Looking at the Pair from an

 Artistic Perspective



The History of Helen and "Teacher"

Looking at the Pair from an Artistic Perspective

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           Despite the impossible difficulties she faced, Helen Keller conveyed a powerful sense of beauty and grace through her literary works. Her autobiography reveals genuine gratitude, deep love, and an unbreakable bond between herself and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Her transition from a wild little girl to a thoughtful and appreciative lady is almost unimaginable. And while there are many historical accounts which describe the extraordinary progression of friendship between Keller and Sullivan, they often miss the essence of beauty in the story. They mask the most important part, the emotions and passion, with factual documentation. They focus too little on the crucial beginning of Helen's relationship with Annie and miss a very integral part of the growth of their friendship. In many ways, it is instead much easier to see the intense work required to make Helen functional through certain artistic representations rather than historical accounts. Artistic descriptions of early encounters between Helen and Annie prove to be very insightful and infinitely more touching and revealing than a historical description could be. These writings also show how Annie took on a parental role in raising Helen.  Sullivan is shown to be the image of a caring, devoted, and determined maternal figure.  Despite Helen’s unwelcoming state, Annie never gave up. This powerful theme of the two of them as a family unit is shown best through different artistic interpretations.  After reading these accounts, a full appreciation of Helen Keller's bond with Annie Sullivan can be had.

            In 1956, William Gibson was the first to write about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan from an artistic perspective.  His 1988 play The Miracle Worker accurately depicts Keller and Sullivan’s early life together.  The play was adapted from factual events that occurred when Annie and Helen started working together in the early 19th century.   It was constructed from Sullivan’s documents and letters, as well as Keller’s autobiography.  By actually witnessing this reenactment, people could understand for the first time how arduous their initial efforts were.

            In the beginning, Helen is displayed as a wild, barbaric child.  She is described as being “messy, her hair tumbled, her pinafore now ripped, her shoelaces untied” (Gibson 31).  Her actions are very primitive, and she is often seen reaching, groping for more, sniffing, and moaning.  Once scene describes how “Helen drops to the floor, groping around for the doll…Annie comes up with a battered piece of cake… [and] lets Helen smell the cake…Helen crams it into her mouth with both hands” (Gibson 37).  Early on, everyone’s main concern is to make sure that Helen’s immediate needs are met.  When she does not get what she wants, Keller bursts out in a rage. 

            Helen also has the capacity to soothe herself.  In one act, Keller locks her teacher in a room.  Afterwards, Helen “lifts a loose board [by the water pump], drops the key into the well, and hugs herself gleefully” (Gibson 45).  Helen rewards herself for accomplishing what she thinks to be a great achievement.  

            Helen’s intelligence is clearly established in the play.  Helen initially finds Annie’s persistence in teaching very bothersome.  Instead of avoiding Sullivan, Keller acts in ways to get revenge.  This dynamic is shown in that same scene where Helen locks Annie in the room, and then disposes of the key.  The fact that Helen also tests boundaries shows that she is trying to figure out how much she can get away with.  Even as a child with no verbal or visual connection with the world, her thoughts do not come across as being random and unrelated.

            When reading the play, I saw how Helen’s handicaps isolate her from the rest of the world.  Before Annie’s “miracle,” Helen has no way of obtaining anything other than her surface needs.  Her desire to learn cannot be met, and most of the time, no one knows what she wants.

            Gibson’s play allowed me to see how Helen related to her family.  Her parents do not treat her like a normal child, and they never know how to handle their daughter.  Their biggest goal is to keep Helen satisfied, thereby spoiling their child, to prevent her from throwing a massive tantrum.  Their only tactic is calming their daughter with food.  Later on, Annie is the only person to recognize how everyone is simply rewarding Helen’s negative behavior.  Although the Kellers want the best for Helen, their main goal is to regain composure within the house.

            I found Gibson’s interpretation of Annie Sullivan incredibly insightful.  I was able to understand many of her thoughts and feelings about working with Helen.  I also better grasped Annie’s individual struggles and characteristics.  Sullivan firmly stands by her view of what the best treatment plan for Helen is, despite receiving very little help from Helen’s parents.  In the play Annie’s social discomfort is easily recognizable when she is around the Keller family.  The idea of Annie being constrained comes across when she is with Helen’s mother, Kate, and “tries to make ladylike small talk” (Gibson 28).  Sullivan differs from the Kellers in her background, attitude, beliefs, and in almost every other area.  Unlike them, Annie was raised in an orphanage, and never had a family that cared about her wellbeing.

