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William Gibson 1914–
American playwright, memoirist, novelist, scriptwriter, and poet.
Gibson is best known for his plays Two for the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker. He actively participated in the mounting of both productions on Broadway in the late 1950s, but was angered by the liberties he felt the producer and director had taken with the artistic integrity of his plays. He chronicled these feelings in The Seesaw Log. Gibson subsequently avoided Broadway and confined his writing to filmscripts, memoirs, and plays for off-Broadway.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed. and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7.)
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The psychoanalyst, usually fiction's varmint, provides ["The Cobweb"] with a hero as right, as outnumbered and finally as triumphant as a dead-shot sheriff in a Western. Courageously reversing the literary process that ordinarily rewards medical insight with prattfalls or strait-jackets, William Gibson has created an amazingly resourceful mind-doctor who brings order to a mental clinic on the plains of Nebraska where last century's cattle rustlers and redskins have given way to psychopaths, colleagues and administrators….
[Mr. Gibson] is serious, careful of detail, humanitarian and well informed. His Dr. McIver is called upon to master an intricate situation, sometimes comic, sometimes almost tragic, that arises when an attractive assistant desires to help patients by letting them design new drapes for their living room. A routine and trivial incident precipitates a drama that might have committed a lesser psychiatrist to his own institution.
The only problem that Dr. McIver is not equal to is his own family….
[But even] in his failures he is warmly championed by the author, so warmly that the reader is apt to become uncomfortable. Rebellion against unintelligent anti-psychologism has made Mr. Gibson over-partial to his psychologist. His book, therefore, seems to endorse a mentality that is far too cocksure … and doctrinaire. He has shown courage in defending an unpopular type; he has also shown good judgment, or novelistic breadth, in the manner of his defense.
He has, however, created an airless, petty but warmhearted, clinical atmosphere with much precision and a wry, affectionate humor. The mental climate where humanity wavers between the tragic and the grotesque, between hope and despair, is a dramatic setting. It is also one of humanity's year-round health resorts and more tourists are visiting it every year. Mr. Gibson has written a remarkably informative Baedeker.
Gerald Sykes, "The Clinical Atmosphere," in The New York Times (© 1954 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 7, 1954, p. 4.
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[In "Two for the Seesaw," author] William Gibson has a deft, buoyant, rapid-fire flair for dialogue, he is perfectly able to keep an evening moving in spite of all the telephoning and his eye for accurately-observed detail is excellent.
What he hasn't quite mastered at the moment … is the business of sustaining a psychology, a troubled and uncertain state of mind, through all of its possible dramatic complexities. [Jerry Ryan meets Gittel Mosca] while he is in the process of divorcing his wife. He has, he tells us, been accepting emotional and financial "handouts" all his life; it is time he helped someone else. Thereafter he is torn between [Gittel] who does need his help, and the wife whose spiritual presence he cannot shake.
The seesaw rides up and down. But the force of gravity that brings it earthward each time is never powerfully felt. The wife seems an unidentified convention, [Jerry's] concern is for a very long time inexplicable, and the trivial jealousies that beset our onstage couple stem from sources that seem small, insubstantial, and a shade self-pitying. The tools are in excellent shape; the hand that wields them is not quite firm.
Walter Kerr, "Walter Kerr's Review: 'Two for the Seesaw'," in New York Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), January 17, 1958 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 19, No 1, January 20-27, 1958, p. 396).
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Although William Gibson has only two characters in "Two for the Seesaw" he has a tender style of writing and a beautiful little story to tell….
When the curtain goes up, "Two for the Seesaw" looks like a plausible stunt. A man in a shabby room in one corner of New York is telephoning to a girl who lives in a cheap apartment decorated with a dressmaker's form and earnest art objects. In the first scene we seem to be promised one more whirl at the epic theme of two unattached people in New York. This situation has already provided us with a whole library of tasteless, squalid, prurient comedies.
But Mr. Gibson is a genuine writer. No doubt he uses the two-character form cleverly. But it is not long before "Two for the Seesaw" turns out to be a fresh and amusing comedy that is really interested in the characters of two decent people. The talk is funny; the habits of the two characters are breezy. But Jerry has standards, and so has Gittel. They learn some illuminating truths about themselves from each other. By the time the curtain comes down, you are not so much aware that Mr. Gibson has brought off a technical stunt as that he has looked inside the hearts of two admirable people and made a charming full-length play out of them.
Brooks Atkinson, "The Theatre: 'Two for the Seesaw'," in The New York Times (© 1958 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 17, 1958 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 19, No. 1, January 20-27, 1958, p. 394).
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[Two for the Seesaw] is one of those simple, pleasant plays that obviously belong in the theatre, since they are almost always highly popular. They are the bestsellers of the contemporary stage. No one should cavil at their success. But, I confess with some reluctance, they interest me very little.
The play's sentimental subject holds the seed of a serious theme: this makes it "respectable." A lawyer from Omaha has left his wife because he harbors the feeling that he had been "bought" by her family, that life had been made too easy for him by his well-placed father-in-law…. Lonely and wretched in New York, the Nebraska lawyer picks up a little Bronx girl who suffers from ulcers and frequent unemployment. She is a sweet waif, with pathetic ambition as a dancer, sustaining her life through affairs in which she is generous hostess to unworthy males.
