The story of Helen Keller is nothing if not remarkable. All of us know about her, but we may not know all the details of how Helen Keller came to become so well known. William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker is a wonderful gateway into knowing a little more about how Helen was before she learned sign language, and more importantly, it is the story of her teacher Anne Sullivan, who gave her the gift of language.
Helen was a feral child, being made deaf and blind due to an early illness, before her parents decided to hire Anne Sullivan to tame her. Because Helen couldn’t hear or see, she had been coddled by her parents, who pitied her. This made Anne’s job all the more difficult because Helen, despite her handicaps, had learned to take advantage of others around her. Gibson, who has based his play on Keller’s autobiography, deftly shows the family’s crisis and Anne’s hardheaded attempts to make a breakthrough in Helen’s world. More of a play to see rather than read, it is still quite engaging and allows you to imagine the setting and characters in your own head, and on your own time. There is quite a lot to take in, and the incidents in the play leave you a little exhausted. As a teacher, Anne Sullivan’s patience and innovation were particularly impressive to me. The story is so unbelievable, that sometimes you have to remind yourself that this is not fiction!
Anne Sullivan and Helen had a long relationship till the former’s death. Helen Keller’s life should be an inspiration to all of us. Not only did she overcome her deafness and blindness, but she went on to write and become politically active. She was friends with Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain!
Here’s a video of Keller with her later companion and interpreter Polly Thomson: