Margaret Edson Wit Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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.”