William Gibson: Playwright best known for his depiction of Helen Keller, 'The Miracle Worker'

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The Independent Online

The playwright William Gibson wrote two of Broadway's most successful post-war plays, both of which enjoyed runs of nearly two years – Two for the Seesaw, a two-character piece depicting the romance between Jerry Ryan, a straight-laced, married mid-western lawyer and Gittel Mosca, a zany New York bohemian, and his most famous play The Miracle Worker, the powerfully moving depiction of the stormy and occasionally violent relationship between the deaf and blind child Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, the woman who taught her how to communicate, which introduced Anne Bancroft to Broadway as the resilient and courageous Annie.

Both these plays were turned into films, the latter with original cast members Bancroft and Patty Duke (as Keller), who both won Oscars. Gibson wrote further plays, including an unsuccessful sequel to The Miracle Worker, plus a best selling novel, The Cobweb, the libretto for a musical, Golden Boy, starring Sammy Davis Jnr, and two plays about Golda Meir, but his most notable other work was his outstanding memoir, The Seesaw Log, which details the travails of getting a play on to the Broadway stage. It is regarded as an invaluable and classic work about the realities of the theatre, though Gibson himself described it as "less than the truth, in several ways ... only in fiction can one tell the truth."

Gibson, who was born in New York's Bronx in 1914 and educated at City College, had a short verse play, I Lay in Zion, published in 1947, and a volume of poems, Winter Crook, in 1948. His earliest dramas were produced in regional theatres while he was making a living by working in a psychiatric clinic. He used his experiences there to write The Cobweb (1954), which proved a best-seller and was filmed by MGM with a starry cast including Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark and Lillian Gish.

Though skilfully directed by Vincente Minnelli, its steamy depiction of the clinic's staff as sometimes more neurotic than their patients brought derision from critics. Said Gibson, "In the fall of 1954 I went out to Hollywood to do some last-minute patchwork on a movie script of The Cobweb that MGM had paid someone $40,000 to write and then would not film."

A few months later, Gibson finished his first draft of Two for the Seesaw, which his friend Arthur Penn, who had become one of television's most respected directors, agreed to direct if they could ever get it on Broadway – which took four years. It was initially deemed essential that its two roles should be played by established stars, "technically resourceful enough to hold the stage for two hours," stated Gibson, "whose names would ensure us of an audience, financing and a theatre to play in."

After their first choice, Gwen Verdon, declined, actresses including Julie Harris and Kim Stanley were considered, but Gibson complained that not one of them was anything like the "Jewish gamine from the Bronx" that he had written about. After Jack Lemmon, Robert Preston, Jack Palance and Paul Newman rejected the male part (which Gibson confessed was under-written), Richard Basehart proved enthusiastic ("the best play I've read in years") and suggested that the ideal Gittel would be Anne Bancroft, an actress of whom Gibson had never heard though she had been playing inconsequential film roles for several years. When Penn cast her in Gibson's television play of The Miracle Worker (1957), Gibson was captivated. "She was a vitally attractive girl with a sidewalk voice... she could have walked off my pages."

When Basehart failed to agree contract terms, Gibson was delighted that Henry Fonda proved enthusiastic, providing that Gibson could "capture what had eluded me for two and a half years, a full-bodied character for the man... I began again on page one, and whenever the girl had more lines on the page than the man, I wrote more for the man." With 30 minutes added to the script, it was sent to Fonda, who cabled back, "Start it rolling, I am yours."

Though Fonda's name guaranteed production, Gibson felt that the actor was miscast, and that "the starry role was to be played by an unknown, the mundane role by the star." The Seesaw Log details Gibson's growing despair as he was forced to compromise his original vision, particularly the characterisation of his flawed hero, though the result was more commercially acceptable.

During the play's try-out periods in Washington and Philadelphia reactions were mixed, but the extensive re-writing resulted in a smash-hit in New York that set a new record for attendance in the Booth Theatre's 45-year history. Though Fonda was reputedly never happy in the play, Bancroft won the Tony as the year's best actress, and became an overnight star.

The following year Gibson had another great success when he adapted The Miracle Worker for the stage, and it won for Bancroft her second Tony in succession. Gibson won two Tonys for the work – for best drama and for best play.

In 1962 Robert Wise directed a film version of Two for the Seesaw, starring Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine, with the play considerably opened out and no longer a two-hander.

In 1964 Gibson worked on his first musical when he adapted Clifford Odets' play Golden Boy as a starring vehicle for Sammy Davis Jnr. It won Gibson a Tony nomination and despite mixed reviews it ran for over a year due to the box-office power of Davis, who also performed in the show for a season at the London Palladium.

London productions of Gibsons' biggest hits were less successful – Two for the Seesaw (1958) starred Peter Finch with Gerry Jedd, who failed to make as strong an impression as Bancroft had, while The Miracle Worker (1962), despite a superb performance by Anna Massey as Annie Sullivan, lost its intimacy in the cavernous Royalty Theatre.

In 1968, the year in which he published a memoir, A Mass for the Dead, Gibson rewrote an earlier play, A Cry of Players, which dealt with Shakespeare's decision to become a playwright after his exposure to a group of strolling players performing Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great. Anne Bancroft played Anne Hathaway, and she also starred in Gibson's Golda (1977), a biography of the Israeli political leader Golda Meir, and Monday After the Miracle (1982), an unsuccessful sequel to The Miracle Worker.

In 1973 Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields wrote the score for a musical version of Two for the Seesaw. The show, which started out titled Gittel, had a tumultuous try-out period – the leading lady, Lainie Kazan, was fired and replaced by Michele Lee; an executive of Columbia Records, one of the show's investors, dropped in on a rehearsal, disliked the few numbers he saw, witnessed a fight between Kazan and the director, and withdrew backing; Michael Bennett was hired to replace director Ed Sherin but his conditions were that Coleman and Fields should rewrite half their score and that he should have new cast members and dancers, new sets, new orchestrations, new costumes and complete artistic control. He also re-wrote the libretto for the show, which was titled Seesaw when it opened on Broadway.

Though some critics felt that the play's flavour had been lost in the glitz and glitter ("An intimate, bittersweet comedy, and a big brassy musical" wrote one) it ran for nine months.

In 1986 Gibson himself wrote the book for an original musical, Raggedy Ann, starring Ivy Austin with songs by Joe Raposo, but it ran for only five performances. His last Broadway play was Golda's Balcony (2003), a solo show about Meir starring Tovah Feldshuh, which ran for two years.

Tom Vallance

William Gibson, playwright: born New York City 13 November 1914; married 1940 Margaret Bremnam (deceased 2004); died Stockbridge, Massachusetts 25 November 2008.

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