MARGARET EDSON 1995
According to Margaret Edson, her play Wit somehow just popped into her head. In an article written by CNN’s Jamie Allen, Edson says, “You’re just writing down the things people say.. . . That seems very interesting and natural to me. ... I’m fascinated how people’s spoken language expresses their own selves. So to write a play you just have to listen.” And according to all the critical praise (not to mention the Pulitzer Prize), Edson must be a very good listener.
Edson did most of her listening for this play while working in the cancer ward of a research hospital. Here she was forced to witness the dilemmas that face both the patient and the patient’s medical team in dealing with acute disease, the application of radical medical treatment, and the effects of these treatments on the patient’s life, as well as the constant awareness of the possibility of imminent death. The main character in Edson’s play has ovarian cancer, a type of cancer that, if it is not caught in the initial stages, few women survive. In order for research doctors to find a cure, they must experiment with different kinds of drug treatments. Edson’s play looks at the ethics behind this need and the consequences of this need upon the patient.
Although the topic of the play sounds grim, Edson says that the play is about love and knowledge, grace and redemption. She uses the word wit not so much to convey a sense of comedy (although there are several moments of intelligent humor) but rather to reflect the natural ability to perceive and understand. In order to convey all these concepts, Edson says, she had to write about their opposites. “So the play is about miscommunication and misunderstanding and posturing and arrogance.” During an interview with Charles Osgood on CBS News’ Sunday Morning, Edson states, “It’s about everything that’s the opposite of grace and kindness.”
The play is a play about death and dying, but what seems to have impressed audiences is the lesson the play presents for the living. The London Times sums up the play as being “moving, funny and wise about the limitations of the intellect and the value of the heart.” Wit has been produced all over America as well as in international theaters.
Margaret Edson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit, was born in Washington, D.C., on July 4, 1961. Her mother, a medical social worker, and her father, a newspaper columnist, both encouraged Edson’s leanings toward drama, which she pursued throughout high school.
Edson went to Smith College, where she majored in Renaissance history and graduated magna cum laude. Undecided about a career, Edson decided to travel for a few years. She first went to Iowa City and sold hotdogs during the day and waited tables at a bar at night. Her next stop was Rome, where she spent a year painting the walls of a contemplative, French Dominican convent. Upon returning to Washington, D.C., Edson sold ice cream.
In 1985, Edson became a clerk on a cancer and AIDS ward at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. In an article by Susan Lowell Butler in USA Today, Edson says, “I learned so much there. The nurses really wanted me to help make things run smoothly, so they taught me a lot. ... I observed the people there, the patients and families, coping with cancer. I learned about character and about courage.” She worked at the hospital for only one year, but the memories were to linger, ultimately compelling her to write the play Wit.
After leaving the hospital, Edson took on various other positions, including a job at a bike shop. It was during this time, the summer of 1991, that Edson wrote her play. She then sent the play out to every theater in the country, Edson says, and they all rejected it, except for the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California. After several edits, the play celebrated its world premiere in California in 1995.
In the meantime, Edson entered Georgetown University, eventually earning a master’s degree in literature. At first she thought she would go on to earn a doctorate in literature and eventually pursue an academic career. But while in graduate school, Edson worked in the District of Columbia’s public school system as a volunteer teacher, and it was here that she found her passion.
In the Madison Repertory Theatre’s Audience Guide, there is a little side story about Edson that states,“By the time she came to write her thesis [for her master’s degree], she knew academe was not for her. Her thesis project, on the use of poetry to teach reading, concluded with an oral defense in which Edson performed a Queen Latifa rap number before her faculty review panel.” Today Edson is a kindergarten teacher at Centennial Place Elementary School in Atlanta, Georgia, where she uses music and poetry to teach children to read.
Edson’s play Wit begins with the main character, Vivian Bearing, entering an empty stage, pushing an IV (intravenous) pole. She is dressed in two hospital gowns (one with the opening to the front, the other to the back) and a baseball hat. She is thin, barefoot, and hairless. She turns to the audience and talks to them directly, first with a false sense of pleasantry, then in her more usual formal manner. Her first line is “Hi. How are you feeling today?” This line will be repeated throughout the play by various characters, most times exemplifying the undertone of the play, which is that even though these words are spoken, their speakers do not listen to or care about the answer.
Within the next few minutes of the play, the entire drama is placed before the audience. They learn who Bearing is, what she has done with most of her life, and that in less than two hours (the length of the play) she will die of ovarian cancer. Bearing introduces the ironic tone that will run through the play, as well as the obvious theatrical trickery (as in the actress stepping out of character to address the audience) that will prevail.
Next enters Dr. Harvey Kelekian. This scene is done in flashback to the time that Bearing is first told that she has cancer. Kelekian delivers his news to Bearing in very technical terms and in a very dry tone. In response, Bearing challenges Kelekian’s choice of words, exposing her trait of retreating into her intellect in order to avoid her emotions. Kelekian continues divulging all the medical terminology of her disease, while Bearing voices (out loud) her thought process. She must read up on cancer, she tells herself, and assemble a bibliography—much as she would do if she were researching a literary topic.
Then Kelekian and Bearing talk directly to one another. Kelekian says, “The tumor is spreading very quickly, and this treatment is very aggressive. So far, so good?” With this statement, Kelekian demonstrates his lack of sensitivity toward his patient’s state of mind. First he hands her grave news. Then he uses a cliche without thinking about his choice of words.
Bearing is very proud of her strength, and she is addicted to the search for knowledge. “I am tough,” she says, “Never one to turn from a challenge.” Then she explains to the audience that those are the reasons she chose to study John Donne. With this statement, E. M. Ashford, Bearing’s former professor and mentor, enters the stage (in another flashback scene). In a short exchange between Bearing and Ashford, the audience is introduced to one of Donne’s major poetic themes—death.
Susie Monahan, nurse, and Jason Posner, clinical fellow, are introduced next. These two characters will be involved in the main interactions with Bearing throughout the remainder of the play. Susie portrays the caring side of Bearing’s medical treatment, while Jason exemplifies the objective and sterile side.
Bearing submits to the heavy doses of chemicals used to treat her cancer and experiences their consequences. She states that she is learning to suffer. During this section, although her suffering intensifies, Bearing continues to hide behind her wit. She looks upon herself much as she looks upon a poem that is being studied. “It is just like a graduate seminar,” she claims in the midst of a humiliating and protracted examination by a group of interns. “Once I did the teaching,” she concludes, “now I am taught.”
It is through these examinations that the audience observes Jason’s narrow and calculated demeanor. His intelligence matches Bearing’s, as does his ambition. Bearing even takes pride in Jason’s
attention to detail. “I taught him, you know,” she says, reflecting on the fact that Jason took one of her literature classes. But at the end of this examination, Jason has to be reminded to respond to Bearing as a person.
After this exam, Bearing flashes back to when she was five years old. She and her father share a brief dialogue, demonstrating Bearing’s love of language. And it is through language that Bearing hopes to remain objective throughout the remaining elements of her hospital ordeal.
The chemical dosage that Bearing has withstood takes a serious toll. Susie understands Bearing’s suffering and suggests to Jason that he lower the dose. Jason refuses. From this point through the final moments of the play, Susie takes on a more dominant role. She informs Bearing that she has certain rights and should chose whether or not she wants to be resuscitated in the event that her heart stops. Bearing realizes the irony in the fact that she will soon die not from her disease but from her treatment.
Although her body is failing, Bearing’s wit remains intact. In one last moment of fantasy, she conjures up a classroom filled with students. She finds strength in her compulsion to perplex her students with the poetry of John Donne. In the middle of her imaginary lecture, she is interrupted by Susie, who informs her that more medical tests are required.
From this point on, Bearing’s physical deterioration is swift. But in this deterioration, her emotions open up. She finds that she is scared. The only thing that quells those fears is human kindness and empathy. She looks to Jason, but he is incapable of consoling her. Only Susie is able to calm Bearings fears.
In the very last moments of the play, Susie fights Jason for Bearing’s right to die. And in these last seconds, Bearing comes to understand, through her own suffering, that life requires more than intellect and wit. Life also requires human kindness. Bearing demonstrates that she has found her soul by letting go of Donne, language, and intellect. She slowly rises from the hospital bed, takes off the baseball cap and the hospital gowns, and walks naked toward the light.
Professor E. M. Ashford
E. M. Ashford is a professor of English literature and a graduate school mentor to Vivian Bearing. Ashford is responsible for having guided Bearing through her studies of John Donne’s poetry. It is also through Ashford that the audience first hears lines from Donne’s poem “Death Be Not Proud,” a pronounced theme of this play. It is with Ashford that Bearing shares one of the most poignant scenes. Ashford, sitting on the hospital bed shortly before Bearing dies, holds Bearing in her arms and reads a children’s story to ease Bearing’s pain.
Vivian Bearing, Ph.D.
Vivian Bearing is a professor of English literature and the main character of the play. She is fifty years old and has recently been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The treatment of her cancer and the effects of that treatment on her body, her thoughts, and her emotions are the focus of this drama.
Bearing has devoted her life to researching, understanding, and teaching the works of John Donne and other seventeenth-century poets. Because of her devotion to Donne’s work, as well as the degree of seriousness that she demands not only from herself but also from her students, Bearing’s college course is reputed to be one of the three hardest classes to take on campus. Bearing prides herself on her reputation. She is tough in all aspects of her life. She also demands that people around her follow her example. If they do not, she has little time or empathy for them.
When Bearing is diagnosed with cancer, she, at first, faces this ordeal as she has faced all challenges in her life—on an intellectual basis.
Bearing slowly realizes that her intellectual authority of John Donne is of no help in her current situation. Neither is her intimidating self-discipline a solace, as the cancer eats away her body, and the medical intrusions and hospital humiliations eat away her former illusions that she controlled her life. It appears, as Bearing faces her death, that she may have missed the point of life.
It takes Bearing a long time to understand that wit and discipline will not help her through her ordeal. She continually recites poetry in attempts to rid herself of the humiliation of having her body probed by researchers who ignore her as a person and focus only on her body. Even midway through the eight cycles of chemotherapy, she relates her body’s experience to her academic studies. “One thing can be said for an eight-month course of cancer treatment: it is highly educational. I am learning to suffer.” But at the same time, it is in this statement that the audience is beginning to see the breakdown of Bearing’s outer crust. “God, I’m going to barf my brains out,” she exclaims, then turns to the audience, and in an attempt to apologize says, “You may remark that my vocabulary has taken a turn for the Anglo-Saxon.” The deterioration of Bearing’s outer walls continues. She is proud not only of her strength and stature but also of her vocabulary. In using commonplace phrases like “puking my brains out,” Bearing sees that her mask of academia is slipping away. Her pain and suffering are causing a change in her, and that change is not only physical. The one thing that Bearing has leaned on all her life is language, and as her disease progresses, Bearing is beginning to find that her vocabulary is failing her.
