James Keller, The One Who Could Never Be

Vander+Ritchie

Vander Ritchie

Vander Ritchie, Co-Editor

I recently reread The Miracle Worker by William Gibson. It’s a play that means a lot to me. Personally and professionally. It marked the first time I became a core actor on the drama team. Those guys who seem to have the big parts every time. But it also means a lot to me personally. And it’s weird. And bad. Well… it’s got good and bad. And the ways it’s good and bad are endlessly weird. Weird in how it manages to achieve all its good qualities by accident. Weird in that it fumbles everything it tries to do, yet somehow absolutely slam dunks what it’s doing in the background. Weird in that the characters the show focuses 70 percent of its attention on are cliche cardboard cutouts, yet the guy who gets as much screen time as Neville Longbottom turns out to be one of the most emotionally and thematically complex characters in the entirety of the English canon. The character that I got the absolute privilege of playing. And in rereading it, I am endlessly fascinated by him. James.

James, for most of the show, plays a Rodrick. An older brother that is snide, mean, sarcastic. What Gibson clearly intended James to be was a symbol. A symbol for a cruel and unforgiving world. And for the world’s treatment of the disabled. Multiple times throughout the show, James is the one who constantly suggests institutionalization, and who is least convinced of Annie’s ability to teach Hellen. He meant for James to be the villain. That’s not who James was. At least to me. To me, James was someone who had been hazed. Who knew the world, perhaps better than any other character, and because of it became cynical and nihilistic. A scene that always rattles around in my head is the breakfast scene. A scene where, just to set up a showdown between Annie and Hellen, the Kellers are having breakfast and James and Keller fight about military strategy. They’re talking about why they lost the Civil War. James seems interested in actually talking about what the South did wrong, while Keller seems not to have yet accepted that they did. What was clearly an attempt at playful banter, or maybe even light characterization turned, at least for me, into James’ thesis. One about accepting loss and giving up to save yourself the hurt.

He has a few scenes that, for me, define the show. The scenes where he pleads for Hellen. He talks to Annie, pleading with her to just leave Hellen alone, saying her life is hard enough as it is. He has a deep-rooted love for his sister, and he wants to protect her from a cold and unloving world. He truly believes that there can be nothing done to help her and that she would be better left alone. That she may even be somehow protected by her senselessness. That her inability to see the world around her shields her from how terrible it is.

The Miracle Worker has the easy task of working with real people. Well … except for James. Helen never had a brother who fits James’ character. She did have siblings, a whole handful of them. But no James. Instead, James works as two distinct things. He’s an amalgamation of all of Helen’s siblings, much more compact and better for dramatic structure. The second is that he works as a mirror for Helen. He is what Helen would be like were she 16 and fully-abled. And his relationship with his father is meant to mirror Helen’s with Annies. They show us what could have been. Because they fail, and Hellen and Annie succeed. Because Keller is mean, vindictive, and bad-tempered. Because James is sensitive and emotional. Because, most of the way through the show, he goes pleading to his mother for help. Help to stop his suffering and mend the relationship with his father that is clearly on the brink of disaster. And he gets nothing, where Hellen got something. And he fails, where Hellen succeeded. And he’s left alone to history. His clearly sharp mind never to be used for anything. The ending of the show is when this all finally comes into focus. Not only for the audience but for James. He’s just had a confrontation with his dad, where he demands that he let Annie work. He accepts that Annie is helping Hellen. For the first time in the whole show. What happens? James is obliterated. Made to look like a petulant child. And when Annie, only minutes later, finally succeeds with Hellen, James remains seated. He failed. Stupendously.

I think one of the reasons I like James is because I relate to him. He reminds me a lot of who I was just five years ago: so engulfed in a dark world and lacking the maturity to fully confront it. It created a rancid shell cloaking a fundamentally loving inside. A shell that was confrontational, angry, depressed, and snarky. We were alone. I know how that feels. But what’s changed? Well, I went through the same trajectory as James. After months of relentless physical and emotional abuse, I spiraled, ending in a mental health crisis so strong I changed schools. I’d call that a failure. And what brought me out of it?  I know it sounds cheesy, but the thing that brought me out of it was feeling like I had a purpose in life. Something that I felt I was good at and that I could spend the rest of my life doing. A way that I could help other people. And for me, that’s acting. That’s what I want to do with my life. After I knew that, I no longer felt hopeless, I no longer felt like there was no place in this world for me. And when I was up there on that stage two years ago, performing those short little paragraphs, I remembered what it felt like to be James. Thank god I’m not anymore.