The Miracle Worker, the inspirational 1959 William Gibson play now being revived on Broadway, tells the story of Helen Keller, deaf and blind since she was a toddler, learning how to communicate with the world. Her teacher, Annie Sullivan, though little more than a child herself, is the miracle worker of the title — the one who never gives up on her, the only one convinced that this feral child can live a productive life.
The story of this transformation from small animal to human being is even more remarkable when you know that Sullivan and Keller were not fictional products of a writer's imagination, but real women who both went on to lives of great distinction.
Born on a plantation in Tuscumbia, AL, in June of 1880, Keller's handicaps effectively cut her off from the world around her. Her mother sought advice from the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, who had a particular interest in deaf children. He suggested she contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where Annie Sullivan, herself partially sighted, was a pupil. The remarkable union of these two strong-minded women was to change the way America and the world regarded the disabled.
Keller (1880–1968) went on to Radcliffe College, breaking new ground as the first blind and deaf student ever to graduate from a major university. She was still in college when she wrote her first book, "The Story of My Life," an account of her childhood on which The Miracle Worker is based. She went on to write another 11 books. An activist for many causes, she was a close friend of both Mark Twain and Standard Oil magnate Henry Huttleston Rogers, who admired her enough to pay for her education. Her interests were many and varied. Some were connected with finding better services for the blind and deaf — she founded Helen Keller International, an organization devoted to research into vision, health and nutrition — but many were concerned with wider issues of social and political reform. She was an early suffragette and campaigned tirelessly for women's rights, even becoming a champion for birth control when it was considered in some circles to be blasphemous.
|photo by John Dugdale|
A regular speaker for the rights of working people, Keller was also one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and lived long enough to know that it became a bastion of civil rights throughout the world. An inveterate traveler, she and Sullivan, who remained her companion, visited nearly 40 countries, forming a particular bond with Japan, especially its Akita dogs, which she is credited with introducing into the States. Abigail Breslin, who earned an Oscar nod for her role in the indie flick "Little Miss Sunshine," plays Keller in this 50th-anniversary revival. "[Her] journey was courageous and awe-inspiring. I feel honored and humbled to be playing the role," says Breslin.
Keller was forthright in her writings and often connected her work for the disabled with her politics, saying, "I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was…caused by the selfishness and greed of employers." It was her humanity, as well as her fierce support for what she believed, that made her a true American original.