Margaret Edson Wit Essay - Critical Essays

Wit, Margaret Edson


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, including best play. Championed by its lead actress, Kathleen Chalfont, the play secured a spot with the Manhattan Class Company in New York before premiering to a flurry of positive reviews at the Union Square Theatre in January of 1999. Under Jones's direction the play won awards from the New York Drama Critics' Circle, Drama Desk, Drama League, Dramatists Guild, and Outer Critics' Circle. Edson was presented with the John Gossner and George Oppenheimer Playwriting Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Despite her notoriety and critical acclaim for her writing, Edson continues to maintain that she has no desire to write professionally again. She works as a kindergarten teacher in a school in Atlanta, although she continues to campaign on behalf of Wit, occasionally attending readings, participating in after-show discussions with audiences, and promoting the causes Wit was intended to help advocate—for example, she donated her Pulitzer Prize money to create a foundation to teach medical students how to interact with their patients in a more humane manner. Edson maintains a quiet life with her partner, Linda Merrill, and their child, Timothy Edson Merrill.

Plot and Major Characters

Wit opens with Vivian Bearing addressing the audience in a hospital gown, her gaunt body ravaged by chemotherapy and her bald head covered by a red baseball cap emblazoned with the letter ‘C’—possibly a reference to her cancer. She explains that she has “stage four metastatic ovarian cancer” (“there is no stage five” she ominously informs them) and that she's been given two hours to tell her story, a fact that leads her to believe that she will probably die before the show is played out. Over the course of the play the audience is exposed to Vivian's treatment for her cancer. Aside from two brief appearances by important mentors, the only other cast members are her students, whom we see in flashbacks, and the medical staff—both played by the same actors to subtly demonstrate the shift of power taking place as her dominant position as a ruler in her classroom is transformed to one of passivity in her hospital bed. Three members of the medical staff stand out: her primary oncologist, Dr. Harvey Kelekian; his medical research assistant, Dr. Jason Posner (who is also a former student); and her nurse, the empathetic but intellectually slow Susie Monahan. Events are dramatized over the course of two hours without breaks or intermissions, thereby accentuating the unrelenting emotional impact of Vivian's suffering. Her diagnosis, early treatments, and eventual chemotherapy sessions are shown with grim realism. While her bodily pain caused by the cancer is clearly evident, the extremity of Dr. Kelekian's experimental treatments, which produce little apparent benefit, is called into question by implication.

Vivian's torment is not limited to physical pain. She observes that she has become merely an object to be examined, justifying the indifferent treatment she receives from the hospital staff. Only Nurse Monahan provides comfort when the pain becomes unbearable. Nurse Monahan also provides an emotional anchor when Vivian acknowledges the fact that she is really going to die. With Monahan's guidance, Vivian signs a “do not resuscitate” order. She is also prompted to re-examine her life, ultimately judging that it falls well short of what she dreamed and wanted. During this internal search, Vivian revisits two important figures in her own life. The first is her father; the second, her mentor, fellow John Donne expert Dr. E. M. Ashford. The former, having passed away, is revisited in a flashback in which he passes along his love of knowledge to his young daughter. The latter is introduced in a late scene in which Ashford demonstrates how the proper placement of a comma—as opposed to the semicolon that is typeset in Vivian's edition of Donne's sonnets—can change the entire meaning of a poem. Ashford tells her protégé: “Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from death everlasting. It is very simple really.” (Edson has emphasized this point by often rendering the play's title as W;t on theater playbills.) On the eve of Vivian's death her beloved mentor pays her a visit, becoming the first and only person from her personal life to do so. In the penultimate scene, as Ashford tenderly holds the dying Vivian, they read together from a book Ashford has brought as a gift for her grandson. The next morning, Vivian's body succumbs to the rigors of Kelekian's regimes and she undergoes cardiac arrest. Despite Vivian's earlier request to die peacefully, Posner calls for a resuscitation team, claiming that he needs her to live so he can continue to study her. A small scuffle follows as Monahan blocks him from the body, reminding him of Vivian's final wishes. Realizing that Monahan is correct, Posner collapses in front of the resuscitation team and begins to sob. In direct contrast to the tense scene at stage forward, a now-deceased Vivian peacefully sheds her gown and moves to center stage to ascend into the spiritual realm.

