“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.