Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 934
William Gibson was born in New York on November 13, 1914, the son of lower-middle-class parents. The families of both parents were musical. Several of Gibson’s maternal uncles belonged to the most famous banjo band of the early 1900’s, and his mother’s family operated a music school, where Gibson’s mother had met his father, a talented popular pianist. Gibson himself mastered the piano and, in his late teens and early twenties, he tried to become a professional musician. This background explains his lifelong attraction to music, an interest reflected in his writing of pieces such as the libretto for the operetta The Ruby (which he wrote under the name of William Mass) and the text for the 1964 musical Golden Boy, a project that he finished for Clifford Odets, who died before it was completed.
Although Gibson was graduated at age sixteen from Townsend Harris Hall, a high school for academically talented boys that was affiliated with the City College of New York, he found college stultifying. He took his most rewarding classes at City College of New York from English professor Theodore Goodman, who encouraged his writing. After attending college sporadically for about two years, Gibson dropped out to educate himself, to become a musician, and to launch his writing career. During his years in college and immediately after, he became a Depression-era communist and lectured on street corners to support this cause.
In 1940, Gibson married Margaret Brenman, a psychoanalyst, whom he had followed first to her graduate school and then to her psychiatric positions in Topeka, Kansas (where they married), and later in Stockbridge, Massachusetts where he lived until his death in 2008. His first literary success came with the recognition he gained from his 1945 Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize. In 1954, he published a best-selling novel, The Cobweb, which he sold to Hollywood. The movie of the same name starred Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, and Richard Widmark and appeared in 1955 after Gibson helped rewrite the screenplay.
Gibson became interested in drama early in his career. After dropping out of college, he acted at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, where he wrote several unproduced plays. While in Topeka, Kansas, he acted in the community theater and wrote his first produced play, I Lay in Zion, which was staged at the Topeka Civic Theatre in 1943. His next play, A Cry of Players, a three-act drama about the young Shakespeare, won the Topeka Civic Theatre Award in 1947 and was staged in 1948. In the fall of 1950, Gibson met Clifford Odets, one of America’s most important leftist playwrights, who admitted him to a playwright’s seminar organized at the Actors Studio. During this seminar, Gibson “learned more from him than I believed was possible from any man.” After the course, while working at a psychiatric institution, Gibson directed Odets’ Rocket to the Moon (pr. 1938) with a cast of mental patients. Odets saw this production and became a lifelong family friend.
Gibson’s first national successes as a playwright were spectacular. In July of 1958, after an agonizing process (recounted in The Seesaw Log), Two for the Seesaw, which starred Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft, opened at Broadway’s Booth Theatre to enthusiastic reviews. The play ran for 750 performances and became one of the most successful plays of its era. It was also produced as a movie in 1962 starring Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine. At about the same time, The Miracle Worker, which was originally written for television, became a Broadway hit in 1959, starring Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke Astin as Helen Keller. These actresses re-created their roles in the popular 1962 film.
With the money he made selling The Cobweb to Hollywood, Gibson bought a house in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In 1969, he cofounded and became the first executive officer of the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge. There, John and Abigail, which he later revised as American Primitive, was first produced.
In 1971, Gibson almost died of a bleeding ulcer, an ailment from which he had suffered for years. This experience prompted him to reevaluate his life, and, during Christmas of 1972, he went to the Maharishi International University in La Antilla, Spain, to visit his son, who had enrolled in the University. There, Gibson studied under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and was trained in the theory and practice of transcendental meditation. His interest in religion rekindled, he returned to the Catholic Church, in which he had been reared. He proceeded to write three liturgical dramas: The Body and the Wheel, a Passion play; The Butterfingers Angel, performed in Lennox, Massachusetts, in 1974; and Goodly Creatures, performed in 1980 at the Roadhouse Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Two major Broadway plays by Gibson that have been neither as critically nor as financially successful as his earlier works are Golda and Monday After the Miracle. In 1977, Golda was plagued by problems and closed after several months. In 1982, a similar fate befell Monday After the Miracle, the sequel to The Miracle Worker.
Handy Dandy, a two-person play, originally produced unsuccessfully in 1984, was revived in 1990 to slightly better reviews, with James Whitmore and Audra Lindley in the roles. Gibson’s Christmas comic/tragic pageant, The Butterfingers Angel, which was first performed in 1974, has received several productions, notably at the Olney in Washington, D.C., in 1988, where it returned in 1989 because of popular demand. “A chronicle of hope . . . [which] poses some existential questions,” was David Richards’s assessment. He also noted that the play’s full title, The Butterfingers Angel, Mary and Joseph, Herod the Nut, and the Slaughter of Twelve Hit Carols in a Pear Tree, is “a measure of the show’s refreshingly antic spirit.”
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