Helen Keller Plays Vaudeville With You

Star of Happiness promotional shot of Godin in sequins on floor like a mermaid. Cathryn Lynne Photographer.
Out of the dark, a jewel box scene materializes; Helen Keller plays vaudeville on this top-billed set. The handsomely appointed drawing room, brilliant and color-saturated, projects hugely: French windows overlook rolling hills and a sky that will shift from day to night; drapes puddle on the floor; The Apotheosis of Homer hangs on one of the brocade-papered walls, and a lion-footed grand piano, atop which sits a vase of American Beauty roses, dominates the pretend room.

In your best announcer voice you say, “All the world knows and loves Helen Keller, the girl with the unconquerable spirit. She had fought her way uncomplaining against the greatest obstacles that ever confronted a human being. Today she is “The Star of Happiness” to all struggling humanity.

“The Star of Happiness” theme song plays and Helen, in a fantastically sequined gown that hugs her curves steps in with a huge smile. She theatrically sweeps her hand around, reaching for the piano, and runs her gloved fingers along its keys of light.

You continue, “Helen can feel the music not only with her finger tips but with her whole body.

Helen says, “It is very beautiful.”

“Miss Keller,” you ask leadingly, “can you tell when the audience applauds?”

She says, “Oh yes, I hear it through my feet.” Then, “Only…”

“Yes?” you ask, as if you didn’t know what was about to happen.

“They are not applauding?”

Your giant MC voice booms through the theater as you command, “Will you please applaud?”

The audience, putty in your hands, applauds enthusiastically, even more so and with little chuckles as Helen does her lying on the ground soaking in the vibes bit. “Ah, that feels good,” she says languorously. She likes to be a little bit naughty; it is not what those poor saps expect. “More!” she cajoles, and the suckers comply.

It’s time for you to play the straight guy. “Er, Miss Keller?”

“Yes?” she says, her eyes half closed. She looks quite ravishing down there.

“You feel the applause through your feet.”

Helen sighs, “Oh, all right,” and pulls her upper body up to rest on one hand, mermaid style. She looks left and dramatically sniffs the air, then crawls in the direction of the vase of flowers which sit on a block made up like a table with a lacey cloth covering. She picks up the vase of fake flowers, the analogue of that which sits atop the projected piano, and sniffs elaborately.

“Miss Keller finds her way from her second floor dressing room to the stage by following the scent of these roses.”

“I do love the scent of American Beauties!” She puts down the flowers and looks thoughtful. “So… Are you really going to make me say this next bit? I mean, who wrote this stuff?

She always balks here and you are not sure why. It’s a bit sappy, but you have to give them a little of what they want. “You did,” you remind her.

“I guess I did, but I believe Mr. Albee‘s man urged me in this direction.”

You say nothing, and she falls in.

“What I have to say is very simple. My teacher has told you how a word from her hand touched the darkness of my mind and I awoke to the gladness of life. I was dumb, now I speak. I owe this to the hands and hearts of others. Through their love I found my soul and happiness. Don’t you see what it means? We live by each other and for each other. Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much. Love can break down the walls that stand between us and happiness. I lift up my voice and thank the Lord for love and joy and the promise of life to come.” Helen gives a big woe-is-me sigh as the theme song comes up.

You recite for the audience the lyrics to drive home the point:

“Wonderful star of light

Out from the darkness of night

Sending down a silver ray

Turning nighttime into day

Wonderful star–”

Helen throws her arms up like an air traffic controller, “Enough!” The sound of a needle ripping off a record is used to cut the song. “I’m not so sure about those lyrics.”

“What’s wrong with them?” you ask. You know the next line as well as she does, but it seems unnecessarily pedantic. She has insisted you let her keep it.

I’m just so sick of these quasi-religious, light dark metaphorics that pretend to give credence to the idea of compensation.”

A small smart titter is about all that line gets her, but you play along. What can you do? This is her show after all. “Compensation?”

“You know, metaphorical sight for physical sight. Spiritual light for the real thing. I just don’t buy it. I mean really, “The star of happiness”? It’s just so saccharin and Pollyannaish. It panders to the sap and sentimentality in people.”

“Aw, but the song was written for you.”

She gives an unbecoming smirk. “By the gentleman who wrote Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

You hate having to play dumb, but there’s no getting around it, “What’s that?” you ask naively. It’s time for the dance number.

“Hit it boys!” Helen pulls her white cane from a black sequin quiver.

