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 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 1979. 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 when Sullivan and Keller are at the well 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 "Wa-wa," the baby talk equivalent of "water."
Many have questioned the reality of this depiction, as Keller had not uttered a single syllable 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 speech. 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 "wa-wa" 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.
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 "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.
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.
Finally, Helen's utterance of "wa-wa" 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 "wa-wa" for water. This sets up the emotional power of the scene at the well. By echoing the first word she 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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