Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2005, Volume 25, No. 3
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

'Play[ing] her part correctly': Helen Keller as Vaudevillian Freak

Susan Crutchfield
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
1725 State St.
La Crosse, Wisconsin 54601
E-mail: crutchfi.susa@uwlax.edu


Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy's 1920s vaudeville routine is compared to freak show entertainment. Vaudeville and freak show histories are used to show that Keller's act exemplifies the historical connection between the two entertainment forms. Deploying many of the freak show conventions catalogued by Bogdan (1990, 1996), her routine is examined through the critical debate over freak shows between Bogdan (1990, 1996) and D. Gerber (1996). Bogdan claims freak shows engage discursive conventions that showcase their performers' talents, whereas Gerber argues they exploitatively display anomalous bodies. Through analysis of publicity materials and newspaper reviews, it is concluded that Keller's routine appealed to audiences as a sideshow display but was carefully packaged to downplay its exploitative qualities.

Keywords: Helen Keller, vaudeville history, sideshow history

Introduction: The Path to Vaudeville

In late 1919, Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy were strapped for cash and searching for a job. Their hopes of a hit Hollywood film had just been dashed when the silent film of Keller's life, Deliverance, failed to sustain audience interest after its August premiere. Thus, the two middle-aged women--Anne in her mid-50s and Helen almost 40--sought out a vaudeville contract. The great vaudeville circuit owner B. F. Keith had offered them a lucrative spot on his stage when Helen was just a teenager, but they had turned him down. Somewhat reluctantly, the women now booked a tour on the big-time Orpheum circuit and prepared themselves for appearances in theaters across the United States and into Canada. Debuting at B. F. Keith's Palace Theater in New York in February 1920 and running, with some breaks, into 1924, the act was a roaring success, promising the women economic solvency and a less rigorous schedule than their earlier Chautauqua lecture tours. This study examines Keller's success on vaudeville in light of her act's similarities to another popular performative entertainment form--the freak show.

As Keller's biographer Dorothy Herrmann (1999) puts it, at this point Keller and Macy had become "inured . . . to exhibiting themselves to make a living" (p. 487). They had been presenting themselves publicly for most of Keller's life, satisfying the public's thirst for inspiration and celebrity while honing their public personae. Keller was most popularly and financially successful when presenting herself as "a virginal young woman with a Braille book on her lap [savoring] the sweet smell of a rose" (Herrmann, p. 176). It was with this sort of image that she first captured the nation's heart in her 1903 autobiography, The Story of My Life. But as biographers and historians have shown, the persistence of this well-loved image belies the complexity of Keller's life as a committed socialist and political activist (Loewen, 1995; Wolfe, 1996; Lash, 1997; Herrmann, 1999; Nielsen, 2004). Political and social activism, however, was not economically lucrative. Out of the Dark, a 1913 collection of Keller's socialist writings, had failed to make money, and Keller's outspokenness was considered by some of her friends and handlers to generate poor publicity. This had been a concern as recently as 1918, when the producers of Keller's film biography urged their star to tone down her political activism and give up her plan to use the film to support the defense fund of the socialist International Workers of the World (IWW). The film's scenarist Francis Trevelyan Miller wrote to Keller's assistant that the IWW "is an enemy of our country at this time and the people will mistake Helen's intentions" (June 26, 1918).

The public's thirst for and willingness financially to compensate only dramatizations of a particular Keller persona led increasingly to self-censoring by Keller and selective reporting on the part of others interested in maintaining her certain image. Nielsen (2004) examines this self-censoring in some detail, particularly in relation to Keller's cultivation of a public image suitable to her career as spokeswoman for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) from the mid-1920s on (pp. 47-53). Earlier that decade, in a 1923 newspaper article, one of her lecture-tour booking agents reflected upon the public's expectations of the Keller persona:

Helen Keller, as long as she played her part correctly [italics added], was one of my biggest platform successes. She was an inspiration to the world. America went wild over her. Then, in Boston, she became interested in radicalism and in a short time that ended her career ("Helen Keller a Success").

This account exaggerates the presumed demise of her career and simplifies the reasons for her retiring from lecturing. As Keller recounts in a 1923 letter to Daisy Sharpe, the lecture circuit was "very hard work, and not especially remunerative. After the Great War, when prices began rising faster than the pennies came in, [Teacher and I] went into Vaudeville, which paid us much better than lecturing. We did not have to work so hard either, as we stayed at least a week in one place" (AFB vaudeville folder). Still, the agent's remarks reveal the degree to which Keller's public success rested on a skillful manipulation of her image through performance.

