Margaret Edson Wit Criticism - Essay

Laurie Winer (review date 30 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 809 words.)

John Simon (review date 28 September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 688 words.)

Stefan Kanfer (review date 5 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2072 words.)

Rosette C. Lamont (essay date winter 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2645 words.)

Celia Wren (review date 29 January 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

Bertie Bregman (review date 6 March 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 789 words.)

Pamela Renner (review date April 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 950 words.)

Edward T. Wheeler (review date 9 April 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 866 words.)

Suzanne Gordon (review date May 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 659 words.)

James S. Torrens (review date 22 May 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Nelson Pressley (essay date 27 February 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2465 words.)

Abraham Phillips (review date 28 June 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 876 words.)

Bruce Michelson (essay date 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11058 words.)

Martha Greene Eads (essay date winter 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5838 words.)

Mary K. DeShazer (essay date fall 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5045 words.)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7570 words.)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5469 words.)

Mary K. DeShazer (essay date summer 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11152 words.)