            Annie is shown as being stubborn, and she does not compromise any of her beliefs or teaching techniques.  Despite the Kellers’ threats and opposition to Sullivan’s methods, Annie never disregards her strong principles.  Even though it is uncertain that Helen is even capable of responding to Annie’s work, Sullivan continues her efforts to help her student in the play.  Annie expresses that even she “[feels] every, day, more, and, more, inadequate” (Gibson 92).  Although she is often nervous, and uncertain about the best way to reach Helen, Annie never gives up.

            In the play, the exchanges between Annie and Helen are very powerful.  From the beginning, Annie’s eagerness to work with Helen is expressed.  At first, Sullivan does not realize how trying her job will be, and is surprised to find how much it differs from her expectations.   Despite the challenges Annie is faced with, she never considers abandoning her charge.

            Annie is the first person who does not tolerate Helen’s outrageous behavior.  Not once in the play does Sullivan permit or reinforce Keller’s tantrums.  Helen is no longer able to act successfully in her old and unacceptable ways.  Helen is shocked to find that hitting and screaming are no longer useful strategies for receiving candy.  For the first time, Helen is introduced to the idea of being disciplined.

            Obedience is usually taught by one’s parents.  I was interested to observe that Annie is the first person to set boundaries, and to demand respect and compliance from Helen.  The play shows the Kellers’ lack of ability to discipline their daughter.  Annie intervenes, and personally takes on this parental responsibility.  Living without any physical or moral structure is very precarious.  By the end of the play, Helen is able to appreciate the guidelines set by her teacher.

            In order to gain her student’s respect, Annie has to use extreme methods.  Since verbal cues are ineffective, physical contact is the only form of communication that Helen can understand.  Through physical force, Annie is able to reach Helen at her own level.  Helen is stunned to find that when she hits Annie, Annie fights back.  Gibson’s presentation of how Helen and Annie overcome this challenge is very realistic and powerful.  The fact that no dialogue is used during the most monumental scenes amplifies the importance of each physical exchange.  During these portions of the play, everything is conveyed through body expression and physical interactions.  The viewer can see that certain ideas can be transmitted through gestures, and they do not require any verbal cues.  The most powerful scene is one in which Annie teaches Helen table manners: 


          Helen retaliates with a roundhouse fist that catches Annie on the ear, and Annie’

          hand leaps at once in a forceful slap across Helen’s cheek; Helen is the startled one 

          now…But when Helen hits at her again, Annie deliberately slaps her again.  Helen

          lifts her fist irresolute for another roundhouse, Annie lifts her hand resolute for

          another slap, and they freeze in the posture, while Helen mulls it over.  She thinks

          better of it, and drops her fist (Gibson 59).


As shown in this scene, Sullivan uses a combination of physical force and repetition to get Keller to comply with her demands.  In the end, her methods prove to be a success.

            The underlying symbolism of this scene in the dining room is so much greater than Helen simply learning to fold her napkin and eat with a spoon.  For the first time, Helen is powerless.  Keller sees that she will have to follow the guidelines and instructions set by this new parental figure.

            When Annie realizes that Helen cannot progress while living inside the Keller house, she requests to live alone with Helen.  Sullivan explains that she wants “complete charge of [Helen]…day and night.  [Sullivan] has to be depended on for everything.  The food she eats, the clothes she wears, fresh air…whatever her body needs is a primer, to teach her out of” (Gibson 74).  Sullivan asks for permission to be Helen’s fulltime guardian.  This sense of complete dominance is the only way Annie feels she can gain Helen’s trust and obedience.

            Once Helen is given this continuous attention, she begins to evolve into a civilized young lady.  Annie’s maternal love and persistence are the ingredients needed to activate a change within Keller.  However, once Annie and Helen return to the Kellers’ house, Helen begins to regress back to her old behaviors.  When Sullivan does not have total power over her charge, Helen’s progress begins to slip.  In order to engage Helen’s attention again, Annie has to reaffirm her authority.  Simulating an appropriate maternal response, when Helen begins to throw a tantrum at the dinner table, Annie punishes her.  Although Helen’s parents are inclined to excuse their daughter’s behavior, Annie does not allow it.
            At the end of the play Helen understands the reason behind Annie’s work.  Keller grasps that “everything has a name” (Gibson 91).  During this final scene Helen opens up to Annie, and displays affection.  Because Annie has, in effect, given birth to this new Helen, an indestructible maternal bond has been formed.