Her act on vaudeville comprised an undeniably successful performance of the well-loved Keller persona. Reviewers and the public agreed that she "played her part correctly." But what exactly was Keller's role on vaudeville's boards? Analysis of the routine's script, as well as of contemporaneous advertisements and reviews of the women's performances, reveals a thinly veiled sideshow act. Appealing to its audiences for many of the reasons a freak show appeals to its own, Keller's routine was nevertheless carefully packaged to sublimate what could have been perceived as the low-brow connotations of its subject matter.

Keller's Vaudeville Act: The "Star of Happiness"

The copy of Keller and Macy's vaudeville routine script kept in the Keller archives at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) in New York City squares with contemporaneous descriptions of the show from New York to Kansas City, to New Orleans and San Francisco. While there were slight variations in the act over its four-year run, the 20-minute routine remained essentially as follows (all quotes taken from "Script"). The curtain rises on a drawing room set, upon which stands Macy, who proceeds to provide a short biography of Keller's life and achievements, including the origins of her handicaps, her graduation from Radcliffe College, her friendship with Mark Twain--whom Macy quotes as having said "the two greatest characters in the Nineteen[th] Century are Napoleon and Helen Keller" (p. 2)--and her learning to speak. Keller then enters, moves to the piano, and, placing her hands on the instrument, exclaims aloud, "It is very beautiful" (p. 2)! After more details about her education in speaking, as well as a demonstration of how she reads lips and of Macy's fingerspelling, Keller gives aloud a brief, inspiring speech, ending with "Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much. Only love can break down the walls that stand between us and our happiness. The greatest commandment is: 'Love ye one another.' I lift up my voice and thank the Lord for love and joy and the promise of life to come" (p. 5). A voice offstage then sings the chorus of "Star of Happiness," a tune penned especially for use in Keller's routine by George Alfred Lewis, the man famous for writing "Yes, We Have No Bananas."

Towards the end of the routine, the audience is invited to ask Keller questions via Macy's fingerspelled translations. In the vaudeville folder at the AFB archives is a long list of the many questions she had been asked on stage by 1922. Titled "Questions asked Helen Keller by her Vaudeville audiences," most of this 18-page document is typed, with several questions and footnotes handwritten in the margins. Herrmann (1999), interprets this document as a script, arguing that its recorded questions and answers were rehearsed by Macy and Keller before encountering them live (p. 228). However, the date "ca. 1922" is handwritten on its first page, suggesting the document records actual questions (with answers) that Keller had fielded on tour by that year, whether rehearsed or not. Many are comical, vaudeville-style one-liners:

Question: Can you feel moonshine?
Keller: No, but I smell it.

Question: What is your age?
Keller: Between sixteen and sixty.
OR There is no age in vaudeville.

Question: What is your definition of politics?
Keller: The art of promising one thing and doing another.
OR The art of finding and holding on to profitable jobs.

Question: What do you think is the most important question before the country today?
Keller: How to get a drink.

Question: Can you see any way out of our troubles?
Keller: Have you thought of divorce?

Other recorded exchanges are often more serious and express Keller's political convictions:

Question: Do you believe with Conan Doyle that spiritualism is the cure for the world's troubles?
Keller: No. I think the world's troubles are caused chiefly by wrong economic conditions, and the only cure for them is social reorganization.

Question: When my country wants me to fight, and I want to live in peace, what am I to do?
Keller: Compromise by going to jail.

Question: Who is your favorite hero in real life?
Keller: Eugene V. Debs. He dared to do what other men were afraid to do. [Eugene V. Debs was then President of the American Socialist Party and a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He went to jail for opposing World War I.]

Question: Do you believe all political prisoners should be released?
Keller: Certainly. They opposed the World War on the ground that it was a commercial war. Now every one with a grain of sense says it, was [sic]. Their crime is, they said it, first [sic].

Freak Act or Freak Show?

An unmitigated hit, their act was, however, somewhat unusual for vaudeville. Keller herself explained in a letter (December 19, 1923) that, "At first it seemed strange to find ourselves on a programme with dancers, acrobats and trained animals. But the very difference between ourselves and the other actors gave novelty and interest to our work." Indeed, vaudeville's format of several diverse short acts performed one after the other nurtured a wide variety of acts, from singers, song and dance teams, jugglers and acrobats, one-act monologists from the legitimate stage and seriocomics, to animal acts, men who could swallow and immediately expel live frogs (an act that didn't last long), famous ex-prisoners, and other personalities whose so-called acts hung loosely on their more bankable personal notoriety. These latter acts were dubbed freak acts. According to ex-vaudevillian and vaudeville historian Joe Laurie, Jr., freak acts could be made of practically any newsworthy personality through "build-up and publicity" (1953, p. 214). This included ex-convicts as well as armless brothers and a man who had been entombed in a mine. Similarly unusual for vaudeville, odd acts were "unorthodox in style and presentation" and might include men who boxed with their feet, or particularly fast woodchoppers (Laurie, p. 214). Laurie groups Keller's act with the freak and odd acts, calling it, "the greatest of all the odd and interesting acts we have ever seen or worked with" (p. 225). Her act married the freak with the odd, her newsworthy celebrity with an unusual presentation style.

Laurie distinguishes between freak acts, which he says burned out quickly with the changing news headlines, and odd acts, which lasted longer and offered something more in the way of entertainment (however unusual) than freak acts. However, as with any generic descriptor, there is some discrepancy in the use of the term freak act; other vaudeville historians broaden the term to include all acts featuring eclectic performances, physically unusual performers, and/or notorious personalities. I will follow the practice of grouping the two kinds of acts described by Laurie (freak and odd) under the umbrella term of freak act, while still focusing on the genre's characteristic of featuring an unusual, tabloid-worthy performer.

The record of physically anomalous people working as freak acts is evidence of vaudeville's historical connection with the freak show. In the late 1800s, the vaudeville form had merged for a time with the format of the dime museum, one of the "best places to see the freak show from 1840-1940" (Bogdan, 1990, p. 60). At the height of their popularity in the 1880s-90s, dime museums featured various curiosities and artifacts, including living human anomalies, or freaks, such as Laloo, a man with a twin brother growing out of his stomach, and Jo-Jo the dog-faced boy. However, freak show historian Robert Bogdan (1990) explains that "at the end of the nineteenth century the line that divided vaudeville from dime museum displays was not always easy to draw" (pp. 264-265). These special museums held a section for exhibits, including freaks, and another for variety acts. Generally the freak curiosity drew in the crowds, who were then treated to vaudeville-style variety entertainment as well (Gilbert, 1963, pp. 20-22). Another connection between the two entertainment forms is revealed in the types of acts falling under the sideshow umbrella. According to David A. Gerber (1996), proper freak shows featured two genres of act: one characterized by the individual's performance of some skill, and another, more prevalent, act more properly labeled a display, "an appearance in which talent, when it existed at all, was beside the point" (p. 46). At carnival, circus, or dime museum freak shows, it was not unusual to find these genres merged in a vaudeville-style act presented by a performer with an unusual physicality. Concomitantly, vaudeville's freak act--for which the featured individual might not perform, but instead narrate her experiences or answer questions from the audience—is comparable to the kind of entertainment offered in the freak show's display format. Vaudeville's freak acts and the sideshow's displays both relied on their audience's curiosity regarding a notable personality, made bankable through publicity and the buildup of contextual discourses, rather than through the promise of virtuosic talent.

In his study of the social construction of freaks in sideshow discourse, Robert Bogdan (1996) explains that freaks aren't born, rather, they are made through calculated publicity discourses and performative techniques: "'Freak' is a frame of mind, a set of practices, a way of thinking about and presenting people. It is not a person but the enactment of a tradition, the performance of a stylized presentation" (p. 35). In general, freak shows presented their attractions as "unique, or the best of their kind," and they were "heralded as morally uplifting and educational" (Bogdan, 1996, p. 27). Publicity for Keller's vaudeville act deploys a remarkably similar strategy. A quick glance at the newspaper advertisements for her "concert" reveals how promises of her emotional, humanistic appeal set her routine apart from the other acts on the bill. Described in the ad for her New York debut as "Blind, deaf, and formerly DUMB," Keller would present "a remarkable portrayal of the triumph of [her] life over the greatest obstacles that ever confronted a human being." Alongside Keller and Macy, more characteristically vaudevillian talent was offered by Bessie Clayton, "America's Own Supreme Dancing Star," May Wirth & Family with "Their Novelty Scene," Dickinson & Deacon "In a Paprika of Chatter, Song and Dance," and "Versatile Vaudevillians" Parish & Perli ("Advertisement," 1920).