Toward the end of her treatment, Bearing starts hungering for something more than words. At first she calls it “personal contact.” Later she calls it “human kindness.” Then, in a flashback scene to one of her classrooms, she listens to a student describe Donne as “hiding ... behind this wit.” Bearing then senses that she, like Donne, has been hiding behind her wit. She admits that she is scared. The closer she comes to her death, the more she loses her ability to express herself in words. She slips out of her masks of academic titles, esoteric studies, and unemotional definitions and starts to crave the human touch. In the last ten seconds of the play, states Edson, Vivian Bearing finds redemption.
Dr. Harvey Kelekian
Dr. Harvey Kelekian is the lead investigator in a research trial of a new drug protocol to treat ovarian cancer. Kelekian is the doctor who first tells Bearing that she has cancer. It is through Bearing’s dialogue with Kelekian that the play establishes one of its themes: the lack of humanity between doctors and their patients.
Susie Monahan, R.N.
Susie Monahan is Bearing’s primary care nurse. She is also the most caring of the medical staff. Edson has stated that Susie is the hero of the drama. Susie sees beyond Bearing’s disease. She sees Bearing as a person. Susie is well educated in the effects and symptoms as well as the suffering and pain of ovarian cancer. She is also well informed on the side effects of the drugs that the doctors are using on Bearing, and she measures the need for research against Bearing’s capacity for pain. It is also Susie who confirms Bearing’s fear that she will not recover from her disease. And when the time comes, it is Susie who tells Bearing of her imminent death. Susie is in stark contrast to Dr. Posner, who has to study bedside manner in order to know what to say to patients and then be constantly reminded to use what he has learned.
Actually, Susie contrasts with Posner in many ways. She is very humble and unafraid of exposing or admitting her lack of knowledge. But it is in the final scene of the play that the differences between these two characters are most apparent. Susie fights for Bearing’s dignity and right to die, while Posner is caught up in saving Bearing’s body for his research.
Dr. Jason Posner
Dr. Jason Posner is a clinical fellow at the hospital. Posner is also a former student of Vivian Bearing’s. He and Bearing are correlated characters—they are both proud of their intellects; they
- A movie adaptation of Wit premiered in March, 2000. The two-time Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson stars as Vivian Bearing in the movie, directed by Mike Nichols on HBO.
both hide their emotions under the load of their respective research projects, and they are both rigidly self-disciplined. It is through Posner and Bearing’s relationship that much of the irony of this play is created.
One of the ironies comes through in Posner’s statement: “Cancer is the only thing I’ve ever wanted.” He is referring to his passion in medical research, but this statement vividly demonstrates the quirk of fate that has transposed the positions of authority between Posner and Bearing. Cancer, of course, is the last thing that Bearing wanted.
Posner took Bearing’s literature course when he was an undergraduate student. He admits that he took her class because she had the reputation for being one of the toughest professors at the university. He tells her this while he is probing her body for the cancerous growth that is killing her. Bearing does not remember having Posner as a student. She was not the type of professor who paid attention to her students as individuals. And now Posner, throughout his examination and later medical care, treats Bearing in a similar, detached way. He no longer sees her as a person. He and Bearing share a common trait, an ineptitude in human relations.
Posner is a character with a very focused and narrow view. His patients represent only a disease that he wants to study. He studies these diseased bodies like Bearing studies poems. The emotions and spiritual issues connected to these diseased bodies, Posner sees as something of an annoyance. The only time that he attempts a conversation with Bearing is after he has embarrassingly reacted to the terrible size and extent of Bearing’s cancerous growth. In order to cover up this error in protocol, he stumbles through a few sentences about literature, then he abruptly leaves the examination room. There is only one other time in the play when Posner exposes his emotions. It is during the final crisis in the play. Posner has an inkling that he may have been wrong in failing to see the humanity in his patient. When he realizes this, he shouts out, “I made a mistake.” Shortly after this utterance, the last words spoken in the play are his. He says, “Oh, God.”
In the first moments of the play, Vivian Bearing proclaims to the audience,“I think I die at the end.” The fact that she gives away this information so early and so willingly makes it apparent that while death is a major theme, it is not the major focus of the play. Death, however, permeates the play and is both the element toward which the play moves, as well as the component that makes the other themes stand out. Death is the force that compels Bearing to reflect on her life. Death is also the so-called enemy against which the medical researchers fight so diligently.
Paramount in the discussion of death is John Donne’s poetry. In his poetry, death is one of Donne’s more prominent themes; in the play, Bearing quotes several of his lines of poetry concerning death. In an exchange between Bearing and her mentor, E. M. Ashford, the line “And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die,” is discussed in detail. The conclusion of that discussion has Professor Ashford stating, “death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause.” Bearing carries this statement with her, remembering it at the moment when she is told that she has cancer and when asked to undergo a strenuous chemical treatment for her cancer. Donne’s poetry helps Bearing move with courage toward her death. In another light, Ashford’s comments also set up the atmosphere surrounding Bearing’s imminent death on stage. It will be a quiet death without melodramatic flourishes.
Edson’s having used the word wit for the title of the play makes it rather easy to conclude that wit is a prominent theme. Edson even offers some of her definitions of wit within the play itself. Bearing at one point states, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” This definition of wit describes most of the witty lines that Bearing delivers, most of which are extremely short. One example is Bearing’s statement, “Publish and perish.” This makes reference to a common phrase that is often used among college professors—publish or perish—referring to the fact that most professors must publish if they want to attain tenure, or permanent status. Bearing is, of course, referring to the fact that she has published, but because of her disease she will perish anyway—a witty proclamation.
Later, Bearing offers the following information about wit: “Ingenuity, virtuosity, and a vigorous intellect that jousts with the most exalted concepts: these are the tools of wit.” In other words, cleverness, creativity, and intelligence are required (according to Bearing/Edson) in order to be witty. And the greatest of all wits, Bearing says, was John Donne. These qualities of wit are the very ones behind which Bearing hides. These qualities also are the ones that Susie, the nurse, seems to lack. And yet it is Susie that the play eventually concludes is the hero. “Poor Susie’s [brain] was never very sharp to begin with,” says Bearing, making fun of the nurse who is the only one in the play with a sense of humanity. And it is that sense of humanity, not wit, that Bearing, in her last days, needs the most.
Search for Knowledge
The search for knowledge is another underlying theme, portrayed both through Bearing, in her search for literary knowledge, and through Posner, in his search for medical knowledge. They understand one another on many levels. By the end of the play, it appears that Bearing has concluded that there is something greater than that search, but it is uncertain whether Posner has reached the same conclusion. The play does not seem to make the statement that the search for knowledge is negative and that love or a sense of humanity, on the other hand, is positive, but rather that it is not healthy to pursue that search for knowledge at the expense of human emotions.
Humanity and humiliation are set in opposition to one another throughout Bearing’s stay at the
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the five stages of death as defined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying.Did Vivian Bearing go through these five stages? Provide examples of her dialogue in which you see each of these stages presented.
- Find reliable information from organizations such as the National Cancer Society and National Institutes of Health on the statistics of ovarian cancer. Prepare a paper on the most up-to-date medical research on this topic. Include information on the number of diagnosed cases over the past five years; the definitions of all four stages of the disease; the most recent findings in regard to chemical treatment; and the warning signs and recommended precautions, if any, for women who are concerned about this disease.
- Research the technique referred to as metatheater.In which of Shakespeare’s plays can you find an element that could be called metatheater? Can you find any modern plays that also use this technique? A similar technique could be used in a work of fiction, where a character steps outside the novel and directs his comments directly to the reader. Can you find any novels that employ this technique?
- Read John Donne’s poem “Death Be Not Proud.” Compare Donne’s sentiments in this poem and the way he talks about death to the way that Vivian Bearing thinks about and ultimately faces her death.
- Patients’ rights, especially in the sphere of the right to die, is currently an important topic both for members of the medical profession in the application of medical ethics and for patients themselves. Find several different lists of patients’ rights, and, after comparing them, compose a list of your own. If you have difficulty searching under patients’ rights, try a search under medical ethics.
- Research the Pulitzer Prize, then do one of the following: Write a paper on Joseph Pulitzer. Choose another Pulitzer Prize-winning play from another decade and compare that play to Wit in terms of how the culture of the times surrounding the play affected the main themes of each play. Research the Nobel Prize and compare the backgrounds and philosophies of the two prizes.
hospital. The issue that underlies these concepts is patients’ (and thus human) rights. What rights do patients have? Do they have the right to privacy? Do they have the right to know the chances of their survival? Do they have the right to dignity? Do they have the right to determine the manner of their deaths?
Edson has stated that her play is about redemption. But it is recovery (or redemption) of human rights, in the sense of humanity, that Bearing wins at the end of the play. Her awakening to the fact, through her own humiliation, that human rights are more important than human knowledge is her awakening. She is denied those rights when her doctors treat her body without considering her mind and her emotions. She is denied those rights, even to the point of her death, when Posner ignores her written request not to be resuscitated.
Metatheater is often defined as “theater about theater,” and as a theatrical technique, it has a long history. By using the construct of metatheater, the playwright toys with the boundaries or art, collapsing the walls between fantasy and reality. Some of the Greek dramatists, as well as Shakespeare, have used this technique.
In Edson’s play, the main character has a running rapport with the audience from the very beginning, when she introduces herself directly to the audience. Edson uses this ploy not only to tighten the relationship between Bearing and the audience by revealing Bearing’s inner thoughts in a running monologue but also to set up the humor. It is through metatheater that Edson exposes most of the wit. For instance, in the opening lines, Bearing says, “Hi. How are you feeling today?” Then she immediately reveals to the audience that this is not her typical way of greeting people. She further explains that in the hospital this greeting is not only very typical, but the meaning behind these words is completely lost.
By talking to the audience, Bearing is pointing out the essence of the play; she is collapsing the time required for the audience to “get” the overall meaning. In this way, not only can the audience dig into the deeper elements of the play, they can also understand the humor. Since the topic of the play is extremely serious, it is necessary to release the tension, so the audience can relax every once in a while. Otherwise, the topic is so difficult that the audience might get up out of their seats and leave. This technique also allows for a simpler set. There are very few props needed, because Bearing explains what is happening as the plays progresses. This places the audience’s focus on the dialogue, the language, and the wit. Since it is language and wit that Bearing has hidden behind all her life, the emphasis then becomes more dramatic, as language and wit start falling apart by the climax of the play.
