Class of 1934
William Gibson spent more than two decades trying to make a living as a playwright before his first show opened on Broadway. It was called “Two for the Seesaw,” it debuted in 1958 and it put his name on the map. The following year, the curtain went up on Gibson’s second Broadway play and this time, his name was etched indelibly in theater lore.
The play was “The Miracle Worker,” the powerful story of the relationship between young, blind and deaf Helen Keller, played by Patty Duke, and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, played by Anne Bancroft. Originally written for “Playhouse 90,” a television series featuring live drama, “The Miracle Worker” became a Broadway blockbuster and a
|Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke
in “The Miracle Worker.”
hit movie. On Broadway, it won four Tony Awards, including Best Play, and it has been produced all over the world virtually ever since. According to Playbill magazine, it “has never been absent from the regional theater repertoire.” It won a Tony for Bancroft, who had made her Broadway debut in “Two for the Seesaw,” for which she won her first Tony, and it established her as one of the country’s top dramatic performers. It also launched the career of Patty Duke. When Gibson’s adaptation of “Miracle” became a movie in 1962, both actresses repeated their stage roles and each won Oscars as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. Gibson was nominated for a writing Oscar.
“Two for the Seesaw” also went on to become a film, and then a Broadway musical called “Seesaw.” Gibson’s other major projects included the book for “Golden Boy,” a 1964 Broadway musical adapted from the Clifford Odets drama of the same name. Sammy Davis Jr. starred. Gibson’s play “Golda” opened in 1977, starring Anne Bancroft as Israeli leader Golda Meir, but it ran for only 93 performances. In 2003, when Gibson was 89, he radically revised the play, eliminated all the parts but one, called it “Golda’s Balcony,” and, with Tovah Feldshuh in the title role, watched it run for 14 previews and 493 performances. It was the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history. In 1968, he published “A Mass for the Dead,” a memoir about his Catholic upbringing.
Gibson was born in the Bronx on Nov. 13, 1914. He attended Townsend Harris High School, winning a short-story contest and graduating at 16. He entered City College in 1931 to study creative writing, but dropped out after a year and began to write professionally. He never stopped, turning out plays, poetry, screenplays, television episodes, novels, criticism and essays for the next seven decades. Until his Broadway successes, it was a struggle. After leaving school at the height of the Depression, he spent the following years floating around and trying different things. According to Playbill, he acted in Abingdon, Va.; was an organizer in the Young Communist League; and played piano in Topeka, Kan., where he met his future wife, Margaret, a psychoanalyst, whose earnings helped support him in the early days.
It was in Kansas that Gibson began writing scripts for the Topeka Civic Theatre. The earliest to attract attention was “A Cry of Players,” a speculation on Shakespeare’s formative years. The play reached Broadway in 1968, but flopped. He also wrote poetry and published “Winter Crook,” a collection of verse, in 1948. In the early l950s, the Gibsons moved to Stockbridge, Mass.
Gibson wrote a novel, “The Cobweb,” which was made into a film in 1955. It dealt with a psychiatric clinic in which the doctors and staff are as mad as the patients. He could have pursued a full-time career as a screenwriter, but chose to focus on theater because it gave him much more control over his work. In his 1959 diary, “The Seesaw Log,” Gibson described his agony at having to make changes in “Two for the Seesaw” for commercial reasons. He reluctantly concluded that the changes worked. The Telegraph of London noted that Gibson examined “the differences between art and entertainment,” and came to find value in both. Gibson died in Stockbridge on Nov. 25, 2008. He was 94.