William Gibson discusses writing plays
BROADCAST: 1969 | DURATION: 00:49:34
Now being a professional playwright, William Gibson talked about being able to write one of his plays in 8 days. A lot of the discussion is about his play, "The Miracle Worker". After reading one of Annie Sullivan's letters, and learning about a battle royale that Sullivan had with Helen Keller, Gibson envisioned what that battle royale would look like. It became a now famous part of the play.
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Studs Terkel William Gibson is, to me, a distinguished American playwright. We think, we know two of his plays. Most of America does. They're two Broadway smashes. I use this word deliberately to lead to some conversation. And some traumas, too, experienced by William Gibson. The two plays, of course, "Two for the Seesaw", that ran for a couple of years on Broadway, and toured, and "The Miracle Worker", his version of the story of young Helen Keller. So, Bill, where do we begin? The job of a playwright, you. How do you look upon yourself as a playwright? I say you're a playwright. And what's your response?
William Gibson Well, my first response is I'm partly a playwright. You know, I added up the amount of time recently that I've put into writing for the theater out of the last, say, eight years, 10 years, and I've put about one-third of my writing time into writing for the theater. I've written, written and published a volume of poetry, I've published a novel, I've published but not collected short stories, which I don't think anybody will collect, and I certainly won't. I hope nobody ever does. I've written one non-fiction book which is the one you just alluded to, "The Seesaw Log", which is the story of the trials and tribulations of that play, "Two for the Seesaw". And in the last several years I've been working on another non-fiction book. So that I'm not as much of a playwright as people think I am. On the other hand I have found out something in the years, half-dozen years since I've been represented on the American stage, and that is that I am a professional playwright. And when I finish this book it is my intention to write more plays and, perhaps, nothing but plays and how many will depend upon how many years God lets me live.
Studs Terkel You are [unintelligible] used the word professional. You're a pro. This word pro means a lot to you. I noticed during the--Bill Gibson and I were part of what's known as, to use a fancy word, drama colloquium. This is a gathering in the [unintelligible] of Chicago for a whole week of arts in the public. There was a gathering of artists, painters, a gathering of fiction writers, and critics. And this instance is drama, some critics, a couple of directors including Alan Schneider. But pro, and throughout I heard you using the word. You like the idea of a pro. What does that mean to you?
William Gibson Well, the word pro is a very dignified word to me. It means what it means in any arena of sports--a pro is somebody who not only knows his job and the materials of his job, he also knows--and I would not have used this word, by the way, at the time I was writing "The Seesaw Log"--I never used the word pro at that time about myself as a theater pro. He knows, in addition to the job and its materials, he knows the risks and the costs, the hazards of pursuing that profession, and he takes them in stride. Now that is something that I have learned in the years since "Two for the Seesaw" and "The Miracle Worker" were written, and curiously enough I suppose I learned it, I learned it was true about me, in the work I did on a musical show called "Golden Boy" about two years ago. It was a show that was in very dire straits on the road. It was a musical play based upon the play by Clifford Odets, who had prepared this musical, and was the last thing he worked on and he died before it went into rehearsal. They went into the rehearsing this show without a writer, and they opened in Philly, and they played in Boston, and when they were in Boston, some six or seven weeks before they were due in New York, the producer called me--I was vacationing on Cape Cod--and said, "Would you come in and look at the show and tell us what you think?" So I said sure I'll do that. And I went in and the show was terrible. And I found out they had no writer. I thought they had a writer there filling in in some capacity and I expected to tell him what I thought. And it turned out there was no writer. And the producer asked me would I take on the job of seeing this script into Broadway. And the star, Sammy Davis, asked me. And I debated it for a day or two. I didn't want to but there was, you know, a compulsion in me which partly derived from my relationship to Clifford Odets. He was a friend and a teacher to me. And I finally agreed to it. I rewrote the entire book. We put a whole new book into that show, on the road, which I don't think has ever been done before and shouldn't be done if you can avoid it. And I stayed with the show for two months until we opened. And we got rather mixed notices. It was a hell of a lot better than it was before. And in the course of that work, [what? when?] I found out, first of all, that I knew a great deal more about the theater than I knew I knew. Now that's one aspect of being a pro. And the other was that I could work under pressure, under time pressure. I rewrote that entire musical book in eight days working round the clock which is also part of being a pro. There are other virtues, by the way, than that of being a pro. I'm addressing myself to this question.