The lawyer takes up with this girl, seems to be seriously in love with her (he assures her that she is a "gift"), tries to "straighten her out"—though she is on the whole a far more substantial person than he—is tempted to marry her but finally returns to his wife whom he presumably still loves. The little liaison has perhaps saved his life and, I hope, taught the girl that lawyers from Omaha are no more reliable than bums from the Bronx.
If my account of the play's plot has a certain facetious slant, it is because there is little more to the play beyond what I have noted except a series of gags—some of them cute, some of them funny—all of them as "typical" as the story itself. The play in short, is a conventional tale without real characters, cemented by jokes and that sense of recognition which is the recognition of clichés and thus supposed by many playgoers to represent a modest realism.
Harold Clurman, "Theatre: 'Two for the Seesaw'," in The Nation (copyright 1958 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 186, No. 5, February 1, 1958, p. 107.
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[In "The Miracle Worker"] William Gibson has done all of the stirring, frightening, theatrically explosive things that his subject matter suggests. He has shown us the blind, deaf, and mute Helen Keller at the age of five or six, and shown her to us for what she then was: an animal. He has let her claw at the family that would have bestowed tenderness on her, spit in the face of the one woman who might save her, tear a household to tatters—very, very literally—in a manner that is at once factual and dramatically vivid.
He has then turned to the story of nurse Annie Sullivan and extracted from it every last ounce of its heroism, its brisk Irish comedy, and its private pathos. Annie Sullivan, it seems, was herself an abandoned child, herself illiterate, herself once blind. Miss Sullivan's pig-headed and apparently losing battle to tear open the cage in which another soul is confined, and to tear down the protective outer walls that have kept the child a coddled savage, is crackling stuff, round by round.
But so far we are talking about something that might have been little more than opportunism, dandy materials sleekly done, the obvious made emphatic and profitable. "The Miracle Worker," without loss of a single head-on blow, does something more.
What Mr. Gibson has dramatized is the human intelligence.
He has dramatized it in its absence…. [Helen Keller,] a small human being whose humanness no one suspects, runs her fingers in automatic frenzy across the walls, the races, and the meaningless jagged surfaces of the world that surrounds her. While she does, that world goes its own necessary way, talking about family crises, exploring strange father-son jealousies, walking the dog. The child that moves in the corner is allowed simply to move in the corner, without reason—and, so far as is possible, without touching or disturbing the normal order of the universe….
[Our author] has next dramatized the living mind in its incredible energy, in its determination to express itself in violence when it cannot arrange itself into thought. Now [Annie Sullivan,] come to see what she can do with her little lost cause, enters the arena.
[Annie Sullivan] is steel against fire, rock against water, as she lights into her charge with two strong arms and an almighty tongue.
[Finally they] come to the moment when the heavens open up and intelligence slips through. We know it is coming; we are sometimes fearful that it is going to be too long in coming; we are limp already, and impatience is just around the corner. When it comes, the physical contact of the child and the teacher—a contact that is for the first time meaningful and for the first time affectionate—is overwhelming….
There are small flaws: a television sound device that is often badly blurred; a slight yielding on Mr. Gibson's part to the temptation to drain what is already dry.
But it's not a miracle. It's honesty, and talent.
Walter Kerr, "'The Miracle Worker'," in New York Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), October 20, 1959 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 20, No. 19, October 26-November 3, 1959, p. 257).
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["The Miracle Worker"] could scarcely be nobler, or more squarely affirm the dignity of our wayward species. [William Gibson] does not sentimentalize the struggle between Annie and her charge. Chairs are flung about, plates smashed, arms wrenched, and faces slapped;… the combat could hardly be more violent…. Yet apart from the moment when [Helen Keller sniffing and groping, met Annie Sullivan] for the first time, I was unmoved throughout. A few years back, I saw a documentary film about handicapped children. It was called "Thursday's Children," and it touched me more deeply inside ten minutes than "The Miracle Worker" did in two and a half hours.
My resistance to Mr. Gibson's play is partly due to the fact that it shocked me. It is, to begin with, very nearly describable as a barrel of laughs; some of the stage business that has been worked out for the child borders closely on the cute, and her guardian seldom lets a line go by without a snappy, indomitable Irish comeback. You feel that an agonizing process is being sweetened, discreetly softened, and made publicly palatable…. Helen's family consists of an irascible father, [a wailing mother, and a scapegrace half brother],… all of whom behave like characters out of a bad nineteenth-century play. Stereotypes themselves, they cast doubt on other aspects of the piece, which may, for all I know, be authentic. By the end of the second act, Annie Sullivan has taught her pupil to sit at table and fold her napkin. Just before the final curtain, she brings off a much greater feat; Helen learns to connect physical objects with the digital symbols that spell out their names. But a few seconds afterward, with no aid from her tutor, the child manages the infinitely harder jump from finger talk to speech; pronounces the word "water." This certainly ends the play with a decisive thump, yet Mr. Gibson did not convince me that it happened like that—so swiftly, so simply, so conveniently. The events he is handling are too delicate to be submitted to Broadway tailoring, however well-intentioned. Perhaps inevitably, there hangs over the whole production a faint aura of exploitation. (pp. 132-34)
Kenneth Tynan, "Ireland Unvanquished," in The New Yorker (© 1959 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXV, No. 37, October 31, 1959, pp. 131-36.∗
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The awakening of Helen Keller's mind is a furious battle [in "The Miracle Worker"]….