The tiny Twenties trumpets blare as the song starts up, “Yes, we have no bananas–” Helen, right hand on cane, left hand up waving, makes a circle around her white cane. “We have no bananas today.” She makes her circle backwards, bum first, then lifts her cane, holding it horizontally with both hands. “We’ve got string beans and onions–” Helen kicks to the left and the right under the cane. “Cabbages and scallions–” she kicks a little higher to the left and the right. “And all sorts of fruits and say–” Helen shimmies the cane from waist-height to over her head. “We have an old fashioned tomato–” She lets go the cane with her left hand, which she places on her left hip, and twirls the cane above her head like a baton, making a funny proud face, which always cracks you and the audience up. Then she brings it down and stands with it in her right hand, at attention like a soldier. “And Long Island potato,” Helen puts the cane under her arm, as if it were a bayoneted musket, and marches loudly stomping in her heels in time to the music three times. STOMP STOMP STOMP “But yes, we have no bananas.” Helen puts both hands on her cane like Charlie Chaplin. “We have no bananas todaaaay.” Helen holds both arms out in a big-finish gesture and the audience erupts in applause.

“That was fun,” you say.

“You know,” she says, suddenly candid, “I’m rather tired of uplifting your spirits and being an inspiration.”

“What would you prefer?”

She walks determinately upstage and clears her throat. “Through a performative reading of disparate texts, I’d like to make some bold suggestions that force my audience to confront their deeply held, if often unconscious, attitudes towards the disabled body.” She smiles and lifts her head like a self-satisfied peacock, which earns her a chuckle or two.

You pull her back on track, “I think it is time Miss Keller answered some questions from the audience.”

“All right,” she says, and steps to the pretend table with its lacey tablecloth and moves the vase of roses so she can sit and cross her legs–rather shapely legs. She takes up her little toy drum and the prerecorded audience questions begin.

“Miss Keller, Do you ever tire of talking?”

Helen Keller:

“Have you ever heard of a woman who tired of talking?”

“Do you think women should hold office?”

“Yes, if they can get enough of their fellow citizens to vote for them.”

“Who are your best pals?”

Books.”

“Miss Keller, do you really perceive colors?”

“Well, sometimes I feel blue and sometimes I see red.” Helen makes her own BADUM BUM with her toy drum. This gets a good laugh.

“What do you think of capitalism?”

“I think it has outgrown its usefulness.”

“What is your conception of light?”

“It is like thought in the mind, a bright, amazing thing.”

“Miss Keller, Do you close your eyes when you sleep?”

“I guess I do, but I never stayed awake to see.” BADUM BUM.

“What do you think of Soviet Russia?”

“Soviet Russia is the first organized attempt of the workers to establish an order of society in which human life and happiness shall be of first importance, and not the conservation of property for a privileged class.” Helen pauses, then BADUM BUM. People laugh, relieved.

“Miss Keller, what is your idea of unhappiness?”

“Having nothing to do.”

Who are the three greatest men of our time?”

“Lenin, Edison, and Chaplin.”

“Does Miss Keller think of marriage?”

“Yes, are you proposing to me?”

“What is miss Keller’s age?”

“There is no age on the vaudeville stage.”

“Why did Helen Keller cross the road?” asks a familiarly juvenile voice.

Helen pauses to consider, then, “To feel the other side?”

“Freak,” mumbles that voice.

She puts down her drum and walks towards center stage. She stops, slightly askew, as if a bit disorientated. “Well, yes, at first it seemed odd to find ourselves on the same bill with acrobats, monkeys, horses, dogs, and parrots; but our little act was dignified and people seemed to like it.”

You try to lighten the mood with a little historical perspective. “Helen’s act was, according to Hammerstein and other vaudeville producers, called an odd act. This was not strictly entertainment, but rather topical, newsworthy or of human interest.”

Helen grows wistful. She is remembering her time in The Play World, tipping her hat to the fact that this performance is pretend, and not so much like the original as all that. “I found the world of vaudeville much more amusing than the world I had always lived in, and I liked it. I liked to feel the warm tide of human life pulsing round and round me. I liked to weep at its sorrows, to be annoyed at its foibles, to laugh at its absurdities, to be set athrill by its flashes of unexpected goodness and courage. I enjoyed watching the actors in the workshop of faces and costumes. If I should describe the charming bits of acts which were performed for me off stage, I should be more voluminous than Who’s Who in America. I must be content to say I was often admitted to the dressing rooms of the other actors, and that many of them let me feel their costumes and even went through their acts for me.

“The thought often occurred to me that the parts the actors played, was their real life, and all the rest was make-believe. I still think so, and hope it is true, for the sake of many to whom fate is unkind in the real world.

“I can conceive that in time the spectacle might have grown stale. I might have come to hear the personal confessions of my fellow actors without emotions, and to regard the details of wild parties and excursions with impatience. But I shall always be glad I went into vaudeville, not only for the excitement of it, but also for the opportunities it gave me to study life.”

“That must be the hardest thing about being deaf and blind.”

What?”

“Not having a lot of opportunities to study life.”

