William Gibson American Literature Criticism

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1881

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.

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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 uplift at the end of a play, not the kind of stark examination that Gibson offers, provocative as it might be.

The Miracle Worker

First produced: 1957 (first published, 1959)

Type of work: Play

Helen Keller, blind, deaf, and unaware of the connection between words and things, learns to talk with the help of Annie Sullivan.

In The Miracle Worker, Gibson dramatizes the first month of Helen Keller’s life with Annie Sullivan. By the age of six, the blind, deaf, and silent Helen is a savage child, gobbling food with her hands off any plate that she wants to invade around the family dinner table, even wrestling a young playmate to the ground and attacking her with scissors. Helen’s family, the Kellers of Tuscumbia, Alabama, indulge nearly all of Helen’s demands until they hire Annie Sullivan from the Perkins Institute for the Blind to be Helen’s teacher and companion.

Herself only twenty years old and formerly blind, Annie insists upon civilizing Helen’s behavior, much to the consternation of the family, who see Annie’s treatment of Helen as brutally strict. Annie insists that the family’s tenderness is misguided pity rather than love, that a superior love for Helen will respect her potential and demand that she live up to it. After a protracted struggle over Helen’s table manners, for example, Annie is able to teach Helen to fold her napkin and use a spoon rather than her hands to eat from her own plate; however, the willful Helen returns to her more savage ways whenever she senses the family’s indulgence, so Annie insists that she be permitted to teach Helen in isolation for two weeks.

In a garden house behind the family dwelling, Annie succeeds in calming Helen somewhat and teaches her a “finger-game,” spelling words into Helen’s palm, even though Helen does not understand that the words correspond to things in the world outside her. The family is satisfied with the progress, but Annie insists that Helen is capable of more, that she cannot be fully human until she understands the connection between words and things and begins using language. In an emotional last scene, Helen regresses at the dinner table and empties a pitcher of water on her teacher. When Annie forces Helen to fill the pitcher from a pump in the back yard, the miracle occurs: Helen feels the water cascading over her hand, feels Annie spelling the word into her palm, and says, “Wah. Wah.” Within minutes, Helen is clambering around the backyard, demanding to know the names of things. Finally, she spells “teacher” and identifies the word with Annie. As the play ends, Annie embraces Helen and whispers a sentence that she will eventually be able to spell into Helen’s palm, “I, love, Helen. Forever, and—ever.”

A play of power and eloquence, The Miracle Worker is still often revived by regional and amateur theater groups. In the story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, Gibson creates an image of the indomitable human spirit and the power of language while suggesting that love includes discipline and is based more on respect for a person’s potential than on indulgence of a person’s weakness or handicaps.

Two for the Seesaw

First produced: 1958 (first published, 1959)

Type of work: Play

A brief romance between a Nebraska lawyer and a New York dancer ends with the lawyer returning to his estranged wife.

Two for the Seesaw is about an eight-month romance between a thirty-three-year-old Nebraska lawyer who has left his wife and an aspiring New York dancer of twenty-nine. Jerry Ryan has come to New York to escape a stifling marriage poisoned by a father-in-law whose money and influence makes Jerry feel dependent and trapped. While Jerry’s wife awaits the divorce, Jerry wanders the New York streets and museums, going to films and living on the five hundred dollars he brought from Nebraska. Then he meets Gittel Mosca. Young, vivacious, but unsettled as she pursues her illusory hope of becoming a famous dancer, Gittel’s romantic entanglements have always been brief and superficial until she meets Jerry. Their romance, though tempestuous, is intense and appears potentially redeeming for both.

After becoming Gittel’s lover, Jerry takes a job in a law office and plans to reassume his legal career in New York, while Gittel rents a loft and gives dance lessons, with Jerry eventually moving in and sharing Gittel’s apartment. After Jerry’s divorce becomes final, however, his wife decides that she wants to attempt again to make the marriage work, and Jerry decides to leave Gittel and return to Nebraska. He will try to resurrect his marriage under terms that do not involve dependence on his father-in-law. Jerry and Gittel part as friends, thankful for what they have gained from each other.

The original title of Two for the Seesaw was After the Verb to Love, which Gibson used as a curtain line for the end of the play: “After the verb to love, to help is the sweetest in the tongue.” With Gibson, love is not the clichéd, windswept passion of Hollywood or the soap operas. The prosaic concern for another’s well-being and the desire to aid is, for Gibson, a more concrete and realistic way to define love. Gibson is also precise about what he means by “help.” Jerry received one kind of help from his father-in-law, but it was not love because the help created a feeling of dependence and inferiority. The help to which Jerry refers is what Jerry and Gittel helped each other learn through their relationship. Gittel helped Jerry regain his sense of independence and self-esteem, while Jerry helped Gittel gain the self-respect she needed to insist on real romance rather than shallow, exploitive relationships.

Gibson’s conclusion, however, does not strike the audience or the reader as particularly uplifting, despite what the dialogue asserts. The play remains unsettling because after Jerry returns to his wife, Gittel is left behind with no prospects—a realistic but not particularly comforting or uplifting conclusion. Although Gibson attempts to soften Jerry’s departure with Gittel’s proclamation that the relationship has done her “a world of good,” the sense of Gittel’s abandonment is perhaps a vestige of Gibson’s original script. In the original script, Gibson intended Jerry to be a much more ruthless character, a “taker” rather than a “giver,” and in The Seesaw Log Gibson relates how Henry Fonda, who played Jerry, and Arthur Penn, the director of the Broadway production, demanded that Jerry be made more sensitive and sympathetic. Whether the final script is superior or inferior to the script with which Gibson began remains unsettled, but it is clear that Gibson retained even in the final script the disturbing portrait of the failure of love rather than its success.

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