William Gibson Well, one pressure of being a pro is, that's right. And also there's the sense of joy I took. This was the first time I had enjoyed working in the theater since my amateur days. And the business of moving from amateur status into pro status, I think in any field of endeavor, is a very painful process. And if you can, if you reach pro status you then begin to enjoy the sense of your power as a pro. And that was the point I felt I was at.
Studs Terkel Wait, ah, just one moment. You said you enjoyed for the first time as, writing as a pro, when you worked on the book here, since amateur days. The word amateur, we know, is derived from love, you know, amateur. So you enjoyed--was there more pressure? Was it less enjoyment being a pro at the very beginning, say, when you're working on "Two for the Seesaw" and "The Miracle Worker"? You enjoyed as an amateur, you said.
William Gibson Well, I was an amateur. I, my training in theater was in the Topeka Civic Theater, [in?] Topeka, Kansas. That was a amateur theater, nobody got paid, we did four or five shows a year. And the great thing about that theater, from my point of view, I worked in it as a stage manager, as an actor, a prop man, everything. I directed a little bit there. But the, from, so that, for me, it was an educational institution, that little theater. And I was, I knowingly was preparing myself to write for the theater. I wrote a couple of plays during this period. But for me the great educational element was that the director there was also a pro. Now he was not a high-class pro, he was a man who had worked in stock theater in the Midwest back in the days before the Depression knocked the bottom out of that business. But his life had been spent in the theater. He was now working in industry in Topeka, and he was directing this amateur theater group, and he was the only man who got paid. He got paid a couple of hundred dollars to direct a show. I learned a great deal about theater in this amateur context from this old pro. Now, in all of that work, we did it only for the fun of it. Nobody was getting anything but fun out of it. Nobody was making a cent and we were giving hours and hours and hours of time away from other things in order to do this and the degree of enjoyment was quite sizable. Now, when I moved into, I had no preparation, therefore, for the first professional production of a play of mine. And when I moved into that world, where we had $85,000 on the line, and nobody forgot about it, we had several reputations on the line, both old and new. That is, we had a star, Henry Fonda, who had an old reputation to protect. We had Annie Bancroft, who nobody had heard of up until that point, really. We had me as a first-play playwright. We had Arthur Penn directing his first Broadway play. We had Fred Coe producing his second Broadway play, the first having flopped. And we had a lot of reputations, therefore, on the line. The stakes were very high, the pressures were intense, the anxiety was incredible. And this is part of what I mean by the stakes, or the risks of the pro game, whatever it is. And you get something like World Series fever when you're pitching.
Studs Terkel Could we talk about that for a moment? The pressures in professional, commercial theater. You said reputations are on the line, as well as a great deal of money was on the line. Now you wrote a play, and this is a play, obviously, that caught the eye of a producer, and caught the eye of two performers, one a celebrated star of--a box office attraction, on the screen as well on the stage. Now, in "Seesaw Log", you recite certain traumas--without being too specific, and, yet, you know, recounting the problems, you finished a play. Now other problems enter into it, don't they, such as reputations. Now what happens to your script that you liked when you were [unintelligible]?
William Gibson Well, I, we had a script which worked in, when we got it in front of a paying audience, in Washington, D.C., we found that the script worked in some places and didn't work in other places. We had the job of making it work in all the places because as a famous French drama critic once said, Brunetière, "the art of the theater is the art of keeping the audience in the theater." We then labored, and you're kind of groping in the dark, you think why are they, why is the audience so restless at this point, and you try, you come up with the best answer you have and you try to change things accordingly. Now, in this process, there are, of course, there is the principal danger that in making these changes you will lose something that is essential to you and essential to--to you, I mean to the playwright--and essential to your script. On the other hand you are not interested in writing a play that bores everybody also. So that you are torn between the dilemma of keeping the audience in the theater and keeping as much of what is important to you in the script. You have to strike some kind of a compromise. That was the process which I found so painful and was so ill-equipped psychologically to meet. Now, I went through another production of "Miracle Worker" soon after that, which had already been in the works. I found certain ways of defending myself against these pressures. You get older, you get tougher, you get wilier. When people come to you and say we must change this and they put it very intelligently so that you cannot resist the logic of what they say, as you get a little more mature you learn to say not "yes, I'll do it" but "let me think about it." And this kind of, you just become more able to cope with the emergencies as they arise. This is part of being a pro, too.
