The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

At the start of Two for the Seesaw, the contiguous spaces onstage, each representing a room belonging to one of the two main characters, contrast sharply, foreshadowing the insurmountable differences between Jerry and Gittel. His space is drab and disorderly; it has the feel of a temporary stopover. Hers is crowded but cozy; it has the look of a permanent abode. Using the excuse of wanting to buy a used icebox (refrigerator) from her, Jerry telephones Gittel, and although she tells him that she has given the box away, Jerry asks her out for dinner and a show. From the outset, it is clear that both characters have problems: Gittel, as Jerry tells her, is a “born victim,” whereas Jerry constantly berates himself for his sly way of asking for handouts without acknowledging that fact.

When they return to Gittel’s at the end of the evening (in scene 2), Jerry tells her that he is an unemployed attorney (since his Nebraska license does not allow him to practice law in New York). He also says that he is married but has left his home because his wife is divorcing him to marry someone else, and, last, that it is his birthday. Gittel tells him that she is divorced, that she makes her scanty living by sewing dance costumes because she cannot afford a dance studio, and, most important, that she has an ulcer which periodically hemorrhages. Gittel decides to break her rule of not sleeping with anyone on a first date and asks Jerry to stay; however, he decides to avoid “a handout” and leaves while she is getting ready for bed.

Scene 3 begins at five o’clock the next morning with Jerry telephoning Gittel, assuring her that he did not leave because she was unattractive and offering to bring over an ice bag to forestall bleeding after she has a tooth extracted—his way of letting her know that he cares about her welfare. Then, as she settles back in bed, Jerry reads aloud the telegram he has received from Nebraska: “I called to say happy birthday you stinker don’t shut me out God help both of us but will you remember I love you I do Tess.”

Act 2 begins a month later. Jerry’s room has been transformed in what the playwright describes as “the peasant style of Gittel’s garb,” and the result is pleasantly warm. As Jerry enters, Gittel is getting their dinner on the table, complete with candles and wine, and the feeling is that these two have come together happily. Jerry has good news: He has been to see an attorney friend who has given him a job preparing briefs. Now he is ready and anxious to financially back Gittel’s dance studio. With Gittel’s bright announcement that Jerry’s wife has telephoned and will call back, however, there is a definite change of mood. As the conversation goes on, Gittel suggests that Jerry “study up” and take the New York bar examination, and she senses that his reluctance to do so may mean that he does not intend to remain in New York permanently.

Finally, the telephone rings; Jerry refuses to answer, and when Gittel picks it up, he is furious. It is not Tess, however, but Gittel’s dance partner, Larry, calling to talk about the dance studio. Misunderstanding Jerry’s reluctance to talk to his wife, Gittel says, “What did that bitch do to you?” and is surprised at Jerry’s response: “Bitch? Married me, helped put me through law school. Stood by me in pinches. Loved me, if anyone did or could. She was never a bitch, don’t call her that again.” At this point, Gittel accuses Jerry of running away and suggests that he talk to Tess and face facts, which in turn evokes his evaluation of Gittel. He tells her that she is “on the edge of a nightmare” and all alone, that she always gives, never makes her needs known, never makes a real claim on anyone; she is always used rather than cared for. As their exchange escalates, so that Gittel is in tears, the...

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Two for the Seesaw Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In addition to a split set, William Gibson has illustrated his title by having the two characters in an almost constant state of flux—first one is up and the other down; then in the next scene, the situation is reversed. As a means of emphasizing the comic aspects of the play, there is an almost constant effort to contrast the social backgrounds of the two protagonists, frequently by making Gittel unable to understand the subtleties of Jerry’s conversation, while at the same time giving her lines which supposedly typify a Bronx-born, first-generation Jewish girl. Gittel is a “free spirit,” as audiences would have understood that term in 1958, and everything from her gaminelike appearance to her New York accent is meant to convey that impression.

As might be expected in a two-character play, the telephones of both Jerry and Gittel act almost as additional characters. Jerry’s reluctance to talk to Tess and then his many calls to Nebraska, as well as his conversations with his attorney friend, Frank, are mandatory expository devices. Gittel’s conversations with her unseen friend, Sophie, serve the same purpose. These conversations via telephone also serve to let the audience know what the characters are thinking about their lives and their relationship when they are not face-to-face. Ultimately, the end of the affair between Jerry and Gittel takes place over the telephone.

Gittel’s illness itself could be considered a dramatic device because it provides Jerry with a reason for taking care of her. Even in the first scene of act 2, when Gittel has made dinner for them, he tries to keep her from eating fried potatoes— a “no-no” for someone with an ulcer. Later, when she has had too much to drink, he is concerned about the effect on her ulcer. Still later, after she has had the hemorrhage, it provides the motivation for his moving to Gittel’s. Her reluctance to “trap” him because she is in need of his succor adds dimension to her character. She may no longer be a “victim” in the original sense, but despite Jerry’s assurances that she can call him if she needs him in the future, it is highly unlikely that she will telephone Nebraska the next time her ulcer acts up.

Two for the Seesaw Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

James, T. F. “Millionaire Class of Young Writers.” Cosmopolitan, August, 1958, 42.

Moe, Christian H. “William Gibson.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

“On The Seesaw.” The New Yorker 33 (February 15, 1958): 23-24.

Plummer, William, and Maria Wilhelm. “An Activist and Her Playwright Husband Address the Nuclear Peril with His Words and Her Deeds.” People 24 (October 14, 1985): 65-66.

Saturday Review. Review of Two for the Seesaw. 42 (November 7, 1959): 28.

Time. Review of Two for the Seesaw. November 2, 1959, 30.