Other conventions of sideshow exhibits are uncannily similar to the structure of Keller's vaudeville routine. For instance, Bogdan (1990, 1996) names "aggrandized status" as one of the strategies used to promote freaks. Sideshow barkers, publicity, and public appearances presented the freak as having connections to famous people and as having high social position (Bogdan, 1996, pp. 29-31). Keller's iconographic status had made her already well known to her audience, and advertisements tout her as "The Most Talked of Woman in the World" (see "Advertisement," 1920). Compounding the already-established sense of Keller's celebrity, Macy was sure to mention her associations with Mark Twain, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Enrico Caruso, and others in the act's opening remarks ("Script"). Further constructing freaks as superior to average citizens, sideshow lecturers and extended pamphlet narratives told audiences of their subjects' extraordinary lives and identities, often claiming they were "highly educated, spoke many languages, and had aristocratic hobbies such as writing poetry or painting" (Bogdan, 1996, pp. 29-30). In this vein, Macy's scripted biography lauds Keller's "degree of Bachelor of Arts from Radcliffe College and Harvard University" and explains that she "can speak and read and write French, German, and Italian, and she can also read Latin and Greek" ("Script"). Newspaper reviews of Keller's act also praised her surprising accomplishments. Granted, sideshows often fabricated these elements of their attractions' lives, whereas Keller could realistically claim a high social position (if not high economic class), friendships with world-famous personalities and artists, and laudable intellectual achievements. Nevertheless, the two entertainment forms' strategies for creating prestige and excitement around their featured singular bodies are strikingly similar.

But while the freak show's raison d'être was the display of anomalous physicalities, freak acts were the minority in vaudeville, and the more respectable houses, those with pretensions to the status of the legitimate stage, staked their reputations on the quality of their featured talent. Such was the case with Edward F. Albee's ritzy Palace Theater in New York, where Keller and Macy made their debut. Albee's policy of not allowing mere notable personalities or freak acts onto his stage bill (a rule not always followed, according to Joe Laurie, Jr. [1953, pp. 218-219]) reflects a general cultural perception of the undesirable, low-brow connotations of that genre. Instead, Albee required his performers have a genuine talent beyond their media personalities or physiology. Keller's act obviously passed his test. Still, the publicity material launched to establish her legitimacy as a performer suggests her handlers realized the public might question the nature of her so-called talent.

Publicizing Keller's Act, I:  ". . . wonderful showmanship"

Publicity material put out by the Keith-Albee firm was designed to convince audiences that Keller's act was indeed a performance and not simply a freak show demonstration. The May 24, 1920 Washington D.C. edition of B.F. Keith's Theatre News (featuring Keller's photo-portrait on its cover) includes the review of her New York debut from the New York Sun-Herald. The review's praise offers testimony of the circuit's desire to portray Keller's routine as more than an exhibition. General doubts about her stage potential are described first:

Certainly no one had the faintest idea of what a blind, deaf woman, who had been taught to speak with as much mechanical difficulty, almost, as would be experienced in producing speech from a statue, would be doing in vaudeville, where the swiftest, trickiest sort of entertainment "stuff with a punch" is provided for audiences whose critical anticipation of entertainment is set to a hair trigger (B. F. Keith's, 1920, p. 3).

Nevertheless, the piece goes on to recount Keller's triumph at demonstrating her talents as well as her facility with vaudeville-style entertainment:

Before she had been on the stage two minutes Helen Keller had conquered again, and the Monday afternoon audience at the Palace, one of the most critical and cynical in the world, was hers. . . . In her happiness Miss Keller displayed a pretty wit and in reply to some questions asked by the audience 'came back' several times with a quickness and good humor that the keenest of the experienced monologists might well have envied. The girl . . . was smart enough to get the idea of vaudeville [italics added] before she started in it (B. F. Keith's, 1920, p. 4).

From those who considered vaudeville a unique art form and way of life, this was praise indeed. Moreover, the review's rhetoric reveals that the act's construction as a performance of talent, rather than a mere display of Keller's unique, disabled body, was crucial to it being considered legitimate entertainment rather than a tasteless invitation to freak show-style voyeurism.