Edson uses several flashbacks, a literary technique that allows the author to move her setting from the present moment to an earlier time. Flashbacks help fill in the gaps of the work’s present moment, giving related details of the character’s life, thus helping the audience better comprehend the present situation.
One flashback takes the audience back to the moment that Bearing is first told that she has cancer. This flashback is important because it exposes how clinically and dryly such dramatic news can be told.
Another flashback shows how the relationship between Bearing and her college mentor, Ashford, began. This scene also brings John Donne and his poetry concerning death into the picture. It also sets up a later scene in which Ashford visits Bearing right before her death.
Another significant flashback gives the audience a sense of what Bearing was like as a professor. It demonstrates not only her intellectual strength but also her emotional weakness—Bearing is as cold-hearted as her doctors.
War and Terrorism
The decade in which Edson wrote Wit and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize began with then President George Bush sending troops to the Persian Gulf to combat Iraqi aggression against the country of Kuwait. During the second month of this war, the drug pyridostigmine bromide was issued to as many as three hundred thousand U.S. soldiers to counter the effects of nerve gas. Later, upon the return of U.S. soldiers, this drug was associated with what became known as the Gulf War syndrome. At the time of the administration of the drug to the soldiers, the drug was not fully approved by the FDA, and the military personnel were not informed of its side effects. A few years later, terrorists in Japan released a poisonous gas into one of Tokyo’s busy subways, making over five thousand people sick.
The year that Edson’s play celebrated its world premiere (1995), the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. One hundred and sixty-eight people were killed. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were later convicted of charges related to the bombing. Two years prior to this bombing, The World Trade Center in New York was bombed.
Politics and Justice
The year 1991 was memorable for the release from prison of Nelson Mandela and the repeal in South Africa of the political system of apartheid. This same year saw the fall of the Soviet Union in Russia, ending communism in that part of the world. A year later, the United States and Russia signed a treaty officially ending the Cold War.
Despite sexual harassment allegations against him, Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1991. The following year, Carol Mosely Braun became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate. On the flip side of those celebrations, riots flared up in Los Angeles after police were caught on videotape beating Rodney King. In 1995, sports star O. J. Simpson’s trial for the murder of his wife was a national obsession.
Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, died in 1991. It was through his works that many children were introduced to reading, inspired by his zany characters and language. In this same time frame, the Internet was introduced to the public. Although Geisel will never see it, today thousands of websites focus on the worlds that Geisel created.
In terms of health, the world was focused on the epidemic of AIDS. France suffered a tragedy as over three thousand people were infected with the AIDS virus accidentally through blood transfusions that were tainted with the virus. This prompted action in the United States by the American Red Cross, which promised to intensify measures to assure more careful screening for the virus in the U.S. supply of blood.
In 1993, the American Medical Association (AMA) drafted the first Patient Protection Act. Two years later, it drafted the Patient Protection Act II with the goal of protecting patients from unfairness in managed care. In 1997, the AMA held its first ethics conference in Philadelphia. It established the Institute for Ethics to explore the tough decisions now affecting physicians and their patients. One of its main concerns is to research end-of-life issues. Three years later, through its Educating Physicians on End-Of-Life Care project, it started providing training to practicing physicians on the core skills needed to provide quality end-of-life care.
In the decade 1985-1995, the National Institutes of Health calculated that there was a 30 percent increase in the number of ovarian cancer cases (from 18,500 to about 27,000) and an 18 percent increase in the number of ovarian cancer deaths. Statistics show that every year more than 350,000 women are diagnosed with cancer (breast, lung, colorectal, and cervical). There is no reliable screening test for ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. In 1998, doctors started using a new drug called Herceptin to treat breast cancer. Due to favorable outcomes, this drug is now being tested on women with ovarian cancer. The severity of cancer is ranked one to four, according to how far from the original site the tumor has spread. Stage four cancers have spread to distant organs, therefore they are much more difficult to treat.
Despite the fact that Edson’s play won the Pulitzer Prize, some of the reviews of Wit were not completely favorable. There is a wide range of opinions of the play, with many critical reviewers claiming that the awkwardness of a first-time playwright shows through. Overall, however, most critics applaud the work.
Wit won not only the Pulitzer Prize but also the Drama Desk Award, the Lucille Lortel Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award. In addition, Kathleen Chalfant, who played the main character in the off-Broadway production as well as in a London production, also won several awards for her performance, including the coveted Obie. Other aspects of the play in performance, such as its direction by Derek Anson Jones (a former high school friend of Edson), its production, and its lighting, also won prizes.
The play was first produced in 1995 at the South Coast Repertory Company in Costa Mesa, California, where it ran for seven weeks to rave reviews. But it took two more years for the play to find its way to New York audiences, where it won nearly every drama award given for an off-Broadway play. The New York Times reviewer Peter Marks calls Wit a “brutally human and beautifully layered new play.” Marks also claims that by the end of the play “you feel both enlightened and, in a strange way, enormously comforted.”
A year later, after the play moved to another New York theater and took on a new cast, the New York Posf’s Donald Lyons refers to the play as being a “great (and hilarious) play.” Lyons also notes that Edson uses a “tricky structure, full of metatheatrical interjections,” (such as the main character turning to talk directly to the audience), but that Edson uses these ploys not for fun but rather to exemplify the “urgency of her [Vivian Bearing’s] suffering.” Another New York Post critic, Liz Smith, calls Wit an “incredibly witty and touching play.”
However, Tom Sime of the Dallas Morning News (writing from New York) claims that Wit keeps the main character of Vivian Bearing “so busy addressing the audience directly that she can’t flesh out her character by showing us her behavior.” Sime also states that Edson’s play only shows a “stereotypical view of the medical profession.” Sime continues, “Ms. Edson writes a moving, tender ending—but then ruins it with a gratuitous and melodramatic additional scene, one last dig at those heartless M.D.’s. Given the great mysteries Ms. Edson has tried to explore, this closing stitch-up is crude and leaves Wit itself resembling a procedure gone awry.”
Countering this opinion is John McCallum’s review for The Australian.McCallum claims “the brilliance of Margaret Edson’s script” is partly due to “the metatheatrical playfulness with which Vivian keeps commenting ironically on the show.” And although Lloyd Rose of the Washington Post feels that the “gooey ending seems unworthy of Edson’s heroine,” he also claims, “Edson’s frankness about the clinical awfulness of modern death is what makes Wit such a strong theater experience.
Aside from the reviews from the usual newspaper and magazine critics, there have also been comments about Edson’s play from the medical profession. Some doctors have praised Edson’s efforts to expose the callous treatment that many patients experience, especially in research (and/or teaching) hospitals. Other doctors agree with Abigail Zuger, who has stated that after seeing the play she felt very depressed.
Zuger writes in her essay “When the Patient, Not the Doctor, Becomes the Hero” that Edson’s play shows the worst of the profession. To back up her statement, Zuger includes comments from some of her fellow professionals. Although he likes the play, Dr. Sherwin Nuland, a medical historian and professor of surgery at Yale University, thinks that Edson knows her patient, Vivian Bearing, very well, but she does not seem to know the doctors. “The doctor roles are stick figures, straw men, caricatures of the worst, completely unrealistic.” Dr. Larry Norton, head of medical oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, says, “being in a research study is . . . safer than getting ordinary medical care. It’s the absolute opposite of being a guinea pig. People should know that.”
Zuger’s concern is that what the audiences of Wit, which is “one of the few serious works of art of this decade to fold details of contemporary medical practice into its message,” will remember about the medical profession is exactly what Edson’s play presents. “It is the patients who are the heroes, while the doctors have receded into sketchy caricatures. ...”
Since winning the Pulitzer, Edson has been the focus of numerous interviews. One question that has been repeated in almost every interview is, when will she write another play? This question seems to be indicative of the overall media response to her play. Her audiences seem to want more.
Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing. She is a copy editor and published writer, and in this essay she looks at what Edson has referred to as an element of meanness in her play Wit.
Margaret Edson has stated that she wants any message in her play to be conveyed with deep meaning and interest, as well as with humor. This last sentiment might be somewhat unexpected considering that Wit is about cancer and death. But then, the unexpected and wit are two of the main ingredients in Edson’s play, and both can produce humor, no matter how serious the topic.
Edson is not oblivious, of course, to the fact that her play concerns very serious topics, but she says that these are just the starting points. These are the forms around which the play wraps itself. What the play is really about, Edson says in an interview for Stage & Screen, is “... kindness. And yet all the way through,” she says, “it’s just the meanest little play you’ll ever go to—a lot of the people are horrible to each other. So, if the message is that people should just love one another, the best way for me to say that is to show people not doing that. The message is revealed in its opposite.” It is these elements of meanness that this essay will explore, pulling out parts of the play that most clearly depict them and exploring the emotions behind them in an attempt to find the kindness that Edson wants her audience to see.
The first sense of meanness in the play is subtle, but the fact that it is repeated throughout the play gives it enough weight to be mentioned. This initial meanness is expressed in the greeting that Vivian Bearing gives to her audience upon entering the stage as well as in the greeting that Bearing’s doctors and medical technicians give her every time they see her: “Hi. How are you feeling today?”
This phrase, as well as its many variations, is commonplace in dialogues throughout many cultures. So what is so mean about it? Well, the difference is in the attitude and circumstance. It is common to pass someone on the street and say, “Hey. How are you doing?” and then not take the time to wait for an answer. However, viewed from a different perspective, this action takes on a bit of the absurd. For instance, what if a person were in obvious physical distress? Would it still be considered polite to ask this question and then continue walking? Usually under these stressful circumstances, either the question is not asked and the whole situation is ignored, or the question changes to something like, “Do you need some help?” This is the point that Bearing makes in her opening statement to the audience. By doing so, she foreshadows the meanness (both subtle and obvious) that will prevail throughout the play. It is the meanness of not caring, of not tuning in to the obvious. By their choosing to ignore the stress and pain of their patient, the medical staff unwittingly emphasize their patient’s discomfort. Whereas empathy on the part of the medical staff would help soothe Bearing, their lack of compassion irritates her, adding to her suffering. Thus, unwitting or not, meanness is conveyed.
