Margaret Edson Wit Introduction

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Wit Margaret Edson

(Full name Margaret Ann Edson) American dramatist.

The following entry presents criticism of Edson's play Wit (1995) through 2003.

Edson's Wit, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, has been hailed as one of the most emotionally evocative works to be produced by a first-time dramatist. Combining the seemingly incongruous elements of John Donne's Holy Sonnets with a stark rendering of cancer treatment, Wit became one of the top-grossing and most discussed plays of the 1999 theater season. The play continues to garner positive reviews for its realism and powerful depiction of Vivian Bearing, an English professor forced to confront the reality of her imminent death. Addressing issues of mortality, religion, medicine, and academics, Edson's work is a forceful and direct expression of the personal reflections forced on a character facing the end of her life.

Biographical Information

Edson was born July 4, 1961, in Washington, D.C., the second child of Peter Edson, a newspaper columnist, and Joyce Winnifred Edson, a medical social worker. Like the protagonist in Wit, Edson is well acquainted with academia. A graduate of the Sidwell Friends School in Washington where she had been active in the drama program, Edson enrolled at Smith College in Massachusetts in 1979, earning a degree in Renaissance history in 1983. After graduation Edson moved to Iowa City, Iowa, where her sister lived, and took a job selling hot dogs during the day and tending bar at night. Edson had developed an interest in monastic asceticism in college and she spent the following year at a French Dominican convent in Rome. After a year among nuns, she returned to her hometown of Washington and acquired a job as unit clerk in the AIDS and cancer wing of a research hospital. Subsequently she moved to the St. Francis Center (now the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing), where she worked on producing grant proposals. At this point Edson decided to pursue a doctorate in literature, but first wished to write a story she formulated during her time at the hospital. Encouraged by friends, Edson worked at a bicycle store in Washington and spent the summer writing the first draft of Wit. Her stated objective with Wit was to tell a single story and move on to other career goals. Drawing upon her diverse background in religious education, history, medicine, and the academic world, Edson felt that her story fit best within the genre of a play and she completed an initial version before enrolling in the graduate program of Georgetown University in the fall of 1991.

While in graduate school, Edson volunteered as part of her Episcopal church's outreach program, teaching English as a second language. She left school after earning her master's degree and was admitted to a program seeking to bring professionals from other fields into public education, bypassing the standard teacher certification process. Production of Wit remained a prominent goal, and Edson sought a venue to stage her play. After she submitted the work to theater companies across the country, it was finally accepted in 1995 by the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California. Condensing her two act play into one long emotionally draining act, the revised Wit enjoyed a successful run and won several Los Angeles Drama Critics Awards. Edson initially disliked the editorial cuts, but has since acquiesced that the revisions strengthen the pace of the play by underscoring the emotional shifts and highlighting the ongoing stress that the protagonist experiences. Despite her success in Los Angeles, Edson discovered there was little interest from other companies who deemed the play overly intellectual and difficult to produce. A close friend, Derek Anson Jones, was eventually able to convince the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, to produce the play with Jones as director. Wit opened on the East Coast in October 1997, earning strong word-of-mouth reviews before winning three Connecticut Drama Critics Circle Awards,...

(The entire section is 2,229 words.)