William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker

Tonight at 7pm the Harvard Film Archive is hosting the first film in a series celebrating the 75th anniversary of Houghton Library. The films are all connected in one way or another to significant collections housed at the library, in this case the William Gibson papers. Gibson’s The Miracle Worker was a truly remarkable work that went through several iterations, with each version seemingly more successful than that which preceded it. The story centers on how Anne Sullivan, a partially-blind teacher, helped a young Helen Keller to overcome the isolation that had characterized her blind-deaf life and communicate with the outside world. Gibson, inspired by the Sullivan letters that were published in Helen Keller’s classic autobiography about their first months together, initially wrote a treatment meant to accompany a performance by a solo dancer, . When plans for that project evaporated, he shelved the spare text until 1956, when his friend and director Arthur Penn approached him about writing a script for a new television show on CBS called Playhouse 90. At the time, Gibson did not even own a television, but was able to produce what he later described as a “skimpy piece of writing” that was brought to air on February 7, 1956.

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The teleplay, a corrected draft of which appears above, earned Gibson an Emmy nomination, although he lost to another Playhouse 90 production written by Rod Sterling. Nevertheless, the popularity of the piece and his success the following year with Two for the See Saw, Gibson’s first Broadway production, enabled him to revisit the script and secure backing for a proper theatrical run.

As Gibson got to work revising the teleplay for the stage, he was also in contact with Helen Keller. In an 1957 letter to Gibson, she praised his work for the attention that it brought to the American Federation for the Blind. Keller did have some detailed “notes and corrections” on the script that Gibson had sent her, which she included with her letter.

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What emerges clearly in these suggestions is her rectitude and an incredible attention to usage and grammar. Helen Keller hated contractions!

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The play opened at the Playhouse Theater on October 19, 1959 with Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller. It was a smash hit, running for 719 performances and earning Tony Awards for Bancroft, Gibson, and director Arthur Penn. The singular success of the play almost immediately led to a bidding war over the film rights, but Gibson refused all offers in an attempt to retain control over the production of what was clearly a very profitable franchise. Gibson continued to tinker with the story and eventually came to an agreement with United Artists to produce the film, for which he received an unprecedented $150,000. Critically, Gibson was able to ensure that Arthur Penn would direct and the two almost immediately began to battle with the studio over casting. It was their desire to have Bancroft and Duke reprise their Broadway roles, but the studio wanted Elizabeth Taylor to play Sullivan and thought that the now fifteen-year-old Patty Duke was too old to play the young Helen Keller. Gibson and Penn won out in the end, and the film was released in the summer of 1962 to great acclaim. Although neither won, both Gibson and Penn were nominated for Academy Awards. Anne Bancroft won for Best Actress and Patty Duke became the then youngest winner of an Oscar as the Best Supporting Actress.

The success of The Miracle Worker cycle was in many respects remarkable, but to date we do not have a good understanding of how the text evolved from teleplay to stage play to screenplay. As the William Gibson papers have multiple drafts of the various iterations, we hope that this screening might prompt further study of this fascinating and multifaceted work.