Studs Terkel Let's talk about this one pressure for a moment if you don't mind. You had a celebrated star and his reputation was on the line. Now this is a play with two characters. It happens that, sometimes often happens, is surprises happen on stage. The lesser known, or let's say the lesser-known performer suddenly seemed to come off stronger, it would seem, I'm just guessing now, in rehearsal. And the celebrated star, therefore the celebrated star, who had a rep on the line, comes to the playwright, and says what?
William Gibson Hank Fonda came, he said, "This play is called 'Two for the Seesaw' and it's a misnomer because there's only one-and-a-half characters in it and I'm playing the half character." That's in effect what Hank said. And I suggested the easiest thing might be to change the title, we call it "One-and-a-Half for the Seesaw" but that didn't seem to [meet? me?] the problem. No, he had a very valid point, which was that in a charact--in a play, which consists of two characters, if one of the characters is underwritten, it is bad for the play, as well as for his reputation. It was an unfortunate circumstance that the unknown performer was playing the part that was written best in the play and the star was playing the part that was written not so well.
Studs Terkel Do you--now I ask you as a playwright without putting you on the spot--did you feel this was so, or did you feel the pressure of both the money, the star--of course, the money on the line, that is, the star, and the commercial theater made you do something you might not of otherwise have done?
William Gibson First of all, if you've read "The Seesaw Log", you know that I feel there was a great deal of truth in this criticism, and I had--this had been a problem in the writing of the play from the beginning, so I was very open to this criticism. I could not reject it. I had to say, yes, it's valid. On the other hand, the question of how you solve this became another matter entirely. Our solution was to reach for more sympathetic, more charming, more winning elements in the character of the man. This is the direction in which we went. It worked. At the same time it meant giving up something that was important to me which was certain unlikable elements in the man, a certain dark and seamier side of human nature which I wanted that man to exemplify. Now, that was, I suppose, one reason that was such a painful situation for me. I think that some problems, some creative problems you never solve, and you can't because they are either God sent, the solutions, or they don't come at all. And you try, you try, you try, but willpower and human energy doesn't do it. And I think this was such a problem. But if it arose now I think that I would go about trying to solve it. I never denied the existence of the problem, it was the validity of the solution. And I might be able now to hold out for and to try a different line of solution. And the kind of self-confidence one feels in one's own judgement is another aspect of professionalism which you cannot look for in a playwright with his first play. You know, somebody once asked, I think it was Tyrone Guthrie, who said why are playwrights always complaining that their plays are being changed when the Dramatists Guild contract gives them full legal authority to forbid the change of even a comma. And I don't know who made this answer but it should be written down in the history books. The answer was because by the time the playwright and the play come to opening night on Broadway the playwright is a tower of Jell-O.
Studs Terkel So there are these pressures and these problems. Now, let's talk about sources. Let's, for the moment, start with "Two for the "Seesaw" and then "Miracle Worker". Sources. As a playwright. Gittel, a very endearing character, who--Gittel--there was somewhere in, I'm not saying you [unintelligible], somewhere in life. It's not wholly imaginary, there's creative imagination of a playwright. Here is what? A Greenwich Village-type girl, Gittel, full of life and joy. You--how'd this come about in your mind?
Studs Terkel Ah.
William Gibson But, oh, I must say that you don't build a character, however, out of a person. You build it out of 10 people and you build it out of people you don't even know you know. Around, you start out with some glint from somebody real, and around that little glint you assemble other things you remember from the past and you also put in things you don't remember. For instance, my mother, who was an Irish Catholic, a lot of her went into that, the character of that little Jewish girl. A lot of that optimism and I realized that afterwards--my mother never knew it--but I realized it afterwards [unintelligible].