Major Themes

Critics have observed three major thematic threads in Edson's work: an indictment of both the medical and academic fields' devotion to intellect at a cost of the human soul; the power of language to shape our understanding of life; and finally, the redemptive dimension of self-examination. Vivian is revealed to have been ignorant of her students' emotional needs and unable to see them as individuals; similarly, her doctors can only see Vivian as a vessel for the cancer that is killing her. The very devotion to her studies that has left her without family or friends also makes her an ideal candidate for experimental chemotherapy for there are no friends or relatives to object to her painful treatment. The irony is not lost on Vivian. Where once she taught bodies of text, her own body has become the text Kelekian and Posner study, prompting her to note that “they read me like a book.” Edson heightens this comparison by showcasing the surprising similarity in language between the two fields: words like ‘subject,’ ‘exam,’ ‘test results,’ and ‘course’ thread through the lexicon of both the M.D. and the Ph.D. Vivian's former student, Posner, particularly comes to embody the empty rationality to which Vivian once held claim. He credits her with sharpening his intellectual prowess, enabling him to think in purely rational terms about his cancer research, but it also enables him to view Vivian purely as a body with no individual characteristics.

Near the beginning of the play, Vivian claims to be well-versed in matters of life and death, as she is a scholar of Donne's Holy Sonnets, “which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language.” Sonnets like “Hymn to God, My God in My Sickness” and “Death Be Not Proud” represent Donne's personal explorations of the nature of sin and the redemptive power of discovering God's love. Dr. Ashford tries to use Donne's language to express to Vivian the necessity of life experience as well as intellectual curiosity in order to fully understand his poetry. Vivian accepts the truth of this idea only at the very end of life. While God is rarely invoked in Wit, audiences have viewed the scene in which Vivian strips off her gown and opens her arms in acceptance of death as an acknowledgment of a divine presence.

Critical Reception

Wit has become enormously popular among critics and general theatergoers alike. For a time the play reached the level of a cultural phenomenon, showing to packed houses and enjoying a wide level of critical support. Other commentators have observed a growing backlash from critics who feel the play has been over-praised. While most reviews commend both the level of writing and the play's emotional power, some maintain that Edson's inexperience as a writer is evident and debate the value of the work's growing legacy. Such critics point out evident weaknesses, including a reliance on the stereotypes of the dying intellectual who sees her life as wasted; doctors who lack compassion for their subjects; and vague religious allusions. Several feminists have objected to what they regard as Edson's presentation of Vivian's cancer as the result of a misguided philosophy, her punishment for a life misspent. Mary K. DeShaver has written that “neither cancer patients nor feminist theater was helped by the stereotypical representations of culpable dying women.” Further concerns have been raised by several Donne experts who believe that Edson misappropriates his themes—a religious examination of the struggle between the flesh's attempts to betray the soul and God's ability to love and redeem; Wit appears almost entirely secular. Whether the play is truly secular, however, remains a point of debate and many critics argue that Edson intended her work to be a subtle invitation to redemption, a so-called “anonymous Christianity” as John Sykes, Jr. termed it. The play's ability to inspire dialogue about the state of medical care in America has been roundly praised. While some members of the medical profession have objected to Edson's portrayal of doctors as inhumane and cold, Edson has tried to counter such concerns by encouraging all productions of Wit to actively engage with audiences in a series of weekly post-production forums. Most reviewers agree that Edson's emphasis on compassion is evident in all aspects of Wit. This opinion is echoed by Dr. Abraham Phillips, who noted that Edson has created a play whose “transformative power should be provocative and enlightening for those of us who must make life-and-death decisions for our patients.”

Principal Works

Wit [also rendered on playbills as W;t] (play) 1995

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Laurie Winer (review date 30 January 1995)

SOURCE: Winer, Laurie. “Wit Probes Bleak Poetry of Death at South Coast.” Los Angeles Times (30 January 1995): 3.