A newspaper review of Keller's April 1921 appearance in New Orleans explicitly spells out this crucial distinction between performance and exhibition. Titled "Throng Marvels at Helen Keller: Blind and Deaf Wonder Arouses Emotions of Orpheum Audience," the article explains:

One [sic] learning that Miss Keller had been booked as headliner of a vaudeville program, one could not avoid wondering how she would "perform," what she would do to make herself entertaining. It is useless to attempt to describe how she did it but Miss Keller was tremendously entertaining.

A large share of the credit, of course, goes to Mrs. Macy not alone because Miss Keller is her protégé, but because she and her assistants showed wonderful showmanship in the arrangement of the act, for her ability to make an "act" out of what might have been considered an exhibition.

Clearly, an "act" is more creditable and more suitable to vaudeville than an "exhibition," with an act requiring "showmanship" to achieve its goal of being "entertaining." Likewise the New York Herald review lauds Keller's "wit" and favorably compares her timing and "good humor" to that of a well-seasoned monologist.

These reviews describe two different sorts of professional concerns evoked by Keller's act: first, that Keller would not perform at all, thus falling into degenerate freak-showmanship; and second, that any performance she did attempt would fall short of the skill level commensurate with the major vaudeville circuit that had booked her act. The first concern reveals the degree to which Keller's presence on stage raised the specter of vaudeville's connections with the tasteless freak show and its predominant mode of display. Did Keller's performance amount to genuine talent, or did it comprise the kind of staging and storytelling associated with the freak show's aggrandizement?

Responding to Bogdan's theory (1990, 1996) of the freak as social construct, David Gerber (1996) critiques the notion that the freak show's appeal to its audience is performative rather than material--that the audience is attracted to a style of display rather than to the actual body displayed. Bogdan's focus on the freak as valued performer and active subject of the show, Gerber argues, causes him to ignore the possibility that audiences came to freak shows to objectify the people on view, "to be fascinated by the unusual, to stare, to be horrified, and to engage in loathing at a display" (p. 45). Gerber shows that Bogdan's insistence on the performative aspects of the freak show is his means of legitimating and celebrating the talent of its employees (p. 45). Similarly, Keller's publicists and reviewers highlight her skills as a means of legitimating her presence on the stage and their own presence in the audience. And just as Bogdan downplays the exploitative, disempowering nature of freak shows, Keller's handlers sublimate that element of the freak show in her vaudeville act by constructing her as a performer of some skill.

Publicizing Keller's Act, II:  The Auracle Speaks!

Other media discourses, however, were not as deft at recasting Keller's act as a talented performance. On the contrary, these other reviews continued to place her routine in the freak act category by means of language one might expect to hear from a sideshow barker luring his audience into the tent. Thus, these reviews illuminate the freak show appeal of her act, the degree to which its interest turned on Keller's unique person rather than her unique talents. The following newspaper review of a 1921 appearance is more direct than others in its description of Keller's strange attractions. Even sign language seems occultish in this account:

SHE'S A HUMAN WONDER: DEAF, DUMB AND BLIND, HELEN KELLER HEARS AND SPEAKS. Appearing at Orpheum This Week, Woman Answers Questions Through Her Teacher by Tapping of Her Fingers

To meet a woman who is dumb but speaks, is deaf yet hears, and who is blind but perceives, is a startling experience. And meeting Helen Keller is a happening nervous persons should attempt but once.

It is not a new story, but it is one that never grows old, this Helen Keller marvel.

Seekers of thrills can find few experiences more startling than to speak to Miss Keller and to receive a reply from her instantly, although she is without the normal powers of speech.

Such a communication inspires a sense of the supernatural more weird than reading a fantastic bit from Poe at midnight ("She's a Human Wonder").

While claims for Keller's stage appeal are usually more muted than those represented in this review, they still frequently speak unmistakably of the bizarre. The title of a 1923 Erie Dispatch Herald review claims she "Astounds Her Opening Audience with Remarkable Mentality." A 1920 review claims that "ripples of amazement and awe ran through the crowd as she spoke" ("2,000 Cheer"). Reporting on Keller's visit to Fresno, Calif., in 1921, another journalist writes that "audiences greet Helen Keller with a mighty acclaim, often a profound hush, something more than applause. It is that spontaneous tribute straight from the heart, when one has witnessed a thing performed which has been considered impossible" (Chappell). In a piece from the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune (1921) Keller is purported to offer an experience akin to a Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum exhibit. The header reads, "'Mamma, Helen Keller's True!' She's Learned to Do Fox Trot: Likes to Dance, Swim and Walk, But Most of All to Talk, Although She Has Never Heard Even Her Own Voice." As in the "HUMAN WONDER" review, Keller's voice is highlighted:

When one first hears her voice it sounds startling and unreal; it is so deep and rises in such unexpected places, like a foreigner's who has learned English by book with no chance to know how the words should sound. And Miss Keller has less than that opportunity.

