Two Strong Women: Helen Keller & Annie Sullivan for International Women’s Day

I first learned about Helen Keller and her remarkable teacher Annie Sullivan when I was twelve, acting in the play The Miracle Worker Wyndham’s Theatre, London – Olympia Theatre, Dublin – Playhouse Theatre, Sheffield. They have both been special to me ever since.
Their story is a moving and powerful one. Of a teacher who unlocked a blind, deaf and dumb child from the prison of her handicap to teach her language and how to speak.

Fight scene | The Miracle Worker | Anne Stallybrass as Annie Sullivan and Lesley Scoble as Helen Keller

Helen Keller 1880 – 1968

Helen Adams Keller was born in Alabama on the 27th June 1880. At only 19 months, she suffered an illness that left her blind, deaf and dumb.

The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.

—Helen Keller

Helen Keller’s achievements were remarkable.

  • Published twelve books
  • Communicated in several languages
  • A celebrity speaker worldwide
  • Became the first blind, deaf and dumb person to get a bachelor’s degree
  • Active Political and Social influencer.

Helen Keller owed everything to her indomitable teacher Annie Sullivan.

Annie Sullivan 1866 – 1936

Annie Sullivan 1866-1936

People seldom see the halting and painful steps by which the most insignificant success is achieved

— Annie Sullivan

Annie Sullivan was of Irish descent. Brought up in a background of a harsh orphanage treatment. At five, she contracted an eye disease and went through many operations to save her own eyesight. She attended The Perkins School for the Blind. At twenty, she gained employment as governess with the Keller family, who couldn’t cope with their daughter’s wild and unmanageable behaviour. In desperation, Helen’s parents hired the young governess, Annie Sullivan, to teach their out-of-control daughter. 

Cast of The Miracle Worker | Helen Keller: Lesley Scoble and Annie Sullivan: Anne Stallybrass

The lessons involved many difficult struggles and physical tussles, as Annie refused to give in to Helen’s strong temperament. Until Annie reached a breakthrough. This breakthrough earns her the name of Miracle Worker.

The Miracle Worker

At the water pump, Annie holds Helen’s hand beneath the flow of water and repeats sign language on her hand again and again and again.
It was here that Helen discovered the connection between the sign language and the feel of the water. At last she understood objects had names. Her first word was water.

This old newspaper cutting shows me playing the role of Helen in the significant scene at the water pump.

Helen’s first word was “Wa-wah” (meaning water).

Annie’s perseverance and teachings empowered Helen to overcome her severe disability. Thus enabling her to become one of the most influential women, spreading inspiration and hope around the world to the sightless and the deaf.

The Play

I was fortunate to play Helen and be nominated *Best Actress for the starring role in the dramatic play The Miracle Worker.

Lesley Scoble as Helen Keller

Twelve year old me in the role of Helen Keller

The Miracle Worker was written by William Gibson in 1961, and portrays the early part of Helen Keller’s life. The play is a powerful, emotional drama that highlights the battles between the young headstrong uncontrollable Helen and her stoic determined teacher Annie Sullivan. Eventually Annie succeeds in unlockIng ‘Language’ in her young blind, deaf and dumb pupil.

Making a mistake is falling down—
Failure is not getting up again.

Helen Keller

*The Miracle Worker first premiered in the West End at the Wyndham’s Theatre.
My school friend Janina Faye first starred in the role in this production – in which I was also a member of the cast.

*Best Actress nomination for my performance at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin

I meet up again with Janina at a signing event in London

Helen Keller is one of the most influential women of the 20th Century

I think this is a good day to remember both these remarkable women. Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan.

Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement.

Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.

— Helen Keller

3 comments

  1. I agree that these two women are inspiring. The part you played was a very demanding role for a child, my mother and I went to see it when Janina played Helen as she was a friend of mine from Barbara Speake’s dancing classes before we both came to Corona. The play made a big impression on me and made me want to be an actor myself. I still have the programme.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow 🤩 That’s amazing! I’d love to see it! I think I have a programme somewhere… I can never find anything! I still have the script! I started off playing a blind girl in the Perkins Blind School then understudied Janina for the entire run in the West End—and she wasn’t off once! 😁 Later, I went on to play the part though. An experience I shall always treasure. 😁 XXX

      Liked by 1 person

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