Margaret Edson Wit

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Laurie Winer (review date 30 January 1995)

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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 whom she consults don't have time to debate the fine points of metaphysical poetry. Adrift in awful, uncharted territory, she begins to sense that though Donne gave her a way to live, he is going to be almost no use at all in helping her find a way to die.

Theater of the hospital room is by now a familiar genre: The Shadow Box,The Normal Heart,Marvin's Room and many others have all shown that there can be drama in a character's acceptance of the place where there is no drama.

Margaret Edson makes a notable and graphic contribution to the genre in her first play, Wit, in its world premiere at South Coast Repertory.

Megan Cole gives a beautiful and valiant performance as Vivian Bearing, a character who shares every vomitive, degrading agony brought on by intensive chemotherapy. She also suffers from dispassionate treatment at the hands of doctors who—like the scholar she once was when “I had shoes, eyebrows”—are more interested in the theoretical than in the emotional.

If the audience must avert its eyes at some points, at others it is glued to this exacting woman whose love affair with the work of Donne and his “capacious, agile wit” has been the reigning passion of her life. Dying at 50 and without any visitors, she amuses herself by baiting the jaded nurses and technicians, by inventing her epitaph (“She published and perished.”) and by reliving scenes from her life—her intellectual life, that is.

Wearing only a hospital gown, her shaved head covered in a blue baseball cap emblazoned with the letter “C,” Cole's strong-boned face and kind eyes stare hard into anyone who talks to her. Her Vivian is an intense, almost scarily composed listener. Lips pursed, she always seems to hold on to the hope, however fragile, that the object of her stare will say something that is worthwhile.

Meanwhile, Vivian Bearing is quite certain that whatever she has to say is worthwhile. The play's chief flaw is that Dr. Bearing is not entirely credible as a Donne scholar because she describes the high quality of her own work with as much or more passion than she finds in the work of Donne himself.

“No one is quite as good as I!” she notes in one of many such endorsements. She bristles with pride: “My book was a great success. I summarize previous critical interpretations of the text and offer my own analysis.” For a scholar, that goes without saying. Edson puts too much emphasis on Bearing's opinion of herself and not enough on the proof of her excellence. Though Bearing gives an elegant (if abbreviated) lecture on one of Donne's many sonnets about death, the play is missing that blinding burst of insight on what makes Donne great and why the poet has fueled this character's life.

The case for Bearing's emotional deficiency is likewise a little threadbare. Edson gives us a cultured and curious 50-year-old woman who...

(This entire section contains 809 words.)

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has no friends and no personal memories to speak of, except for those dealing with the development of her intellectual acuity.

Vivian's one hospital visitor is an old mentor, Dr. Ashford, the professor who taught her disdain for unscrupulously edited volumes of Donne that attributed to him melodramatic exclamation marks. In a writer as precise as Donne, Dr. Ashford taught, a single comma can signify something as profound as the breath between living and dying.

Vivian comes to long for those melodramatic exclamation points she long ago excised from her life. She learns, a little late, that there was a place for them all along. But even a hospital ward can be a place for learning. At first, Vivian winces at the touch of a kind nurse. She soon learns to crave it and then, how to wheedle it, and finally how to earn it.

Under director Martin Benson, the set and blocking are simple, keeping the focus on impressive performances from all three actresses. As a brisk older doctor and his smug young counterpart, Richard Doyle and Brian Drillinger have far less shading to play.

A tough play with a riveting central character, Wit seems a little short of reaching its full potential. Vivian Bearing would probably give it one more rewrite.

John Simon (review date 28 September 1998)

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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 unnamed university. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in its final stage, she becomes a prized patient at the University Hospital. She is given eight months of intensive chemotherapy, a slim chance of reprieve, and an excellent opportunity to provide medicos with ruthless experimentation. The play is a battle of wits: the dubious know-how of the physicians against the wit (in both the modern sense and the old one of wisdom) of Vivian supported by Donne's metaphysical poetry.

We meet Vivian Bearing as an inpatient, her hairless head in a red baseball cap, her body in a hospital gown, her feet bare. In and out of bed, she enacts or narrates the battle for life, and the scarcely less scary battle of the Ph.D. vs. the M.D. There is head doctor Kelekian, who might as well be Dr. Overbearing, to whom Vivian Bearing is just a guinea pig. There is his assistant, young Dr. Posner, who once took a course on Donne with Bearing and obtained a hard-won A-minus. But the humanities have left him with scant respect for humanity, buried under the inhumanities of medicine. And then there is nurse Susie Monahan, a well-meaning airhead. Asked whether a shot is a soporific, she replies, “I don't know about that, but it sure makes you sleep.” Yet it is she who redeems the hospital gang from total lack of empathy.