William Gibson No, I didn't notice I was doing it. I just did not know that. But looking back on it, because in the part of this book I'm working on has a great deal to do with my mother, it's part of a biography about her and my fa--double biography of my parents--and going through this book I see how much of my mother's character, which I am now recording, reflects something I unwittingly put down in the character of Gittel Moscowitz.
Studs Terkel This is very interesting. Gittel Moscowitz, whom you wrote at the time, having a great deal of attributes of your mother, which you did not know at the time. You realize now, years later, in writing a biography of your mother and father, she was Gittel.
William Gibson Yep.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel Now with the idea, so you think in terms of drama, then, when drama is the highlighting of life, not recreating it. You think, what would be if they were to meet--people of two entirely different backgrounds--if they were to meet in a very intimate situation?
William Gibson Yeah. Comic tension. You can't get too far, you can't pull this contrast too far or it becomes incredible. Some people did feel it was incredible that this lawyer from Nebraska would go for such a girl. I don't, I'm not sure that the people who saw Annie Bancroft play it felt that ['cause?] she seemed quite to answer that question for us.
Studs Terkel Talk, perhaps, of the second play, in "Miracle Worker", and Helen Keller's discovery of her teacher, who teaches [unintelligible], Annie Sullivan, [unintelligible]. How did you, how would you come to this?
William Gibson When I was in sixth or seventh grade, in public school many, many years ago, I read Helen Keller's autobiography, "The Story of My Life". I don't suppose it's compulsory reading anymore but it was, it was one of our class, one of the books they gave us. You know, we had that, and "Julius Caesar", and so on, and the story certainly was known to everybody in my generation for that reason; whether it had died out in the interim I don't know. I wanted to do a kind of a commentary for a dancer once, and I said how about the Helen Keller story? And she said fine and that sent me back to it. And I wrote the commentary which then became a kind of a synopsis of a play. As it turned out we never did the dance thing. And I had these pages around. And once, when I was in great need of money, I showed them to my friend, Arthur Penn, who then was a television director. I said, "Do you think there's a television script in this?" And within 24 hours he called me up and he said, "It's sold. Write it." You know? And, so, that sent me into writing, and for TV. Now, I didn't own a television set at the time, and I didn't see any, I hadn't seen any television plays, and I said to Arthur, "You better come up and explain what this medium is to me." So he came up and he explained the medium. For instance, that it was live television in those days, and if you've got a scene, two successive scenes in which the character wears different clothes, you've got to write something in between because you've got to give him 30 seconds to make a costume change, that, you know, kind of thing. And we kind of laid out that action together and I wrote it. And it was done on TV and the, it was very well-received on television. It was done by Playhouse 90. And then people wanted to make a movie of it, and somebody got me interested in doing a stage play of it, and I came then to do the stage play, which I preferred to write.
Studs Terkel There's an interesting swi--before I ask you more about how you chose that moment in Helen Keller's life, what made--before that, interesting switch going on here. This was originally a television play that became a stage play. Now we see a rather interesting switch taking place, don't we? In which plays are having some television previews before they're on Broadway, aren't we?
Studs Terkel Yeah. Let's come back to Helen Keller. You chose a certain moment, didn't you? It wasn't the life story of Helen Keller, but in that moment came the seeds of what would be her life, wasn't it? There was an encounter here between two very stubborn people: the mute, blind little girl who was an animal and this remarkable, young Irish girl who faced her.
William Gibson Alabama.
