William Gibson Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

William Gibson will be remembered for his development of the popular biographical play; for his creation of strong women characters, many of whom have been portrayed by actress Anne Bancroft; and for his commentary on mid-twentieth century drama.

Gibson’s most successful play, The Miracle Worker, was originally written for Playhouse 90 and in 1957 won the Sylvania Award for the year’s best television drama and, three years later, won the 1960 Tony Award for best play. This play pioneered the contemporary biographical drama. In it, Gibson exploited the dramatic qualities in Helen Keller’s autobiography, centering on her discovery of the power of language under the tutelage of Annie Sullivan, a master teacher who transformed Keller from a wild animal into a human being. Part of the play’s power derives from Gibson’s ability to dramatize a historical event. Gibson continued developing this genre in later works, such as American Primitive, based on the letters of John and Abigail Adams, and Golda, based on the autobiography of Golda Meir, one of Israel’s most famous prime ministers. While Gibson’s subject matter in these plays is limited by his historical sources—in American Primitive the dialogue, except for some verse commentary that Gibson added, comes directly from the Adamses’ letters—he uses modern stagecraft to make these lives significant.

Gibson will also be remembered for...

(The entire section is 506 words.)

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

What dramatic techniques has William Gibson employed to bring biographical subjects to the stage?

What incidents in The Miracle Worker best exemplify Annie Sullivan’s “get tough” policy with the young Helen Keller?

Publishers and producers often insist on changing author’s titles. Would Gibson’s original choice of a title for Two for the SeesawAfter the Verb to Love—have been more apt?

The success of a play depends largely on the audience. Is the relative failure of Monday After the Miracle primarily a result of an imperceptive audience or of an unfortunate choice of incidents and subject matter by the author?

How does Gibson’s career illustrate the advantages and disadvantages of writing for the Broadway stage?

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although William Gibson was primarily a dramatist, his initial successes were as a poet and novelist. His first poetry book, Winter Crook (1948), is a collection of his early verse, which is marked by complex use of nature imagery and metaphor to explore highly personal concerns. The novel The Cobweb (1954), a best-seller, introduced many of the themes important in his drama: the isolation of the individual, the potentially redeeming capacity of love to form bonds, and the power of language to define the self and its world. Set in a mental institution, the novel explores the relationships that develop among the psychiatric staff, members of their families, and the patients. As the image of the cobweb suggests, these relationships, while not always healthy, connect the characters in complex ways.

Gibson also wrote several nonfiction “chronicles.” The first of these, The Seesaw Log, an account of the writing and producing of his first successful play, Two for the Seesaw, was published in 1959 with the text of the play. By chronicling the complexities of producing a play in mid-twentieth century America, Gibson demonstrates that a play, unlike a poem or novel, is a collaborative effort that both tests and invigorates the playwright, who has to work with producer, director, and actors, all of whom can truthfully call the play theirs.

Gibson’s second chronicle, A Mass for the Dead (1968), is one...

(The entire section is 460 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Atkinson, Brooks. “The Theatre: Two for the Seesaw.” Review of Two for the Seesaw, by William Gibson. The New York Times, January 17, 1958, p. 15. A glowing review among many good ones. Atkinson states that Gibson has “a tender style of writing and a beautiful little story to tell” in this play, which starred Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft. Concludes that Gibson “has looked inside the hearts of two admirable people” and thanks Gibson for his “thoughtful writing.”

Gibson, William. “On the See-Saw.” The New Yorker 33 (February 15, 1958): 23-24. A chatty interview with Gibson at home with his wife, Margaret Brenman. Contains much personal information in anecdotal style. Informative on unproduced plays and Gibson’s offhanded attitude toward them, other thwarted projects, and his early theatrical experiences at the Barter Theatre in Virginia.

Richards, David. “Holiday Pageantry.” Review of The Butterfingers Angel, by William Gibson. The Washington Post, December 2, 1989, p. C2. A review of the holiday play The Butterfingers Angel, with a few comments on Gibson’s ability to “depict the dark side of those long-ago events a show for very nearly the whole family.” Describes the “stumblefoot angel,” jealous Joseph, and the feeble donkey, and says of Mary, “You may detect a faint radiance dancing about her head.”

Simon, John. Uneasy Stages. New York: Random House, 1975. In these chronicles, Simon reviews his theater experiences in a conversational tone. Has something to say on the musical version of Two for the Seesaw, shortened to Seesaw, in the 1972-1973 season. The reader must know what year to look into because Simon offers only seasons in the table of contents. Index.