For example, inpatient Bearing is routinely questioned by Dr. Posner: “What do you do for exercise?” Answer, “Pace.” “Are you having sexual relations?” Answer, “Not at the moment.” And so on. She reflects, “Having a former student give you a pelvic exam was thoroughly degrading.” And further: “I wish I had given him an A.” But Wit is about a lot more. About academia, both students and teachers, including such purblind scholars as Dr. Ashford, whose research assistant Vivian once was. About fathers and daughters. About the profound difference between having and not having a sense of humor. About the not unprofound one between can and may. About the consolations of a life dedicated to the study of poetry.

And about something greater yet. In his Fifth Prebend Sermon, Donne says, “Though there be a difference between timor and terror [fear and terror], yet the difference is not so great but that both may befall a good man.” Wit may not provide an airtight answer to the fear of dying, but it does arm you against the terror of hospitals and their torturers. It is a dazzling and humane play you will remember till your dying day, and especially then, thanks also to a near-flawless production.

First, Kathleen Chalfant, a Vivian of power and vulnerability, commanding intelligence and compelling irony. Visualize the dedication of an actress shaving her head for a role, not to mention further heroism I won't reveal here. Imagine overwhelming effects by the subtlest vocal emphases or a roll of the eyeballs. Picture a perfect amalgam of armored intellect and naked feeling. When Chalfant gallantly removes her cap, her glabrous head radiates a glorious halo. And, last but not least, she does not, like most people, mispronounce the word joust.

Add a supporting cast in which all, and Alec Phoenix in particular, shine; lighting by Michael Chybowski to stir the soul; sparing but bone-chilling sound by David Van Tieghem; capital direction by Derek Anson Jones, etc., etc. And don't miss the final irony: Margaret Edson teaches elementary school in Atlanta. For this play alone, she should be handed the Harvard English department.

Stefan Kanfer (review date 5 October 1998)

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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.

Vivian Bearing, PhD (Kathleen Chalfant), is familiar with both the university and the hospital. A professor of English Lit. specializing in the poetry of John Donne, she comes to an unnamed clinic suffering from advanced ovarian cancer. With great calm she addresses the audience, telling us what we will see, from the first phases of her treatment to her final day on earth. “It's highly educational,” she says dispassionately. “I am learning how to suffer.” Forewarned, we still cannot look away as she is slowly robbed of her independence, her dignity and, finally, her formidable intelligence.

Dressed in one of those hospital gowns designed for maximum humiliation, and hiding her chemotherapy-caused baldness beneath a red baseball cap, Bearing is the very essence of valor. Her specialist, Dr. Harvey Kelekian (Walter Charles), intends to treat the malignancy in an aggressive manner, armed with every surgical, chemical, biological, and radiological means at his command. In this battle he is aided by a brilliant young adjutant, intern Jason Posner (Alec Phoenix). Neither man is cruel by intent. But as they go about their business Bearing ceases to be an individual to them. She becomes, instead, a subject for experimentation. Under the onslaught she makes an effort to remain indomitable, taking comfort in the verse of her beloved 17th century sonneteer:

Death be not proud, though some
          have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art
          not so,
For those whom thou think'st thou
dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst
          thou kill me.

As the treatments grow more drastic, Bearing's thoughts slip back to a childhood of reading to her distracted father. From there she wanders to undergraduate days when a college professor (Helen Stenborg) explicated a text—and pointed her life in a new direction:

In the edition you chose, this profoundly simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation:
And death—capital D—comma—shall be no more—semicolon!
Death—capital D—comma—thou shalt die—exclamation point!
If you go in for this sort of thing, I suggest you take up Shakespeare. Gardner's edition of the Holy sonnets reads: And death shall be no more comma. Death thou shall not die. Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It's a comma, a pause. This way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from this poem, wouldn't you say? Life, death, Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.
Life, death … I see. It's a metaphysical conceit. It's wit!

So it is, and so is much of Edson's absorbing play. Within its intermissionless two hours ironies appear at every turn. Kelekian is an MD, Bearing is a PhD; one doctor seeks the newest facts, the other, the oldest verities. The intern was once the professor's student. He is proud of having received an A- in the Donne course—although when Posner went on to medical school he left his humanity back in the Humanities department. (After one particularly agonizing test Bearing wails, “I wish I had given him an A!”) The hospital claims to alleviate suffering, but the only mercy in evidence comes from an ill-educated nurse, Susie Monahan (Paula Pizzi). She at least keeps the hospital from using so-called “heroic” measures to save Bearing for a few more heartbeats, another procedure, an additional entry in the doctors' notes about terminal illness.

