin is folded." And there was almost more strength in the quiet statement than there had been in the desperate donnybrook. Miss Bancroft's command of her own powers was absolute; and when she touched us she did it not by begging but by the assertion of a rigid, almost brutal, rectitude.

Certain questions of art may be raised about play and production. Should Mr. Gibson have carried along with him, from the television original, a subjective sound track native to another medium? Hadn't he compromised his own honesty by casting six children who were actually blind in one very short sequence in order to introduce, through their attractiveness, an appeal that had nothing to do with the quality of his writing? Had he drawn too steadily not on what was pathetic in his materials but on what was artificially dramatic around them, stretching some of his family tensions beyond the point of profitable return? I think he may have done all of these things, though without essential damage to what was, and is, essentially important: the excitement of watching a mind wrenched, by main force, into being.

Source: Walter Kerr, The Miracle Worker, in his The Theater in Spite of Itself, Simon & Schuster (New York), 1963, pp. 255-57. Kerr is an American dramatist, director, and critic who won a Pulitzer Prize for drama criticism in 1978.

Two for the Miracle

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Near the conclusion of Two for the Seesaw, the rambunctious street urchin, Gittel Mosca, is gently informed that "after the verb to love, to help is the sweetest in the tongue." William Gibson setting aside more serious concerns to anatomize the sweeter, softer virtues, has thus far dedicated his dramatic career to the definition and conjugation of these two verbs.

For, like the play which preceded it, The Miracle Worker—written with the same wit and mounted with equal competence—is essentially a two-character work about the relationship of kindness to love. The time has been set back to the 1880's, the seesaw has been freighted from New York to Alabama, and precariously balanced upon it now are an afflicted child and a 20-year-old Irish girl from Boston; yet, the two plays are clearly lifted from the same trunk. In outline, both works are about the redemption and education of a helpless little ragamuffin by a more experienced, vaguely guilty mentor which results in a mutual strengthening of character. Here the ragamuffin is not a Jewish dancer from the Bronx, but the child Helen Keller, while the helping hand belongs not to the disconsolate divorce, Jerry Ryan, but to Helen's gifted teacher, Annie Sullivan. On the other hand, everybody's motivation remains constant. Annie's conscience-pangs over her desertion of her dying brother, for example, recall Jerry's uneasiness over his desertion of his wife, and both expiate their guilt through "help," unswerving dedication to the welfare of another. To press the parallel further, both plays rely excessively on extra-dramatic devices: Two for the Seesaw on a persistently clanging telephone, The Miracle Worker on a garrulous loudspeaker. And, despite the excellence of the writing, both plays impress me less as dramas of conflict than as socio-psychological essays on the subject of interpersonal relations.

The Miracle Worker documents a historical occurrence: Helen Keller's transformation from a hopelessly untidy, aggressive, isolated, willful animal, possessed only with a sense of touch, into a disciplined, well-groomed human being about to enter the world of languages. The factual story contains only two disclosures of a dramatic nature. Since one of them (that Helen has become deaf and blind from an infant disease) is expended in the opening moments, the bulk of the play consists of Gibson's filler. Some of this filler is purely theatrical: Helen and Annie engage in what are surely the most epic brawls ever staged - in the course of these highly entertaining improvisations, ink is eaten, food is spit, faces are slapped, plates are broken, water is thrown, and general havoc prevails. Some filler is designed for edification: Annie lectures Helen's parents on the dangers of permissive child-rearing (Helen has been badly spoiled), and, in an ill-defined subplot, a cowardly son learns at last to command the love and respect of his stern father by asserting himself. It is Gibson's penchant for instructing his characters in "mature" behavior which disturbs me most. In common with most playwrights of the modern school, love operates in his plays with all the intensity of an ideology, and the only development his people are permitted is a more accurate apprehension of the proper way to show affection.

In consequence, no event occurs in The Miracle Worker which is not somehow identified with love. Take the last scene, the other factual disclosure of the story and the "miracle" towards which everything moves. From history, we know that Helen Keller suddenly made the connection between words and things essential for learning language while pumping water from a well. On the stage, this discovery issues in a perfect orgy of embraces. The child pumps the water, grunts out the word, scurries back and forth along the length of the stage, rings a bell wildly, embraces her mother, kisses her once cold, now loving father, and finally offers her love to Annie whom she has hated throughout the action. As for Annie, finally permitted to express the affection she has purposely withheld, she spells out on the child's hand, "I love Helen ... forever and ever," and the curtain descends.

What is one to say about this? Mr. Gibson's motives are undoubtedly impeccable, his heart is rooted in the proper place, and, though he dances on the edge of Sentiment's soggy slough, he rarely falls in. In its homiletic genre, the play is solid species, and it has been given an admirable production. Arthur Penn has conducted the action with spontaneity, truth, and flow; George Jenkins has provided a functional, multi-story set; and the acting-in a season plagued by miscasting-is all fine, particularly by Anne Bancroft, now a top notch comic-pathetic actress with a mime's expert control of her neck, hands, and facial muscles, and by Patty Duke, a sniffing, sniveling, staggering, moaning Helen who can transform a well-ordered room into Hiroshima in a matter of seconds. But I am afraid I am churlish enough not to respond very strongly to Human Documents, or Testaments to the Human Spirit, or even to Profound Convictions that Man will Endure and Prevail, unless they are accompanied by a good deal more grit, a good deal more mystery, and a great deal more information about the dark places of human motivation than we are given here.

I say this with regret because, although his craft is still a little shaky, Gibson possesses substantial literary and dramatic gifts, and an integrity of the highest order. In addition, he brings to his works authentic compassion, wit, bite, and humor, and a lively, literate prose style equalled by few American dramatists. (Annie's moving tribute to words, while appropriate for a character concerned with communication, is clearly a reflection of Gibson's own love affair with the English language.) Since Gibson is one of a handful of theater writers who does not have to apologize for his dialogue, he can afford a faithful production which does not have to apologize for the play.

But his weakness for inspirational themes, if not suppressed, will inevitably doom him to the second rank. That Gibson has intelligence, tough-mindedness, and a capacity for indignation, nobody who reads The Seesaw Log will deny, but his dramas persistently follow the safer, more familiar road of routine wisdom and spiritual uplift. Like most dramatists of his generation, Gibson confuses playwriting with psychological counseling; unlike most of them, he is capable of much more. His potential is large but it will never be fulfilled until he can find more compelling sources for his view of man than the cheery chapbooks of Horney and Fromm, until he can examine the more dangerous truths which lie beneath the comforting surface of the skin.

Source: Robert Brustein, "Two for the Miracle," ln The New Republic, November 9,1959, pp. 28-29. Brustein is an American drama critic and the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater Company.

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Critical Overview