But after a little, it is quite possible to understand everything she says. The strangeness of the sound is forgotten in the vicinity of her facial expression and her enthusiasm ("'Mama'").

The fantastic juxtaposition of Keller's odd voice with her strikingly normal appearance--a juxtaposition unavailable in any mass medium of the period (photography, silent film, radio)--offered the vaudeville audience a confounding image (spectacle) and sound (aural event) of otherness, or an auracle of otherness that had to be seen and heard to be believed. At least, that is, if one believes the publicity, that is, if one thinks the impossible is possible.

Later in her life, Keller seems to have felt strongly that her voice should not be available to the general public in any manner other than through her own physically present production of speech. In an AFB interoffice memo to Marguerite Levine dated January 9, 1973, M. Robert Barnett explains: " I promised Miss Keller long ago that I would never let her recorded voice be used via radio or other general media. She was distinctely [sic] aware that her voice, unsupported by her personal physical presence, was not only hard to understand, but might really be objectionable to listeners." Recordings of Keller's disembodied voice do exist (e.g., This I Believe, 1953). Still, faithfully following Keller's wishes, the AFB has attempted to copyright a recording of her voice (Levine, 1983), and today it restricts the use of that recording to scholars.

Again and again for Keller's vaudeville audience, it is her voice, her physical demonstration of her ability to speak rather than what she says, that generates their sense of awe. This is commensurate with one mode of displaying the freak of aggrandized status, in which the performer completes tasks presumed impossible for someone with her disability (Bogdan, 1996, p. 30). The other mode of display involves more traditional kinds of performances of skill or talent, such as singing, dancing, or playing a musical instrument (Bogdan, p. 30). However, it is difficult to define Keller's ability to speak as a talent. It would be definable as such only in the context of her disabilities, for a hearing person who can speak and reply to questions "instantly" is certainly not considered a talented performer. Nor would demonstration of such an ability constitute an achievement of the "impossible" in a hearing woman. Yet speech from a famous deaf and blind woman is what Keller's routine offers in order to "thrill," "astound," "awe," "marvel," and "amaze." This language and the uncontrollable, rapturous audience response it describes announce the effects of the wondrous freak.

My earlier use of the term auracle to describe Keller's role for her audience was not meant flippantly. Rosemarie Garland Thomson (1996) traces the "genealogy of freak discourse" in modernity back to the pre-modern fascination with and display of humans with physical anomalies, or "monsters," which were interpreted as oracular portents "of God's design, divine wrath, or nature's abundance" (p. 1):

Monsters were taken as a showing forth of divine will from antiquity until the hand of God seemingly loosed its grip on the world. When the gods lapsed into silence, monsters became an index of Nature's fancy or--as they now appear in genetics and embryology--the Rosetta Stone that reveals the mechanics of life. As portents, monsters were the premier manifestation of a varied group of astonishing natural phenomena known as prodigies, marvels, or wonders. Under the sign of the miraculous, . . . human monsters confirmed, repudiated, or revised what humanity imagined as the order of things (p. 3).

Keller's vaudeville routine likewise offered her audience a taste of the miraculous, of something "wonderful, but incredible to the mind" ("'Mama'"), something "impossible" (Chappell).


In short, the freak show's pretenses to scientific and moral edification (Bogdan,, 1996, p. 27) found their legitimate, higher-brow expression in Keller's vaudeville routine. While the vaudeville venue, with its connotations of performance and talent, lent her act a sense of social legitimacy, the audience's particular response was elicited by a set of publicity and performance conventions quite similar to those capitalized upon by freak show producers. Most of all, Keller affected her audience through the presence and demonstration of her unique physicality, specifically her voice. Crucial to the freak persona is the construction of her uniqueness, her one-of-a-kind physicality, and, consequently, her heightened difference from so-called normal viewers. Only an anomaly must be seen (or heard) to be believed; only a one-of-a-kind body (or talent) will, like Helen Keller, elicit wonder and awe in its audience simply by its presence, or by its speech.