William Gibson In Alabama. Yeah. She wrote letters back to her friend and teacher, an older woman at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. She wrote these letters, oh, two, three, four letters a week for the first month or two of her stay in Tuscumbia. She was obviously very lonely. In these letters she told in considerable detail what was going on. The great revelation for Helen, of course, was the discovery that the words that Annie was spelling into her hand, that these symbols--which if I spelled them into your hand would have no meaning whatsoever for you--that they meant something. And what they meant were the objects that Annie was bringing her hand into contact with at the same time that she was spelling the letters. The discovery that the things which Helen knew blindly by groping had names and that these names were contained in this, in these symbols that Annie, these strokes and patternings of the fingers that Annie was putting into her hand, opened up for her the possibility of communication which had, then, no limit because it could go into abstract thought. Now this, obviously, the putting of Helen into verbal communication--you know, deaf, dumb, blind, locked in her own darkness--to put her into verbal communication with other human beings and, thus, with all the range of human thought, was obviously the crucial moment in that life even though it happened at the age of seven. Everything that happened in Helen Keller's life was based upon that moment of discovery. As soon as I read these letters of Annie's, which were published in the back of one of the early editions of Helen Keller's life--and they're marvelous letters--when I read them I thought, my goodness, that's quite a moment and seemed sufficient to turn a whole play on. And it certainly seemed sufficient to turn a whole television play on. I wasn't so sure that it would hold onstage because it's kind of a small moment.
William Gibson It was so large, when we got that play in front of a house full of people in Philadelphia, first night, that audience stopped that play about 13 times in the course of that evening with applause. It was like an opera where they applaud the arias. I've never seen that in a theater with, you know, I hadn't seen anything like that with "Two for the Seesaw". And, so, I realized I didn't have to worry about whether the play was big enough. The audience felt it was very big, indeed.
Studs Terkel Of course, this moment of a remark--of someone who became a remarkable woman, but at this [same time?] an animal, a little animal of a girl. And this question of two stubborn wills, a battle of two stubborn wills, wasn't it?
William Gibson It sure was. And then, you know, you speak of characters--whatever part of my mother didn't get into Gittel got into Annie Sullivan. Having taken care of, sort of, the Jewish wing I then took care of the Catholic wing.
Studs Terkel But this matter of discovery. There was something, water was the word. Water was a word at the very end, that was into her hand and when she recognized it was water, when she felt the water after Annie Sullivan's teaching and, perhaps you can talk about the battles in a moment, then you knew that a human being was evolving. [She could?] think [unintelligible]--
William Gibson She stopped, she stopped being a vegetable, or an animal. Hmm? She really became human which implies, certainly, relatedness to other human beings in something more than in terms of mere physical contact.
Studs Terkel And this, too, was known for the celebrated battles on the stage, wasn't it? Actual physical battle, was it not? A teacher. Now, this is one form of teaching. We hear a great deal about education today, all the different forms of pedagogy. Here was a case of how could she, how could Annie Sullivan reach the stubborn, anti-Annie Sullivan girl, named little Helen Keller?
William Gibson Annie Sullivan came out of a poor, Irish farm family near where I now live, in Feeding Hills, which is near Springfield, Massachusetts. And her parents, her mother died at an early age, her father disappeared. She lived with an aunt for a while and was sent to Tewksbury which was a public almshouse outside of Boston. She was blind herself, partially blind, and her sight got worse throughout her childhood. So when she went to this school at the age of about 14, I believe, she was almost totally blind, unable to read. She could make out masses of light and dark and that was the extent of her vision. That almshouse was like something out of a Dickens novel. It was horrible. I mean, this was, this was 18-, after the Civil War, and it took an awful lot of toughness in that girl to survive this. And by the time she graduated from that institution at the age of 20 she had learned to read, write. She was illiterate when she went in. She didn't know how to spell her name. And was capable of writing these extraordinary letters six years after she could not spell her name. These letters, which are really very exciting letters--I invented nothing in the play, by the way, that went on between Helen and Annie. I took it all out of these letters. And, so, she was not only a very gifted person, but a very tough person. And when she went down there and had to deal with this tough, little animal that nobody else could deal with, it was the toughness in Annie that she drew upon. Now, the battles--in one of the letters she spoke of "this morning Helen wouldn't eat with a spoon, and she kept putting her hand in my plate, and I finally asked the family to leave the room, and it took me an hour or an hour and-a-half to get her to use a spoon and to fold her napkin." And that was, and I thought what went on in that hour and-a-half? And I then began spinning it out and I wrote in pantomime, like the directions for a ballet, a fight, in silence, between these two characters. And when we staged the play we staged it move by move as I had plotted it. Now nobody knew how this would work because the scene went on for several minutes. And it brought the house down and we knew we were in clover. It became a very famous scene, of course, that fight scene.