[And even] when the battling is not physical, it is a determined struggle for victory by two people of strong wills. When it is over and the mind of the child acquires its first word ("water"), the peace of surrender in terms of love and recognition is the climax of the play and an electric moment in the theatre.
If Mr. Gibson had not written an acid book about the ways in which Broadway degrades an author's script ("The Seesaw Log"), the slovenly craftsmanship of "The Miracle Worker" would not be worth remarking. In taste, as well as in craftsmanship, the new play is below the standards of "Two for the Seesaw."
["The Miracle Worker"] comes from a television script. Mr. Gibson has retained the discursive TV form, which is diffuse in the theatre. The play begins with an awkwardly placed and turgidly written scene of mother, father and physician huddled around Helen's bassinet; and moves on a flood of sentimentality to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. Both of these scenes are like the delayed lead in a newspaper story: exercises in warming up that could be dispensed with.
When the play moves into the South it uses Negro adults and children for local color in the hackneyed fashion of magnolia fiction. Parts of it are afflicted with offstage voices used in the queasy style of inspirational brochures. It also confuses the theatregoer with an unresolved secondary theme about the emotional sufferings of Helen Keller's older stepbrother. "The Miracle Worker" has a strong infusion of literary uplift, which may be consoling but enlightens nothing.
Someone has observed that essentially "The Miracle Worker" is a two-character play, like "Two for the Seesaw." The observation is not completely fair. The characters of the mother and father … are pertinent to the theme and help to establish background and a point of view.
But the chief sources of the dramatic strength of "The Miracle Worker" remain the theme and the two actors chiefly responsible for developing it. The theme has universal stature.
Brooks Atkinson, "'Miracle Worker': Two Strong Minds and Two Strong Players," in The New York Times, Section II (© 1959 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 1, 1959, p. 1.∗
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Near the conclusion of Two for the Seesaw, the rambunctious street urchin, Gittel Mosca, is gently informed that "after the verb to love, to help is the sweetest in the tongue." William Gibson, setting aside more serious concerns to anatomize the sweeter, softer virtues, has thus far dedicated his dramatic career to the definition and conjugation of these two verbs.
For, like the play which preceded it, The Miracle Worker—written with the same wit …—is essentially a two-character work about the relationship of kindness to love. The time has been set back to the 1880's, the seesaw has been freighted from New York to Alabama, and precariously balanced upon it now are an afflicted child and a 20-year-old Irish girl from Boston; yet, the two plays are clearly lifted from the same trunk. In outline, both works are about the redemption and education of a helpless little ragamuffin by a more experienced, vaguely guilty mentor which results in a mutual strengthening of character. Here the ragamuffin is not a Jewish dancer from the Bronx, but the child Helen Keller, while the helping hand belongs not to the disconsolate divorcé, Jerry Ryan, but to Helen's gifted teacher, Annie Sullivan. On the other hand, everybody's motivation remains constant. Annie's conscience-pangs over her desertion of her dying brother, for example, recall Jerry's uneasiness over his desertion of his wife, and both expiate their guilt through "help," unswerving dedication to the welfare of another. To press the parallel further, both plays rely excessively on extra-dramatic devices: Two for the Seesaw on a persistently clanging telephone, The Miracle Worker on a garrulous loudspeaker. And, despite the excellence of the writing, both plays impress me less as dramas of conflict than as socio-psychological essays on the subject of interpersonal relations.
The Miracle Worker documents a historical occurrence: Helen Keller's transformation from a hopelessly untidy, aggressive, isolated, willful animal, possessed only with a sense of touch, into a disciplined, well-groomed human being about to enter the world of languages. The factual story contains only two disclosures of a dramatic nature. Since one of them (that Helen has become deaf and blind from an infant disease) is expended in the opening moments, the bulk of the play consists of Gibson's filler. Some of this filler is purely theatrical: Helen and Annie engage in what are surely the most epic brawls ever staged…. Some filler is designed for edification: Annie lectures Helen's parents on the dangers of permissive child-rearing …, and, in an ill-defined subplot, a cowardly son learns at last to command the love and respect of his stern father by asserting himself. It is Gibson's penchant for instructing his characters in "mature" behavior which disturbs me most. In common with most playwrights of the modern school, love operates in his plays with all the intensity of an ideology, and the only development his people are permitted is a more accurate apprehension of the proper way to show affection.