[In the following review of the Los Angeles production of Wit, Winer states that the play is “a little short of reaching its full potential.”]

[In Edson's Wit,] Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., believes she understands life and death. She is, after all, the country's foremost scholar on the 17th-century poet John Donne, who, she says, explored mortality “better than any other writer in the English language.”

The trouble is, Dr. Bearing has stage-four ovarian cancer and “there is no stage five.” The doctors with...

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John Simon (review date 28 September 1998)

SOURCE: Simon, John. “Well Donne.” New York 31, no. 37 (28 September 1998): 78.

[In the following review, Simon praises the diverse subject matter presented in Wit, believing the play is a tremendous contribution by a first-time playwright.]

Can a play be made out of the last hours of a professor of literature dying of ovarian cancer? A play that hinges on a close reading of Donne's Holy Sonnets? That, without slighting its seriousness, sees the comedy in dying? No? Think again: Margaret Edson, with her firstling Wit, has managed it, and more.

Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., is a tough, brilliant, and witty professor of English at an...

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Stefan Kanfer (review date 5 October 1998)

SOURCE: Kanfer, Stefan. “Leaps of Faith.” New Leader 81, no. 11 (5 October 1998): 22-3.

[In the following review of Wit, Kanfer commends the power and intent of Edson's writing, but believes her inexperience as a playwright causes her to render the details of the play overly “neat.”]

The Academy and the cancer ward share many of the same terms: “exam,” “study,” “test results,” “research,” “analysis,” “course.” Yet as playwright Margaret Edson demonstrates in her new drama, Wit, context is everything. In one arena the words concern illumination and explication; in another, they are a matter of life and death.


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Robert Brustein (review date 2 November 1998)

SOURCE: Brustein, Robert. “Way to Break the Silence.” New Republic 219, no. 18 (2 November 1998): 28-9.

[In the following review of Edson's Wit and theater troupe De La Guarda's Villa Villa, Brustein contends that such plays have helped restore eloquence in American theater.]

For a number of years now, critics have been complaining that language is no longer a key element of the theater, having been displaced by music, spectacle, and special effects. But as a matter of fact, words have rarely been the most important component of contemporary drama—or of classical drama before Shakespeare. (Analyzing the elements of tragedy, Aristotle didn't rate...

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Rosette C. Lamont (essay date winter 1999)

SOURCE: Lamont, Rosette C. “Coma versus Comma: John Donne's Holy Sonnets in Edson's Wit.Massachusetts Review 40, no. 4 (winter 1999): 569-75.

[In the following essay, Lamont discusses the use of Donne's sonnets, particularly “Death Be Not Proud,” to inform the treatment of death in Wit.]

In the concluding scene of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit, we are shown Dr. Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. in English literature, and foremost scholar of John Donne's metaphysical “Holy Sonnets,” rising from the hospital bed in which she just died of stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. Slowly she loosens the ties of the two gowns she wears on top...

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Celia Wren (review date 29 January 1999)

SOURCE: Wren, Celia. “Attitude.” Commonweal 126, no. 2 (29 January 1999): 23-4.

[In the following excerpt, Wren notes the clever parallels between the institutions of academia and medicine that Edson draws in Wit.]

Dual vision can be uncomfortable, even agonizing, as it is in [a] strikingly literary play that has taken New York by storm. The gorgeously intellectual Wit, elementary-school teacher Margaret Edson's remarkable first play, centers around a brilliant professor of English literature who is hospitalized with advanced ovarian cancer. As research-oriented oncologists swoop down to study her, Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (played with well-calibrated...

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Bertie Bregman (review date 6 March 1999)

SOURCE: Bregman, Bertie. “Blame the Scholar, Not the Discipline.” Lancet 353, no. 9155 (6 March 1999): 851-52.

[In the following review, Bregman, a medical doctor, lauds Edson for her portrayal of the intellectual frigidity often associated with academia as a result of the scholar's own failings and not the study itself.]

According to the playnotes to Wit, the playwright, Margaret Edson, used to work in the cancer ward of a research hospital. She has transformed the experience into a production of uncommon emotional force.

Vivian Bearing, beautifully acted by Kathleen Chalfant, is an English professor specialising in the poetry of John...

