miracle worker

The Miracle Worker

The Miracle Worker is a cycle of 20th century dramatic works derived from Helen Keller's autobiography The Story of My Life. Each of the various dramas describe the relationship between Keller — a deafblind and initially almost feral child — and Anne Sullivan, the teacher who introduced her to education, activism, and international celebrity.

Its first realization was a 1957 Playhouse 90 broadcast written by William Gibson and starring Teresa Wright as Annie and Patricia McCormack as Helen. Gibson adapted his teleplay for a 1959 Broadway production with Anne Bancroft as Annie and Patty Duke, who reprised their roles for the 1962 feature film.

The Miracle Worker was remade for television in 1979, with Patty Duke as Annie Sullivan, Melissa Gilbert as Helen, and Diana Muldaur and Charles Siebert in supporting roles. In 2000, another television production directed by Nadia Tass starred Alison Elliott as Annie and Hallie Kate Eisenberg as Helen, with David Strathairn and Lucas Black in supporting roles.

A 1984 made-for-television sequel, Helen Keller: The Miracle Continues, starred Blythe Danner as Annie, Mare Winningham as Helen, and Jack Warden as Mark Twain.

Source of the name

The title originates in Mark Twain's description of Sullivan as a "miracle worker." The famed American humorist and author was an admirer of both women, and although his own personal finances were problematic, he helped arrange the funding of Keller's Radcliffe College education by his friend, financier and industrialist Henry Huttleston Rogers.

The "wah-wah" controversy

The "miracle" in The Miracle Worker occurs in this when Sullivan and Keller are at the water pump refilling a pitcher of water. It is in this moment that Helen Keller makes the intellectual connection between the word Sullivan spells into her hand and the concrete substance splashing from the pump. Keller demonstrates her epiphany by miraculously whispering the word "Wah-wah," the baby talk equal of "water."

Many have questioned the reality of this depiction, as Keller had not uttered a single vowel in the course of the film, and, as an apparently pre-lingually deaf and blind child, would not have been aware of the existence of verbal communication. Although the moment of comprehension is the most satisfying scene in the film, it was designed for hearing audiences. A hearing audience would not be expected to fully relate to the importance of the moment by seeing Keller merely spell the word, which would require an understanding of the manual alphabet. Keller mimics the words Sullivan spells into her hand throughout the film by spelling them back in Sullivan's hand, so at this moment it would only seem that Keller was continuing to mimic without understanding the concept. To bridge that problem the film's writer and director had actress Patty Duke (and others in subsequent remakes of the film), who portrayed Keller, speak the word "wah wah" while she finger-spelled "water". The moment of revelation thus becomes clear for hearing audiences, but has been criticized for setting unrealistic expectations for deaf children to "be like Helen Keller" and speak, when even the most gifted deaf child realistically takes years to utter a comprehensible syllable and a lifetime of speech therapy to maintain the ability. Keller herself never spoke with complete clarity although she practiced daily from her tenth year.

Nevertheless, according to Keller's own account in The Story Of My Life, she was not quite pre-lingual when she experienced the illness that destroyed her sight and hearing. She was a year and a half old, at a developmental stage where she understood what was said to her, and she had a small spoken vocabulary, including "Howdy", "Tea, tea, tea" and "water", which she in fact pronounced "wah-wah". She continued to say "wah-wah" long after she was deafened; she describes it as the one word she kept, while substituting a large vocabulary of signs for everything else she wanted to say. She not only remembered that speech existed, but she constantly put her hands over others' mouths as they were talking and attempted to talk as well. This is depicted accurately in the play. Like Laura Bridgman, she did have that year and a half of developmental normalcy, and it is not unreasonable to assume that this is one reason "water" was the first spelled word that gave her the understanding that the symbol and the water itself were meant to be linked.

William Gibson did not use "The Story of My Life" as his exclusive source for the play. In interviews, he has said he also relied on a printed volume of Sullivan's letters written during the time of her early stay with the Kellers. This is alluded to during the film, which depicts her writing letters in her room. Some of these letters were also reprinted in several editions of The Story of My Life.

Finally, Helen's utterance of "wah-wah" is consistent within the dramatic unity of the play and film. In the middle of the play, Helen's mother tells Sullivan that Helen, before her illness, had been precocious in her learning of language and that her first word had been "wah-wah" for water. This sets up the emotional power of the scene at the well. By echoing the first word Helen spoke as an infant, the viewer immediately knows that Helen has made an intellectual breakthrough and now grasps the existence and purpose of language.

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