In consequence, no event occurs in The Miracle Worker which is not somehow identified with love. Take the last scene, the other factual disclosure of the story and the "miracle" towards which everything moves. From history, we know that Helen Keller suddenly made the connection between words and things essential for learning language while pumping water from a well. On the stage, this discovery issues in a perfect orgy of embraces. The child pumps the water, grunts out the word, scurries back and forth along the length of the stage, rings a bell wildly, embraces her mother, kisses her once cold, now loving father, and finally offers her love to Annie whom she has hated throughout the action. As for Annie, finally permitted to express the affection she has purposely withheld, she spells out on the child's hand, "I love Helen … forever and ever," and the curtain descends.
What is one to say about this? Mr. Gibson's motives are undoubtedly impeccable, his heart is rooted in the proper place and, though he dances on the edge of Sentiment's soggy slough, he rarely falls in…. But I am afraid I am churlish enough not to respond very strongly to Human Documents, or Testaments to the Human Spirit, or even to Profound Convictions that Man will Endure and Prevail, unless they are accompanied by a good deal more grit, a good deal more mystery, and a great deal more information about the dark places of human motivation than we are given here.
I say this with regret because, although his craft is still a little shaky, Gibson possesses substantial literary and dramatic gifts, and an integrity of the highest order. In addition, he brings to his works authentic compassion, wit, bite, and humor, and a lively, literate prose style equalled by few American dramatists. (Annie's moving tribute to words, while appropriate for a character concerned with communication, is clearly a reflection of Gibson's own love affair with the English language). Since Gibson is one of a handful of theater writers who does not have to apologize for his dialogue, he can afford a faithful production which does not have to apologize for the play.
But his weakness for inspirational themes, if not suppressed, will inevitably doom him to the second rank. That Gibson has intelligence, tough-mindedness, and a capacity for indignation, nobody who reads The Seesaw Log will deny, but his dramas persistently follow the safer, more familiar road of routine wisdom and spiritual uplift. Like most dramatists of his generation, Gibson confuses playwriting with psychological counseling; unlike most of them, he is capable of much more. His potential is large but it will never be fulfilled until he can find more compelling sources for his view of man than the cheery chapbooks of Horney and Fromm, until he can examine the more dangerous truths which lie beneath the comforting surface of the skin. (pp. 28-9)
Robert Brustein, "Two for the Miracle," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1959 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 141, No. 19, November 9, 1959, pp. 28-9.
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Consider the image of the young Helen Keller that aches like a wound at the center of Mr. William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker": the child locked in the body's cage against sight, speech, sound, her skin alone a raw key to the world, the very fact of her a majestic rebuke to all easy imaginations of justice and rationality. Mr. Gibson's account of the breaking of that cage—of Anne Sullivan's forceful entry into a demonic world of lawless, feral impulse—is scrupulously sincere and affecting always, what I should call an accomplishment in humane feeling. It touches on the mute, clawing Helen with distinguished pathos and on her resistance to Miss Sullivan with a tough-minded love. Everywhere, in these passages, the image is close and powerful, beyond analysis in its emotional purity. Elsewhere, the play has no more than a conventional aspect: busy details in realism too insignificant to bear examination. What comes about us finally with the shadow of radiance—in that moment when the broken circuit of speech and thought and sound is healed at last—is something of the fierce joy of expression, of that poet's glory in the power to name God's things in all their first being and beauty. It is the only point at which Mr. Gibson raises his substance to a pitch of impersonal exaltation, but it is overwhelming. Out of hideous darkness into light: the image is completed, and it is all….
Mr. Gibson's play has taken the town, yet what will defeat the legitimate impulse and distinction of "The Miracle Worker" is, of course, to value it immoderately. I am most anxious to be understood on this point, not as a critical harpy, nor out of perversity, but in justice to those possibilities of theater which Mr. Gibson, quite honorably and doubtless with intent, does not even explore. The triumph of Miss Keller, the will and devotion of Miss Sullivan, are moral splendors of human history, very much on the order of Franklin Roosevelt's conquest of paralysis. They are intrinsically dramatic; they challenge that supine acquiescence by which we defend ourselves against the fact of ostensibly irremediable fatality. They are, if you will, "affirmations of the human spirit."
To attempt their translation into art, however—or something very like it—is rarely, indeed never, quite satisfying, because in no central way does it invoke the transfiguring power of the imagination. One recognizes the content of the moment, of the experience, but is released into nothing else: essentially it is a fact to which one has responded. That the fact may be a gratifying demonstration of human worth is, in itself, aesthetically irrelevant. Hence, while recording pleasure in "The Miracle Worker," gratitude for the image of goodness with which it augments our moral life, in no sense can I think it a significant play, and its reception as such will add only further confusion to that wondrous babel of standards which is opinion in our theater.
Richard Hayes, "Images," in Commonweal (copyright © 1959 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXI, No. 10, December 4, 1959, p. 289.
