The play begins late at night in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in the 1880s. A couple—a young woman named Kate Keller and a “hearty gentleman in his forties” named Captain Arthur Keller—are standing around a crib, talking to a doctor. The doctor says, “She’ll live.”
The opening scene of the play introduces the audience to the Kellers, a well-to-do Southern couple with a newborn baby who, presumably, has faced serious health complications in her young life. In this way, the first scene of the play establishes that the very fact of Helen’s survival past infancy is, in itself, a miracle.
Arthur Keller explains to the doctor that he has raised two children already, but that this is his wife Kate’s first child. The doctor advises the couple to wait for their baby daughter to get well again, adding that she’s been suffering from a mysterious “congestion of the stomach and brain.” He notes that he’s never seen a baby with more vitality and then bids the couple good night.
Arthur Keller is considerably older than his second wife. Little information is given about what happened with his first wife. Right away, he strikes a tone of gruff worldliness, lording it over everyone else in the room. Notice, also, that the doctor describes Helen as an unusually strong, perseverant child despite her health issues, foreshadowing the miraculous things she will achieve later in life.
While Arthur Keller walks the doctor outside, Kate embraces her baby, murmuring that Arthur will post an editorial in his newspaper. Suddenly, she notices that the baby, whose name is Helen, doesn’t seem to be able to see. She shouts her child’s name, but the child doesn’t respond in any way. She calls Arthur and explains that Helen doesn’t blink or respond to loud noises.
Kate realizes that Helen has lost her ability to see or hear, setting in motion the events of the rest of the play, which centers around Helen’s deafness and blindness. The passage also establishes that Arthur owns a newspaper, partially explaining the Keller family’s wealth—and how Arthur is able to contact so many elite doctors across the country.
Five years pass. Helen, now a little girl, sits outside by a water pump, next to a dog and two black children named Martha and Percy, who are cutting paper with a pair of scissors. Helen is blind and deaf, and she thrusts her hands around, occasionally hitting Martha and Percy. When Helen brushes Percy’s mouth with her hand, Percy bites her hand, and Helen recoils. Helen begins biting her own fingers. Then, Helen pushes Martha and grabs the scissors. Martha screams.
Helen has grown into a wild child. She lacks two of the most important tools for learning about the world (sight and hearing), and as a result she has developed into a uncontrolled, unpredictable, and violent child an age when other children her age are already learning to talk and behave themselves. This passage is the first indication of what a challenge it will be for Helen to simply learn to interact with other people.
Another part of the stage is illuminated, revealing the rest of the Keller family sitting inside their home. Captain Arthur Keller sits at the table studying a newspaper while Aunt Ev sews a doll and a young man named James Keller sits by the window watching the children.
Here the audience meets the residents of the Keller household, in typical form: Arthur studying a paper (presumably his own), Ev doing something nice for Helen, and James doing nothing at all.
As soon as Helen attacks Martha, Percy rings a bell, which summons Kate Keller to come outside. Kate pulls the scissors out of Helen’s hands, and Martha and Percy run off.
Kate takes the most active role in raising her child: it’s she who makes sure that Helen doesn’t hurt other children, or get hurt herself. That Kate responds so quickly to the sound of the bell suggests that she is accustomed to handling incidents such as this one.
As Kate tries to pull Helen into the house, Aunt Ev murmurs, “Something ought to be done for that child.” She gives Helen the doll she’s been making, and then suggests that Arthur Keller contact a famous oculist she has read about. Arthur refuses to contact this man, pointing out that Helen has visited specialists all over the South. Kate urges Arthur to contact the oculist, prompting Arthur to ask, “How many times can you let them break your heart?” to which Kate replies, “any number of times.”
The Kellers understand that something must be done to help Helen, but they have no clear sense of what that “something” may be. They have evidently tried everything they can think of. Arthur’s reluctance to contact the oculist suggests that he has given up hope that Helen will ever change or improve—or at the very least that he is tired of the dealing with his wife’s dashed hopes. Fortunately for Helen, however, Kate is more willing to risk further disappointments.
Meanwhile, Helen runs her fingers over the doll. When she runs her fingers over the doll’s face, she notices that the doll has no eyes or features, and taps questioningly. Nobody notices.
Helen is obviously a smart child, though nobody in her family realizes it. She’s curious about the world, even if she lacks the tools to express or satisfy her curiosity. The passage shows hoe Helen is reliant on touch to understand the world around her. Perhaps when she notices the absence of eyes on the doll, she instinctively identifies with it.