“Oh yes, it can be complicated. . Having conversations with people who do not know the manual alphabet must be done through an interpreter or …

Virtually sitting in my interlocutor’s lap.”

“That sounds exciting.”

“Perhaps… In order to have direct conversation with someone who does not know the manual alphabet, one must put one’s hand on the other’s face, the middle finger lies alongside their nose, the index rests gently along their lips, and the thumb feels the vibrations of the throat. It is rather intimate. Not everyone feels comfortable with such a position. The men in particular seem to get a bit… flustered.” She looks down, as if to acknowledge her large breasts and how they may have contributed to men’s discomfort in her proximity. She looks back up, then, “Could you please excuse me?”

she exits and the pastoral scene beyond the projected French windows transforms into a shadow box–Helen’s dressing room–into which her silhouette magically steps.

Soft music plays–Me and My Shadow–while your conversation with Helen continues as if through the intimacy of airwaves. The audience is immediately hushed and expectant.

“I suppose my figure does not fit the angelic ideal people have of me. I understand my friends and publicists do much to downplay the fact that I am a woman and have breasts.” Her silhouette pulls off one glove and then another, dropping them into the dark.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“I had one once… His name was Peter… His love was a bright sun that shone upon my helplessness and isolation. The sweetness of being loved enchanted me, and I yielded to an imperious longing to be a part of a man’s life. For a brief space I danced in and out of the gates of Heaven, wrapped up in a web of bright imaginings.” The silhouette reaches behind to unbutton the gown. As she continues, she finishes and it slips to the ground. “We planned to elope but my family learned of our elicit plans and Mother sent my two elder brothers to rescue me from my silly adventure. They were right to do so… I cannot account for my behavior. As I look back and try to understand, I am completely bewildered. I seem to have acted exactly opposite to my nature. It can be explained only in the old way-that love makes us blind and leaves the mind confused and deprives it of the use of judgment. I corresponded with the young man for several months; but my lovedream was shattered. It had flowered under an inauspicious star. The unhappiness I had caused my dear ones produced a state of mind unfavorable to the continuance of my relations with the young man.”

“And has love never disturbed you again?”

She seems to wrap herself in a dressing gown hanging on the wall, but you can’t be sure. You’ve never been allowed back there. Sighing she says, “Recently the idea has slipped into my consciousness, by way of a letter from a gentleman. It is in fact a proposal. I am flattered, but I am no longer the young and thoughtless creature I once was. I am too practical now, in my middle life to seriously consider it. As recompense, I am granted the mature sentiments and talents to write a letter worthy of such an impetuously magnanimous offer. I have spent no little time composing my letter of response, will you hear it?”

“I would be honored, Miss Keller.”

Helen’s silhouette moves to a chair and sits, crossing its legs. It reaches into the pocket of its dressing gown, pulls out folded pieces of paper which it smooths on its lap. The shadow hands move gracefully across the page as the silhouette reads. “All the primitive instincts and desires of the heart, which neither physical disabilities nor suppression can subdue, leap up within me to meet your wishes. Since my youth I have desired the love of a man. Sometimes I have wondered rebelliously why fate has trifled with me so strangely, why I was tantalized with bodily capabilities I could not fulfill. But time, the great discipliner, has done his work well, so that I have learned not to reach out for the moon, and not to cry aloud for the spilled treasures of womanhood. I have come to feel that it was intended for me to live as an unmated, and I have become reconciled to my fate.”

Outside the shadow box dressing room, the piano fades, leaving behind the Victorian textured walls, which in turn fade to black, leaving only the silhouette in its box of creamy light.

“You have read my books. Perhaps you have received the wrong impression from them. One does not grumble in print, or hold up one’s broken wings for the thoughtless and indifferent to gaze at. One hides as much as possible one’s awkwardness and helplessness under a fine philosophy and a smiling face. What I have printed gives no knowledge of my actual life. You see and hear, therefore cannot easily imagine how complicated life is when one has to be led everywhere and assisted to do the simplest things.”

Now the shadowbox itself begins to fade into the blackness, leaving the audience, and you, in inky and disorienting dark. If not for the illuminated EXIT sign, one might worry one did not exist either.to

“Somehow your letter has made me acutely aware of my situation and the discomforts of it. I realize, as perhaps you cannot, the almost unthinkable difference between your life and mine. You seem to have lived a full, normal man’s life. I have lived inwardly. They say that all women partake of the nature of children. I am absurdly childish in many ways. My nearest friends tell me I know nothing of the real world. in some ways my life has been a very lonely one. Books have been my most intimate companions. My part in domestic affairs is usually that of a wistful looker on. Your willingness to marry me under the circumstances fills me with amazement. I tremble to think what an inescapable burden I should be to a husband.”

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