restricted access 9. Three Miracles

From: Arthur Penn

The University Press of Kentucky colophon
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84 9 Three Miracles “Whenever I get into this story,” says the author of The Miracle Worker, “I feel I’m in the presence of something supernatural.” For half a century William Gibson’s play has been celebrated as a timeless tale of love, devotion, and understanding. It began on television, was a triumph on the stage, and became a classic on film before retiring to the repertoire of high school drama departments . What is not generally known is that the story of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller started life as a ballet. It began when Gibson was staging plays with patients at the Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where his wife, psychiatrist Margaret Brenman-Gibson, was on staff. “We had, at that time, a folk minstrel whose name was Richard DyerBennett ,” Gibson states. “He and his wife, Mel, came up—she was a dancer, except she’d had some kind of accident with her leg so she was retired. She was a very smart cookie. Margaret said she was a witch because she could look at how people moved and would have a psychological portrait of that person. Margaret got Riggs to hire Mel as a physical action therapist as part of the activities program. I had this drama group, and I thought we might do an original evening of one-acts. I thought I could provide a script for the dance.” Years earlier, Gibson had come across a collection of the letters that Anne Sullivan had written home to Boston almost every day when she was in Tuscumbia, Alabama, trying to teach young Helen Keller. Keller had become world famous for overcoming Three Miracles 85 the deafness and blindness that had struck her in infancy. But few knew that it was Annie Sullivan, a twenty-year-old graduate of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, herself partially sighted, who became Keller’s teacher. Gibson first read Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life1 in grammar school, not knowing that most of the manuscript had been suppressed. “The real book,” he later discovered, “consisted of three large sections: the first was Helen’s Story of My Life; the middle part was a long essay by John Macy2 on the pedagogical techniques of Annie Sullivan teaching Helen Keller; the third section was all the letters that Annie had written back to Perkins Institute. I don’t know whether anybody would have the materials to disprove this, but this was edited by John Macy, who was a literary man, so the book must have been his idea. And that means that these letters, which are perpetuated in this book, had passed through his hands. Now, you may remember a scandal in which the Sacco-Vanzetti letters turned out maybe to have been written by a Boston reporter. It’s not likely to me that the [Sullivan] letters are pure. John must’ve ‘helped.’ But they portray an extraordinary girl in an extraordinary story.” Here Gibson—a lanky black Irishman who favors directness —softens. “I’ve often thought,” he says, almost reluctantly, “that the only evidence in my life that persuades me there’s a God is this story. Here you’ve got this crippled child down in Tuscumbia—here you’ve got this crippled young woman, twenty years old, up in Boston—and it takes these two half-lives to make one life. This cannot have happened except by Jehovah’s intersession , right? All of this came out of those letters, whether they’re Annie’s or not. And the facts of her life are extraordinary, so I’ll believe the letters. That was what set me off.” Without The Miracle Worker, few would know of Sullivan’s contribution, yet Keller’s triumph over adversity still made hers the better story. Indeed, as Annie caustically remarked when she accepted an honorary degree from Temple University in 1932 and the press huddled around Helen, “Even at my coronation, Helen is queen.”3 Helen Adams Keller was born June 17, 1880, on her father’s 86 Arthur Penn estate in Tuscumbia. Her father, Captain Arthur Keller, was late of the army of the Confederacy, and her mother, Kate Adams, was related to Robert E. Lee. The exact malady that robbed the girl of her sight and hearing at nineteen months is unknown— sources suggest meningitis, scarlet fever, or diphtheria—but her father was half a step away from committing her to an institution when her mother took charge. The Kellers...


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Subject Headings

  • Penn, Arthur, 1922-2010.
  • Motion picture producers and directors -- United States -- Biography.
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