The next incident of unwitting meanness is witnessed in Dr. Kelekian’s dialogue with Bearing, when he tells her that she has cancer. In the telling, he wraps his diagnosis in esoteric medical terminology. It is through Bearing’s simultaneous thought-dialogue, as Kelekian discloses the details of her disease, that the audience relates to Bearing’s shock of being told that she has a terrible disease. By being able to hear her thoughts, the audience also hears the confusion in Bearing’s reactions. As Kelekian babbles out his medical jargon, Bearing wrestles with definitions of his words. As it turns out, the medical and the literary professions have different meanings for the same words. So not only is Bearing having to face a very serious threat against her life, her complete understanding of that threat is hindered by her lack of a medical vocabulary. Kelekian has probably presented this heavily weighted news in an obscure language because he has grown used to talking to his colleagues, who understand the jargon. This obscure way of talking has become second nature to him. Is he aware that his patient might perceive his vocabulary as heartless? Does he care one way or the other? Has he placed himself inside
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- “Joseph Pulitzer and the Pulitzer Prizes” is a website that includes a very short biography of Margaret Edson at http://www.pulitzer.org/History/history.html (February 2001), as well as a longer biography of Joseph Pulitzer and an interesting background and history of the prize. This site also includes a listing of all Pulitzer Prize winners.
- “At Lunch with Margaret Edson” is an article written by Kevin Sack for The New York Times, November 10, 1998. Sack interviewed Edson at the school in Atlanta where she teaches kindergarten. The article can be found on The New York Times website in their archives section, but the website charges a fee to download it. It is available through public libraries for free.
- “An Interview with Margaret Edson,” written by Betty Carter, was published in the September/ October 1999 issue of Books & Culture.One of the focuses of this interview is a discussion of Edson’s use of the children’s story The Runaway Bunny in her play.
- Whose Life Is It Anyway (1978) is a play written by Brian Clark. The play’s central character (played by Richard Dreyfuss when the play was in New York) is a sculptor who, after a car accident, is left paralyzed. In the play, the sculptor begs his doctors to help him die. They refuse, and the sculptor takes them to court to fight for his right to die.
- The Shadow Box (1975), the 1977 Pulitzer Prize winner, is a play that presents a meditation on life, love, and death. Written by Michael Cristofer, the play shows three people facing death while living at an experimental California hospice. The action revolves around the tensions they face in accepting their deaths, as well as the tensions that their various family members face when they come to visit them. The play has been described as philosophical, surprisingly funny, and rich with conflict.
- Time to Go: Three Plays on Death and Dying, with Commentary on End-of-Life Issues (1995) is a collection of three short plays. The plays included are Berry Barta’s Journey into That Good Night; Marjorie Ellen Spence’s Stars at the Break of Day; and Time to Go, by C. E. McClelland. The plays were written specifically for simply staged performances or to be read to stimulate discussions on end-of-life issues. The book includes suggested questions to facilitate discussion.
- The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906) was written by George Bernard Shaw, and almost half a century after his death, the play is enjoying a revival. The topic of this play is medical ethics. It centers on the question of whether a doctor has the right to decide who will live and who will die. The play climaxes with a death scene and an ironic twist.
- Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel is a 1999 publication of John Donne’s works with an introduction by Andrew Motion that has been described as entertaining, accessible, and clear. It includes writings that were done while Donne was sick with a fever that doctors thought would kill him, as well as Donne’s final sermon that was preached one month before his death. The book includes a biography of the poet that was written in 1640 by Izaak Walton. It also includes Donne’s “Devotions” and “Death’s Duel,” which have been referred to as Donne at his best.
- “Death & Co.” is a poem written by Sylvia Plath. It has been likened to John Donne’s metaphysical poetry that deals with death. In the poem, Plath personifies death as a lover, a poetic device that the metaphysical poets developed to communicate the negative aspects of love.
the obscure language in order to protect his feelings? Or has he completely lost his sense of compassion? These are some of the questions that Edson’s play forces the audience to answer. And it is in facing these questions that she hopes the audience will face the lack of compassion not only in the medical profession, as she portrays it, but also in their own lives as well. After all, these are the same questions that her main character, Vivian Bearing, must ask of her own life as the play progresses.
Bearing has gone through her share of detachment from the rest of humanity. It is not until she is well into her fight for life that she realizes her own lack of concern, her own lack of sympathy and compassion. The audience soon discovers that not all the meanness in this play comes from the mouths of medical professionals. Some of it comes out of Bearing’s mouth as well. Bearing’s meanness, at first, is revealed in flashback scenes that place her in a classroom with her students. Bearing, much like Kelekian, prides herself in her version of esoteric language. She has spent her life immersed in literary vocabulary. Her mastery of her subject matter elevates her (in her mind) to a superior position, leaving little room for her students to gain either her attention or her praise. She talks sharply to them and then explains to the audience that she does this to teach them lessons. When she discusses their capacity for improvement, she mocks them. Her comments about their efforts are belittling. She bemoans the fact that she has to allow a student’s brain “to rest after that heroic effort” of thinking. And she is often irritated by her students’ “undergraduate banality.” What she is implying with all these sentiments is that her students, for the most part, bore her.
It is through this flashback with her students, which demonstrates her capacity for meanness, that Bearing gains insight into her own lack of compassion. And it is through this realization that she begins to understand what she is missing and longing for in her present state. Bearing’s pain and suffering are forcing her to face her own emotions, facing them, possibly, for the first time in her life. By opening up to her feelings, she senses an emptiness inside of her and attempts to fill it with something. Because she respects Dr. Jason Posner’s intelligence and relates to his passion for knowledge, Bearing turns to him, hoping to find that something that she can’t quite put into words. But Jason is too busy and too focused on his task at hand to realize that Bearing is searching for something. And much as Bearing has treated her students, Jason likewise treats her.
“HER COMMENTS ABOUT THEIR EFFORTS ARE BELITTLING. SHE BEMOANS THE FACT THAT SHE HAS TO ALLOW A STUDENT’S BRAIN ‘TO REST AFTER THAT HEROIC EFFORT’ OF THINKING. AND SHE IS OFTEN IRRITATED BY HER STUDENTS “UNDERGRADUATE BANALITY.’ WHAT SHE IS IMPLYING WITH ALL THESE SENTIMENTS IS THAT HER STUDENTS, FOR THE MOST PART, BORE HER.”
Jason is blunt about life but very much unaware of his own emotional frailties as a human being. He is young, and his own mortality is far removed from his thoughts. He looks upon death as something that happens to other people. Maybe it is necessary for him to shun his emotional side, because every day he has to face pain and suffering in his patients. Or maybe he just never had the time to develop his emotional side, having pursued a tremendously demanding and very rational profession. He is a scientist totally involved in the search for knowledge. When Bearing attempts to make contact with him, trying to connect on a humanitarian level, Jason tells her that the thing about medicine he dislikes the most is dealing with people. His ambition is to do pure research. Dealing with patients and the necessary development of a bedside manner impede his progress. He doesn’t have time for either of them. And that is how his meanness enters the play.
Jason’s narrow focus on life has made him cynical. His cynicism makes him come across as mean. When Susie, the nurse, tries to bring a sense of humanity and kindness into Jason’s world by reminding him that he helps people, Jason responds, “Oh, yeah, I save some guy’s life, and then the poor slob gets hit by a bus!” Jason is not driven by the desire to save people’s lives. He is driven solely by the desire to unravel the complexities of a particular puzzle, which in his case is cancer. Sentimentality is useless, according to Jason, and thinking about the “meaning-of-life garbage” makes people go nuts. Jason has cut himself off from humanity in much the same way that Bearing has. The difference between Bearing and Jason is that Bearing has discovered, through her disease, that she is vulnerable. She has needs that the pursuit of knowledge cannot satisfy. Jason, in contrast, has not yet come face-to-face with his own vulnerability. And until he does, he cannot empathize with Bearing’s vulnerability. When confronted with any sign of weakness in Bearing, Jason immediately questions her mental state, believing that her disease has weakened the functions of her brain.
Not until the final moments of the play is there a hint that Jason has realized that he might have pushed the purely rational definition of life too far. There is a bit of hope that Jason may have come face-to-face with his own meanness, his cold-hearted evaluations, and his lack of kindness. In the end, Jason admits that he made a mistake, and in this admission there is hope that something has brought forth his sense of humanity. Something has touched him, made him reflect. And so the play ends, with Bearing releasing herself from the constraints of her life, freeing herself through the kindness of Susie, leaving Jason behind to ponder the so-called meaning of life garbage that makes people go nuts.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Wit, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Kathy A. Smith
Smith is a Ph.D. specializing in American literature and creative writing. In the following essay, Smith discusses how elements of humor, dramatic irony, and the conceits of metaphysical poetry lead to redemption in Margaret Edson ‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
Vivian Bearing is a witty yet (as she admits in her opening lines)“unwitting accomplice” in search of her own life. The paradox is that she has to die to find it. She doesn’t have long to live. Her fifty-year-old body is making a courageous last stand against advanced ovarian cancer, but the heroics of her campaign against the double onslaught of drugs and disease is more than matched by the battle she wages on the metaphysical field.
The dramatic irony and poetic truth of Margaret Edson’s play Wit builds around the sense that her heroine (like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz) has always been in possession of the secret to her own salvation. Dorothy inherited magic shoes; but only her trials in Oz prepared her to use them to get home. Vivian inherited the conceits of seventeenth-century “metaphysical poet” John Donne; but she must act out her own death to learn about the animating spirit of Donne’s poetry. In replaying instructional scenes from her life, she belatedly recognizes the cost of living from the neck up. In her defiance of death, just before it is too late, she finds a saving grace, a comforting compassion, a new “bearing.”
Wit is relentless in its exposure of Vivian’s private parts, both in regards to her body and her psyche. There is no relief from the discomfort the audience feels as voyeurs. Vivian wears only a hospital johnny and a baseball cap until, in the final moment, she is stark naked. The audience watches as she submits to a gynecological exam performed by clinical fellow Jason Posner, Vivian’s former student. They see her trembling, vomiting, and weak from unprecedented doses of cancer drugs. Her emotional life, too, is laid bare. She receives no visitors to interrupt her meditations on life and death, except briefly from her former teacher. Jason takes her medical history, and in her relating it, it is apparent how bereft she is of love, family, and friends. As the play notes tell us, there is no break in the action between scenes, no intermission. The audience never leaves the hospital.
It is possible to endure watching Vivian because of her bearing. She never waxes sentimental; she remains “tough,” as Doctor Kelekian warns her she must, and maintains her sense of dignity and control by relying on her wit. The audience is first addressed by a woman who, far from exhibiting signs of emotional distress, is flippant and satirical about the hospital staff s “feigned solicitude.” This woman in a baseball cap will make a game of death. “How are you feeling today?” she asks. It is both a challenge and an observation on the absurdity of hospital protocol. She is dying. She couldn’t be less well. And yet clinical practice demands the question, regardless of its absurd logic:
I have been asked “How are you feeling today?” while I was throwing up into a plastic washbasin. I have been asked as I was emerging from a four-hour operation with a tube in every orifice, “How are you feeling today?” I am waiting for the moment when someone asks me this question and I am dead. I’m a little sorry I’ll miss that.
