One theme of the play W;t is the illusion—and ultimate lack—of control a person has over disease and death. Playwright Margaret Edson illustrates this theme through protagonist Vivian’s diminishing narration of the play’s action. A highly respected English professor, Dr. Vivian Bearing exerts much control over interpretations of poetry, her students, and—until she becomes stricken with stage 4 ovarian cancer—the trajectory of her life. Edson gradually shifts the view of the play’s action from Vivian’s point of view to a removed third-person point of view; as her illness progresses, Vivian becomes less of an agent and more of a powerless participant in the play’s action. Audiences begin the play by seeing and hearing everything filtered through Vivian but end up as bystanders at the end.
Vivian’s first-person narration dominates the opening and early scenes. In scene 1, she speaks assertively with Dr. Kelekian about her cancer diagnosis. She describes herself as “an unwitting accomplice” because her illness is not a situation that she chose for herself. In scene 2, she tells the audience that although she has terminal cancer,
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.
And I know for a fact that I am tough. A demanding professor. Uncompromising. Never one to turn from a challenge. That is why I chose, while a student of the great E. M. Ashford, to study Donne.
Vivian declares command over poetry and even has the hubris to think she understands life and death. In a flashback, Vivian shows her reactions as a student to her mentor Dr. Ashford. While Vivian interprets Donne’s poem “Death Be Not Proud” to mean that death can be blocked from life, Dr. Ashford corrects her and asserts that death cannot be blocked. She advises young Vivian to
use your intelligence. Don’t go back to the library. Go out. Enjoy yourself with your friends.
Yet even as a graduate student, Vivian lackadaisically follows her mentor’s advice before abandoning it and doing what she wants and thinks is correct—returning to the library for more intellectual exercise.
Vivian also admits joy in lording over her students:
If they were here, if I were lecturing: How I would perplex them! I could work my students into a frenzy.
Even Jason—the medical fellow directly in charge of her care—is a former student who expresses awe upon first meeting her to take her medical history. During her pelvic exam, however, the audience starts to see more action not from Vivian’s point of view, but as observers seeing things she cannot see. Vivian becomes vulnerable and limited in view while lying on the table. Later, when she visits the ER feverish and on the verge of collapse, the audience sees her speaking with Susie the nurse; then the audience witnesses a private conversation between Susie and Jason on the medicine’s harsh effect on Vivian. Vivian is losing control over not only the narrative, but also her own health and treatment.
In order to downplay the treatment’s severity, Vivian speaks directly to the audience; she describes her experience with sarcasm to maintain some power. While describing nausea, she notes, “You may remark that my vocabulary has taken a turn for the Anglo-Saxon. God, I’m going to barf my brains out.” She realizes that she is losing her erudite identity and ceding control to doctors as she becomes more ill and valuable for their research.
I want to know what the doctors mean when they…anatomize me. And I will grant that in this particular field of endeavor they possess a more potent arsenal of terminology than I. ... But I flatter myself. The article will not be about me, it will be about my ovaries. ... What we have come to think of as me is, in fact, just the specimen jar, just the dust jacket, just the white piece of paper that bears the little black marks.
Vivian knows she is becoming less human and more objectified. She eventually realizes that her point of view is faulty and too weak to prevent the progression of disease and death. A lover of wordplay since she was five years old, the now 50-year-old professor admits,
Now is not the time for verbal swordplay ... And nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis. Erudition. Interpretation. Complication. ... I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see that I have been found out.
Near death, Vivian can barely speak to Dr. Ashford, who reads her a children’s story. She is no longer an active party who asserts a point of view, but a passive player on whom action happens. After Dr. Ashford’s visit, Jason finds Vivian unconscious and tries to revive her lifeless body despite a Do Not Resuscitate order. Vivian cannot speak for herself to stop Jason. In the play’s final scene, Vivian’s point of view is completely obliterated; she cannot narrate the play’s action anymore but simply stands silent and naked in death. Overall, the play’s point of view shifts from Vivian as a human narrator to the audience as a collective witness.