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Pamela Renner (review date April 1999)

SOURCE: Renner, Pamela. “Science and Sensibility.” American Theatre 16, no. 4 (April 1999): 34-6.

[In the following review of Wit, Renner favorably assesses Edson's ability to realistically portray the medical establishment.]

Medical science to the unwary can seem like a genie, able to grant human beings their most desperate wishes—children to the childless, beauty to the homely, health to the hopelessly ill. Like every genie we invent, however, it can be counted upon to fail us in times of greatest need.

Playwrights Margaret Edson (Wit) and Lisa Loomer (Expecting Isabel and The Waiting Room, among other plays) are...

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Edward T. Wheeler (review date 9 April 1999)

SOURCE: Wheeler, Edward T. “Continuing the Conservation.” Commonweal 126, no. 7 (9 April 1999): 35.

[In the following review, Wheeler praises the emotional impact of Wit, but believes that the play's conclusions inaccurately reflect Donne's religious intent due to the work's focus on the physical and secular.]

Celia Wren, writing in the January 29 Commonweal, gives a justly favorable review to Wit, a widely praised play about the struggles of a terminally ill cancer patient. Wren especially notes the honesty of the play's language: “Juggling ideas about knowledge and authority, the rift between the sciences and humanities, the power of words,...

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Suzanne Gordon (review date May 1999)

SOURCE: Gordon, Suzanne. “Nursing and Wit.American Journal of Nursing 99, no. 5 (May 1999): 9.

[In the following review of Wit, Gordon applauds Edson for creating a positive portrait of an empathetic and caring nurse, contrary to other negative contemporary depictions.]

“The nurse is the hero.” When was the last time you heard a writer say that about her creation? But Margaret Edson is not the usual writer, and her play, Wit, is not the usual commercial fare.

Whether it's on Broadway, in Hollywood, or in the print media, nurses are either absent or demeaned. But night after night, crowds of theatergoers in New York City...

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James S. Torrens (review date 22 May 1999)

SOURCE: Torrens, James S. “Triple Play.” America 180, no. 18 (22 May 1999): 27-8.

[In the following excerpt, Torrens asserts that Edson has placed John Donne's work within a proper context in her play.]

And Now for the sleeper of the year, the Pulitzer Prize winner, Wit (the playbill reads “W;t”), by Margaret Edson. Once due for an early closing, the play now seems likely to go on as long as Kathleen Chalfant, in the lead, can endure wearing her head shaven. She is Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., a demanding and acerbic professor of English, who has poured her whole life into explicating the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Edson, a kindergarten teacher in...

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Nelson Pressley (essay date 27 February 2000)

SOURCE: Pressley, Nelson. “A Teacher's Wit.Washington Post, no. 4 (27 February 2000): G-1.

[In the following essay, Pressley highlights Edson's statements that Wit is likely a one-time writing effort for her, as she has no desire to continue to publish literary works.]

The paradox about Margaret Edson, widely celebrated playwright, is that she is not really a playwright. Edson herself has been saying so ever since she became a celebrated playwright last season, when her drama, Wit, written nearly nine years ago, finally took the theater world by storm.

Wit, about a stern college professor's battle with cancer, is...

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Abraham Phillips (review date 28 June 2000)

SOURCE: Phillips, Abraham. “Cancer Patient.” JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association 283, no. 24 (28 June 2000): 3261.

[In the following review, Phillips, a medical doctor, judges Wit as “brilliant” despite its critical indictment of both the academic and medical professions.]

The play Wit is an engaging and absorbing drama about a cancer patient as she experiences established practices in medicine. The protagonist, Vivian Bearing, PhD (Judith Light), is a renowned professor of English. In her own assessment she has made major contributions to our understanding of the metaphysical poet John Donne and his Holy Sonnets. From such...

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Bruce Michelson (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Michelson, Bruce. “Wit, Wyt, and Modern Literary Predicaments.” In Literary Wit, pp. 125-45. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Michelson assesses the value and meaning of ‘wit’ in the context of its modern and medieval meanings through his examination of Edson's Wit and, to a lesser extent, John Redford's 1530 drama The Play of Wyt and Science.]