Studs Terkel So, this is interesting. You, now, here's a creative man, William Gibson, saw the letter. This is a fact. And Annie Sullivan said she put her hand in and an hour and-a-half later it wasn't [unintelligible] work. Now you were thinking to yourself what happened during the hour and-a-half and you worked out about--this is it--a fight.
William Gibson Yeah.
William Gibson Yeah. Annie said, "We had a battle royal." That was her phrase--"We had a battle royal." And I thought what did it consist in? What did she do with that spoon? What did she make Helen do? What, how did Helen respond? And I worked out a sequence of pantomimic movements such as I thought must have happened. Now, something very much like what we put on the stage unquestionably happened. There are not too many choices.
Studs Terkel Here's a question of fact and truth: obviously what you wrote down is the truth. There was a battle royal. Now the fact may not have been blow for blow what you did but because you, Bill Gibson, a creative guy, made the facts, put your own facts together, turned out to be a truth.
Studs Terkel Bill, so many questions to ask, perhaps, about your plays, your book, though, perhaps just comments about theater itself, the critic. We know the role, we know New York now has only a couple of papers. The critic of a newspaper, specifically now "The New York Times", there are two kinds of critics--the discussion this week here in Chicago dealt with the journalistic critic and the academic, the more esoteric critic for the magazines and journals. The role of critic: Do you still feel the critic plays a tremendous role as far as success or failure of a play on Broadway?
William Gibson Yes, indeed. But I, but the way this question is often formulated is a way I disagree with. The--it is the attitude people who work in the theater take when they speak about that is "if we could only get rid of the critic" or "if we could only keep the critic from writing destructive criticism" and so on. And critics--I don't believe critics go to the theater to have a miserable time. They go to the theater to have a good time and are as much relieved when a show has theatricality and entertainment as anybody would be who tends to spend two hours sitting in a theater. And much of the problem of the serious dramatist, which is not a new problem--somebody once asked Bob Sherwood how do you make your serious plays be successes. And he said whenever I have a serious play I make sure that Lunt and Fontanne act in it. So that he was supplying an ingredient of theatricality of audience appeal. The problem of the serious dramatist is how to engage and keep the audience's interest without sacrificing the complexities of his material. Now, in the more serious the material, the more craft he needs and the more capacity for entertainment he needs. A serious play--let's take a serious play like "Hamlet"--does not have less entertainment than "Barefoot in the Park", it has more. And much of the, many of the complaints that so-called serious dramatists have, and which they direct against the critic, it seems to me, would be more appropriately self-directed: Have I solved, not only the question of getting my serious content into the play, but have I also solved the entertainment dimension of the play? People are not going to the theater to be instructed, although, indeed, every serious artist intends to instruct. But he must do so through the medium of entertaining. Great tragedies never intended to bore their audience into a state of enlightenment.
Studs Terkel Bill, you have mixed feelings, I know, about "Marat/Sade", nonetheless Peter Brook, the director of the original version, said a good play--as you describe in your way--is one that is vastly entertaining, ideas bombard you one on top of the other, rather than a sequential one, two, three. And, thus, it becomes entertaining and [unintelligible].
William Gibson Certainly. What any one of us says, pro or con, with respect to "Marat/Sade", the fact that that show turned into the big commercial hit of last season in New York. It was produced in a summer theater in my part of the state, Massachusetts, this past summer as summer stock, one week, and it was so successful they had to revive it at the end of the season for a second week which they never did before. I saw it here the other night at Goodman. Obviously, the audience ate it up. The testimony is undeniable. That show is eminently entertaining. In addition to whatever merit it has in terms of its serious content. If playwrights then complain that a serious play cannot find an audience, the problem is very apt to be in the playwright, and in the play and not in the audience. I do not go along with this, you know, notion that--Yes?
Studs Terkel It has to be, come back to that again. The question of was this a great--we can talk from now to forever about the need for non-commercial theater, regional theater--that's been touched upon in various other programs. I'm thinking of Bill Gibson, himself. You're working now on--you've done other plays, of course, aside from the ones we are acquainted with in Chicago, "The Miracle Worker" and "Two for the Seesaw", other plays. You're a poet, too.
