Late Dramatist William Gibson Leaves a Legacy Inspired by Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan
Perkins' Interview with William Gibson
On Tuesday, November 25, 2009, the world and the Perkins School for the Blind community lost a legendary storyteller. Playwright William Gibson, 94, whose Tony Award-winning play "The Miracle Worker" inspired generations of families and teachers, died at his home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Gibson held a lifelong respect and admiration for Perkins School for the Blind alumna, Anne Sullivan who famously became Helen Keller’s teacher. Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker depicts the first month of their relationship, a time of stunning discovery and drama. Gibson researched the story at Perkins. He based the play almost exclusively on letters Sullivan wrote to her Perkins housemother from the Keller home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, where she struggled to reach the deafblind child Helen in 1887. Gibson read Keller’s autobiography when he, himself, was just a schoolboy, and the story never lost its fascination for him.
In a 2005 interview with Perkins president Steven Rothstein, Gibson encapsulated the astonishing feat he sought to dramatize. “What’s fantastic about the story, these were two children. I mean Annie was a child, just turned twenty. Helen was seven, eight, and there these two kids are dealing with this problem. None of the adults knew what to do about the problem.” Gibson said. “Well, this is an extraordinary event. The whole adult world doesn’t know what to do and these two kids get together and in that first month, they solve this problem. Well, that’s amazing!”
Of the impact of The Miracle Worker, Gibson was modest, crediting the accomplishments of people in the story, rather than his writing. “It’s a symbol of everybody’s effort to get out of our own personal dungeons, into contact with the larger world. It’s a story that sort of exemplifies the American dream – in small. Its power is irresistible. And it remains that.”
Gibson wrote numerous hit Broadway plays, but except for The Miracle Worker screenplay, eschewed Hollywood screenwriting. “The Miracle Worker was a sensational hit [on Broadway] and a number of movie companies wanted to buy it. When you sell something to the movies, you sell everything – down to your last bone. Helen was still alive, of course, and we had met. So I thought, ‘I can’t do that while Helen is around. They’ll do – they’ll have Annie marrying the brother Jimmie [Keller] or something like that’...and so I said to Arthur Penn and Fred Coe, the director and producer, ‘I can’t sell this to the movies.’”
The trio formed their own production company, Playfilm Productions, to produce the film on their own terms, thus honoring the story of Sullivan and the Kellers. Despite not have big studio backing, the film was a financial and critical success and garnered Academy Awards for both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke who played Teacher and her pupil.
In 2005, Perkins presented Mr. Gibson with the Anne Sullivan Medal, honoring those who make significant contributions to educating those who are deafblind. He took the medal bearing Sullivan’s likeness in his hands and said, “Annie Sullivan, sort of the girl of my dreams.” The award was given to Gibson in recognition of all that his play The Miracle Worker has done to raise awareness of the abilities and needs of people who are deafblind. According to Perkins president Rothstein, “Because of the understanding that The Miracle Worker has fostered, students have been served, government officials in country after country have funded programs, parents have been given hope, and countless teachers have been inspired to follow in Anne Sullivan’s footsteps.” Gibson is 87th recipient of the award since its inception in 1966, and one of only a handful of recipients who is not an educator of the deafblind.
Notable other works by William Gibson include the romantic drama Two for the Seesaw, A Cry of Players which imagines William Shakespeare’s early career, and Golda’s Balcony about Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, among many others.
Gibson was born in New York City on November 13, 1914, and lived in Massachusetts since the 1950s. His beloved wife of 64 years, renowned psychotherapist, Dr. Margaret Brenman-Gibson, passed away in 2004. He is survived by his sons, Daniel and Thomas.