Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666
Margaret Ann Edson was born on the Fourth of July, 1961, in Washington, D.C. Her father was a newspaper columnist, and her mother was a medical social worker. Edson attended Washington, D.C., schools before studying history at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she graduated magna cum laude in 1983. Her jobs after college included work as unit clerk in the cancer and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) wards of a teaching hospital from 1984 to 1986, a low-level position that would ultimately have a profound impact on her thinking and her writing career. After a hiatus of several years, she attended Georgetown University, where she earned an M.A. degree in literature in 1992.
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In 1991, while working in a bicycle shop, Edson began writing a play based on her experiences in the hospital. She eventually titled this play Wit, though the title is often spelled W;t, a reference to the work’s playful obsession with the details of language, including punctuation. The play centers on Vivian Bearing, a professor and scholar of the fiercely intellectual and devoutly spiritual holy sonnets of the seventeenth century English poet John Donne. Bearing has succeeded at the highest level in her academic pursuits, but she finds herself unprepared to deal with her final challenge, a diagnosis of terminal ovarian cancer. Edson sent her play to theater companies across the United States, and it was first performed in 1995 by the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California. After winning numerous 1996 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards, Wit attracted the attention of the East Coast theater establishment, and it played at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre before opening Off-Broadway in 1998. The play won a number of the most prestigious awards in American theater, including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, four Lucille Lortel Awards, and, most notably, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in drama.
While the theatrical establishment heaped praise and awards on Edson’s work, hailing her as an important new voice and praising such dramatic techniques as Dr. Bearing’s direct interactions with the theatrical audience, those in the know also found Edson’s portrayal of the medical establishment to be remarkably faithful. Indeed, despite its sometimes unflattering portrayals of the profession, Wit received laudatory reviews and write-ups in The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, and American Medical News. Clearly, Edson’s depictions were accurate, not only from the points of view of the theatrical establishment and the theatergoing public but also from that of medical professionals. The play has even been used in medical schools and hospitals to help teach students and interns about the intricacies of doctor-patient relationships. The audience for Wit expanded still further when, in 2001, acclaimed director Mike Nichols and actor Emma Thompson adapted the script into a screenplay, with Thompson in the starring role, for the cable network HBO.
From 1992 to 1997, Edson taught first grade and English as a second language for the Washington, D.C., public schools. By the time she won the Pulitzer Prize, she had moved to Atlanta with her partner, Linda Merrill, and taken a full-time job as a kindergarten teacher.
Despite the acclaim she received for her play, Edson considers herself first and foremost a teacher, not a playwright. The fame that came with the prizes she won brought her many interviews, in which she was nearly always asked what she had in mind for her next play project. Each time, she responded that she had had something to say, had believed that the theater was the best medium in which to say it, and so she had written a play. She did not, she said, intend to launch a career as a playwright or to leave her chosen profession of teaching. Having won a Pulitzer Prize made her arguably the best-known primary school teacher in the United States, yet she made clear in interview after interview that she found teaching young children particularly rewarding and intended to write another play only if she felt compelled to say something new.