Kate asks Arthur Keller for permission to write to the oculist, but Arthur refuses. He stands up and James mutters, “Father stands up, that makes it a fact.” He suggests that Arthur send Helen to an asylum, adding, “It’s not pleasant to see her about all the time.” Furiously, Arthur shouts that nobody will be writing to doctors on Helen’s behalf. Instead, Arthur wants to spend more time with Mildred, his and Kate’s newest child.
James is so jaded regarding his half-sister Helen that he’s willing to have her committed to an asylum—or at least joke about it. He takes refuge in sarcasm and cynicism to disguise the fact that he is frustrated and deeply unhappy—with his father, with his family more generally, and with himself. But even James’s attitude toward Helen is arguably more humane than Arthur’s: it seems Arthur would prefer to forget about Helen altogether.
Helen crawls over to Aunt Ev and pulls at the buttons on Ev’s dress. She’s annoyed, but then realizes what Helen is trying to do: “she wants the doll to have eyes.” Kate takes pins and buttons from the sewing basket, attaches them to the doll, and gives it to Helen.
Aunt Ev is unusually sensitive to Helen’s needs—she pays careful attention to her niece in moments when Arthur and James ignore her. It’s surely no coincidence that the women in the Keller family (and the play in general) are depicted as being more attentive than the play’s two male characters—the play strongly suggests that women tend to be more nurturing and compassionate than men in general.
Helen moves over to the cradle in which Mildred is sleeping. Suddenly, she overturns the cradle and Mildred comes tumbling out, but Arthur Keller catches her. Kate shouts to Helen that she mustn’t do things like this, and Arthur insists that it’s time they start disciplining Helen. Kate points out that it’s not Helen’s fault that she misbehaves. Kate insists that Helen just wants to “be like you and me.” Arthur sighs and promises that he’ll write to the oculist.
Kate is torn: she doesn’t want to discipline Helen, but at the same time, this means that Helen is unlikely to change her behavior. Kate wants to teach Helen how to read and write, but seems not to understand how much discipline this will require. This underscores the tension between tough love and pity as an important theme in the play.
The lights dim, and a man’s voice can be heard. The man, whose name is Anagnos, explains that he has written to the Keller family to inquire if they have any need for a “suitable governess,” Annie Sullivan from Boston.
It’s worth noting that Annie is introduced by a voice offstage because, throughout the play, Annie is haunted by from her childhood memories. The clever use of sound in this transitional scene foreshadows Annie’s struggle to come to terms with her own inner voices.
The lights go up, revealing a room full of equipment designed for teaching the blind. Annie Sullivan, aged twenty, is sitting with her eyes closed. Anagnos addresses Annie, explaining that Annie’s position as a governess for the Keller family will be challenging. But of course, Anagnos adds, Annie’s time here at Perkins has been difficult, too—one of the only reasons she wasn’t expelled is that there was nowhere to expel her to. Annie opens her eyes, revealing that she suffers from the “granular growth of trachoma”—a condition because of which she often closes her eyes to avoid the pain of bright light.
For years, it would seem, Annie has studied at a school run by Mr. Anagnos, who seems to know Annie quite well. (In real life, the Perkins Institute was, and remains, a famous school for blind students.) Annie has suffered from vision problems, but she can see, perhaps symbolizing the way her education at Perkins has given her new abilities and insights. Anagnos’s implication that Annie was a difficult student foreshadows the passionate and slightly unorthodox methods she will use to teach Helen.
Annie asks Anagnos to describe the child she’s being sent to teach. Anagnos replies that nobody knows anything about her personality—the child is like “a little safe, locked, that no one can open,” adding that “perhaps there is treasure inside.” Anagnos also adds that he has told the Kellers nothing of Annie’s own personal history. Although Annie thinks this is a good thing, Anagnos suggests that she inform the Kellers, so that they understand that she has “trouble.”
Anagnos’s poetic description of Helen Keller suggests an interesting psychological point. Helen, Anagnos implies, has the capability of learning language, but because of her condition, she’s unable to learn language in the way most children do, thereby rendering her “locked” like a safe. Gibson will return to this idea of “hidden potential” again and again. Anagnos also implies that Annie has a troubled past, though he doesn’t provide any information about it.
