An author of plays, poetry, fiction, and criticism, Gibson (born 1914) is best known for his drama The Miracle Worker (1959). Praised for its honest, unsentimental treatment of the relationship between Helen Keller, a woman born deaf, blind and mute who grew up to became a nationally celebrated writer and public figure, and Annie Sullivan, the nurse who teaches Helen language and morals, The Miracle Worker remains Gibson's most admired and revived work.
Although Gibson's works have been variously faulted as superficially realistic dramas that sentimentalize the serious issues they raise, Gibson is praised for his accurate ear for dialogue and strong command of dramatic conflict. Robert Brustein observed: "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."
Gibson was born in New York City, where he attended City College of New York from 1930 to 1932. Following his graduation, he supported himself as a piano teacher in Kansas while pursuing an interest in theater. His earliest plays, produced in Topeka, were light comedies that Gibson revised and restaged during his later career. The first, A Cry of Players (1948), concerns a sixteenth-century English playwright named Will who is prompted to leave his wife and family for the life of the London theater, while the second, Dinny and the Witches (1948), features as its eponymous protagonist a Faustian character who is sentenced to death by three comic witches for having stopped "the clock of eternal time." Gibson first achieved widespread popular success with Two for the Seesaw (1958), his first major play produced in New York City. Set in New York in the 1880s, this work combines humor and melodrama to depict the relationship between Gittel Mosca, an overgenerous, unemployed dancer, and Jerry Ryan, a selfish Nebraska lawyer who becomes involved in a love affair with Gittel while preparing to divorce his wife. Although Jerry leaves Gittel to return to his wife, Gibson concludes the play by implying that Gittel has gained from the brief relationship by becoming more self-assertive, while Jerry has learned humility and concern for others. Characterizing Two for the Seesaw as a casual entertainment, most critics praised the play's brisk dialogue and Gibson's compassionate treatment of his characters. Brooks Atkinson commented: "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."
Gibson achieved his greatest success with The Miracle Worker. Originally written and performed as a television drama, the play was later adapted for stage and film. Although realistic in tone, The Miracle Worker often makes use of cinematic shifts in time and space to illuminate the effect of the past on the present in a manner analogous to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Using innovative lighting and onstage set changes, Gibson juxtaposes Helen's present quest for language and meaningful human connection with the past experiences of Annie Sullivan, the "miracle worker" of the title who was partially cured of childhood blindness through surgical operations during her adolescence. Summoned to the Keller home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Annie becomes locked in a test of wills with Helen as well as her family, who have allowed Helen to become spoiled and uncooperative due to their pity for her and attendant refusal to administer discipline. Although faulted as superficial or exploitative by some reviewers, The Miracle Worker has been praised for Gibson's alternately heroic, humorous, and sympathetic treatment of Annie and Helen's struggle for human language and love. Walter Kerr asserted: "[Gibson has] dramatized the living mind in its incredible energy, in its determination to express itself in violence when it cannot arrange itself into thought…. 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."
In his nonfiction volume The Seesaw Log and Two for the Seesaw (1959), Gibson combines the text of Two for the Seesaw with a chronicle of his participation in initial productions of that play and The Miracle Worker. Asserting that the producer and director of both productions had taken commercial liberties that obscured the artistic integrity of his plays, Gibson largely withdrew from the New York theater during the 1960s and 1970s. His last major play for the New York stage, Golden Boy (1964), is a musical adaptation of Clifford Odets's book of the same title about the moral consequences that confront a talented black boxer after he accidentally kills a man in the boxing ring. Gibson's miscellaneous works of the 1960s and 1970s also include A Mass for the Dead (1968), a family chronicle about Gibson and his ancestors; A Season in Heaven (1974), a chronicle of specific events in Gibson's immediate family; and Shakespeare's Game (1978), a volume of theoretical drama criticism that borrows terminology from chess and psychology to explain relationships between scenes and between author and audience.
Further Reading on William Gibson
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 23, Gale, 1983.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth Century American Dramatists, Gale, 1981.
America, November 10, 1990, p. 350.
Cosmopolitan, August, 1958.
Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1982.
Nation, December 2, 1968.
New England Theatre, Spring, 1970.