William Gibson I began as a poet, really. That is, for about five years in my life I wrote nothing but poetry. Published them, my first poems were published in a magazine published here--"Poetry" of Chicago.
William Gibson My mother died. And my father had died in 1938. My mother died in 1960. I felt a great need to put down what I remembered about them and what I had heard about them in the years before my birth, for the sake of my children, since I am no chicken anymore, myself. And I began it, really, out of that motivation. But the book changed on me and became much more of an art work, that is, it became a much richer and more highly wrought kind of work. It's not simply a memoir. It's a rather complicated book which has poems in it, has essays in it, and most of it is narrative and it's a very meaningful book to me. I don't think it will be a very wide-selling book but it doesn't have to be. Fortunately the time I've put into it has been paid for by the Broadway audiences of "Two for the Seesaw" and "The Miracle Worker". I will finish the book very soon. I brought it along to Chicago with me. I brought the last chapter along hoping I would have some time here this week, though that turned out to be an illusion.
Studs Terkel But it's, you did it because it is meaningful to you, though it may, commercially, it may or may not sell. You felt there's something in the lives of your mother and father, aside from passing on a memory to your children, that was worth something outside, too?
William Gibson My mother and father were very ordinary people, Studs. In fact, I said to somebody recently I'm putting six years of my life into writing the history of my parents, and their brothers and sisters, none of whom ever amounted to anything. The fact is that they are also the salt of the earth and it seemed to me that if one could record the life of a completely anonymous and undistinguished human being, that one would put down something very essential. And it has also seemed to me, in the course of writing this book I have discovered, that what one thinks of as one's own distinction, one's own idiosyncrasies, one's own individuality, is in good measure an illusion and that much of what you are, you can find in the lives of those who preceded you. And there is hardly an element in my consciousness or my life that I cannot find in the lives of my parents and of their brothers and sisters. In other words, the people I grew up among. And I find that I am repeating, in many ways, the lives of those who no longer live. And this is the--and so will my children. And this is the theme of the book. This is the only immortality I have any sense of. And this is what I am writing about in the book.
Studs Terkel This is, to me, a remarkable enterprise in that you're writing about two--by our standards, our accepted standards--ordinary people, yet you are saying that your own uniqueness--you, Bill Gibson, your idiosyncrasies, you are different from anyone else who ever lived, you are Bill Gibson--and so, too, were these two people you write about. Ordinary, yes, but unique, each individual.
William Gibson Absolutely. Absolutely. That's, of course, that's the sense of grief we feel when anyone dear to us, you know, dies--that that life can never be reproduced, recaptured. My goodness, you know, as a kid you must have had a pet dog that died, or somebody ran over your dog in a car and they said I'll buy you another one. And you didn't want another one because the one who was gone could never again be duplicated. And it's this, this uniqueness of the human individual which we value so much--at least we pay a great deal of lip service to that ideal in this country. And I think we do value it. Perhaps not as much as we should but more than anybody else does at any rate. And that exists, you know, in the most ordinary as well as in the most extraordinary of our citizens.
Studs Terkel This is going against the grain, isn't it? Ordinarily--ordinarily! Usually, we write, books are written today about the celebrated people, those who've done something that makes them immortal or those who are mentioned, often by columnists, we talk about more shoddy works. And you've gone exactly the opposite, haven't you? It's exactly the opposite.
William Gibson I suppose it is, yeah, because, as I say in one point in the book, nothing my parents ever did was worth a line in the newspaper. They never appeared, you know, except for getting born and dying, I suppose, but nothing in between seemed significant. And, yet, it seems to me that they did everything that every human being does, everything that happened to [them?]. If you tell the life of one man you are telling the human history. And whether that man is Joe Smith or Albert Einstein, there are certain basic patterns in [a? our?] life which have a certain myth-like quality even. Patterns of, you know, birth, schooling, love, work, sickness, dying, becoming parents; all of, all of that, those things we all have the privilege of experiencing. And they are the most important things in life. And it seems to me that even though they, in themselves, do not merit a line in a newspaper, it is the essential thing that literature concerns itself with. Always.