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After turning out two very successful plays that focus on narrowly circumscribed situations. William Gibson has given his talent an off-Broadway holiday in a cosmic fantasy titled "Dinny and the Witches." Dinny is a sort of cool Peer Gynt who along the way enchants us with one simple romantic song that admits "Don't Know What I'm Here For." The quality of this song written by Mr. Gibson, who is both an ex-piano player and contributor to poetry magazines, suggests that this new play might be much better as a musical comedy. Instead the playwright has taken much too long for his hero to find a much too simple answer to his question. The byplay consists of three comic witches, who, like the Button-Moulder, must execute Dinny's predestined death sentence. One of the three is a friendly "nitwitch" who is always in favor of "taking the next breath" and thus prolongs the proceedings unconscionably by finding ways to give Dinny another chance.
The play contains a bit of social comment—as at one point some nasty people go marching off singing "Gory, Gory, Hallelujah!"—and a smattering of philosophy—with one of the witches telling Dinny, "You could love only something flawless, and what is flawless in the world is death." But where Mr. Gibson's other two plays were filled with fascinatingly real behavior that revealed the complexity of real situations, "Dinny and the Witches" is filled only with capricious author's inventions, puns, and poor jokes. (pp. 24-5)
Henry Hewes, "Minor Anouilhance," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1959 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLII, No. 52, December 26, 1959, pp. 24-5.∗
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William Gibson's The Seesaw Log … is a blow-by-blow, cut-by-cut account of an ordeal that occupied two years of the author's life and left him, at the end, financially enriched and spiritually depleted. In short, it is a success story. At the same time it is a study of defeat. In the course of a hundred and forty pages, the rugged-individualist theory of art, which regards the author's intentions as sacrosanct, is eroded and finally overwhelmed by the rugged collectivism of an industry in which nothing is more sacred than the will of the audience. Per se, the struggle is old stuff. The cry of the betrayed dramatist ("That's not my play!") is among the more easily identifiable night sounds of Broadway, and if the theme of ideals versus commercialism were to be banished from literature today, a tidy heap of American writers would be out of work tomorrow. Mr. Gibson's book, however, has three qualities that, conjoined, give it a special fascination. One is the sturdy excellence of its prose. The second is its attention to detail; this is the fullest factual record I can remember of the daily hazards involved in getting a Broadway show on the road and bringing it back alive. Thirdly, and personally, I was fascinated by the ambiguity of Mr. Gibson's conclusions. By a strange exercise of doublethink, he seems to have felt simultaneously fulfilled and frustrated when his play became a hit. While resenting the changes he had been called on to make, he was grateful to those who had asked him to make them. After a characteristic agony of rewriting in Philadelphia, he describes himself as suffering "the paradoxical experience of seeing his work improve by becoming poorer." No student of semantics could resist a phrase like that. (pp. 316-17)
As acted, Two for the Seesaw is funny, accurate, and often poignant. Since Mr. Gibson offers no specific examples of the alterations he was required to make, and since he informs us that the printed text contains elements of several versions, it is almost impossible to tell whether we have lost a masterpiece or gained a smash. For a fledgling playwright, Mr. Gibson seems to have gone in for an awful lot of backstage hectoring, lecturing, and quasi-directing, so that one is tempted to wonder how much his own behaviour contributed to the general uproar. Be that as it may, his main point is that he was forced to modify his original conception under pressure from his co-workers and his audience. How humiliating that sounds! Yet Chekhov re-wrote at the behest of Stanislavsky, and Bertolt Brecht, perhaps the most original dramatist of our century, was not only ready but positively eager to learn from his spectators and to incorporate into his work the suggestions of fellow intellectuals…. No dramatist, in other words, is an island. To think otherwise is a form of solipsism.
Mr. Gibson writes as if only two choices lay open to the playwright; he can either make compromises for the sake of the box office or refuse them in the name of artistic integrity. There is in fact a third choice—that of adapting one's play so that it will have the maximum impact on the audience, small or large, dumb or smart, for which it was intended. That, unfortunately, is feasible only in a non-commercial subsidized theatre. Mr. Gibson, meanwhile, is trapped in a false antithesis. The true source of his torment is not that he was asked to make his play appeal to its own audience but that he was asked to make it appeal to every audience. His tale is hypnotically readable, and I urge him, in the light of what I have said, to dramatize [The Seesaw Log]. It would make a provocative and alarming evening. (p. 318)
Kenneth Tynan, "Curtains East and West," in The New Yorker (© 1959 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXV, No. 13, May 16, 1959 (and reprinted as "The American Theatre: The Backstage Jungle," in his Curtains, Atheneum, 1961, pp. 316-19).
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Two for the Seesaw is a prime example of the type of playwriting and production that prevails with metropolitan audiences by clever accommodation to their standards of taste, interest, and value. It is clever rather than profound playwriting but it also exudes an air of wisdom, kindliness and truth of character that makes friends at the box office…. Interest never flags in this comedy of sentiment until we are being prepared for the anticlimactic resolution. The continuously moving action, varied with many a reversal of mood, feeling, and situation, never gives the impression of thinness (though I think it is thin).
