William Gibson Drama Criticism
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 uncertain whether Two for the...
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