In the role of a lifetime, Chalfant (last seen in a variety of personae in Angels in America) holds the stage of the small MCC Theater off Broadway, vulnerable and exposed in every sense of the words. Her support could not be bettered; each performer is wholly convincing in medical and/or university roles. Derek Anson Jones has directed with sensitivity and scrupulous attention to detail, moving his cast in and out of rooms with the crispness of real Intensive Care Unit personnel. Myung Hee Cho's set shrewdly utilizes the curtains around hospital beds to effect scene changes. Ilona Somogyi's costumes are all too accurate, as is Michael Chybowski's pitiless lighting.

This is not a perfect evening. Edson is a new playwright and she seems anxious to include all she has experienced as a hospital worker in an oncological unit, and as a teacher in Atlanta. Everything is a bit too neat. Bearing, for example, is exactly a half-century old—not 49, not 51. She has no family to clutter up her life, and not a single friend visits her. In the end, en route to visit a great-grandchild, the aged Professor Ashford drops by to read a children's book. The Runaway Bunny may indeed have home truths as valuable as those in Donne's sonnets, but the scene is too contrived for credibility. Still, these are the forgivable mistakes of a tyro. With all its flaws, Wit is a distinguished debut, and a promising beginning for the '98-'99 season. Webster's defines wit as (1) “intellectual and perceptive powers”; and (2) “the ability to make lively, clever remarks in a sharp, amusing way.” Edson gets an A- on both counts.

Robert Brustein (review date 2 November 1998)

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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 language at the very top of his list either.) Ibsen's famous contribution to modernism was to sacrifice verse altogether, though he was a master poet, in favor of what he called “the genuine, plain language spoken in life.” After Ibsen, dramatic characters were destined to speak colloquial prose or nothing at all.

Most contemporary playwrights followed Ibsen in believing that it is better to show than tell, that a good stage picture is worth a thousand words. This development may make literary people nervous. But which dramatist strikes us as more powerful—the verbose Christopher Fry or the taciturn Anton Chekhov? Who will last longer—the garrulous Sean O'Casey or the laconic Samuel Beckett, some of whose plays do not contain a single word? For better or for worse, the growing importance of “subtext” and “symbolic action” has virtually banished verbal poetry from the modern stage.

In America, the war on language has been exacerbated by movies and by rock concerts, the one characterized by dazzling visual images and musical soundtracks, the other by a barrage of sometimes undifferentiated pulses and beats. Yeats's “rough beast,” loutish and incoherent, was on the road to Bethlehem the moment Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and Eadweard Muybridge started tinkering with moving images. As these influences on the populace grew more powerful, the nature of dramatic character changed accordingly. Compare Ralphie Berger in Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing with Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, just twelve years later. The one is a speaker, fluently analyzing his family and his social condition, the other an uneducated untermensch who can express himself only through violence, rage, and rape.

It doesn't help the case for language that the inarticulate Kowalski is the more indelible (and the more imitated) character of the two, no matter how badly he treats his sister-in-law. The elegant and civilized, if sexually crippled, Blanche DuBois may implore her sister Stella not to hang with the brutes; but Stella and Stanley come together “with low animal moans” while the delicate Blanche loses the battle for survival in this animalistic world. By formulating such a conflict, Williams was obviously suggesting that poetic feelings and expressive language were being obliterated by the orgiastic grunts of the lumpenproletariat.

Watching three recent productions in New York [De La Guarda's Villa Villa, Edson's Wit, and Robert Pinsky's version of Dante's Inferno]—one appropriate for Stanley Kowalski and the rock generation, the others more suitable for Blanche Dubois and the college-educated classes—I was nevertheless convinced that the war against language was far from over, that there were still a variety of ways to break the silence. If two of these shows made us grateful for the gift of eloquent language, the other proved that theater can continue to exist without words.

The case against language was argued by De La Guarda's Villa Villa at the Daryl Roth Theatre in Union Square. Created and directed by Pichon Baldinu and Diqui James, this group is a young Argentine company founded in 1993 and composed of acrobat-singer-dancers from Buenos Aires. It is also composed of the audience, since spectators are totally engulfed in the action in a manner reminiscent of Andrei Serban's Fragments of a Trilogy at La Mama. You enter a large square area, formerly a bank, with no seats, and you stand on your feet for over an hour, crushed and jostled by the other people in the room. Somehow the experience is exhilarating, as if you were being swamped by an emotion of multitude.

First you discern some vague shadows flying over your head, dimly perceived through a paper ceiling. The ceiling is pelted with raindrops that, through a trick of lighting, soon give the illusion of a starry firmament. Suddenly a figure crashes through the ceiling, feet first, and carries a screaming female spectator aloft, groping her behind (don't worry, she's a plant). Before long, the entire ceiling has been ripped away, and you are watching sixteen men and women, equipped with bungee cords and waist harnesses, zooming back and forth, up and down, in aerial flight, singly and in groups, sometimes forming a conglomerate mass like some hydra-headed alien creature.