Anagnos reviews Annie’s new situation with her. She is now a graduate of the Perkins School. She will teach Helen Keller for twenty-five dollars a month. Finally, Anagnos gives Annie a small gift, a ring. Annie’s voice begins to tremble. She tells Agagnos, “everything I am I owe to you.” She remembers coming to Anagnos’s school years earlier. After “Jimmie died,” Annie recalls, she enrolled in the school, where she got her “eyes back” and learned “how to help” and “how to live again.”
Annie has just graduated from a school for the deaf, and now she’s traveling across the country to try to teach Helen how to communicate. During her time at Perkins, Annie not only learned a lot—she also had an operation that helped her regain her sight. In this way, the play draws a parallel between vision and understanding—or, put slightly differently, between literal and metaphorical forms of “sight.”
Anagnos opens the door and ushers in a group of blind children, who announce that they’ve bought Annie a going-away gift: a pair of smoked glasses (i.e., tinted glasses). One of the children explains that Annie’s eyes have hurt “since the operation,” and the glasses will help her see without pain. The children give Annie another gift—a doll with movable eyelids, which can make a “momma” sound. The doll, the children explain, is for Helen. Some of the younger children tell Annie that they don’t want her to leave. Annie smiles sadly and says, “I’m a big girl now, and big girls have to earn a living.”
Annie’s friends and classmates at Perkins clearly love and respect her, as evidenced by the going-away gifts they give her. The smoked glasses are a physical reminder to the audience that Annie, despite having gained the ability to see, still remembers what it was like to be blind, making her perhaps uniquely well-poised to help those less fortunate than her, who can’t see.
Anagnos shepherds the children out of the room. As Annie thinks back on her past, two echoing voices can be heard. They belong to the young Annie and her brother, James (or Jimmie) Sullivan. The voice of young Annie tells her younger brother, “I’m takin’ care of you.” Then, a third echoing voice is heard—that of a grown man. The man reports that Annie, aged nine, is “virtually blind,” while James, aged seven, can’t walk without a crutch. The man explains that Annie and her brother will have to be separated. James’s voice cries out, “Don’t let them take me—Annie!”
This flashback—the first of many traumatic flashbacks Annie experiences throughout the play—reveals most of the key elements of Annie’s backstory. Annie had a beloved brother named James (or Jimmie) that she promised to look after and protect, and seems to feel that she has broken that promise (and may even feel that she had some role in his death). The fact that Annie is haunted by her brother’s tragedy after so many years is a clear sign that she’s consumed by pain and guilt over what happened to him.
The lights dim, and when they go up, we’re back in the Keller household. Upstairs, Helen sits alone. Downstairs, Kate adjusts her bonnet, while a black servant named Viney attends to her. Kate explains to Viney, “I can’t wait to see her.” Kate runs upstairs to Helen, who clutches at Kate’s skirt, dirtying it. Kate offers Helen a peppermint, which Helen eats eagerly.
Kate spoils her child, giving Helen candies throughout the day, seemingly just because she wants to do something nice for her daughter—without any real regard for whether this will help Helen learn or be good for her. In this way, candies become a symbol in the play for the pity with which Helen’s parents treat her (rather than tough love). It’s worth noting that the play takes place in the aftermath of the Civil War, when it was common for prominent, aristocratic Southern families like the Kellers to employ black servants like Viney.
Meanwhile, Arthur Keller arrives downstairs, where he notices that James is dressed nicely. James explains that he’s dressing for Annie Sullivan, who’s due to arrive today. Kate greets Arthur and tells him that she’s headed off to meet Annie. Alone, Arthur studies Helen, who has wandered out onto the porch. He says, “She’s gone, my son and I don’t get along, you don’t know I’m your father, no one likes me.” He gives Helen candy.
In a private moment, Arthur reveals himself to have deep insecurities despite the gruff and composed demeanor he maintains as the head of his household. Although for most of the play Arthur is successful in creating the illusion that he is unfazed by the challenges of being Helen’s father, here he reveals that he is a complex character with conflicting thoughts and feelings of his own.
The lights dim, revealing Annie Sullivan standing outside a railroad station, where James and Kate are waiting. James greets her and introduces himself. Annie replies, “I had a brother Jimmie.” James explains he’s Helen’s half-brother and adds, “You look like half a governess.” Annie greets Kate and observes that Kate hasn’t brought Helen along. Kate is surprised that Annie is so young, and wonders if anyone has ever succeeded in teaching a deaf-blind child even a fraction of what “an ordinary child” learns. Annie admits that the answer is no.
