William Gibson (b. 1914) American Literature Analysis
Gibson’s literary career is noteworthy partly because he worked successfully in a very wide variety of literary forms and has added to American popular literature a most unusual investigation into the nature of human love.
The diversity of Gibson’s literary efforts includes poetry (Winter Crook), a novel (The Cobweb), screenplay adaptations of his own works (The Cobweb, The Miracle Worker), the teleplay version of The Miracle Worker, an operetta (The Ruby), a Broadway musical (Golden Boy), and numerous nonfiction pieces: The Seesaw Log, A Mass for the Dead, Shakespeare’s Game (1978), and A Season in Heaven: Being a Log of an Expedition After That Legendary Beast, Cosmic Consciousness (1974). The diversity within his nonfiction corpus is also striking. The last title, for example, is an account of a visit to the Maharishi International University in La Antilla, Spain, where Gibson studied transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and regained the Catholicism of his youth, while Shakespeare’s Game is an exercise in practical criticism, with Gibson demonstrating how William Shakespeare’s plays fit Gibson’s personal theory of drama. Gibson’s theatrical work is no less diverse, ranging from the fantastical quality of Dinny and the Witches (in which a trumpet player and Central Park witches stop the passage of time) to the domestic realism of The Miracle Worker and the ritualism of the liturgical passion play The Body and the Wheel. The most consistent format in which Gibson has worked has been biographical drama, but the range of materials and treatment even in that area has been wide as well, ranging from A Cry of Players, where Gibson focuses on the youthful Shakespeare and works with very sparse historical materials, to Golda, where Gibson writes during Golda Meir’s lifetime about the famous prime minister of Israel and the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War.
On the other hand, there is a remarkable consistency in Gibson’s subject matter, as many of his works are investigations into the complex nature of human love. The Cobweb, set in a mental institution, explores the emotional bonds between members of the psychiatric staff and their patients, with the imagery of the novel’s title suggesting ways in which these complex relationships can be as treacherous as they are supportive. A Mass for the Dead is an attempt to come to terms with the complex love Gibson felt for his parents, and A Cry of Players hypothesizes about how a rocky marital love between the young Shakespeare and his older bride, Anne Hathaway, might have led to Shakespeare’s theatrical career in London.
Perhaps Gibson’s most provocative treatment of love comes in Monday After the Miracle, the sequel to The Miracle Worker, where he investigates a complex emotional triangle. In this play, Helen Keller is twenty-three years old and Annie Sullivan is thirty-seven. Twenty-five-year-old John May enters the household to help edit Helen’s publications, and both women fall in love with John. John marries Annie, but his presence alters forever the love between the two women, and the play ends with the marriage’s failure, with John turning to drink and leaving, and with Annie and Helen launching a new and highly profitable venture—an exhausting series of lecture tours for Helen—that brings Helen and Annie back together in the kind of relationship they had before John arrived.
The resolution of the action is not satisfactory even for Helen and Annie. In the last scene, Helen recites for Annie, her “Teacher,” a poem that sums up her life: “Teacher. And once again, Teacher. . . . it will be my answer, in the dark. When death calls.” Helen has her new work, but she may never know love with a man. Annie has Helen again but not her life as wife and mother, and it is fairly clear that both Annie and Helen have taken the energy they have for human love and sublimated it into their work, substituting work for the special intimacy that comes with marriage. John’s stark summary captures the bleakness of the play’s resolution:Love. John loves Teacher. Teacher loves Helen. Helen and Teacher love John, and John loves Helen and Teacher. John and Helen and Teacher are one huge love-turd. . . . Yes. It’s next to murder, isn’t it. Love.
Given the bleakness of this resolution, it is not surprising that Monday After the Miracle was not a commercial success. Most audiences demand a clear...
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William Gibson (b. 1914) Drama Analysis
William Gibson’s plays are marked by impressive literary as well as dramatic qualities. Like much contemporary drama, they deal with existential themes, particularly the social and psychological isolation of the individual. To explore these themes, Gibson uses a variety of approaches, including a mixture of comedic and serious elements and an array of innovative production techniques, most notably the split stage to emphasize the psychological isolation of characters. Despite his emphasis on themes of isolation and loneliness, Gibson is not ultimately pessimistic: He shows that love has the potential to unite lonely individuals and that language sheds light on the human condition. Indeed, the consistent weakness in his plays is his tendency toward the sentimental.
Gibson is a popular Broadway playwright whose considerable dramatic talent allows him to fuse comic and tragic elements in a satisfying whole. While not always complete artistic and formal successes, his plays explore significant aspects of the human condition, especially the dangers and joys of love and the need humans have to connect with their fellows.
Two for the Seesaw
Gibson’s first major Broadway play was Two for the Seesaw, produced in 1958 and directed by Arthur Penn. Set in New York City, the play explores the relationship between Jerry Ryan, a Nebraska lawyer who is being divorced by his wife, and Gittel Mosca, a Jewish girl from the Bronx. Although much of the play’s humor results from the cultural differences between the characters, the true conflict grows from the contrasts in their psychological makeup. Because of this psychological emphasis, Two for the Seesaw shares more similarities with Gibson’s novel, The Cobweb, than with his later biographical drama.
Gibson uses Two for the Seesaw to explore one of his most important themes, the isolation of the individual and the need people have for human contact. The stage setting emphasizes this by creating two spaces. One is Jerry’s apartment, the other Gittel’s. The lighting serves to isolate and emphasize one or the other, and the set registers the passing of time and changes in Jerry and Gittel’s relationship. At the play’s beginning, for example, Jerry’s cheap apartment is bare and impoverished. As their relationship develops, the rooms begin to take on life because of Gittel’s womanly touch. When Jerry moves into Gittel’s apartment, his clothes and legal papers pile up in corners and on the table. Throughout much of the play, the two characters in their isolated areas are connected only by the telephone, which symbolizes the emotional distance between them.
The central problem of the play grows from the different needs that Gittel and Jerry have for each other, and this makes the play too clichéd to be completely successful. Gittel is a giving woman who allows herself to be used by men. Jerry, on the other hand, is used to taking from the people in his life. His career in Nebraska was successful largely because his father-in-law made him a law partner and bought him a fashionable home. Part of his reason for going to New York was his desire to escape from this kind of support. Because Gittel appears weak and vulnerable, she brings out in him for the first time the need to assist and care for others, and these nurturing feelings are intensified in Jerry when her stomach ulcer hemorrhages and he has to nurse her.
From the start, the play’s problem is the unsympathetic nature of Jerry, which is heightened by the basic likability and charm of Gittel. Gibson’s dialogue captures her character perfectly and infuses her with humor and spirit. Jerry, on the other hand, is too self-absorbed and self-centered to be likable. Henry Fonda, who originally played Jerry on Broadway, objected to the character’s self-centered behavior, arguing that Gittel would have kicked him out rather than put up with his meanness. Although Fonda can be faulted for not understanding Jerry’s psychological motivation—his attachment to his Nebraskan wife conflicts with his need for Gittel’s support and love—Gibson was guilty of not infusing the male character with the lifelike qualities that Gittel possesses.
The play’s ending exposes the imperfections of its characters and structure. Jerry decides to return to his wife, a wiser man because of Gittel’s love. Although this desertion is believable, it makes Jerry distasteful, because it is clear that Gittel is left alone and pathetic. Gibson has her claim that she, too, has learned from the experience—she gives up her illusions of being a dancer, for example—but the audience has little hope that she will find a meaningful relationship. This bleak ending suggests that Gibson was...
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