She is composed in the face of death; in fact, she composes this first-person narrative, directing the action until the moment of unconsciousness. “I think I die at the end,” she says,“They’ve given me less than two hours.” In her chronicling mode, she already appears to be above and beyond her life, looking down or back upon it. It is another brain-tickling paradox in a play about the power of paradox that the protagonist is telling the story of her own death. The play resists a neat generic label: is it comedy, tragedy, or theatre of the absurd? Or is it some of all three?
In the next scene, she flashes back to two episodes. In the first scene, Dr. Kelekian, the chief of medical oncology, tells her she has advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. In the second, she is a twenty-two-year-old in conference with her mentor and teacher, E. M. Ashford, when she finds she has misunderstood John Donne’s Holy Sonnet Six, “Death Be Not Proud.” In both instances, her response is the same: “It was something of a shock. I had to sit down.” In the first flashback, Vivian’s scholarly habits of mind spontaneously protect her from human sentiment. In a somberly comic give and take, each professor, Kelekian and Bearing, regards the disease as a new experiment or object of study that must be treated and charted in the name of science and the humanities. Vivian determines to “get some books, articles. Assemble a bibliography.” She treats her disease as she would an academic assignment. Neither of the two has much regard for her feelings. It is as if they are beside the point. She shows no fear:
I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language.
Of course, this exploration will take place outside the text, or, more pointedly, on the text of her own body.
In the second flashback, Professor Ashford characterizes young Vivian’s essay as “a melodrama, with a veneer of scholarship ... Do it again,” she commands. Ashford confirms for her that “the effort must be total for the results to be meaningful.” It is a lesson that Vivian’s father has already instilled. But Ashford delivers another, subtler message. While she is critical of the “hysterical punctuation” that characterizes the inauthentic text (she favors the comma over the semicolon and detests the exclamation point), she emphasizes that the comma indicates the natural borders between life and death, soul and God, past and present. “Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons.” But Vivian
“VIVIAN INHERITED THE CONCEITS OF SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY ‘METAPHYSICAL POET’ IOHN DONNE; BUT SHE MUST ACT OUT HER OWN DEATH TO LEARN ABOUT THE ANIMATING SPIRIT OF DONNE’S POETRY.”
misses her point. She thinks only of Donne’s “metaphysical conceit,” the witty and stunning logic of the play of words and punctuation. The comma becomes the focal point rather than the sentiment being expressed. When Ashford tells her she should forget the paper for a while and go socialize with friends, Vivian can’t do it. The insuperable barrier “between one thing and another” interposes itself, and she goes back to the library.
When the play returns to the present time, Jason is recording Vivian’s history. She has two. The medical story is sterile and lifeless; the other is completely taken up with impressive academic achievements and intellectual pursuits. The scene indicts Jason and clinical medical conventions in general for skipping over the “interesting work,” the heart of the patient’s story. After ascertaining her age, her marital status, and whether she has living parents or siblings, he is satisfied.“Well, that about does it for your life history,” he says. She replies, ironically, “Yes, that’s all there is to my life history.” As the audience has now come to expect, the scene is fraught with sarcasm. When Jason asks, “What do you do for exercise?” she says, “Pace.” The medical history is superficial at best; however, the scene also alerts us to the sterility of her personal life. She has managed no better than he has. The single-minded pursuit of knowledge has made her a proud, outstanding scholar, revered among colleagues, notorious as a “difficult” professor, and quick witted. It has also left her completely alone and unable to access her feelings or those of her students.
It is Jason who performs the gynecological exam, so difficult to watch on stage. The audience is excruciatingly aware of the intimacy of this act. And women, one assumes, especially will understand the delicacy with which such an invasive and potentially violating procedure should be performed. Added to the public spectacle of a private act is Jason’s disregard for the humane treatment of the patient and his willingness to reduce her to an object that he leaves literally suspended in stirrups, putting Vivian to her most severe test as a “guinea pig” in Dr. Kelekian’s experimental therapy. While she is waiting for Jason to return with Nurse Susie, Vivian quotes Donne’s Holy Sonnet #6 for comfort. While she must place her body through countless indignities, she will find a sanctuary for her mind and her feelings in the poetry. Jason’s nervousness as he examines her heightens the audience’s urge to squirm. He is as uncomfortable as Vivian is with the intimate details of human interaction. He tells Susie during the exam that the reason he took her course (echoing her own reasons for studying Donne) was because she was “hard.” Receiving a high grade from her, he continues, “looked very good on my transcript....” When he feels the cancerous lump inside her, though, all talk ends abruptly, and he involuntarily exclaims, “Jesus!” Susie asks, “What?” Vivian asks, “What?” But Jason cannot elaborate; he does not have the tools to carry on meaningful human dialogue.
Early in her undergraduate career, English professor Vivian Bearing unerringly chooses a literary hero best suited to assimilate heart and mind, body and soul. As Frank Kermode tells us in John Donne, Donne was “so naturally” able to “blend thought and passion,” to bring the “play of an agile mind within the sensuous body of poetry.” But in Vivian no such complementarity can be found. She delights in satire and games of logic. She certainly admires Donne for his “wit,” the ability to make a point by playfully linking unlikely elements. (In his poem “The Flea,” for example, he proposes to strip his lover of her virginity by the absurd but compelling logic that a flea has already taken and mingled blood from both of their bodies. The flea, then, serves as a kind of “marriage” bed; therefore, he argues, no impediment can now be admitted to their physical union.) Vivian admires the exercise of mind, the intensity of intellect required to read, understand, and teach Donne. She makes of Donne a culture and a god. But of Donne’s own God, of the faith that makes his wit riveting, however embattled or tortured in its expressions, no place can be found in her personal experience.
In a recent interview with Adrienne Martini for American Theatre, Edson said her play is about redemption. “Grace,” she says, “is the opportunity to experience God in spite of yourself, which is what Dr. Bearing ultimately achieves.” But in “Continuing the Conversation,” Edward Wheeler questions whether the redemption is earned. He points out that whereas
Donne wields his wit in a confessional struggle with God and against the forces that would damn him, including all those fallen aspects of his body. . . There is no Christ in Wit, not even a generic God or a plain-wrapper religion.. .. Wit trades faith for spectacle, sacramental sign for irony.
Indeed, Vivian’s only truck with divinity is involuntary, as is Jason’s “Jesus!” Just after the gynecological exam, Vivian is running to throw up yet again, and she cries out, “Oh, God ... Oh God, Oh. Oh. Oh, God. It can’t be. Oh, God. Please, Steady. Steady. Oh—Oh, no! Oh, God. What’s left?” Calling on God must be awkward for Vivian, but she invests it with the humility to which desperation yields, and one can’t help but feel the naturalness of her beseeching. The conceit of the “comma” is being played out in Vivian’s psyche. Now E. M. Ashford’s earlier words resonate:
Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause.
Vivian’s spiritual transformation continues when she revisits scenes from her childhood and from a classroom. She is only five when her father (a “disinterested but tolerant” man who reminds us of Dr. Kelekian) teaches her the meaning of “soporific” by way of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.His influence has clearly prepared the way for her rapid advancement from child to adult, from experience with feelings to her dependence on vocabulary. So, when in Grand Rounds her body is read as a text by the medical students, it comes as no surprise. No bedside manner is expected or given, as none is expected or given in her classroom. When she returns to the classroom in her meditations, she is teaching Donne’s sonnet “If Poysonous Mineralls,” which is projected directly onto her as she walks in front of the screen. Here she unwittingly asks the central question of her own metaphysical journey:
The speaker of the sonnet has a brilliant mind, and he plays the part convincingly; but in the end he finds God’s forgiveness hard to believe, so he crawls under a rock to hide ...We want to correct the speaker, to remind him of the assurance of salvation. But it is too late. The poetic encounter is over. We are left to our own consciences. Have we outwitted Donne? Or have we been outwitted?
She revisits the classroom a second time after having been interrupted for more tests. This time, her students speak, and they are not so “deaf’ after all. In fact, “student two” offers insightful questions and comments, though they are not well phrased. But she refuses to help them master their thoughts and can only revert to the cynical teacher when they appeared puzzled by their own sense of paradox:
Um, it’s like, the more you hide, the less—no, wait—the more you are getting closer—although you don’t know it—and the simple thing is thee—you see what I mean?
It is Vivian who must find the “simple thing.” She finds it in Susie Monahan’s kindness. The degradation Vivian undergoes has made her uncomfortably aware of the emptiness and fragility of her past. Only when she is most vulnerable to death, when she can no longer hide behind her wit, does she wholeheartedly accept the ministrations of her primary nurse who is, as Suzanne Gordon in “Doctors’ Brains” reminds us, the “only true caregiver in the hospital.” The action comes full circle when her former professor visits her just as she is dying and reads to her from a children’s book, The Runaway Bunny.Vivian rejects her teacher’s offer to read Donne. Instead, the last thing she hears before sinking into unconsciousness is a simple but moving story of unconditional love.
Vivian suffers one last indignity as Jason and the Code Blue team try to revive her despite her stated wishes to the contrary. Since Vivian is finally at peace, it is all the more hair-raising to watch as the efficient team invades the quiet of the room with all the hue and cry of an emergency situation. In defiance of the blind mandate to save her life, only Susie realizes that she has already been saved. She finally “pushes them away from the bed” and warns them to “Get away from her!”
Transformed in the last scene, Vivian discards cap and gown, standing naked and silent in bright light before the final curtain. At the very moment she loses consciousness, she gains the light of awareness. As Donne would have it, death is no more. Death has died.
This has been a play on and about words. As Robert Brustein has observed in the New Republic, it is unlike most contemporary theater pieces in that language is still at the heart of the matter. While he finds it “a little disconcerting that the most powerful moment in this eloquent play is a wordless one,” it makes perfect dramatic sense. Death is more than a clever paradox or a lapse into sentimentality. Rather, in its resurrection into afterlife wordlessness, the soul outwits any attempts to describe it.
Source: Kathy A. Smith, Critical Essay on Wit, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
In the following review excerpt, Hornby says Wit includes “a rare and welcome depiction of a professor as a positive figure.
Margaret Edson’s Wit, another play first developed at South Coast Rep, is a rare and welcome depiction of a professor as a positive figure, in contrast to the way we are usually depicted, as hypocrites, lechers, or fools. Perhaps to counteract this iconoclasm, Edson depicts her heroine as dying of ovarian cancer, at the peak of her career at age fifty.
Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., is a prominent scholar of John Donne. She narrates her experiences as she is dying, including the clinical details, with insight and wit worthy of Donne himself. “It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end,” she remarks with typically wry humor. There is also deft satire of doctors, who are depicted as concerned but detached, viewing their patient more as a scientific case study than as a person.
Bearing’s students, who appear to be all undergraduates, view her with respect mixed with dread, not only because of her stringent requirements and sharp tongue, but also because of the difficulties of Donne himself. “Makes Shakespeare sound like a Hallmark card,” sighs a former student, now one of her doctors. Bearing’s interaction with students, counterpointed by witty asides to the audience, enhances the comic tone of the play, despite the funereal theme. A lecture in which she brilliantly dissects the “If poysonous mineralls” sonnet is a highlight. The contrast between Donne’s detached yet dignified view of death, and the doctors’ detached cold-heartedness, is another of the play’s great strengths. At one point, Bearing even has to undergo the indignity of a pelvic exam from the physician who is a former student. Dismayed yet resigned, she remarks,’ I wish I had given him an A!”
The weakness of the play is that Bearing is shown in isolation. We see no family (aside from a
flashback with her father), no friends, no lovers, and certainly no colleagues. She seems a fugitive from the 1950s, a New Critic still plugging imagery, irony, and complexity, concepts that the younger generation of literary scholars have not so much rejected as ignored. In real-life university literature departments today, aesthetics are out and politics (especially sexual) are in. A quick Internet search of works on Donne over the past five years produced titles with phrases like “John Donne and Elizabethan Economic Theory,” “Uncovering Gender,” “Depicting Lesbian Desire,” and even “John Donne’s Homopoetics.” Professor Bearing would not write like that (indeed, the same search turned up plenty of traditional Donne scholarship going on), but surely she would be aware of such approaches, and their challenge to her own research and reputation.
But all that is probably quibbling. Professor Bearing is a marvelous figure, a great vehicle for a star actress. There are few enough good roles for intelligent middle-aged women! Kathleen Chalfant, best known for her performances in Angels in America, roared through the part, playing all its aspects with force, even including the painful, messy moments. Beautiful but bald (as if from chemotherapy), well-spoken and vivacious, she seemed incredibly alive even as her character was dying. I first saw the play last season in New York, then again in Los Angeles this year near the end of its American tour, just before it opened in London. See it, and her, wherever you can.
Source: Richard Hornby, Review of Wit, in The Hudson Review, Vol. LIII, No. 2, Summer 2000, pp. 297-298.
Rosette C. Lamont
In the following review, Lamont discusses the final stage image in Wit and the play’s connection to the work of poet John Donne.
In the concluding scene of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, WIT, we are shown Dr. Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. in English literature, and foremost scholar of John Donne’s metaphysical “Holy Sonnets,” rising from the hospital bed in which she just died of stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. Slowly she loosens the ties of the two gowns she wears on top of one another throughout the play, constantly ready for an invasive pelvic examination by a team of cancer specialists and their students. She discards the baseball cap she wears over her skull, bare of hair following eight cycles of chemotherapy, and takes off her ID hospital bracelet.
Deliberately, almost in slow motion, she pulls off her gown, standing naked, her arms raised. The stage directions read: “The instant she is naked, and beautiful, she reaches for the light.”
The recent production of WIT opened at the Union Square Theatre in New York City, on January 7, 1999. Produced by the MCC Theatre, it featured Kathleen Chalfant of Angels in America fame. Both the play and the principal actress were awarded the Drama Desk first prize in the Spring of 1999. Presently there is a partial change of cast, with Judith Light playing Vivian Bearing. Each of the two actresses was wonderful in the demanding role. Chalfant was more of a fighter as she manipulated her IV pole like a pilgrim’s staff along the Via Dolorosa and its stations of the cross suggested by swiftly pulled hospital curtains. Until the final scenes, she struggled to preserve her intellectual lucidity and independence, the marks of a profession in which she established herself as “a force.” The appropriately named Judith Light kept a spiritual glow which intensified in the phases of unbearable suffering, even as she was “barfing her brains out.” Her emphasis was less on Bearing’s “Anglo-Saxon vocabulary,” and ironic twist of mind (“If I actually did barf my brains out, it would be a great loss to my discipline”) than on her discovery of the young nurse’s humanity. “I am learning so much about kindness” she said in the course of one of the post-production symposia. Both actresses presented an almost unbearable image of extreme pain, and of the gradual dissolution of the body. Donne’s metaphysical and highly physical poetry is interwoven with the hyper-realistic text. It is important to remember that Margaret Edson, presently an elementary school teacher in Atlanta, Georgia, worked in the cancer and AIDS unit of a research hospital while earning degrees in history and literature.
What was particularly striking about the final stage image of WIT was its seamless amalgam of mortality and sensuality. It is of course endemic to the conceit, and more broadly to literary irony. In her initial soliloquy, an address to the audience, Vivian Bearing speaks of being an “un-wit-ting accomplice” of the ironic mode. At this point in her life—what’s left of it—she sees the humor in her situation: “It is not my intention to give away the plot; but I think I die at the end. They’ve given me less than two hours.” There are echoes here of Ionesco’s metaphysical farce, Exit the King.Both plays in fact are clear examples of metatheatre, a play within the play. Bearing’s tough mind revels in
“THE WEAKNESS OF THE PLAY IS THAT BEARING IS SHOWN IN ISOLATION. WE SEE NO FAMILY (ASIDE FROM A FLASHBACK WITH HER FATHER), NO FRIENDS, NO LOVERS, AND CERTAINLY NO COLLEAGUES.”
the ironic situation of being asked: “How are you feeling today?” at the moment she is throwing up into a plastic washbasin. There is nothing “unwitting” about her sense of humor, still present on the edge between living and dying: “I am waiting for the moment when someone asks this question and I am dead. I’m a little sorry I’ll miss that.” This is pure Ionesco and pure Donne: the reconciliation of opposites.
This reconciliation is also present in the paradoxical union of death and sensuality. It can be studied in an early poem,“Elegy 19, To his mistress going to bed.” A connection can be established between this daring anti-Petrarchist, anti-Renaissance Platonistic poem, and the mysterious final image of Margaret Edson’s play. “Elegy 19” has been called “an Ovidian love poem,” inspired by Ovid’s Amores.In it, the poet enjoins his mistress to strip off her armor of underwear and elegant clothing, and hasten to the bed in which he awaits her, lying “in labor” like a woman, and ardently waiting to be fully a man, “to labor.” His tone grows increasingly ardent as he orders: “Off with that wyerie coronet and show / The hairy diadem which on you doth grow.” In the second half of the elegy he explains: “Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee, / As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be, / To taste whole joys.” We have in this erotic poem as in Edson’s play the Renaissance debate between Body and Soul. Thus, as Clay Hunt states in Donne’s Poetry: “The Beatific Vision is like taking off your clothes to experience full joy, then taking off your clothes to experience full joy is like the Beatific Vision.” The equation is between the pleasures of the flesh and the bliss of heaven. The naked soul is equated with the nudity of a body offering itself. Clay Hunt states without hesitation:
“WHAT WAS PARTICULARLY STRIKING ABOUT THE FINAL STAGE IMAGE OF WITWAS ITS SEAMLESS AMALGAM OF MORTALITY AND SENSUALITY. IT IS OF COURSE ENDEMIC TO THE CONCEIT, AND MORE BROADLY TO LITERARY IRONY.”
“The bright young man who set himself up, at the start of his literary career, as a special practitioner in the shock effect of a witty paradox never devised a more shocking paradox than this.” Indeed, “Elegy 19” concludes with a provocative couplet which can be read on more than one level:“To teach thee I am naked first; why then / What need’st thou have more covering than a man?” We picture the lover, naked on the feather bed to which he is luring his mistress by telling her that he is ready to become her “cover.” Yet, the erotic connection is not the sole goal. Rather it may be viewed as a rite of passage, leading to the ultimate transition, that between life and life everlasting.
Central to Edson’s play is the famous Donne sonnet: “Death be not proud.” It appears first in a flashback scene in which a young Vivian Bearing faces her demanding teacher, “the great E. M. Ashford.” A twenty-two-year-old Vivian comes in to pick up her paper. Dr. Ashford is not pleased: “Your essay Miss Bearing is a melodrama, with a veneer of scholarship unworthy of you—to say nothing of Donne.” The student has missed the point because of her use of an “inauthentically punctuated edition in which the simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation.” Ashford states that the only reliable edition is the Gardner, the one based on the Westmoreland Manuscript of 1610.” The scholar launches a withering attack: “And Death—capital D—shall be no more—semicolon! I Death—capital D—comma—thou shalt die—exclamation point!” She now reads the corrected line: “And death shall be no more, comma, Death thou shalt die.” Gone the semicolon and the capital D. Only the comma is left. Professor Ashford indulges herself in the fine delirium of scholarly endeavors and literary analysis. She states: “... death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause.” What does this “holy sonnet” teach us: “Life, death, Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.” The comma is part of the coma.
A chastened Vivian claims her readiness to return to the college library in search of the Gardner edition which had been checked out earlier. Dr. Ashford states: “The sonnet begins with a valiant struggle with death, calling on all the forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. But it is ultimately about overcoming the seemingly inseparable barriers.” This pronouncement dignifies the scholar’s primary purpose, yet Ashford reverses herself. This is a bright, sunny day, the kind of day when one takes joy in being alive. Students are sitting on the lawn,“talking about nothing.” There is value in the enjoyment of this precious moment. Dr. Ashford shifts from the formal “Miss Bearing” to “Vivian” as she declares: “You’re a bright young woman. Use your intelligence. Don’t go out to the library. Enjoy yourself with your friends.” We, the audience, looking at the dying Vivian in her hospital gowns, know what the girl of twenty-two could not fathom: there is so little time to savor one’s good health, to taste life fully. Yet, we must also keep in mind the fact that for a complex, highly intelligent human being there is more to living than creature comforts, there is the superior joy of savoring words and ideas, of reading in depth and cultivating the mind. The Vivian we meet at the start of the play is rightfully proud of the life she shaped. She is within her rights when she claims our respect, and she is also correct in respecting the scholar she became, an authority in her field (John Donne’s Metaphysical poetry), “a force.”
Unlike her protagonist, Margaret Edson is a modest elementary school teacher who loves to work with children. She is also a highly cultured woman, a sensitive thinker, and, as the writer of WIT, a true artist. Her portrait of Vivian Bearing, an inspired lecturer, is feminist without a trace of posing or preaching. Edson has no pulpit, no podium; she has now claimed the stage of life, and of life’s inevitable dissolution. Unlike Wendy Wasserstein who until now never showed us a convincing woman-scholar, revelling in the supreme pleasure of thinking, feeling, and sharing this endless joy with her peers, present and future, Edson conveys the full meaning of an existence devoted to an art. Indeed, an imaginative scholar is also an artist.