I do so loathe explanations.

—J. M. Barrie

Francis Bacon was right: the program that began in doubt has produced certainties beyond a medieval mind's wildest...

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Martha Greene Eads (essay date winter 2002)

SOURCE: Eads, Martha Greene. “Unwitting Redemption in Margaret Edson's Wit.Christianity and Literature 51, no. 2 (winter 2002): 241-54.

[In the following essay, Eads examines the nature of redemption and assesses the power of language as both bridge and blockade in Wit.]

Winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize, Margaret Edson's medical drama Wit has garnered nearly unanimous acclaim. The play's honors include the Drama Desk, Dramatists Guild, New York Drama Critics Circle, Outer Critics Circle, Los Angeles Drama Critics, and Newsday Oppenheimer awards. Reviewers, too, have had high praise for the show. Lancet critic Bertie Bregman lauds...

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Mary K. DeShazer (essay date fall 2002)

SOURCE: DeShazer, Mary K. “‘Walls Made Out of Paper’: Witnessing Wit and How I Learned to Drive.Women & Performance 13, no. 1 (fall 2002): 107-20.

[In the following essay, DeShazer uses the critical theories of writer Lynda Hart, a cancer victim in 2000, to examine the literary representations of the female body in two plays: Edson's Wit and Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive.]

What we are faced with, then … is a story that theoretically cannot be told.

—Lynda Hart, Between the Body and the Flesh

What does it signify about American culture at the...

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Jacqueline Vanhoutte (essay date fall/winter 2002-03)

SOURCE: Vanhoutte, Jacqueline. “Cancer and the Common Woman in Margaret Edson's W;t.Comparative Drama 36, nos. 3-4 (fall/winter 2002-03): 391-410.

[In the following essay, Vanhoutte notes that Edson uses cancer as a tool to judge how Vivian has lived her life—a stereotype to which Vanhoutte objects, arguing that such methodology maintains the misguided belief that cancer is in some way a metaphysical punishment for poor life choices.]

This essay is an exercise in the bringing together of apparently disparate roles. I am an assistant professor of Renaissance literature, and I am a cancer patient. These two identities rarely overlap, since cancer has not...

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John D. Sykes, Jr. (essay date winter 2003)

SOURCE: Sykes, John D., Jr. “Wit, Pride and the Resurrection: Margaret Edson's Play and John Donne's Poetry.” Renascence 55, no. 2 (winter 2003): 163-74.

[In the following essay, Sykes counters arguments that Wit is a rejection of Donne's theology, instead asserting that the play is about the redemptive power of God's love and the need for Vivian to overcome her fears and misconceptions about that power.]

For reasons internal and external to Margaret Edson's play Wit, it is easy to miss the serious dialogue with John Donne's poetry to be found in it. Internally, the last utterance we hear from the dying scholar on the subject of her studies...

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Mary K. DeShazer (essay date summer 2003)

SOURCE: DeShazer, Mary K. “Fractured Borders: Women's Cancer and Feminist Theatre.” NWSA Journal 15, no. 2 (summer 2003): 1-26.

[In the following essay, DeShazer analyzes four plays containing women's cancer as the primary thematic element, contending that performance theater allows for a different examination of feminist explorations of the female body.]

I have stage four metastatic ovarian cancer. There is no stage five. Oh, and I have to be very tough. It appears to be a matter, as the saying goes, of life and death.

—Margaret Edson, Wit (1999, 12)

I am a...

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Further Reading


Christiansen, Richard. “Donne, Long Death Bring Wit to Life.” Chicago Tribune (22 May 2001): Tempo 1.

Review of the Chicago production of Wit praising Edson for the humanist perspective presented in the play.

Daniels, Robert L. Review of Wit, by Margaret Edson. Variety 372, no. 7 (28 September 1998): 189.

Notes the interplay between “mythical logic and illusion” in Wit.

Franklin, Nancy. “Wit and Wisdom.” New Yorker 74, no. 42 (18 January 1999): 86-7.

Notes the intentional, visible structural seams in Wit, asserting...

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