William Gibson Literary Criticism - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Gerald Sykes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Walter Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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).

Brooks Atkinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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).

Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

Walter Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Kenneth Tynan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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.∗

Brooks Atkinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Hayes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Henry Hewes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kenneth Tynan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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John Gassner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard A. Duprey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Howard Taubman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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….


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Martin Gottfried

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Allan Lewis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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,...

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