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The Miracle Worker

From Academic Kids

The Miracle Worker is a play by William Gibson based upon Helen Keller's autobiography, The Story of my Life. It tells the story of the relationship between the deaf, mute and blind Keller and Annie Sullivan, the teacher who brought the almost-feral girl into the world of education.

The play ran on Broadway for almost 2 years (October 19, 1959 to July 1, 1961) and starred Patty Duke as Helen Keller.

The play was made into a film in 1962, and starred Patty Duke (as Helen), Anne Bancroft (as Annie Sullivan), Victor Jory, Inga Swenson, Andrew Prine, and Kathleen Comegys. The movie was adapted by Gibson, and directed by Arthur Penn.

The film won Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Anne Bancroft) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Patty Duke, age 16). The film was also nominated for Best Costume Design, Black-and-White, Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

The Miracle Worker was produced for television in 1982. It starred Patty Duke (this time as Annie Sullivan), Diana Muldaur, Charles Siebert and Melissa Gilbert (as Helen). It was directed by Paul Aaron.

It was remade for television in 2000, starring Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Alison Elliott, David Strathairn, Lucas Black and Kate Greenhouse. It was adapted by Monte Merrick and directed by Nadia Tass.

The "Wa-wa" controversy

The "miracle" in The Miracle Worker occurs in this 1962 film when Sullivan and Keller are at the well refilling a pitcher of water. It is in this moment that the lightning of understanding strikes Helen Keller and she makes the intellectual connection between the word Sullivan spells into her hand and the concrete substance splashing from the pump. Keller demonstrates her epiphany, and we are only aware that it has arrived, when she miraculously bellows the word, "Wa-wa," the baby-talk equivalent of "water."

While many deaf people experience a powerful sense of identity with Helen Keller's moment of understanding, an experience many deaf people recall well, the deaf were the first to question the reality of this depiction. It wasn't that Helen said, "wa-wa" that mattered. It was that she spoke - at all. How, for instance, does someone speak who was deaf and blind from the age of nineteen months and has no memory of speech? How would Keller know that such a thing as speech even existed since neither hearing nor deaf people make claims of having memories from that period in their lives? Do people, hearing or deaf, commonly recall memories from the period of up to six months from their mother's womb when everything afterward is blacked out? The probability of recalling such a memory exceeds the astronomical and there must be very few, if any, documented instances of doing so.

How does one who has not uttered so much as a syllable in the course of the film spontaneously speak while never attempting to do so in the previous seven years, the whole of a single lifetime? How, in a total of two weeks of time would Helen learn to speak in the absence of any instruction; a feat no pre-lingually deaf child has achieved before and since Helen Keller?

The answer offered by apologists, of course, is that 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 spell the word; it would require an understanding of the manual alphabet to realize the significance of the moment, a skill possessed almost exclusively by deaf and deaf-blind people who make up less than one per cent of the world's population. 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 "wa-wa" while she finger-spelled "water". The moment of revelation thus becomes clear for hearing audiences (however unlikely to realists).

Additionally, according to Keller's own account in The Story Of My Life, she was not quite prelingual 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, yes, "water", which she in fact pronounced "wahwah". She continued to say "wahwah" 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 one and the same.

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