Essays and Criticism

The Element of Meanness in Edson's Play

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 the obscure language...

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