William Gibson Late-blooming writer best known for his play The Miracle Worker
- The Guardian, Wednesday 11 February 2009
After a slow-burning start, William Gibson, who has died aged 94, found worldwide success in his forties. He did so with two plays – The Miracle Worker  and Two for a Seesaw  – which both have women at their centre, and made a star of Anne Bancroft. These followed a bestselling novel, The Cobweb , so scandalous that Gibson’s widowed mother Florence confessed to her priest after reading it.
The Miracle Worker began as a television play and told the story of how Helen Keller (played by Patty McCormack), a blind-deaf girl, was brought out of near-total isolation and taught to communicate by her semi-blind teacher Annie Sullivan (Teresa Wright). Annie realises that Helen’s family merely indulges her: “It’s less trouble to feel sorry for her than to teach her anything better, isn’t it?” Her tough love, portrayed by Gibson in many affecting and fraught scenes, helps Helen acquire a grasp of language.
Gibson expanded the play for the stage, and enlisted the then unknown actress Anne Bancroft for the 1959 Broadway production. Her first great success, however, was in Gibson’s Two for the Seesaw (1958), which reached the stage before The Miracle Worker. Two for the Seesaw has only two characters: a young Jewish gamine, Gittel, who lives in one small apartment while another contains her new lover, an older, out-of-town lawyer, Jerry, often rung by the wife whom he is divorcing. Gittel’s crackling wit put off many candidates for Jerry’s role, until Henry Fonda signed up. Audiences for the smash hit relished such lines as Gittel’s semi-confessing to another dalliance: “Well, he may have slept with me, but I didn’t sleep with him.”
Gibson was on a roll. “Will it lead to anything?” asked his mother when half-a-million dollars arrived from Hollywood. The Miracle Worker was successfully filmed by Arthur Penn, again with Anne Bancroft, in 1962. The same year Robert Wise less effectively made Two for the Seesaw, with Shirley MacLaine and Robert Mitchum. As Seesaw, in 1973, it was the great lyricist Dorothy Fields’s last musical, and included “It’s Not Where You Start (It’s Where you Finish)”.
Of Irish, French, German, Dutch and Russian ancestry, Gibson was born and grew up in the Bronx, the teeming, dramatic New York neighbourhood later brilliantly evoked in his substantial, unusual memoir A Mass for the Dead (1968). His father, Irv, was a Protestant, and in that era his decision to marry a Catholic, Florence, after a five-year engagement, was rather bold. They wed nine months and 19 days before their son’s birth – Florence said, “Thank goodness for the 19 days!”. His mother encouraged William’s writing and music, and the local library was addictive – “an opium den”, he said later.
In the Thirties, Gibson began to write seriously, at the City College of New York and in Greenwich Village. He joined a government programme for writers, and was set the menial task of tabulating old garbage-collection records, and also played the piano in bars at night to make ends meet. Although he managed to sell a story for $150, after his marriage to Margaret Bremnan in 1940 it was his wife’s income as a psychiatrist which sustained them, while he wrote verse, in 1948 publishing Winter Crook. With an emphasis upon nature, it also gave a candid depiction of his wife: “as inviting as valley/or wanton hills, whose thighs/are my earth”.
The arrival of two sons necessitated a turn to more profitable prose. The engrossing The Cobweb (1954), with its charged, small-town shenanigans, was inspired by a stint working at a psychiatric home, and was published two years before the notorious Peyton Place. Brought in to bolster a troubled fictional psychiatric home, its central character Dr Stewart McIver neglects his wife, Karen, while tending patients, becomes embroiled with his assistant, Meg, and is at loggerheads with a colleague. There are also disputes over new curtains for the patients’ sitting-room.
Vincente Minnelli’s enjoyable 1955 film of the book featured Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, Lillian Gish and Oscar Levant. Gibson netted $40,000 for script polishing but was unnerved by the glamour of Hollywood (in photographs, publicists airbrushed his eyebrows, which met in the middle, to make them tidier), and he returned home. Although, Gibson said, “my conscience kept nagging me that writing dialogue was not real work”, he was encouraged by the director Arthur Penn, and their collaboration produced the first TV version of The Miracle Worker (1957).
After the successes of the 1950s, Gibson’s subsequent career was erratic. His musical based on Clifford Odets’s boxing play Golden Boy (1964), with Sammy Davis Jr, has become a cult as a result of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’s unusual score. Gibson revived an early, effective play about Shakespeare, A Cry of Players – again with Bancroft – while his literary criticism includes A Season in Heaven (1974) and Shakespeare’s Game (1978). Bancroft also took the lead role in his play Golda (1977). Its large cast, however, did not make the politician’s life dramatic, and in 2002 Gibson reduced it to a monologue, Golda’s Balcony. A sequel to The Miracle Worker, Monday After the Miracle (1982), did not have the dramatic urgency of the original.
Gibson’s wife died in 2004. He is survived by his two sons.
• William Gibson, playwright, writer and poet, born 13 November 1914; died 25 November 2008