James immediately feuds with Annie, belittling her for no discernible reason, as he often does. The fact that James shares a name with Annie’s deceased brother could be read to foreshadow the ways in which working for the Kellers will force Annie to relive her painful past and come to terms with her relationship with her beloved brother. The challenge ahead of Annie is formidable—indeed, Helen was the first blind-deaf person ever to earn a college degree, proving that educating the deaf-blind was entirely unheard of in the 19th century.
Annie, recognizing that Kate looks dismayed, tries to “take the bull by the horns.” She admits that she’s young and inexperienced, but that she has some advantages, too: she’s energetic, she has studied the “reports” of Dr. Howe (the doctor the Kellers previously hired), and, finally, she herself was formerly blind. Annie will begin by teaching Helen language—and language, she explains, ‘is to the mind more than light is to the eye.”
The last advantage Annie lists is surely the most important. Unlike Dr. Howe, Annie actually knows what it’s like to be blind and, as a result, isolated from the external world. But of course, Annie is also an intelligent teacher. The analogy she draws between language and light isn’t purely fanciful—rather, it’s one that Gibson uses throughout the play, using sight as a metaphor for other forms of knowledge and wisdom.
The lights dim, and when they rise, Annie, James, and Kate are coming back to the house. Arthur Keller greets Annie politely, just as Helen Keller rushes through the room and out to the porch, chasing after the family dog, Belle. Helen is messy-looking, and her shoes are untied.
Annie’s first impressions of Helen are telling: Helen is wild, disorderly, and in her behavior is barely distinguishable from Belle, the dog. It’s Annie’s mission to teach Helen how to behave like a human being, not an animal.
Annie hesitates, and then follows Helen, “entering her world.” She crouches down and, gently, touches Helen’s hand. Helen feels Annie’s hand, then her arm, and finally her face. Then, she finds Annie’s suitcase. She tries to open the suitcase, but when Annie stops her, she begins to push and fight with Annie. Helen lugs the suitcase into the house, and Annie helps Helen get it up into the room where Annie will be staying.
As the stage directions suggest, Annie excels at teaching because she’s able to see the world from her pupil’s point of view. She doesn’t think of herself as an authority whose job is to dispense lessons to Helen; rather, she tries to understand what Helen is going through so she can better determine how to communicate with her. She’s able to do this so well in part because she has struggled with blindness herself.
As Annie meets Helen, Arthur and Kate talk about Annie. Kate likes her, but Arthur finds her “rough,” remarking that northerners “certainly rear a peculiar kind of young woman.” Arthur notices Annie’s smoked glasses, and Kate explains that Annie was blind, and has had nine eye operations. Arthur mutters, “here’s a houseful of grownups can’t cope with the child, how can an inexperienced half-blind Yankee schoolgirl manage her?”
The passage alludes to the tension between the Northern and Southern United States in the era following the Civil War. Many Southerners regard the “Yankees” (i.e., northerners) as uncouth and disrespectful, and Arthur seems to be no exception. His use of the word “rough” also implies that he looks down on her for being from a lower class background than he is.
Meanwhile, in her room, Annie gives Helen a key. Helen uses the key to open the suitcase. She finds a big shawl inside, and wraps it around her body, then puts on Annie’s bonnet and smoked glasses as well. Then, she finds Annie’s drawers (i.e., underwear), and a large doll. Helen seems to like the doll. Annie, amused, murmurs, “All right, Miss O’Sullivan. Let’s begin with the doll.”
Notice that Helen is dressing like Annie; furthermore, Annie addresses Helen as herself. The implication is that Annie is remembering the lessons Anagnos taught her while she was a young child and new at the Perkins Institute. She sees it as her responsibility to help struggling blind children, just as her teachers once helped her.
Annie takes Helen’s hand and gently manipulates the fingers, spelling out “D-O-L-L” in sign language. James, who’s been watching from the doorway, says, “You spell pretty well.” Annie explains that she’s using “an alphabet for the deaf.” To Annie’s delight, Helen repeats the finger movements exactly. James, unimpressed, asks, “You think she knows what she’s doing?” Annie next takes away the doll, hoping that Helen will spell its name to get it back, but instead Helen becomes enraged and swings her arms, causing the shawl, glasses, and bonnet to fall off of her. James says, “She doesn’t know the thing has a name, even,” and Annie, exasperated, shuts the door in his face.
James puts on his usual display of cynicism. He suggests that Annie will never be able to teach Helen anything of substance, meaning that her work is pointless. Even though he’s being nasty, James is clearly interested in Annie’s work with Helen, and seems also to want to interact with Annie. In this regard, he comes across as an immature character who is unable to clearly communicate about his own hopes, fears, and desires.
