Please visit TheStarofHappiness.com to learn about my solo show and all things Helen!
Please visit TheStarofHappiness.com to learn about my solo show and all things Helen!
“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.”
– Helen Keller from Midstream
Historical fact and schoolyard humor collide in dr. michelle-leona godin’s autobiographical treatment of Helen Keller’s time on vaudeville. This one woman, two voice, three act play and its companion lecture grope toward an understanding of what it’s like to be the blind spectacle.
Yes! Contrary to what you might think is the normal state of the universe, Helen Keller really did perform on vaudeville stages for four years (1920-1924). Stumbling across this little known fact about one of the most famous women of the modern world, michelle-leona decided to investigate Helen’s motivations and the reaction of others to her startling career move which she describes in her much lesser known and out of print follow-up autobiography to The Story of My Life called Midstream. Much of the script of the Star of Happiness quotes Helen’s eloquent words about her uniquely glamorous life as a performer, her unenviable frustrations at not being taken seriously as a politically engaged and often radical thinker, and her poignant thoughts about living life as “an unmated.” Helen’s words are further complicated by michelle-leona’s perspective as a professor, performer, and woman with a progressive eye disease. Irreverent humor rubs up against reverential admiration in the patchwork of jokes, philosophy, biography and the sound and vision scapes that call attention to both the joys and superficialities of the sensory experience.
Though the story moves forward in time from 19th century Tuscumbia to present-day nyc, The three acts are snapshots connected more by ideas than a strict narrative. Act One enacts the impossible but nonetheless worthy attempt of SHE to recover Helen’s Life and personality out from under the debris of juvenile jokes on the one hand and stuffy biographies on the other. Her “lecture” is framed by the limited narrative of The Miracle Worker in order to draw attention to the constraints Helen experienced living eighty years in the public eye – an eye that for the most part refused to let her grow up or to see her as a complicated, thinking person.
Act Two recreates and deconstructs the act Helen performed for four years on the vaudeville circuit. SHE quotes Helen’s words and her jokes as well as the feel of 1920’s variety from shtick to sentimentality. At the same time SHE grapples with Helen’s politics, religion, and sexuality from a point of view that is both skeptical and sympathetic. In Act Three SHE presents herself as dr michelle-leona godin, professor and performer. SHE may now be allowed to participate in a more universal and nuanced discourse than had been her predecessor, but still cannot quite get over the blind thing. Likewise, the jokes are hers now and biting and funny though they may be, there is still something pathetic and pandering in them. Throughout the show the rare photos and virtual stage sets illustrate ironically and honestly the visible world in which SHE lives and the spectator may be left wondering where to find the line between exploitation and transcendence.
The Star of Happiness lecture serves to highlight the research that forms the backbone of this project and details the process from discovery to creativity. By examining specific passages and images in their original context on the one hand and in their new context within the script and theatrical production on the other, students learn how critical reading and deep research can fortify their artistic as well as academic projects. The lecture, which can be run as a seminar depending on the number of participants, also engages with other creative research projects such as Beckett’s unfinished play about Samuel Johnson’s relationship to his blind cohabiter Anna Williams, Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind, and the stage and film versions of The Miracle Worker. Depending on departmental concerns, we can emphasize the literary, philosophical or theatrical, but a rigorous engagement with blindness as both a trope and a disability underlie our approach to these disparate works.
The Star of Happiness: Helen Keller on Vaudeville?! is an autobiographical treatment of Helen Keller’s time on Vaudeville wherein historical fact and schoolyard humor collide. Yes, contrary to what you might think is the normal state of the universe, Helen Keller really did perform on vaudeville stages for four years (1920-1924). Truth is at least as strange as fiction!
So please come see this one-woman, two voice show that I’ve been working on for two years. You will probably laugh, you may even cry, chances are you will be highly entertained, learn something in the process, and will in all likelihood be left disconcerted, intrigued and a huge fan of Helen Keller!