One of the most exciting moments in the play is a flashback to a mature, self-confident Vivian, the master of her classroom. She is armed with her knightly sword, a pointer, with which she occasionally “wacks the screen” upon which is projected Donne’s Holy Sonnet Five, “from the Ashford edition based on Gardner.” Edson establishes this magnificent line of three women scholars, three women in love with the life of the mind. Facing a class of students we must imagine, Vivian proceeds to a reading of the sonnet: “If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree, / Whose fruit threw death on else immortall us, / If lecherous goats, if serpents envious Cannot be damn’d; Alas, why should I bee?” The question is both metaphysical and highly physical since the sick Bearing, who must bear the pain of poysonous chemotherapy, is crucified upon a paradox.
What is deeply moving about Vivian is her respect for the proper definition, and her love of words. She recalls the moment in her childhood when that love came to the fore. Once again we have a flashback, this time to Vivian’s fifth birthday. Her father (the same actor plays both Vivian’s father, and her cancer specialist, Dr. Kelekian) is seen reading a newspaper. Vivian, now a child, flops next to a pile of books by Beatrix Potter. In “The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies” she encounters a word she never heard before: “so-po-rific.” “What does this mean?” she questions her father. From behind his paper he volunteers: “Makes you sleepy. Causing sleep.” Vivian repeats the definition. Mr. Bearing goes on enlightening his intelligent child: “Now use it in a sentence. What has a soporific effect on you?” The child has never experienced this feeling. She is wide awake, curious, eager to understand. What makes her dad sleepy? He answers: “Boring conversation . . . after dinner.” Vivian picks this up eagerly: “Me too, boring conversation.” Edson, the elementary school teacher, shows how determining education at home can be. Later she meets with exciting words in John Donne: ratiocination (logical reasoning); concatenation (linking together events); coruscation (intellectual brilliance, a gleam); tergiversation (shift of opinion). The acquisition of vocabulary, Vivian explains, is her only defense. But how can she protect herself from the medical jargon which disguises the fact that she is being used, with her consent, as a guinea pig. Vivian, who has been put into isolation, faces a terrible fact: “My treatment imperils my health. Herein lies the paradox. John Donne would revel in it. I would revel in it, if he wrote a poem about it.” Words are fine, particularly as they are used by a poet. Jargon is inimical to the life and death process; it turns people into machines operated by machines. Thus, Jason, Vivian Bearing’s former student at the university (he took her famous course in Donne because it looked good on his application to medical school) tells the suffering, dying woman: “Cancer’s the only thing I ever wanted.” Cancer was his research of choice. In a burst of scientific enthusiasm he intones a paean:“You grow cancer cells and they never stop ... They just pile up, just keep replicating forever. (Pause) That’s got a funny name . . . Immortality in culture.” Still the literary scholar, Vivian suggests: “Sounds like a symposium.” The hidden truth, however, is that radiation destroys the immune system. Even the perfunctory way in which doctors inquire about how their patients feel: “How are you feeling today?” amounts to a cynical betrayal of their oath as healers. The only answer to their question is a lie: “Fine!”
Edson’s ear is tuned to the lie. Medicine can be a kind of lie if one pretends to believe that a couple of days of survival, at the price of unbearable suffering, has value. For the medical profession, for the possible advance of science, it might mean a break-through, but patients are not offered an existential choice. The only member of the hospital staff who treats Vivian Bearing with respect and kindness is the nurse Susie. In fact she and Vivian develop a friendship, almost a family feeling. Having checked with the patient what her choice would be in the event her heart gives up, stops, Susie makes sure that her file states DNR (DO NOT RESUSCITATE). In fact, when this happens, Jason summons by mistake, and excess of scientific zeal, the “Code Blue” team. As they begin to pump the dead woman’s chest Susie stops them. There is a highly dramatic struggle between the nurse and Jason:
Susie: She’s DNR! (She grabs him.)
Jason: (He pushes her away.) She’s Research!
Susie: She’s NO CODE!
There is a physical struggle. Susie pushes Jason off the hospital bed as he tries to give mouth to mouth resuscitation. The nurse and the young doctor are fighting over a corpse. At this moment the Code Team swoops in. With their equipment they knock Susie out of the way. She grabs a phone: “Cancel code.” But the team continues to do what it usually does in such cases. Loudspeakers in the hall announce: “Cancel code, room 707.” All the machines and instruments have gone wild. Edson has written the perfect metaphor for the dehumani-zation of our modern world. A dehumanized world even as we pretend to advance science. Jason howls: “I MADE A MISTAKE!” No commas here, just exclamation points. Jason keeps on repeating: “Oh, God.” But God is not there, not with Jason. God gives strength to Susie, the heroic fighter on the battlefield of death. God is the light Vivian reaches for when she steps out of the bed, a resurrected Christ figure.
Let us conclude with Edson’s Hamlet intertext, spoken by E. M. Ashford: “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Edson’s MTis a celebration of a life dedicated to the art of literature. For those of us who are literary scholars and writers this is a particularly moving experience. The play is a tapestry of languages but it will not permit us to forget that literature is language within language.
Source: Rosette C. Lamont, “Coma Versus Comma: John Donne’s Holy Sonnets in Edson’s Wit,” in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XL, No. 4, Winter 1999-2000, pp. 569-575.
In the following review excerpt, Wren calls Wit “gorgeously intellectual” and says “it often resembles a poem by Donne.”
Such dual vision can be uncomfortable, even agonizing, as it is in another strikingly literary play that has taken New York by storm. The gorgeously intellectual Wit, elementary-school teacher Margaret Edson’s remarkable first play, centers around a brilliant professor of English literature who is hospitalized with advanced ovarian cancer. As research-oriented oncologists swoop down to study her, Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (played with well-calibrated shrewdness and occasional vulnerability by Kathleen Chalfant, a red baseball cap on her bald head), reflects on her own field of study, the poetry of John Donner. With humor, irony, and a certain exhilaration, the play draws out contrasts and parallels between two kinds of knowledge—medical and literary—and two ways of approaching life—via thought and via sympathy. The taut off-Broadway production, which has been so successful it recently moved to a larger theater, is directed by Derek Anson Jones.
Bearing, who once reveled in the cerebral games (the “wit”) of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, finds that language can no longer shield her from the terrifying truths of existence. Death, a word she once parsed along with a verse’s syntax, starts to over-whelm her as it becomes physical, a matter of tubes and fluids. (In the current production, scenic designer Myung Hee Cho exploits the average viewer’s hospital phobia with sweeping synthetic curtain-partitions that change color, from stark white to sickly green, with the lighting.) Not that she succumbs without mustering an attitude: “I would prefer that a play about me be cast in the mythic-heroic-pastoral mode,” she shifts in one of many direct remarks to the audience.
But, trained as she is in intellectual rigors, the dying professor can still detect the pattern behind the particulars. She can understand the distracted manner of the young medical fellow (the boyishly officious Alec Phoenix) who views her as a collection of cells, rather than a person. And she can even describe her own life’s narrative arc: “I am becoming proficient at suffering,” she observes—a remark Electra might echo.
Wit is full of suffering, but, to its credit, nearly devoid of sentimentality. Juggling ideas about knowledge and authority, the rift between the sciences and humanities, the power of words, and other weighty matters, it often resembles a poem by Donne. As in Donne, the emotion is in the thought. “A thought to Donne was an experience,” T. S. Eliot wrote in his seminal essay “The Metaphysical Poets,” in which he posited that metaphysical poets, like Donne, were among the last English writers able to “feel their thought as immediately as the odor of a rose.” After them, Eliot believed, a “dissociation of sensibility” set into literature, driving a wedge between thought and feeling.
It is because our sensibility is still dissociated that productions like Electra and Wit shock. Because we approach thought and feeling as if they were oil and water, we are surprised when the word attitude means two things at once, when anguish suffuses a drama of ideas, or when petulance rages from the elegant frame of a Greek tragedy.
Source: Celia Wren, “Attitude,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXXVI, No. 2, January 29, 1999, pp. 23-24.
In the following review, Franklin says, “Wit has riches of acting, writing, and stagecraft that you revel in, even in the atmosphere of death.”
Margaret Edson’s Wit, having concluded a three-month run at the MCC Theatre, has recently reopened, at the larger Union Square Theatre; far and away the most celebrated new play of 1998, Witstands a good chance of maintaining that status well into the new year. I confess to approaching it with wariness. There was that daunting, daring title, for one thing: right up front, the play seemed to declare itself an occasion that the audience had better be prepared to rise to. En garde! And there was the fact that the play concerned the life and death of a John Donne scholar: it would probably be too studied—one would be counting the ways in which it missed, or too easily hit, its marks. Perhaps there would even be homework.
The actual experience of seeing Wit, however, is thrilling, and part of the thrill is that the play is an experience; the evening has a sublime indivisibility and power that no account of particulars can, finally, get at. It’s not that the play is, or sets out to be, “perfect” or seamless; on the contrary, it is written with deliberate self-consciousness, every line “matters” in a way that you can’t fail to notice, and the play frequently calls your attention to its devices. That’s its success, and that’s its poignance: its devices mirror the human devices we see at work in the main character, in a way that highlights the essential tragedy and comedy of being human—devices are all we have, and they’re not enough.
The play begins abruptly and unceremoniously, in a stark hospital setting, with the shoving aside of a white curtain by Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor at an unspecified university, who is wearing a hospital gown and a baseball cap, and is pushing an I.V. pole as she walks toward the audience. As Dr. Bearing, Kathleen Chalfant gives an excruciating, powerful performance. It’s a role that requires her to pull off two very different tours de force: one that’s close to being over the top (Bearing is one of those larger-than-life professors who are terrifyingly smart, and proud of it), and one that involves flying in the dark (how does a person die? how does this person die?). Chalfant brings spine and severity to the role, as she did to the stern Mormon matriarch in “Angels in America,” six years ago, and also a brave nakedness. Her piercing eyes have the wrath of God in them, but her broad face and pale skin make her vulnerable—and Bearing has lost all her hair from chemotherapy treatments, which heightens the aura of mortality, the sense that you’re seeing the skull beneath the skin.
