Monday, Sept. 23. Margaret Brenman-Gibson sat in the audience at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. and watched the first-night performance of husband William Gibson’s new play, Handy Dandy. A small woman with close-cropped hair and vibrant brown eyes, Margaret listened as Audra Lindley, playing activist nun Molly Egan, stood before a courtroom judge and told why she had trespassed upon the site of a nuclear weapons facility—told how her act of civil disobedience was necessary to avert a greater evil, the end of the world. “I don’t see,” she said, “that it differs from snatching a child away on the lawn from somebody with a power mower.”
Thursday, Sept. 26. Three days later, life was doing its best to imitate art. Brenman-Gibson, 67, a noted Harvard Medical School psychology professor and veteran of the antinuke wars, was experiencing her own day in court. Along with Daniel Ellsberg (best known for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971), she was in tiny Beatty, Nev., facing Justice of the Peace Bill Sullivan, a much more pleasant fellow than the gruff law-and-order judge of her husband’s play. She was telling Sullivan how it was that on August 6 at 8:15 a.m.—the precise moment the bomb “Little Boy” was dropped 40 years ago on Hiroshima—she and Ellsberg and 32 others, led by crossbearing Franciscan friars, ventured onto the Nevada nuclear weapons testing site and were arrested by the local sheriffs. Now in court, she was explaining her position in language that pointedly echoed Molly Egan’s language in Handy Dandy. “I am absolutely ready to snatch a child away on the lawn from somebody with a power mower.” She added, after the trial, “Babies need not be born into the twilight of their lives,” she said. “The risk of going to jail for a couple of weeks or months is much less than the risk to the world if the arms race continues.”
Margaret Brenman-Gibson and William Gibson live in purposeful symbiosis in a ramshackle clapboard house in Stockbridge, Mass.; that is, when she’s not out demonstrating and he’s not off somewhere staging a play. “I feel great pride in my husband’s work,” says Margaret, alluding to such celebrated plays as Two For the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker. About his wife, William says, “To work against suffering has been a consistent theme in Margaret’s life from the first time I met her. Those are values I sympathize with. But I don’t act, I write. Margaret has always dealt with the materials of the real world.” An imposing man with Lincolnesque eyebrows and gray-white hair, Gibson, 70, won’t say that Margaret is the model for Molly Egan, or that the irascible judge in Handy Dandy is based on any of her adversaries. “I have the illusion that everything comes out of my head,” he says. “But since I’ve spent most of my life with Margaret, I’m sure I can’t write a woman character without her leaking into it.”
The couple met in the late ’30s at a party in New York. William was “an indigent poet” at the time and Margaret a psychology major at City College of New York in Brooklyn. “We sparked each other intellectually,” says Brenman-Gibson. “We would talk and talk about the great ideas.” They married in 1940 and produced two sons, Thomas, now 32, a musician, and Daniel, 29, a Ph.D. in biophysics and a choreography student. It was in the late ’50s that Brenman-Gibson first read reports that atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons could endanger children, and she promptly hit the protest trail. The onetime protégée of Margaret Mead “got into high gear” in 1983 after a poignant conversation with one of her students. The student, says Margaret, “came to me with her eyes shining and said, ‘Margaret, I’m so happy. I’m finally pregnant.’ Suddenly, she burst into tears.” Brenman-Gibson is moved to tears herself as she relates this story. “She told me she had been thinking in the middle of the night, ‘I don’t know if this baby will ever get a chance to grow up.’ ”
Last week, as Ellsberg and Brenman-Gibson were being tried, Margaret’s friends and admirers—including Karen Allen, Anne Bancroft and Carl Sagan—were keeping a long-distance vigil. Handy Dandy continued its run in the nation’s capital, though the notices were tepid. Nonetheless Audra Lindley maintained that her character Molly Egan had special force “because I know Margaret is out there.”
In Beatty, meanwhile, Judge Sullivan admitted to being awed by the intellectual talent assembled in his courtroom, especially as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark dropped in to testify for the defense. Still, from Sullivan’s point of view, the case was open and shut. The defendants had trespassed. Ellsberg and Brenman-Gibson declined the judge’s sentence of 24 hours of community service, electing instead to serve the time in the slammer.
Emerging Friday evening, Margaret chose to interpret her trial and incarceration as a symbolic victory. “Judge Bill Sullivan is a very decent, very fine person,” she said. “I may appear before him again sometime soon.”