Two for the Seesaw starts with the meeting in New York of a cultivated Midwestern attorney, Jerry Ryan, who is about to get a divorce from his wife, and a footloose and fancy-free girl from the Bronx named Gittel Mosca, who is pursuing a doubtful career as a dancer. Jerry has a bad conscience about the wife from whom he is seeking independence, and Gittel has bleeding ulcers and a fiery but uncommonly sympathetic and yielding nature. Loneliness brings them together, and they surmount differences of religion and manners with wonderful ease…. Jerry and Gittel live together for months; they separate at last after she discovers and he admits that he still loves his wife. But the author tells us that they are both the better for their experience. They have matured; he has recovered confidence in himself while she has learned to defend herself against a too yielding heart. (pp. 212-13)
A closer look at Two for the Seesaw is somewhat disenchanting. The ingenuity of the playwriting is beyond question; its genuineness as a study of character and as a comment on life is very much in question. At first the two characters on stage may give us an impression of reality…. But their nebulous association with other characters is puzzling. Why Jerry left his wife and why he returns to her is fully explained, yet the character of the wife is extremely vague; she is only a voice at the other end of a telephone connection. Although she is described as a rich man's beautiful daughter who has coddled her husband, this is a postulate rather than a reality in the play. It cannot make Jerry's presence in Manhattan carry much conviction; flight from overprotection in the case of a grown man is a rather tenuous premise.
Even when providing amusing and appealing scenes Two for the Seesaw gives strong indications of contrivance under its surface verisimilitude. The telephone is in constant use, connecting the characters, promoting the plot, and calling attention to the two settings in which all of the action alternates…. The play strains to achieve an ardent rapprochement between the two characters, wins our sympathy for them with its comedy and sentiment, and then, shortly after we are satisfied that this oddly mismatched pair have overcome the social barriers, we are told that Jerry still loves his invisible wife. He returns to her after exacting her promise that she will not coddle him any longer, a stipulation which should be funny but is apparently intended to be taken with perfect seriousness. The gentleman and the Bronx street brawler (the author's dubious term for Gittel) separate before liberalism can take hold and give the lovers anything more than a fleeting relationship.
With Two for the Seesaw we are back to the pseudo-Ibsenism of Pinero…. Gibson could claim to have written a realistic play with an ingenious twist. He sends Jerry home to a palpitating Nebraska wife whose only fault had been to try to make things easy for her husband. The husband suddenly decides that it is time to stop receiving and to start giving. It can be argued that reality is being honestly served when prince and pauper, gentleman and street brawler go their separate ways. But realism can be manipulated by writers who aim to please an audience rather than to disturb it, and I suspect that it is manipulation rather than reality that wins out in the resolution of his romance.
These paragraphs express my minority opinion of an extremely well-performed play. Two for the Seesaw was very efficient as entertainment, and as a character Gittel was an admirable creation. Only in promising to be more did the work become less. (pp. 213-14)
The Miracle Worker is anything but a masterpiece. Based on the story of how Helen Keller was liberated as a child from the prison of blindness, deafness, and speechlessness by a resolute woman, the play has powerful action and emotion. It is marred for many of us by the use of superfluous and sentimental off-stage voices…. This aside, Gibson created a strong and appealing story centered on the character of a tough-minded woman. The author produced a striking series of conflicts between [the character, Annie Sullivan,] and the savage little girl whom she helped to become the Helen Keller of history. He added some helpful shadings to the drama in his characterization of Helen's parents and elder stepbrother. On the whole Gibson did well by his producer, director, and actors, with a play of limited range and depth…. The conflict between teacher and pupil is gripping; The Miracle Worker is, for the most part, arresting theatre. (p. 216)
John Gassner, "The Comic Muse," in his Theatre at the Crossroads: Plays and Playwrights of the Mid-Century American Stage (copyright © 1960 by Mollie Gassner; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960, pp. 202-17.∗
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William Gibson's rather sloppily constructed but magnificently conceived drama The Miracle Worker can touch the heart. Based on a purely humanistic norm, it can, when properly played, work marvellous things in the soul and one triumphs with little Annie Sullivan as she brings a child into the world of conscious man. But she does triumph. When there is no triumph, something else must be substituted to make the work acceptable. In the plays of frustration and ineptitude—plays with which our stage abounds—the audience must be given something else to divert them. They won't accept moral triumph, but they will accept Chekhovian frustration providing you make it diverting enough in the telling.
To use another of Gibson's plays for an example, Two For The Seesaw, fast becoming a summer stock standard, is a perfect illustration. Gibson has created a small hell in this play. Inhabiting this miniature inferno, smouldering somewhere in the concrete desert of New York, live two of the lonely damned—a girl named Gittel and a man named Jerry Ryan.
Gittel Mosca is one who eternally gives and never receives. One whose generosity bursts forth impulsively and almost blindly, she is a bohemian of sorts, a would-be dancer, an ulcer sufferer, a one who bestows herself freely on any lonely lad who asks.
Jerry Ryan on the other hand is one who eternally leans on others. He is a taker rather than a giver. He is a lawyer from Omaha who has been estranged from his wife for more than a month. He lacks self-confidence and, more significantly, for the moment, he lacks a woman. Meeting Gittel, Jerry asks and receives.
