Margaret Edson’s play Wit follows Vivian Bearing—renowned professor of seventeenth-century poetry—through her treatment for and final days of advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. The title is significant because Vivian values the concept of wit both professionally and personally. As an expert on metaphysical poet John Donne, she teaches and learns from his poem “Death, Be Not Proud” of the “Holy Sonnets” about the use of wit in literature and life. After first learning of her cancer diagnosis, she describes herself as “an unwitting accomplice”; her illness is not a situation within her awareness or under her control.
One definition of “wit” is the use of words to express clever and quick humor. Since she was five years old, Vivian has enjoyed words and wordplay; words and humor are underlying themes in the play. To deflect and downplay the severity, pain, and unpleasant effects—like hair loss and vomiting—of her cancer treatment, Vivian uses wit to try to be funny; sarcasm gives her a way to maintain control of the situation. For example, while discussing her eight-month course of chemotherapy, she quips about wearing a nightgown (i.e., hospital gown) all day, undergoing a “degrading” (pun intended) pelvic exam from a former student, reducing her formerly erudite vocabulary to words like “barf,” and experiencing the ironic state of being “published and perished.” As a scholar, she feels obligated to document her experience and jokes that
Brevity is the soul of wit. But if you think eight months of cancer treatment is tedious for the audience, consider how it feels to play my part.
Later, a student points out that Donne may have used wit as a shield, that “maybe he’s scared, so he hides … behind this wit.” Vivian seems to be doing the same thing.
Another definition of “wit” is mental sharpness and keen intellect, which Vivian proudly wields. As a professor, she uses wit to remain superior to colleagues and students. She comments,
Donne’s wit is … a way to see how good you really are. After twenty years, I can say with confidence, no one is quite as good as I.
She loves using wit to work students into a “frenzy,” commenting that she “could be so powerful” with intellectual games and the puzzle of poetry. After her diagnosis and during treatment, Vivian employs wit to try to control and make sense of her disease and dying body. She continues to use wit as intellectual exercise in the face of and in an attempt to demystify death. Nonetheless, she realizes that wit will not save her from death. Despite her scholarly powers and “aggressive intellect,” she cannot fight death. She concedes that her life work of analyzing the wit of Donne’s poetry “turns eternal damnation into an intellectual game.” Instead of understanding poetry and life, she realizes that she will not find salvation, but that the
poetic encounter is over. We are left to our own consciences. Have we outwitted Donne? Or have we been outwitted?
So she must accept Donne’s
agile wit at work: not so much resolving the issue of life and God as reveling in their complexity.
This revelation highlights the theme of intellectual exercise versus real life. Ironically, when she is suffering the most, wit and Donne’s poetry ultimately fail to give her relief and comfort. In the end, Vivian realizes that she liked “only the studied application of wit, not its spontaneous eruption.”
Sometime the play’s title is stylized as “W;t.” Stronger than the comma, the semicolon provides a break between two independent clauses yet links them together. When Vivian was a student, she inadvertently analyzed what her professor/mentor considered the incorrect version of “Death Be Not Proud.” Vivian thought the poem read, “And Death shall be no more; Death, though shalt die” while her professor said the correct version was “And death shall be no more, Death though shalt die.” Vivian is advised by this professor that the intellectual exercise of rewriting her analysis of the poem is
not wit … It is truth. The paper’s not the point … Don’t go back to the library. Go out. Enjoy yourself with friends.
The comma is merely a breath between life and death, not a barrier like the semicolon; likewise, Vivian tries to connect with others but cannot and just returns to the library, avoiding real life but at least making “significant contribution to knowledge.” In the end, neither wit nor a semicolon can separate life from death.