As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t believe that it’s possible to analyze art with perfect impartiality, nor should one try to be impartial. The personal effect that art has on us is not some sentimental after-thought; it is the very purpose of art. So when I talk about a play wherein a voiceless child gains her voice, I’m going to be emotional about it. And I’m not going to apologize.
The story of Helen Keller can be found in her own words in her autobiography, as well as plenty of other sources, but if you want a truly affecting portrayal of how her teacher brought her out of darkness into the world of language, there is William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker. Though it was a bold, even risky, choice to write a play with a main character who literally speaks only one line, with a strong cast it can be an extraordinary experience.
The play briefly portrays how Helen loses her sight and hearing as a toddler after an illness, then reveals how the intervening years in dark silence have left her frustrated, lost and dangerous. So her family sends for someone who might know how to help Helen. They don’t expect a girl of twenty who is herself half-blind. Annie Sullivan, in her short years, has already lived a life full of tragedy and hardship. She is tough and hard-headed, which makes her an ideal match for Helen. No one has dared attempt to discipline Helen. Her mother says she knows she is bright. Before her illness, she was already talking; her first word, water, came at only six months of age. But now they fear it’s all been lost. They pity her too much to expect anything of her.
Annie expects a great deal. She teaches Helen to spell words into her hand, knowing that language is the only thing that will free her. Helen imitates the gestures readily enough, but for most of the play it’s nothing but a game to her. She hasn’t yet made the connection between gestures and meaning. There are long stretches of the script with nothing but Annie’s insistent monologues and the stage directions of Helen’s expressive non-verbal responses. It’s very unusual for a play, but when it’s acted well, it’s absolutely captivating.
The crowning moment arrives when Annie drags Helen out to the pump to refill the water jug she knocked over during a tantrum. Over and over she pours the water onto Helen’s hands, and over and over she spells water. And then, suddenly, Helen understands. Haltingly she speaks the word. Wah. Wah. She knows. It’s not just a game. They are words; they have meaning. Everything has a name. She begins running from one object to another, seeking its name, spelling it back into her teacher’s hand. The prison is broken. She is free.
I assume this scene is fairly affecting for the average person, but for me, with a non-verbal child of my own, it’s enough to completely wreck me. I can’t even think about it without crying. It is absolutely transcendent to see the understanding dawn on Helen’s face, to know that there is so much intelligence and enthusiasm buried deep in her mind. She just needed the key to unlock it. Nothing quite so dramatic has happened with my son, but I’m fervently grateful to all the teachers who have had the patience and persistence and knowledge to help him communicate. Every glimpse I can get of his inner world is precious. And whenever I feel sad or frustrated that so much of him still seems to be locked away, it’s stories like this one that give me hope.