Their affair is a haunted one—now idyllic, sometimes humorous, frequently poignant, always tormented with the knowledge that it is built upon sand. With her generous encouragement, the leaning man braces himself, and when she is laid low by a hemorrhage, he has to stand up and do something for another person for perhaps the first time. He realizes that he can be needed by someone else and that he is a man who has it within himself to help another. Though it is Gittel who has given him this, he goes back to his wife, leaving the little bohemian stranded high and dry on the beach. Like Orpheus, Jerry Ryan must leave the underworld without looking back to see Eurydice, who sits alone facing the dark.
I suppose on a natural level there is hidden in this play—beneath the image of its facile sex talk, its ever recurring profanity, its flashing humor, its moments of truth and sadness—some kind of human truth. It may have a deep and almost spiritual theme. Perhaps it has something significant to impart about the impermanence of these tenderly sad meetings when two lost human beings carry on what is in polite circles called an affair. Perhaps it has something cynical to say about those who become the willing victims of those who lean on them. Perhaps it says something, in an oblique way, about the strength of the marital bond.
With all this supposition and despite all the possible meanings, whatever they may be, Two For The Seesaw is the melancholic tale of two who let themselves get caught up in a situation that violates the laws of God and the accepted ways of man. They do not triumph in any sense and Jerry Ryan's return to his mate is a lame sort of return at best. The characters are intense in their humanity, living frantically, and somehow very, very tortured and sad amid all the joking. It is at times amusing, and at times embarrassing to look into so personal a human problem. (pp. 143-44)
Gibson has written some very funny moments into Seesaw and the sex talk could prove titillating I suppose. It may be, too, that we are embarrassed by heroism. We feel it's out of place in our century, like a great conscience of sorts. Perhaps it's worse to have a suit of rusty armor in the closet than a skeleton.
At any rate, it seems we'll take enervating pathos, flaccid melancholy in place of tragedy. I suppose it's our loss. Two For The Seesaw is not a great play. It lacks the size, the scope, the real dimension for that. It is, however, an undeniably sincere play which gives us the sight of two persons in a desperate struggle with the spiritual and emotional emptiness that preoccupation with the merely physical can bring. Gittel and Jerry, like all too many of our generation, just make physical contact as they meet, they never truly find each other. This is the small beer of our times. No more catharsis, just a modest malt diarrhetic. (pp. 144-45)
Richard A. Duprey, "An Enema for the People," in his Just Off the Aisle: The Ramblings of a Catholic Critic (copyright © 1962 by The Newman Press), Newman Press, 1962, pp. 135-46.∗
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The theatrical form of "Golden Boy" as a musical is as crisp as a left jab and as jolting as a right uppercut.
One can have nothing but admiration for the snap, speed and professionalism of the style of this musical…. In two of its big production numbers "Golden Boy" is a knockout, not only for the whirling excitement of its action but also for the powerful punch in its comment.
But at the core of its story "Golden Boy" hardly scores at all. Despite its constant reach for the heart, it does not land there convincingly. The blows have all the motion of the dazzling fight scene in savage pantomime, which comes at the end of the musical, and has little genuine impact….
[William Gibson] has come to the rescue of Clifford Odets, his former teacher and friend, and helped to whip into shape the book Mr. Odets had labored on before his death. Mr. Gibson's handiwork is impressive in its economy and drive.
The hero of the Odets play was a poor Jewish boy with a good mind and fine instincts who took up prizefighting as a path to wealth and glory. In the musical version he has become a Negro, and there is an inescapable logic in this change, for the young Negro's passion to move up and make something of himself is today's consuming imperative.
Mr. Gibson has made the basic changes in the story with conscience and taste. He has altered the spirit of the milieu in which the hero moves as well as the color of his skin. The swift, keen-edged lines about the Negro condition have bite and integrity….
There is a marvelous production number built around the song "Don't Forget 127th Street."… Few of the grim sociological tracts have described with more burning zeal all the things that are wrong in Harlem, and no one, you may be sure, can fail to pay attention to this number.
It grows out of a rich Negro's passing through his old stamping ground, where he has come back, as a bystander observes derisively, "to see his ethnic group."… [He] ironically advises his neighbors on 127th Street not to "forget your roots."…
It has been said that revolution could be buried in a song with no one the wiser; the coming change chants its urgency from every beat of this number, and it's not meant to be a secret. (p. 185)
Everything that the theatrical arts can do to give a musical an outer shell of pace and toughness has been done. The curtain rises with no overture and only the accompaniment of a rhythmic beat to discover a gym where fighters in training shadow-box, jump rope and pound punching bags. This is a stunning introduction, a tour de force….
There is nothing wrong with the mood and atmosphere of "Golden Boy." The trouble comes when Joe Wellington gets involved in romance. The fault is not in the musical; intimations of soap opera were in the original play. But in the shorthand of storytelling incumbent on musicals, motives can only be suggested in quick broad strokes. Joe's abortive romance, in this version, with a white girl has no inner conviction. One feels detached about him and his Lorna….