William Gibson No, it's not a novel because I wanted everything in it to be fact and there isn't a lie in it. I didn't stretch a story at any point. I hope that it will be an entertaining book. I hope that it will be a moving book. I hope that it will have audience appeal. But whether it does or not is, in a sense, irrelevant.
William Gibson Yes, because it's my consciousness of these things which permeates the book. And that consciousness which, whether it's telling a funny little anecdote out of the family past, or whether it's in a poem, or whether it's in a little contemplative section about the meaning of these things, that consciousness is an important character in the book. I am, I'm in the book, too.
William Gibson I go back as far as I can and I even paid somebody 250 bucks to dig into birth records in New York City and go back further than I could remember. So we got some family history out of Staten Island I didn't know existed. Part of my family came from Staten Island. They go back--a surprise to me--I always thought I was the son of immigrants but turns out not so. Part of my family was on Staten Island before the Revolution. I didn't know that until I paid $250. You think it's worth two-fifty?
William Gibson Yeah!
Studs Terkel Bill Gibson, we've been talking here, just casually and easily. Any base you'd care to touch we haven't before we say goodbye? After what is, to me, been a very delightful week, and meeting you at the university. And before you say hello to our mutual friend, Richard Dyer-Bennett [out east?]. Any other base, anything you'd care to talk about we haven't touched? You're going back to theater? Are you?
William Gibson Yes. I would like to talk about the theater I hope to go back to. This past summer in my backyard, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, we organized something called the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Now, my interest in this, I happen to be President of this title that I just gave, and we had, we did five shows which were directed by Arthur Penn, Gene Frankel, George Tabori. We had among our actors Annie Bancroft, Viveca Lindfors, Alvin Epstein, who has done some things out here, I believe. And my interest in this is to have a permanent continuing company to whom I can relate as a writer. I think that's very important. It's one of the things that the Broadway scene does not provide the playwright. You know, you write a script, you assemble a bunch of actors, you put it on for better or worse, and after the show closes, whether it's soon or late, the company disbands, everybody goes about his private career, and the writer is left alone again. I think it's my observation, both in our own time and in ages past, that the playwright works most productively in relation to a company of actors whose life continues. I mean, Shakespeare was such a member of a company; always had the task of supplying them with material. Wrote, though it's astonishing now, wrote two or three of those plays a year. At the same time was acting, was keeping the books. In our own time we see that O'Neill related in this way, to the Provincetown group, Odets related to the Group Theatre, Arthur Miller for two seasons related to the Lincoln Center downtown and had a play each year for them and has not had a play since. I would love to have a company of good actors, a couple of good directors, and be related to that company 24 hours of the day, year round. And I hope that we can make this theater in the Berkshires go, not only in terms of summer, but that we can find a winter basis for it also, so that we will have a year around theater. And that is the thing that is really occupying most of the hours of my consciousness that I do not put into finishing up this book. That's what I hope to go home to, Studs.
Studs Terkel Talking now, really, about continuity. It's funny how both, how both of your works are connected. Continuity, really, is the theme of the biography of your mother and your father. Continuity. It's for your children, and how you came to be. And you talk of theater, too, in terms of having a continuity. In fact, it has a company. It is there, it is repertory, it is all the--element of--as against a transient, a disappearing, a one-shot aspect. Life is not one shot, you're saying, nor is the theater one shot.
William Gibson No. No. And nothing is. And I believe--I don't believe anybody's life, it certainly isn't true of mine, is disjointed. I think life is a continuous process and there's a process of growth, you know, in each person's life. And I'm a great believer in holding onto the past. I have now the same wife I've had for 25 years. I have the same agent I've had for--he was the agent of my first publication, by the way, it took place in this town, it was in "Esquire", the old "Esquire", 1937. And the agent who sold that story to "Esquire" is still my agent. And I don't have any temptation to have my plays directed by anybody other than Arthur Penn. This is all part of the idea of continuity and I think you build upon. Now--
William Gibson Yeah.
Studs Terkel Bill Gibson, William Gibson, playwright, best known in Chicago for "Two for the Seesaw". And by the way, "The Seesaw Log" is worth reading, too. And "The Miracle Worker". And we trust, soon, a biography that more than his children will read. Thank you very much, Bill.