Playwrights' Perspectives

Melissa James Gibson on Placebo


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.”

The term “placebo effect” is over sixty years old, and refers to an improvement in a medical condition that can’t be attributed to the medicine, since the medicine in question is medicine-less. How does something result from nothing? 

Lots of ways, it turns out. Or rather, something results from something other than nothing. The pills might be inert, but the clinical/research environment is not. The physician’s encouraging words, a hand on a shoulder—attention paid!—things like these have a documented positive effect on treatment. We are permeable creatures, we humans. Impressionable. Susceptible. Simple acknowledgment matters more than most of us care to admit.

The main characters in Placebo are grappling with questions of identity, both individually and as a couple. In that cuspy place where formal education ends and true adulthood begins, they are trying to reconcile two internal selves: the professional and the private. Their states are liminal, to use another fine Latin word—limen means “threshold.”

Humans, consciously or not, keep one eye on the future. How will the decisions and commitments we make now… feel then? It can weigh on a person, or a character in a play. What tense—present or future—is the one to which the most credence should be given? For the ancient eastern philosopher, and his modern disciple, the answer is the present. But anyone who’s spent any time on earth looks into the future, and wonders. 

How do we choose who and what we choose? How do we make any big decisions about our paths? Of course, we are constrained by our circumstances, financial and otherwise. But when we get beyond these, how do we wind up where we wind up? With Placebo, as with all my plays, I suppose, I’m trying to shine a light on the pathmaking. 

A lot of the research tells us that the placebo effect, essentially, comes down to the power of expectation. What is the recipe for expectation? One part knowledge. One part speculation. And then there’s a third species-specific ingredient, I think—hope. I mean, in some sense, don’t we all have our fingers crossed pretty much all the time?

Melissa James Gibson
November 2014