Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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 protruding; her gestures are abrupt, insistent, lacking in human restraint, and her face never smiles.”

Since Helen cannot speak, hear, or see, her entire part is described in the parenthetical directions that are interspersed among the pieces of dialogue. The novice reader of plays, especially those who have never seen a live production, may have difficulty in imagining parenthetically described actions. The directions are detailed enough, however, to ensure that all actions required by the plot are included, yet general enough to encourage artistic freedom in acting and directing.

In the next scene, James, “an indolent young man”; Aunt Ev, “a benign visitor in a hat”; Kate, “a woman steeled in grief”; and Captain Keller disagree over help for Helen. This conversation leads to the introduction of Anagos, who reads a letter that he received from Captain Keller to Annie Sullivan, who is to teach Helen. In the remaining scenes of act 1, Annie meets the Keller family, tries to teach Helen to hand-spell, and is locked in her room by Helen.

In act 2, Annie continues to try to teach Helen. A noisy and violent breakfast lesson is presented in several pages of description. Act 2 ends as Annie and Helen begin a two-week stay in the garden house. Act 3 begins in the garden house, where Helen is behaving in an orderly fashion, and continues as Annie and Helen return to the Keller homestead, where Annie and the rest of the family resume their fight over control of Helen. Annie prevails, and Helen finally connects a spelled word “water” to the thing that the word represents and then eagerly seeks the names for other things on stage.

The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to 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 becomes enraged, but Annie restrains her despite numerous slaps and kicks. Next, she teaches Helen the word c-a-k-e, but when Helen regains the doll she hits Annie’s face with it, drawing blood; she then rushes out of the room and locks Annie inside. That evening, Captain Keller rescues the teacher from the room, carrying her through a window and down a ladder into the yard, where Helen plays innocently beside the water pump while hiding the key inside her mouth. Later, Annie sees her drop the key down the well.

The second act opens with Annie reading aloud a letter she has written to the Perkins Institute; Helen must, she insists, first learn reasonable obedience. The next morning, Helen roams around the breakfast table, putting her hands into the food on others’ plates, as she is accustomed to do, but Annie refuses to allow her food to be groped. A violent tantrum ensues, but Annie will neither yield nor pity her as the Kellers have always done. Eventually, she asks them to leave and locks herself in the dining room alone with Helen, insisting that she sit at the table and eat her own food. A prolonged, wordless, extremely physical confrontation then occurs, during which Helen strikes Annie several times with her fists and is twice slapped in return.

When the day ends, Annie reports to the Kellers that their daughter has learned to sit at the table, eat with a spoon, and fold her napkin; Helen flees, however, whenever Annie comes near. That night, knowing that Captain Keller is outraged, Annie prepares to leave. He relents, offering her a second chance.

Contending that Helen’s worst handicap is the Kellers’ indulgent pity and overprotective love, Annie maintains that Helen must be made totally dependent on her alone and suggests that they live together elsewhere as long as necessary. She suggests moving into the Kellers’ garden house with Helen but making her think that they are far away. Her parents consent to a two-week trial period. After arriving at the garden house after a two-hour ride, Helen is enraged to find that her parents have gone, but late that night she takes renewed interest in learning words.

The third act takes place on the final day of the two-week period. Helen is neat, clean, well-mannered, obedient, and even able to crochet simple chains, but Annie is exhausted and frustrated. Though Helen knows the signs for twenty-one words, she does not yet associate words with things. Instead, she regards the signs as a meaningless finger-game that she can play even with the family dog. Annie begs the Kellers to grant her another week, hoping Helen will realize that “words can be her eyes, to everything in the world outside her, and inside too,” The Kellers insist, however, that Helen return home to them.

That evening, Helen deliberately tests her family’s indulgence, throwing her napkin on the floor repeatedly and beginning a tantrum when Annie removes her food. After her father orders it restored, she discards her fork, eats with her hands, tries to handle Annie’s food, and flings a pitcher of water at her. Annie then carries her, kicking and screaming, to refill the pitcher at the water pump in the yard. There, as Annie repeatedly spells w-a-t-e-r, the miracle happens: Helen associates the word and the thing, then joyously wants to know more words. The family is called to witness the change, and Helen learns to sign m-o-t-h-e-r and f-a-t-h-e-r for the first time. Next, Annie spells t-e-a-c-h-e-r and “I l-o-v-e H-e-l-e-n.”

Together, they enter the house, and the play ends.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Keller house

*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

(Comprehensive Guide to 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 that it is “free, airy, [and] unencumbered by walls . . . locales should be only skeletal suggestions, and the movement from one to another should be accomplishable by little more than lights.”

Subtle shifts in the color of the lighting also accompany the play’s shifts from exterior action to interiority as Annie’s guilt-ridden memories are evoked through the voices of her younger brother Jimmie and of unidentified adult authority figures. The “shadowy intimations” of these speakers are dimly visible in the background of their scenes.

Segues covering changes in time or locale are often achieved through sound effects that accompany shifts in lighting. Following the opening scene in which Helen’s blindness and deafness are discovered, for example, the bedroom dims out, and “time, in the form of a slow tune of distant belfry chimes which approaches in a crescendo and then fades, passes”; in the following scene, Helen is six and a half years old. Similarly, the chimes cover the hours that follow the initial onstage dining-room confrontation between Helen and Annie. The transition between Annie’s departure from Boston and her arrival in Alabama is conveyed through the sound of railroad wheels, which is maintained underneath an entire scene in the Keller homestead prior to Annie’s arrival.

In the final moments of the play, the lights dim over all the set except the water pump, the site of the miracle. The light takes on “the color of the past” before it fades and the curtain comes down.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Prejudice and Fear in America during the 1880s and 1950s
The Miracle Worker was written in the United States...

(The entire section is 817 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The most striking aspect of the construction of The Miracle Worker is the style in which the play is...

(The entire section is 938 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1880s: Alabama and the rest of the South just finished living through the period of Reconstruction (1865-77) which followed...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Discuss the use of food and drink as significant parts of the action of The Miracle Worker.

The end of The Miracle...

(The entire section is 105 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Patty Duke as Helen Keller Published by Gale Cengage

The Miracle Worker was originally written for television and produced on CBS's Playhouse 90 in February of 1957. Teresa...

(The entire section is 122 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller. Learn what this miracle worker accomplished.


(The entire section is 117 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Brustein, Robert "Two for the Miracle," in The New Republic, Vol. 144, no. 19, November 9,1959, pp....

(The entire section is 166 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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. Representative of the many favorable reviews when the play opened on Broadway. Focuses on Annie Sullivan as the exemplary teacher and on the themes of love and discipline. Like many reviews, it expresses surprise that the play succeeds in spite of its first being written for television.

Kerr, Walter. “The Miracle Worker.” In The Theater in Spite of Itself. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963. Discusses how The Miracle Worker succeeds in spite of some weaknesses.

Tynan, Kenneth. “Ireland Unvanquished.” The New Yorker 35, no. 37 (October 31, 1959): 131-136. Describes Gibson’s juxtaposition of laughter, combat, and pathos. Argues that the play affirms the dignity of the species.

“Who Is Stanislavsky?” Time 74, no. 25 (December 21, 1959): 46-52. Discusses the theatrical qualities of The Miracle Worker, especially the fight sequences, and examines the development of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller as characters in the play.