            Watching the video of The Miracle Worker, directed by Nadia Tass, I more fully understood the relationship between Keller and Sullivan.  I was amazed to see how intimate sign language itself is.  The process of communicating through each other’s hands is a beautiful thing to see.  Although the movie helped me to visualize the brutal reality of what Keller and Sullivan’s initial work together must have been like, the movie seems slightly off.  Most of the text is taken straight from William Gibson’s play, but some of the raw emotions are minimized, or removed entirely.  Before the “miracle” occurs, Helen’s world is unorganized, and had little meaning.  Bringing structure and value into Keller’s life is a great challenge presented to her teacher.  Since this movie is targeted towards children, some of the facts were probably modified to keep this film suitable for a younger audience.

            Hallie Kate Eisenberg, who plays Helen, is not effectively able to portray the girl whose intelligence and passion are repressed by a handicap that seems impossible to overcome.  Her efforts appear unnatural, and almost stiff, as opposed to the uncontrollable force that seems to drive most of Helen’s behaviors in Gibson’s play.

            Eisenberg is hardly represented as barbaric, when she is shown in the opening scene as a cute little girl, well groomed, and neatly kept.  Her physical appearance strongly contrasts with the description in Gibson’s work.  In one of the first shots when she is eating, I noticed that she is even chewing with her mouth closed.  Eisenberg does not make me believe that her actions are produced from unconditioned impulses.  As a result, when she does become a well-behaved child, the change does not seem so radical.

            On the other hand, Allison Elliott, who plays Sullivan, does a great job demonstrating the repetition and persistence it takes to work with Helen.  Elliott particularly reveals her frustration with the Kellers, with Helen, and with her initial failure to get her student to comply.  I was able to see how hard and tedious Sullivan’s work must have been.

            On the whole, however, the interactions between Helen and Annie seem very inaccurate in the film.  Everything appears to be toned down, compared to the grueling reality of the actual historical events.  According to one review of this production of William Gibson’s play, “The early relationship between Helen and her teacher has been shrouded in gentility, blunting the force of anger and frustration that eventually sparked revelation” (Julie Salamon).  In the famous scene where Annie repeatedly slaps Helen across the face, Elliott seems to be tapping Eisenberg lightly on her cheek.

            The one idea that strongly comes across in the film is Helen’s early fear of Annie.  I could see Eisenberg’s discomfort and anxiety in the presence of her teacher.  Keller’s panic is vividly shown, when she realizes that she will be living all alone with Sullivan.  However, there is no smooth transition where we see how Helen gradually warms up to Annie.  In one scene Keller is deathly afraid of Sullivan, and in the next, two weeks have passed, and now Helen is a respectful young lady.

            The movie does address a crucial subject that I had not realized before watching the film.  The movie focuses a lot on Kate Keller, and her experience.  As Helen’s biological mother, Kate holds a sacred love for her daughter.  Kate’s willingness to do anything to save her daughter, motivates her to call for Annie Sullivan.  When Sullivan requests to have more time living reclusively with Helen, Kate strictly opposes this.  In many ways, her maternal pull towards her daughter prevents Helen’s progression.  Kate cannot tolerate seeing her daughter upset or in pain, and as an effect, is incapable of disciplining Helen.

            Kate Keller’s sense of loss at the end of the movie is also powerfully portrayed.  With Helen’s revelation, Helen actively chooses to be with Sullivan.  The disheartened look on Kate’s face is apparent, when she sees her daughter leaving to walk over to Sullivan.  At the end, we see Helen signing “I love you” not to her mother, but to her teacher, Annie.  Although Kate’s dream of saving her daughter comes true, Kate cannot help but mourn the symbolic loss of Helen.

            By viewing some of the artistic representations of the relationship between Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, I was able to better understand how they connected to one another during the first years of their work together.  I could also visualize how their attachment grew over time.  Their story was no longer a chronological sequence of different events, but it became intertwined with drama and powerful emotions.  Both the physical and psychological challenges that Annie and Helen overcomes, became apparent as I witnessed how they adapted to one another.  After examining their story from a variety of different perspectives, the maternal bond between the two of them has become much more of a reality for me.

By: Zoe Lewin
Revised: 12/2005.

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