William Gibson American Literature Criticism
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 uplift at the end of a play,...
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