The Miracle Worker Historical and Social Context
by William Gibson

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Prejudice and Fear in America during the 1880s and 1950s

The Miracle Worker was written in the United States during the late 1950s, which was the beginning of a period of change in American society. The country had just witnessed the paranoia of the McCarthy hearings, during which many theatre artists were charged with participating in "un-American" activities, or simply accused of being Communists. The mid-to late 1950s also witnessed the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in the southern U.S., including in Alabama, where The Miracle Worker is set. In American theatre, audiences had seen the crumbling facade of the American dream in the plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. All of these aspects are a part of The Miracle Worker in its form, origin, and focus.

Although the subject of The Miracle Worker is not the paranoia of possible Communist invasion or the civil rights of African Americans in the 1950s, both of these factor into an underlying theme of the play: prejudice and fear. In the play, the prejudice and fear that arise from misunderstanding are brought to light. The most obvious example of this is the way in which the Kellers treat Helen. They use Helen's handicap as a reason to treat her with pity and for their reluctance to discipline her. The Kellers' s fear and ignorance of Helen's condition cause them to underestimate Helen's intelligence, and allow them to treat her like an animal.

Prejudice is also clearly present in the relationships that Captain Keller has with Annie and Viney. The Miracle Worker is set in the southern U.S. in the 1880s, shortly after the Reconstruction following the Civil War. During this period, the South resented the North's methods and ideas, especially those concerning the treatment and rights of former slaves. This view is dramatized in the play with the relationship Captain Keller has with Viney; he is very short with Viney, and does not appreciate when she offers her opinion of the changing circumstances in the Keller household after Annie's arrival. Viney displays a fear of Captain Keller and is unsure of her place in their relationship. The suspicion and resentment of the North by the South is seen in The Miracle Worker with the arrival of Annie, who is from the North and her relationship with Captain Keller. From the beginning, Captain Keller establishes himself as a man of the South while he is discussing the Battle of Vicksburg with his son James during Annie's first breakfast with the Kellers. The Battle of Vicksburg lasted for 47 days and ended with the victory of the North, led by Ulysses S. Grant, on July 4,1863. Grant became famous for his ruthless determination during this Civil War battle and Captain Keller later compares Annie's stubbornness with Grant's. Captain Keller's prejudice and resentment can be seen in his remarks about Grant's drunkenness; therefore, his comparison of Annie and Grant can be construed as negative. Captain Keller is also fearful of Annie's methods because of her young age and the fact that she herself is virtually blind. In these examples, Gibson is displaying deeply rooted prejudices common among many Americans.

American Theatre in the 1950s

During the 1950s, the American theatre saw many plays dealing with the problems of American society and the disenchantment that people sometimes experienced while trying to pursue the ''American Dream." Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman (1949) is often considered a modern tragedy because of the depth of one simple man's struggle in American society. This play in particular had an effect upon the theatre structure and form of The Miracle Worker . In his play, Gibson uses flashback and past events to punctuate the action that is unfolding on stage in ''real'' time, as the audience is watching. Other artistic trends such as the use of psychological truth as a basis for the characters' conflicts and motivation were seen in plays like Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Gibson follows this trend as...

(The entire section is 1,259 words.)