Alone with Helen, Annie produces a piece of cake from her suitcase, and holds it under Helen’s nose. Then, she spells out C-A-K-E. When Annie pulls the cake away, Helen immediately spells out C-A-K-E. To reward Helen, Annie gives her the cake, which Helen eats immediately.
Annie tries a variety of techniques designed to get Helen to understand what language is. Here, she tries to use a simple reward system, whereby Helen gets used to making the sign for cake, and eventually comes to associate the sign with the actual food. But Helen is still a long way from understanding the concept of meaning—that is, the idea that things have names.
Annie shows Helen the doll again, prompting Helen to spell its name. Helen does so, and Annie gives her the doll as a reward. Satisfied, Annie says, “Imitate now, understand later.” Just then, Helen swings the doll into Annie’s face, drawing blood. Helen rushes out of the room, holding the doll, and shuts the door, turning the key in the lock. Annie yells out for Helen before she realizes the pointlessness of yelling.
Helen takes some small steps toward becoming more obedient and well-behaved, but she quickly regresses when she loses interest in Annie and her teaching exercises. For the time being, Annie seems to be incapable of “unlocking” Helen’s potential (symbolized, aptly enough, by a literal lock and key).
James hears Annie’s yelling, but instead of unlocking the door, goes out to the porch and sings mockingly to her window, “Buffalo girl, are you coming out tonight.” Annie turns to her mirror and realizes that Helen has knocked out one of her teeth.
As ever, James is self-consciously sarcastic as he observes Annie and Helen. To him, this is all a big joke—a rare moment of entertainment in his otherwise dull life. He seems to care deeply for his sister but uses sarcasm to maintain a cool outward appearance like that of his father, Arthur.
The lights dim, and echoing voices can now be heard. A boy moans, “Annie, it hurts,” and a harsh-sounding elder woman’s voice shouts, “shut up!” The boy whispers, “You promised! Forever and ever, you said forever.” Then, a man’s voice says, “Little girl, I must tell you your brother will be going on a …” but Annie claps her hands to her ears, and the voices stop.
The parallels between Annie’s relationship with Jimmie and her relationship with Helen become clearer: in both cases, Annie feels that she has a personal responsibility to help her younger, weaker companion. Evidently, Annie feels terrible for breaking her promise to take care of Jimmie always, and seems to think of educating Helen as a chance to redeem herself in her own eyes.
The lights rise. Kate tells James to summon Arthur Keller for supper. James calls out to his father, and when Kate asks where Annie is, James replies, very pleasantly, “In her room.” He explains that Helen locked her in her room. Appalled, Kate finds Helen, sitting outside by the water pump. She finds that Helen has no key. While James cheerfully finds a ladder and carries it outside to Annie’s window, Kate tries to figure out where the key might be.
It’s pretty funny that Helen, a young, deaf-blind child, manages to confound a household of adults in full possession of their senses: simply by hiding the key, she throws the house into disarray. This is another sign that Helen is smarter than people give her credit for, and has the capacity to learn a lot about the world.
Arthur, realizing that Kate will never find the key, takes the ladder and climbs up to Annie’s room, telling her that he’ll have to carry her down. Annie agrees, trying to look “as composed and ladylike as possible.” James notices Annie and quips, “might as well leave the l, a, d, d, e, r,” implying that she’ll likely need it again.
Annie, recognizing that she has failed her first test with Helen, tries to regain her composure. James, meanwhile, continues with his sarcastic jokes, even if it’s becoming clear that he’s more interested in Annie and Helen than he means to let on.
Annie notices Helen sitting by the pump, oblivious to the chaos around her. The lights dim, and Annie walks over to observe her young pupil, a little awed. When Helen is satisfied that she’s alone, she opens her mouth, revealing the key. Annie can’t help but smile: “You devil,” she says, “You think I’m so easily gotten rid of? You have a thing or two to learn, first. I have nothing else to do.”
As Act One closes, Annie shows a grudging respect for her wild and unpredictable pupil. She realizes that Helen is clearly a smart kid—she managed to hide the key from her mother, after all—and also recognizes that Helen is smart enough that she certainly has the capacity to learn sign language. Above all, Annie is an incredibly persistent teacher. She doesn’t give up, because she feels she has a personal stake in Helen’s education (thanks in part to her relationship with her brother).