The first few minutes of the play are giddily, awfully, hilarious. (They are, in fact, the essence of wit.) Bearing delivers a devastating disquisition on the true meaning—and ultimate pointlessness, in her case—of the standard question directed at hospital
“WITH HUMOR, IRONY, AND A CERTAIN EXHILARATION, THE PLAY DRAWS OUT CONTRASTS AND PARALLELS BETWEEN TWO KINDS OF KNOWLEDGE—MEDICAL AND LITERARY—AND TWO WAYS OF APPROACHING LIFE—VIA THOUGHT AND VIA SYMPATHY.”
patients: “How are you feeling today?” ‘There is some debate as to the correct response to this salutation,” she says dryly:
Should one reply, “I feel good,” using feel as a copulative to link the subject, /, to its subjective complement, good; or “I feel well,” modifying with an adverb the subject’s state of being?
I don’t know. I am a professor of seventeenth-century poetry, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne.
So I just say, “Fine.”
Bearing is playing games with words, but word games will not save her, as she herself knows: “I would prefer that a play about me be cast in the mythic-heroic-pastoral mode; but the facts, most notably stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer, conspire against that. ‘The Faerie Queene’ this is not.” Such is the effectiveness of Bearing’s crisp eloquence that you almost believe she could trump the facts; but, as she says—almost as an aside, and with exquisitely calibrated self-dramatizing restraint—“There is no stage five.”
In an early scene, we see Bearing learning the news of her illness from her doctor, a cancer researcher named Kelekian, who is played by Walter Charles. Wit alternates between the present and the past, and in a later scene Charles doubles as Bearing’s father. The parallels are eerie: Bearing at fifty sits next to the doctor’s desk, being instructed in the fine points of her illness; as he talks, she focusses on certain words—“insidious,” “antineoplastic.” Bearing at five sits on the floor next to her father’s easy chair and reads from a Beatrix Potter book; she fixes on the word “soporific” and asks her father what it means, and his answer opens up a whole new world to her: the enchanted forest of words. It’s very easy
“...THE PLAY FREQUENTLY CALLS YOUR ATTENTION TO ITS DEVICES. THAT’S ITS SUCCESS, AND THAT’S ITS POIGNANCE: ITS DEVICES MIRROR THE HUMAN DEVICES WE SEE AT WORK IN THE MAIN CHARACTER, IN A WAY THAT HIGHLIGHTS THE ESSENTIAL TRAGEDY AND COMEDY OF BEING HUMAN—DEVICES ARE ALL WE HAVE, AND THEY’RE NOT ENOUGH.”
to judge Dr. Bearing’s behavior toward her students (the actors playing her students also play hospital workers—it’s their turn to push her around) and to assess the justness of her isolation (no friends visit her in the hospital, and there’s no indication that she has ever had, or cared to have, a love life), but your thinking about her becomes more complicated once you see how the very idea of knowledge makes her five-year-old face come alive.
If Wit errs on the side of neatness, it is only in one respect, and that is the open-and-shut irony of Bearing’s having a doctor who is too much like her, who is much more interested in research than he is in people: Dr. Posner (Alec Phoenix), a young research fellow under Dr. Kelekian, actually has to remind himself to ask his patient how she is feeling. Dr. Posner, who regards Bearing more or less as packaging—it’s her cells he cares about—makes her realize for the first time how blithely she humiliated her students. And what do you know—he was once one of them. Other roles in Wit contain some of the same pitfalls of coincidence, but the performers manage to skirt them. Helen Stenborg, who plays Bearing’s rigorous, unforgiving academic mentor, and Paula Pizzi, as an oncology nurse who embodies the milk—condensed milk—of human kindness, maneuver their characters beautifully.
Right up to the last second, Wit has riches of acting, writing, and stagecraft that you revel in, even in the atmosphere of death, and it is directed with just the right touch by Derek Anson Jones. Its use of Donne’s Holy Sonnet X—“Death, Be Not Proud”—even pulls the poem out of the overheated, drowsy classroom of your past and into your active consciousness. (Imagine a play that made you feel newly fascinated by the Pledge of Allegiance.) Remarkably, Wit is Edson’s first play; she wrote it seven years ago, when she was thirty. Watching it isn’t easy—it isn’t easy to watch human beings be tested, knowing they can only fail—and yet you feel that its lessons and pleasures amount to a second chance, to an amazing grace.
Source: Nancy Franklin, “Wit and Wisdom,” in The New Yorker, January 18, 1999, pp. 86-87.
Albis, Theron, “In the Spotlight, Margaret Edson,” in Stage & Screen, www.stagenscreen.com/mybookclub/showbiz/bookclubs/sns/Special/Authors/Margaret_Edson.htm (February 2001).
Allen, Jamie, “Pulitzer Is Wonderful, But Teaching Is Edson’s Life,” http://www.cnn.com/books/news/9905/03/margaret.edson/ (May 3, 1999).
Brustein, Robert, “Ways to Break the Silence,” in New Republic, Vol. 219, Issue 18, November 1998, pp. 27-30.
Butler, Susan Lowell, “Portraits of Women Changing Our Lives,” in USA Today, March 30, 2000.
Cohen, Carol, “Margaret Edson’s ‘Wit’—An Audience Guide,” in Madison Repertory Theatre Audience Guide, August 21, 2000.
Gordon, Suzanne, “Doctors’ Brains,” in Nation, Vol. 269, Issue 4, July 1999, p. 34.
Kermode, Frank, John Donne, Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd, 1957, pp. 5-12.
“London Theatre Guide,” http://www.smu.edu/-tmayo/wit_london.htm (October 18, 2000).
Lyons, Donald, “‘Wit’ Gains Bright Light,” in New York Post Online Edition, September 13, 1999.
Marks, Peter, “‘Wit’: Science and Poetry Face Death in a Hospital Room,” in New York Times, September 18, 1998.
Martini, Adrienne, “The Playwright in Spite of Herself,” in American Theatre, Vol. 16, Issue 8, October 1999, p. 24.
McCallum, John, “Doomed Teacher Is Donne to Death,” in The Australian, July 10, 2000.
Osgood, Charles, and Eugenia Zuckerman, “Witnessing ‘Wit,’ CBS,” in CBS News Sunday Morning, March 14, 1999.
Rose, Lloyd, Review in Washington Post, March 3, 2000.
Sime, Tom,“Repartee of ‘Wit’ Candid to a Fault,” in Dallas Morning News, March 2, 1999.
Smith, Liz, “Hare Apparent,” in New York Post Online Edition, April 25, 1999.
Wheeler, Edward T., “Continuing the Conversation,” in Commonweal, Vol. 126, Issue 7, April 1999, p. 36.
Zuger, Abigail, M.D., “When the Patient, Not the Doctor, Becomes the Hero,” in New YorkTimes, December 15, 1998.
Cassel, Christine K., ed., Approaching Death: Improving Care at the End of Life, National Academy Press, 1997.
This study by the Institute of Medicine to evaluate end-of-life care examines such topics as patients’ preferences, barriers to high-quality care, and the state of knowledge in the field, and it concludes with steps for improvement.
Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth, On Death and Dying, 1969, reprinted, Collier Books, 1997.
This book was originally published more than thirty years ago and became one of the most important psychological studies of the late twentieth century. Dr. Ross explores the now-famous five stages of death that have become a standard reference for understanding the psychological state of mind of someone who is facing imminent death.
Miller, Sukie, and Suzanne Lipsett, After Death: How People around the World Map the Journey after We Die, Touchstone Books, 1998.
This book was written from case studies Miller collected during her own psychotherapy practice. It is a collection of stories about beliefs that have evolved in various cultures about dealing with death.
Mitford, Jessica, The American Way of Death Revisited, rev.ed., 1998, reprinted, Vintage Books, 2000.
This informal anthropological study of the mortuary business pokes fun at the funeral parlor industry. The first edition of the book was first published in 1963 and became an instant bestseller.
Spiro, Howard M., ed., Facing Death: Where Culture, Religion, and Medicine Meet, Yale University Press, 1998.
This book brings together health professionals and authorities in the field of humanities to reflect on medical, cultural, and religious responses to death. Doctors describe their experiences in witnessing death, and theologians, anthropologists, and other scholars discuss how cultures perceive death. The collective picture that is presented shows death as a natural part of life.
wit1 / wit/ • n. 1. mental sharpness and inventiveness; keen intelligence: he does not lack perception or native wit. ∎ (wits) the intelligence required for normal activity; basic human intelligence: he needed all his wits to figure out the way back.2. a natural aptitude for using words and ideas in a quick and inventive way to create humor: a player with a sharp tongue and a quick wit. ∎ a person who has such an aptitude: she is such a wit.PHRASES: be at one's wits' end be overwhelmed with difficulties and at a loss as to what to do next.be frightened (or scared) out of one's wits be extremely frightened; be immobilized by fear.gather (or collect) one's wits allow oneself to think calmly and clearly in a demanding situation.have (or keep) one's wits about one be constantly alert and vigilant.live by one's wits earn money by clever and sometimes dishonest means, having no regular employment.pit one's wits against compete with (someone or something).DERIVATIVES: wit·ted adj. [in comb.] slow-witted.wit2 • v. (wot / wät/ , wit·ting; past and past part. wist / wist/ ) [intr.] 1. archaic have knowledge: I addressed a few words to the lady you wot of | [tr.] I wot that but too well. 2. (to wit) that is to say (used to make clearer or more specific something already said or referred to): the textbooks show an irritating parochialism, to wit an almost total exclusion of papers not in English.
Wit ★★★ 2001
A tough topic buoyed by Thompson's fierce performance and Nichols expert direction. Middleaged scholar Vivian Bearing (Thompson) has dedicated her work to studying the holy sonnets of John Donne. The poet's life-and-death issues take on new meaning when Vivian learns she has stage-four ovarian cancer and she agrees to undergo the most aggressive treatment available. She puts herself in the care of veteran researcher Dr. Kelekian (Lloyd) and his internist Dr. Posner (Woodward), a former student of Vivian's. Their insensitivity sparks her bitter wit as Vivian realizes the inevitable truth. Based on the 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson. 98m/C VHS, DVD . Emma Thompson, Christopher Lloyd, Audra McDonald, Jonathan M. Woodward, Eileen Atkins, Harold Pinter; D: Mike Nichols; W: Emma Thompson, Mike Nichols; C: Seamus McGarvey. CABLE
A. †mind, understanding, sense OE.;
B. right mind, good judgement, (pl.) senses XII;
C. (power of) giving pleasure by combining or contrasting ideas XVI.
D. †wise man XVI; witty man XVII. OE. (ġe)wit(t), corr. to OS. wit (Du. weet), OHG. wizzi (G. witz), ON. vit, Goth. unwiti ignorance, f. *wit- (see next).
See also when the wine is in, the wit is out.