Yet so much is vibrant, colorful and well-founded in background, pungent comment and sheer theater that even a "Golden Boy" with a soft heart can be a rewarding evening's companion. (p. 186)
Howard Taubman, "Theater: Sammy Davis in a Musical 'Golden Boy'," in The New York Times (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1964 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 25, No. 23, November 9, 1964, pp. 185-86).
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There is nothing to distinguish William Gibson's "A Cry of Players" except the presence of William Shakespeare in the cast of characters and Mr. Shakespeare's presence is validated by neither his name (he is called only "Will") nor his language. Besides that, there was no reason for the character to be Shakespeare in the first place, or for the play to be set in 16th Century England. Mr. Gibson's play is merely a family drama and it could have been set anywhere, at any time, with any names for its characters. The Shakespeare routine merely gives the playwright a chance to indulge in the Brueghel shtik (taverns, townsfolk, and—need I say it?—bawdiness) and fiddle with pretend-verse.
"A Cry of Players" takes place before Shakespeare began writing plays—just as he was about to commit himself to the theatre. It makes no attempt to follow fact, which is just as well since much is known about Shakespeare's life and none of it includes the wholesale marital infidelity that consumes much of Gibson's interest. But creative biography, or fiction sprung from fact, is perfectly acceptable. The question is only whether it is any good, and in this case it isn't….
This play … has Shakespeare's marriage to Anne Hathaway on the rocks because he has been messing around with the local tart….
This story is really built to carry the character of Will's wife, and I don't think the author intended that. But Gibson is obviously a lady's playwright and Anne (no "Hathaway" is mentioned either) is the only full character in the play. This is but one accident in a hospitalized evening since the message, I believe, is that there is no room for discipline and family responsibility in the life of an artist. Shakespeare was hardly the best example for such a point, having been among the most disciplined, most responsible, and orderly of men.
Martin Gottfried, "'A Cry of Players'," in Women's Wear Daily (copyright 1968, Fairchild Publications), November 15, 1968 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. 29, No. 22, November 25, 1968, p. 180).
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High on the long list of plays that ought never to be written are plays about how the great men of our civilization—Shakespeare, Newton, Mozart, and the like—first set their winged feet on the path that was to lead them up, up, and away from the rest of us. Doomed as such enterprises are, they continue to be turned out with unabatable zest by playwrights possessing a certain type of second-rate talent. The distinguishing mark of these playwrights is that they not only live beyond their intellectual means but are unaware of doing so; irresistibly tempted to dabble in the mystery of the nature of their betters, they feel not the slightest sense of being unfit for the task….
The latest specimen of mock-Elizabethiana to be presented here is "A Cry of Players."… The author of "A Cry of Players," William Gibson, archly refrains from identifying his hero by a last name, but either the play is about Shakespeare, and by this means blackmails us into attention, or it is about any one of a hundred thousand moonstruck young men who have hoped to grow up and be writers, in which case it instantly loses the tiny purchase of our interest that it has won by semantic trickery. For the hero is named Will, he has a wife named Anne and they live in a small town somewhere in the green English countryside, sometime in the fifteen-eighties. Will is plagued by a triple need—to know more about women, to know more about life, to know more about himself. He is sick of working as a tanner for his senile failure of a father, sick of going to bed with a wife who is eight years older than he and whose first pregnancy was the occasion of their marriage, and sick of not putting to some noble purpose the afflatus he feels consuming him…. [So] he joins a company of strolling players and runs away to London to become … why, to become simply the greatest writer that has ever lived. And is there anywhere in "A Cry of Players" a single substantial hint of genius in this unhappy young man? Alas, not one. Indeed, as the play is written, it is the fierce and passionate Anne who should have run away to London and become, like a heroine in Defoe, by many an arduous dodge, an old dragon of a duchess. (p. 122)
Brendan Gill, "Imitations," in The New Yorker (© 1968 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLIV, No. 40, November 23, 1968, pp. 122, 124, 129.∗
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[William Gibson's] one poetically conceived play on an unusual subject, Dinny and the Witches, failed off-Broadway at the same time that both his conventional plays were enjoying packed houses on Broadway. Although somewhat pretentious, Dinny is Gibson's sole exploration of non-naturalistic form…. [It] is a musical fantasy that gets lost in its own playfulness, "a frolic on grave matters," as its subtitle indicates.
Dinny, a minor Faust in search of knowledge, "stops the clock of eternal time," which is in the possession of the witches in Central Park. He assumes control of a timeless world, a defiance of death, and command of his own destiny, but he fails in the quest for perfection, by eliminating change. Power to mold the world as one wishes brings man no closer to happiness. Dinny turns to the pure love of Amy, as Zenobia, one of the witches, holds a clock up to the audience to indicate that our time still moves on and warns that each beat is ticking away that much of our lives. (pp. 151-52)
In his two better-known plays, Gibson confines himself to the suspense drama of psychological realism, with all the concessions that Broadway demands. (p. 152)
Allan Lewis, "The Emergent Deans," in his American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theatre (copyright © 1970 by Allan Lewis: used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), revised edition, Crown, 1970, pp. 143-63.∗
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