The presence of freak show discourse in other forms of public performances, like vaudeville, encourages us to reexamine the nature of Keller's other "exhibitions" throughout her lifetime and to investigate the exact quality of her appeal as America's "Star of Happiness." Her vaudeville routine was simply a shortened version of her supposedly edifying Chautauqua lecture, after all. How can a woman who is deaf and blind present herself publicly for a living in such a way that she does not exacerbate the dominant nondisabled culture's exploitative stereotypes of, and economic relationships with, disabled people? To answer this question, David Gerber (1996) indicates that we must first examine the woman's social status and the related quality of her consent to self-exhibit. Notoriously lacking socio-economic opportunities in a prejudiced nondisabled society, people with disabilities frequently lack the variety of possible career paths that would legitimate as choice their participation in the business of self-display. It is a great irony that Helen Keller, the nationally celebrated "wonder woman" and the committed workers' activist, had few options for economically supporting herself (and her increasingly ailing teacher/companion Anne Sullivan Macy). She, like many other people with disabilities, was faced with dubious choices shaped primarily by the nondisabled culture's ideas of what disabled people could do and should be. Finally, analysis of the woman's consent to self-exhibit must be accompanied by analysis of her audience's particular investments in and experiences at the show. It is the audience whose favorable response creates and confirms a sense of the woman's proper role on stage and in society. The audience will decide what it means to say she "played her part correctly."


As indicated, several references were consulted at the AFB (American Foundation for the Blind) in New York, N.Y., to which Helen Keller bequeathed her existing papers upon her death.


2,000 cheer Miss Keller, blind genius. ([1920]). [Unknown newspaper]. Clips 1920 folder, AFB.

[Advertisement for Helen Keller's New York vaudeville debut]. (1920, February 22). New York Times, sect. 3, p. 8.

Barnett, M. R. (1973, January 9). Interoffice memo to Marguerite Levine. Voice folder, AFB.

B.F. Keith's Theatre News. (1920, May 24). Washington, DC, 22(40).

Bogdan, R. (1990). Freak show: Presenting human oddities for amusement and profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bogdan, R. (1996). The social construction of freaks. In Rosemarie Garland Thomson (Ed.), Freakery: Cultural spectacles of the extraordinary body (pp. 23-37). New York: New York University Press.

Chappell, L. B. (1921, December). Helen Keller enjoys Sun-Maid raisins. The Associated Grower. Clips 1921 folder. AFB.

Gerber, D. A. (1996). The "careers" of people exhibited in freak shows: The problem of volition and valorization. In Rosemarie Garland Thomson (Ed.), Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the extraordinary body (pp. 38-54). New York: New York University Press.

Gilbert, D. (1963). American vaudeville: Its life and times. New York: Dover.

Herrmann, D. (1999). Helen Keller: A life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Helen Keller a success until she turned radical. (1923, November 4). New York Herald. Clips 1923 folder, AFB.

Keller astounds her opening audience with remarkable mentality. (1923, May 8). Erie Dispatch Herald. Clips 1923 folder, AFB.

Keller, H. (1923, December 19). Letter to Daisy Sharpe. Vaudeville folder, AFB.

Lash, J. P. (1997). Helen and teacher: The story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

Levine, M. L. (1983, December 21). Letter to Register of Copyrights. Voice folder, AFB.

Loewen, J. W. (1995). Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history text got wrong. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Laurie, J., Jr. (1953). Vaudeville: From the honky-tonks to the palace. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

"Mama, Helen Keller's true!" (1921, August 28). The Minneapolis Star Tribune. Clips 1921 folder, AFB.

Miller, F. T. (1918, June 26). Letter to Mr. Holmes. Vaudeville folder, AFB.

Nielsen, K. E. (2004). The radical lives of Helen Keller. New York: New York University Press.

Questions asked Helen Keller by her vaudeville audiences. ([1922?]). Vaudeville folder, AFB.

She's a human wonder. ([1921]). [Unknown newspaper]. Clips 1921 folder, AFB.

This I believe. (1953). [Audio record]. New York: Columbia.

Throng marvels at Helen Keller: Blind and deaf wonder arouses emotions of Orpheum audience. [1921, April]. [Unknown New Orleans newspaper]. Clips 1921 folder, AFB.

[Script of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy's vaudeville routine]. Vaudeville folder, AFB.

Wolfe, K. (1996, July-August). Helen Keller, radical. Utne Reader, 16.