Illustration of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan

The Miracle Worker

by William Gibson

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Form and Content

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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.

Dramatic Devices

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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.

Literary Style

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The most striking aspect of the construction of The Miracle Worker is the style in which the play is written. Although realistic in tone, The Miracle Worker often makes use of cinematic shifts in time and space to illuminate the effect of the past on the present in a manner analogous to Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman. It is clear that Gibson was influenced by Death Of A Salesman, which was written in 1949, especially in terms of his use of flashback and stage space. The realistic tone of The Miracle Worker comes through in the dialogue, which is similar to the way that people talk to each other in real life. It is Gibson's use of flashback that brings about many of the cinematic shifts within the linear action of the play. The first of these flashback scenes occurs at the play's opening, when the audience learns how Helen Keller first became deaf and blind. The scene depicts the incident which sets the wheels in motion for the rest of the events in the play. Right after this scene, the audience is taken into "real" time and the action proceeds chronologically.

After this initial scene, the use of flashback in The Miracle Worker changes. Unlike Death Of A Salesman, in which the characters actually step into the past and play out scenes, Gibson uses offstage voices whenever he wants to set past events against the action of the present. Gibson uses this device solely with the main character, The Miracle Worker herself, Annie Sullivan. These voices from the past help the audience to understand why Annie does the things that she does while working with Helen in the Keller home. By using these voices, the audience is able to hear and see into Annie's mind. These moments are also the only time that the point of view of the play changes. Most of the time, as in most plays, the action unfolds before the audience's eyes as it happens and not through any particular character. However, in the flashback scenes in which Gibson uses offstage voices, the point of view changes because the audience is getting a glimpse of the past through the mind of Annie Sullivan.

Setting and Use of Space

The cinematic style that Gibson uses also can be seen with the setting of the play and the use of stage space. Gibson's use of stage space is also very similar to Arthur Miller's in Death Of A Salesman. Both playwrights establish a particular setting as a base for reality in their plays, in which only the basics are used. In The Miracle Worker, Gibson uses only the items that are actually used during the action of the play to establish the Kellers's home, such as the water pump and doors with locks. Anything that is not actually used by the characters in the play should only be suggested. Both playwrights use this particular technique so that the characters can enter into other areas of the play without having to do complicated set changes that would ruin the fluid motion of the play. As Gibson states in the script: ''The convention of the staging is one of cutting through time and place, and its essential qualities are fluidity and spatial counterpoint." By using this convention, the audience is quickly taken from the Keller home to the Perkins Institution for the Blind, the train station, or the garden house, without disturbing the action of the play.

With the use of this staging convention, characters occupying different areas of the stage can affect one another. This can be seen early in the play when Annie is at the Perkins Institution where she is preparing to leave to go to the Keller home. In the scene, Annie is hearing the offstage voices of her past when Anagnos calls out her name, quickly bringing her back to the present. At this point, Annie answers him by calling out "Coming!" Atthesame moment, Kate, who is in the Keller home, catches the word "coming" and "stands half turned and attentive to it, almost as though hearing it." This is a prime example of how Gibson uses the space of the stage to bring worlds in the play together in order to show the effects that they have on each other. In production, the careful use of lighting helps to make these shifts in setting clear to the audience, as if a world is unfolding before their eyes instead of the action being interrupted for a change of set. This keeps the audience involved and helps to make them a part of the world of the play, which is similar to the way film directors use crossfades and other editing devices to manipulate their audience's attention.


Although the cinematic style that Gibson uses in The Miracle Worker works very well, it is important to note that Gibson placed great importance on the play truthfulness. No matter what devices Gibson used in The Miracle Worker, honesty is apparent in his technique. Without honesty, whether dealing with the characters' relationships or the dramatic conflicts that arise in the action of the play, the audience will not connect with the play. It is due to the play's honesty that Gibson is able to use flashback, cinematic shifts, and other devices in order to inspire the audience and pull them into the world of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller. The audience is able to believe in and care about what is happening in the world of the play because of the honesty with which Gibson endows every character and situation in The Miracle Worker.

Places Discussed

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The Keller house

The Keller house was a 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 threshold of full entry into human society.

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