Illustration of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan

The Miracle Worker

by William Gibson

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In "The Miracle Worker", what's the connection between Civil War references and the play's action?

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The Civil War was not only the "War Between the States," it was in some states a war within the state as families were divided in their support of the North or the South. Such a war within the family occurs in The Miracle Worker.

In this civil war within the Keller family, the patriarch Colonel Arthur Keller--referred to in the play as "Captain"--even retains his military title as he issues orders to the household. He is clearly the ruler, issuing orders to everyone, including his grown son.

  • The first battle occurs in Act II when the Captain, who has been indulgent about Helen's behavior at the dinner table so that he may converse, is challenged by Annie Sullivan, the newly hired governess for Helen, insists that this permissiveness must stop and Helen made to eat with utensils and compelled to behave. The Kellers step outside and the battle begins. Finally, Annie emerges from the house, frazzled and battle-worn, but victorious: Helen has used a spoon to eat. However, Keller is displeased with Annie's treatment of the pampered Helen.
  • The next battle takes place after Annie convinces the Kellers that she must be alone with Helen, without any interference or distractions, if she is to really teach her how to act. Captain Keller wants to just fire Annie, but Mrs. Keller convinces him to allow Annie to try this form of separation.
  • The third battle is between Annie and Helen:
    Helen is driven around as though she is traveling away from the house, but really she is just going in circles. Nevertheless, she believes that she has parted from her parents and has only Annie for company. She throws a fit at being left with only Annie, but when Annie gives a servant girl attention, Helen then wants Annie's time. Exhausted from her tantrum, Helen falls asleep the first evening. In the time that follows, Helen learns to hand spell many words; however, she does not make the connections between the words and the real objects.
    Finally, the two weeks allotted Annie is ended and Mrs. Keller comes to claim Helen.
  • A battle within the ranks begins. James, Captain Keller's son, disagrees with his parents, feeling that Annie is really helpful and good for Helen. He also sees in Annie a model of courage and defiance of the Colonel. Having resented his stepmother and all the attention that Helen gets as well his father's coldness, James starts to assert himself. He asks his parents, "Is it wrong to enjoy a quiet breakfast, after five years? And you two even seem to enjoy each other--"
  • The final battle between Annie and Captain Keller as Annie points out that the two weeks are not up until six o'clock in the evening. She insists, "An agreement is an agreement...." Keller responds, "Miss Sullivan, you are a tyrant. Annie continues to argue that she needs time to try to make Helen understand the connection between the words signed into her hand and the real objects. She talks to Helen, telling her what she has wanted to do for her.

"I wanted to teach you...and share in words...In words, not a soul is in darkness...And I know, I know, one word and I can--...put the world in your hand--....How,how, how, do I tell you that this--"

Annie takes different objects, then spells them in Helen's hand, but there is no recognition until after 6:00 p.m. when Helen is returned to her family.

  • The final battle of the Keller's personal civil war takes place in the dining room. At the dinner table Helen reverts to her wild self and pours a pitcher of water upon Annie. Angry, Annie grabs Helen to make her refill the pitcher. Captain Keller stands and starts out the door to stop Annie, but a stalwart member of the family on the side of Annie James blocks him. In Act III, at the pump, Helen's epiphany takes place and she makes the victorious connection between the object and the word.
  • The victory goes to Annie and to James, as well, as he gains adult autonomy. Captain Keller, is however, satisfied to surrender to these victories.
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What is the connection between The Miracle Worker and allusions to Civil War battles and generals with the action of the play?

William Gibson's play, The Miracle Worker, has as its setting Tuscumbia, Alabama, in the 1880s, where Helen Keller was born.  As one of the former Confederate States still reeling from the exploitation of carpetbaggers and the invasive policies of Reconstruction, there was a great deal of resentment felt by Southerners for any Northern methods. As a matter of fact, Helen's father, Arthur H. Keller, was a captain for the Confederate Army, and his mother was the second cousin of Robert E. Lee.  Captain Heller keeps the glory days of the Confederacy alive in his home by discussing battles such as the Battle of Vicksburg with his son James.

In addition, Captain Heller's glory as a commander spills into his domestic life as he orders people in the household.  His attitude toward Viney, the African-American maid who truly cares for Helen, is evidence of the old Southern mentality.  When Annie Sullivan arrives, the Captain frowns upon her methods, and, later compares her to General Grant of the North for stubbornness.  When he later discusses Grant's drunkenness, Captain Keller's dislike for Northerners is clearly apparent. 

The resentment of the South against the North is one of the biases that Gibson addresses in his play, along with biases held against the racial and disabled.

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