William Gibson's Theatrical Skills
William Gibson has published fiction, poetry, plays, and autobiography, but he is best known for two stage works: Two for the Seesaw, a successful comedy-drama produced on Broadway in 1958; and The Miracle Worker, a classic American play— and later a popular television play and film.
Though not ranked alongside Eugene O'Neill Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams Gibson has carved an impressive niche for himself and will not be overlooked by history. The distinguishing features of his work are an uninhibited combination of humor and seriousness, often with a touching emotional effect; an elegance of style which resides not in fancy language but in a fine-tuned sense of the absolutely appropriate word or gesture; a flexibility of approach which permits him to move from solid realism to an almost Shakespearean use of the stage's capabilities; and a notable skill in orchestrating dialogue, actor movement, sound, and especially lights to produce effective theatrical moments.
Some of these aspects of Gibson's ability will become apparent in this analysis. But all of his skills, and some of his weaknesses, can be seen better by reading the entire text of The Miracle Worker—and best by seeing a decent stage production.
The Miracle Worker is certainly Gibson's best known and most widely-produced drama. What is not commonly known is that the play was originally created as a drama for television: it first appeared on Playhouse 90 on February 7, 1957, with Teresa Wright as Annie Sullivan and Patty McCormack (known for her role in the Broadway play The Bad Seed) as Helen Keller. The stage version, with Patty Duke as Helen and Anne Bancroft as Annie, began its Broadway run in 1959. The story next became a motion picture, adapted by Gibson and directed by Arthur Penn. The film won Academy Awards for Bancroft as best actress and Duke for best supporting actress, as well as nominations for Gibson, Penn, and Costumer Ruth Morley. Completing a circle more odd than vicious, The Miracle Worker resurfaced as a television feature production in 1979. The chief reason for this revival was apparently to give Patty Duke, now a grown woman, a turn on the other end of the seesaw: she played Annie to the Helen of Melissa Gilbert, who is best known for her role on the television series series Little House on the Prairie.
The Miracle Worker is a well-titled play. It tells part of the story of Helen Keller, who, though blind and deaf from childhood, became a noted writer, public figure, and source of inspiration for many people. However, the title refers not to Helen and her miracles—they are still in the future when the play ends—but to her teacher, Annie Sullivan. The story concerns the first year in the professional life of Annie (formerly blind herself but partially cured through many operations before she was out of her teens) and her extraordinary efforts in one short year to make a teachable child out of the utterly spoiled, crafty animal that Helen had become.
The play is based on real lives, and Gibson feels strongly that the necessary "shaping" of the material for the stage must not interfere with its basic truth or reality. He cites biographies of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy in his foreword to the play, and says, "The main incidents of the play are factual: I have invented almost nothing of Helen's, or of what passes between her and Annie, though often I have brought together incidents separated in time."
Space too is telescoped in the play. Gibson describes the stage as being divided into two areas by a diagonal line. The area upstage of this line is on raised platforms and always represents the Keller house; inside we see, down right, a family room, and up center, elevated, a bedroom. The downstage area is neutral ground; when not simply the yard of the Keller home, it "becomes" various places at various times—The Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, the Garden House, and so forth. In this downstage area, near center stage, is a water pump....
(The entire section is 3,921 words.)