Illustration of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan

The Miracle Worker

by William Gibson

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Historical Context

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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...

(This entire section contains 817 words.)

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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 well in his use of offstage voices in The Miracle Worker, which represent Annie's subconscious and give her the motivation to do the difficult things that she does. By the end of the 1950s, however, these trends began to fade away as plays began to take nonrealistic and existential paths; an example of which is Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett.

The late 1950s were a difficult time in the U.S. for many people. Fear and prejudice were relevant themes in many aspects of American life, especially in the South. Some people were reluctant to change and desperately tried to hold on to their idea of American society, while others around them cried out for their own place in the world while expressing their views of what American society should be. Eventually, many Americans allowed change to enter their lives and like the Kellers in The Miracle Worker learned and grew together in the process.

Compare and Contrast

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1880s: Alabama and the rest of the South just finished living through the period of Reconstruction (1865-77) which followed the Civil War. Southerners were suspicious of the North's methods and ideas, including rights for African Americans.

1950s: Alabama attracts international attention as the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by Martin Luther King, Jr., helped the black community to mobilize and plan a strategy to realize their goals, which included desegregation and voting rights.

Today: The United States government and much of American society has adapted to accommodate and promote the ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. There are still some citizens, however, who choose to keep their racist and separatists beliefs even though the law does not support them. Subversive groups such as the Ku Klux Klan continue to exist and promote their message of hatred and division.

1880s: African Americans in the South struggle to find their place in society. Most work as servants in the households of the wealthy white families.

1950s: The practice of segregation led to little opportunity for African Americans to receive higher education and advance to well-paying careers.

Today: African Americans hold positions at all levels of business in the U.S. Nevertheless, racism continues to be a problem in American society. Great steps have been taken since the dawning of the Civil Rights Movement, but much is left to be done to lessen the racial problems in the United States.

1880s: Sign language, like the hand symbols that Annie uses in The Miracle Worker, is introduced to American society. It is met with strong resistance and nongesticulating schools continue to hold prominence.

1950s: The invention of the tellatouch enables a sighted caller to communicate with a deaf-blind person who can read braille.

Today: More technological advances continue to be developed to help the visually and hearing impaired communicate effectively within a hearing and sighted society.

1880s: Almshouses or asylums are used to house America's outcasts and disabled where they are used for forced labor to help defray maintenance costs. The Perkins Institution for the Blind (founded by Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe in 1832) continues to offer an alternative to asylums, as well as teaching the visually and hearing impaired.

1950s: Blind and deaf students attend public schools with non-disabled students. Special day and residential schools are also common and continue to receive funding to help meet the needs of deaf and blind students as well as their teachers.

Today: The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 to address the needs of the disabled, from education and employment to telecommunications and public services.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading