Helen Keller's Vaudeville Q and A

excerpt from typewritten document

“Greatest problem before the govt. How to keep people from knowing what it is doing”

March 23, 2016

Nella Braddy Henney first met Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller, and Polly Thomson in 1924. Quickly mastering the manual finger language, she kept Keller in touch with the political, literary, and scientific world around her. She remained in Keller’s life, as a friend, and also as Keller’s power of attorney, acting agent for all Keller’s literary matters, until 1963.

Henney's collection includes a few pages of potential audience questions. The document gives an idea of the wide range of questions that Keller and Sullivan received, anticipated, and prepared for – “What is your age?” “Why has a cow two stomachs?” While only two questions on this list include answers, other sources report that answers continue in the one-liner format. For example, she responded to “What is your age?” with “There is no age in vaudeville.”

Henney wrote that the questions about politics were “the most interesting” as they give us an idea of how Keller portrayed her much-discussed views. Keller, for example, suggested that the job of a politician is, “to make people believe the moon is made of green cheese and that they prefer it to any other kind of cheese.” Representative of the vaudeville tone, Keller would recommend that someone “do as the United States! Live on the amendments,” if someone were to ask “What can a person do when his constitution is gone?”

These pages are from Sullivan (later, Thomson) and Keller's time in the vaudeville circuit between 1920 and 1924 (Herrmann, 222). Unfortunately, Sullivan found the performances painful and exhausting. Keller wrote in Midstream that, “My teacher was not happy in vaudeville. She could never get used to the rush, glare, and noise of the theatre...” (Keller, 210). Furthermore, the stage lights hurt her eyes and she did not like public speaking (Herrmann, 226). Keller, on the other hand, “found the world of vaudeville much more amusing than the world [she] had always lived in, and [she] liked it” (Keller, 210-211). Thomson took over Sullivan's role of translator after Sullivan got bronchitis in 1922 (Herrmann, 230). 

The performances featured a question and answer period during which Sullivan (or Thomson) would fingerspell audience questions to Keller who would fingerspell her response to her companion who would say it aloud. Sullivan performed this duty despite frequently disagreeing with Keller's very liberal opinions (Herrmann, 226). Keller's responses, however, were not spontaneous. To prepare for these interactions, Sullivan and Keller created a script of anticipated questions and answers so that they could be rehearsed.

Hermann, Dorothy. Helen Keller: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1998. 
Keller, Helen. Midstream. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. 1929.

Typewritten page with handwritten notes in the margin

Transcript follows:


The art of promising one thing and doing another 
The art of finding and holding on to profitable jobs

One who saves his country by feathering his own nest 
Greatest problem before the govt.
How to keep people from knowing what it is doing
How to make people believe that black is white
How to make people believe the moon is made of green cheese and that they prefer it to any other kind of cheese.

Newspapers (What do you think of N.Y.)
I think they would be wonderful sources of information if only there 
were some way of verifying their statements
What can a person do when his constitution is gone?
Do as the United States does! Live on the amendments.
When my country wants me to fight and I want to live in peace what shall I do?
Compromise by going to jail.
What is your definition of a reformer?
One who tries to abolish everything that his neighbor enjoys.

Duty is doing something somebody else thinks you ought to do.

Handwritten notes in left margin:
Rousseau the
[illegible], Voltaire the
The fact that you
are willing to die for an
idea does not mean it is a right

secretary away, teacher ill, learns to cook eggs,
prohibition upset – no
cloistered seclusion

Handwritten note in the right margin:
These were to
me the most
questions +
answers. N.B.

Typewritten page

Transcript follows:

Questions asked to Helen
[checkmark] What is your age?
[checkmark] Can you tell the time of day without a watch?
[checkmark] Do you close your eyes when you sleep?
Do you dream?
[checkmark] Have you ever thought of getting married?
Have you ever been in love?
What did you think about before you were taught?
[checkmark] Do you expect to see in heaven?
Do you like mathematics?
Do you believe in prayer?
[checkmark] Why did you like economics in college?
[checkmark] Have you ever used a ouija board?
[checkmark] Do you think business is looking up?
What virtue do you admire most?
Who is your favorite hero in real life?
[checkmark] Am I going on a trip?
Do you think bachelors should be taxes? (No, it seems to be that the effort
to keep single is all the tax they need.)
[checkmark] Do you believe in ghosts?
[checkmark] Why has a cow two stomachs?
Was your trip to California beneficial?
What is meant by the silent watches of the night?
Do you believe in college education for women?
Do you think it is a blessing to be poor?
[checkmark] How much is too many?
Do you believe a woman can keep a secret? (Of course we can. It's the
person we tell it to who can't.)
What is your philosophy of life?
What is meant by farmer's bloc?
How many sense have you?

A detailed list of the box contents and links to their digitized surrogates is available on the Nella Braddy Henney Digital Collection of Manuscripts Page. More information about the Nella Braddy Henney Collection can be found at the Nella Braddy Henney Collection Finding Aid page.