The Star of Happiness is a proud participant in this year’s miniFridge taking place at Under St. Mark’s Theater June 29-July 4.
St*r Show Dates:
Friday, July 1 9pm
Saturday, July 2 7pm
Sunday, July 3 5pm
For tickets, and info on the other miniFridge participants please visit Horse Trade:
& please help save Under St Mark’s Theater!:
here’s our Save Under St Marks pitch courtesy of NY1:
Other great shows I’m in this month:
Tuesday June 7, 8pm @ Lolita Bar, 266 Broome Street nyc
Monday, June 13, 9pm @ Under St Marks, 94 St Marks, nyc
Friday, June 17 @ KGB Bar, 85 East 4th Street, nyc
Sunday, June 19 @ Fontana’s, 105 Eldridge St nyc, 8pm
Tuesday, June 21 @ Under St Marks, 94 St Marks Street, nyc 9pm
Wednesday, June 29 @ Under St Marks, 94 St marks, nyc
“I need not go into any particulars about Helen Keller. She is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare, and the rest of the immortals. She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today.”
-From Autobiography of Mark Twain, March 30, 1906
Mark Twain is a known exaggerator, and so if we discount him thirty percent for embroidery, as his mother did, we may find that what is left is “perfect and priceless truth, without a flaw in it anywhere.”
In his March 30 autobiographical session Mark twain recalls the first time “he ever saw Helen Keller” Helen was fourteen then. He describes a gathering at the writer Laurence Hutton’s house on a Sunday afternoon where “twelve or fifteen men and women had been invited to come and see her.” Note that he says come and see her not meet her, and before you accuse me of being an overly sensitive politically correct whiny blind person, construing even the words of Mark Twain, read this and tell me how to expunge the wildlife adventure quality of his narrative:
“After a couple of hours spent very pleasantly, someone asked if Helen would remember the feel of the hands of the company after this considerable interval of time and be able to discriminate the hands and name the possessor’s of them.” Miss Sullivan assured them all that Helen would have no problem with that, and indeed she did not except for a man who had worn gloves the first time around and took them off for the second, which seems like a nasty trick to me.
But for Twain, Clemens, the real “miracle” came when he was leaving early from the lunch and patted her on the head as he passed by:
“Miss Sullivan called to me and said stop Mr. Clemens, Helen is distressed because she did not recognize your hand. Won’t you come back and do that again? I went back and patted her lightly on the head and she said at once, ‘Oh, it’s Mr. Clemens.” Perhaps someone can explain this miracle, but I have never been able to do it. Could she feel the wrinkles in my hand through her hair? Someone else must answer this. I am not competent.
I offer the following by way of explanation, taken from her book The World I Live In, where she describes “the hands of others”:
“It is interesting to observe the differences in the hands of people. They show all kinds of vitality, energy, stillness, and cordiality. I never realized how living the hand is until I saw those chill plaster images in Mr. Hutton’s collection of plaster casts. The hand I know in life has the fullness of blood in its veins, and is elastic with spirit. How different dear Mr. Hutton’s hand was from its dull, insensate image! To me the cast lacks the very form of the hand. Of the many casts in Mr. Hutton’s collection, I did not recognize any, not even my own.
“But a loving hand I never forget. I remember in my fingers the large hands of Bishop Brooks, brimful of tenderness and a strong man’s joy. If you were deaf and blind and could have held Mr. Jefferson’s hand, you would have seen in it a face and heard a kind voice unlike any other you had known. Mark Twain’s hand is full of whimsies and the drollest humors, and while you hold it the drollery changes to sympathy and championship.”
The autobiography of Mark Twain was published for the first time in full last year, marking one hundred years since his death, you can find out everything you might want to know about it and him at The Mark Twain Project:
The quote from Helen comes from her second book published in 1908 called The World I Live in, and can be found for free at Project Gutenberg: