Melissa James Gibson's recent plays include What Rhymes with America; This; [sic]; Suitcase or, those that resemble flies from a distance; Brooklyn Bridge (with a song by Barbara Brousal) and Current Nobody. Her work has been produced and/ or developed at Playwrights Horizons, Center Theatre Group, Soho Rep, La Jolla Playhouse, The Children’s Theatre Company, Steppenwolf, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Seattle Rep, Manhattan Theatre Club and the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab among others, regionally and internationally. Current commissions: Atlantic Theater Company; Second Stage Theatre. Honors: OBIE Award; Guggenheim Fellowship; Steinberg Playwright Award; Kesselring Prize; Whiting Writers Award; Lucille Lortel Foundation Playwrights’ Fellowship; LILLY Award; Jerome Fellow; MacDowell Colony Fellow; NEA/TCG Theatre Residency Program for Playwrights; Susan Smith Blackburn Prize finalist. MFA: Yale School of Drama; graduate of New Dramatists. Teaching: Lecturer in the Program in Theater at Princeton University, spring semesters 2011 and 2012. Film: screenplay for All Is Bright, starring Paul Giamatti, Paul Rudd and Sally Hawkins, directed by Phil Morrison (2013 Tribeca Film Festival premiere). TV: seasons 1 and 2 of “The Americans”; season 3 of “House of Cards”. THIS and Other Plays is published by TCG.
The gifted Melissa James Gibson puts amusingly off-kilter exchanges in the mouths of her everyday characters with convincing grace. Carrie Coon and William Jackson Harper are excellent. Ms. Coon brings a touching, forlorn quality to her performance.
—Charles Isherwood, The New York Times
Smart, droll, beautifully observed, and beautifully performed.
Tim Sanford: This play was a Sloan commission from MTC, right? Not every writer feels they can write a science play. Did you have to think about it to accept it?
Melissa James Gibson: Yes, but I was drawn to the challenge of it, to write a science play that didn’t seem like a science play.
How much does committing to a job, to a life, to a partner, to a path, fix who we are? And how sustainable are these choices in the shadow of forever, in the shadow of mortality?
Placebo, in Latin, means “I shall please.”
I was fascinated to learn from Melissa’s restless and plangently witty new play, Placebo, that the derivation of the word stems from medieval ecclesiastical customs. According to one of her characters, Jonathan, a Classics Ph.D. candidate, certain well-to-do families would sometimes hire sham mourners to sing vespers for the dead. Because the first word of these vespers is “placebo,” meaning, “I shall please,” these mourners-for-hire eventually earned the shorthand appellation, placebos. It took several centuries for the steady course of etymology to bring about its current clinical definition.
Jane: Why are you sitting in the almost dark
Alan: It’s the human condition Jane in case you haven’t noticed
– from This, by Melissa James Gibson
Few scholarly catchphrases have had as enduring a legacy as “The Two Cultures,” the term coined by C.P. Snow to describe what he perceived as a dangerous rift between science and literary life. A chemist and a novelist—himself a living model of these divergent cultures united—Snow stood before the academic community at the University of Cambridge in the Spring of 1959, and lamented that “the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups,” literary intellectuals and scientists, “between them a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” Though his accusing finger was pointed in both directions, the blame was largely placed with the literary set: “A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of, ‘Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?’ I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question—such as, ‘What do you mean by mass, or acceleration?’ which is the scientific equivalent of saying, ‘Can you read?’—not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.”
Do you remember when you took the training wheels off your bike? At some point in the course of those first exhilarating two-wheeled joy rides, maybe you fell down, and maybe you banged your knee, and maybe you cried out for your mom. Who maybe, before she cleaned you up and sent you on your way again, kissed you where you hurt. For many of us, the mysterious healing properties of a parent’s kiss offer one of our first experiences of a placebo effect—“a change in a patient’s illness attributable to the symbolic import of a treatment rather than a specific pharmacologic or physiologic property,” according to one 20th century definition. Put more crudely: you believe you will get better, and so you do.