The remainder of the evening provides multiple variations on flying, bungee jumping, and wall-walking, to the accompaniment of earsplitting music (mostly percussion) and strobe-light effects. Two women, in perfect synchronization, scramble up and down a silken scrim like twin flying monkeys. One man, standing on a platform over another man who is hanging upside down, keeps preventing the poor wretch from righting himself. The air is dense and humid, hydrated by water spouts falling from the ceiling, and at one point the space is filled with balloons. Members of the troupe are likely to break these balloons between their bodies and yours, when they are not crawling around like snarling animals at your feet and pretending to bite your behind.

This may sound impossibly intrusive to you, like those performance group actors of the '60s and '70s who were always climbing over your seat and sweating over your suit. Take my word for it: most of this seventy-minute presentation is absolutely thrilling. Words are spoken, shouted, or sung during the course of the evening. Not one is recognizable. De La Guarda uses language more as a form of incantation than communication, and the audience responds as it would at a rock concert, a revival show, or a “rave” party, dancing and singing and gyrating with the actors. “We would like to bewitch you all, to thrill you like crazy and get under your clothes,” the company announces in a program note, elsewhere adding this description of artistic intention: “Everything started with the uncontrollable desire to explode, to expand, to choose a space and take complete hold of it. … The tide produced by the audience is a fundamental part of the emotional upheaval of this show, where everything is fragile, everything is changeable except our tempests. The victim is reality.” It is a manifesto that echoes the imagery and intentions expressed by Antonin Artaud. Villa Villa is much more good-natured than The Theatre of Cruelty, but Artaud would undoubtedly have rewarded the show with one of his gap-toothed smiles.

If my enthusiasm for De La Guarda sounds like I too may be hanging with the brutes, let me add that, within hours of this experience, I was able to reenter a world of literacy, nuance, and sensibility. The occasions were Margaret Edson's Wit at the MCC Theater and Robert Pinsky's version of Dante's Inferno, presented by the Unterberg Poetry Center at Playhouse 91. I won't review the Dante, since virtually everybody associated with the show except the translator has been a colleague or student of mine at one time or another. I'll simply say that it was a pleasure to hear Pinsky's supple translation spoken aloud, though I wasn't altogether convinced it needed actors instead of readers, or a stage instead of a lectern.

Wit, on the other hand, is an eminently playable work, and it is receiving a superb production under the direction of Derek Anson Jones, with a first-rate cast headed by the enchanting Kathleen Chalfant. Edson uses the word “wit” in the Elizabethan rather than the Wildean sense, as equivalent to intelligence, insight, and discernment. This is appropriate, considering that the heroine is a professor of seventeenth-century literature and a specialist in John Donne. Vivian Bearing has been working on the Holy Sonnets, particularly the one that begins “Death be not proud,” for an article in the Oxford English Dictionary. The choice of poem is cruelly apt. At the relatively young age of fifty, she has contracted an advanced case of ovarian cancer. Now, like Donne, she must learn to conquer death through language, courage, and transcendence—“And death shall be no more: death, thou shalt die”—figurative ways of killing her fear of mortality.

The playwright, aside from holding advanced degrees in history and literature, has worked on the cancer inpatient unit of a research hospital. She may parade her scholarship a bit too self-consciously at times, but she knows exactly what she's writing about. It was Shaw who said that playwrights often identify their heroes as people of genius without providing any evidence of intelligence (which is why Shaw compiled John Tanner's “Revolutionist's Handbook”). He could hardly have leveled the same charge at Margaret Edson. Although this is a first play, she has drawn suggestive parallels between the way a scholar tracks down the meaning of a poem in order to illuminate literature and the way in which a doctor explores the body of a cancer patient in order to advance research.

The trouble is that Vivian Bearing is obviously incurable, and the medical research that extends her life only lengthens her pain and suffering. She is forced to endure a four-hour operation, and the superfluous agony of eight full courses of chemotherapy. She has a tumor the size of a grapefruit, but it is her treatment more than her disease that is making her suffer. Although she sometimes sounds frosty and brittle in the manner of Albee's older battle-axes, she is a person of genuine charm and sensibility and, as played by Chalfant, extraordinary grace. The whole purpose of her existence up to the moment of her death is somehow to preserve this humanity while being pushed, pulled, and prodded like a helpless experimental object. Trying to keep her spirit whole as her body wastes away is the only way she can protect herself against the indignities of medicine. Afflicted by pain and boredom and the slowing down of time (“it hangs … and yet there is so little of it”), wracked with fevers and chills, subject to perpetual nausea, she continues to find refuge in language, which changes from Latinate constructions to plain Anglo-Saxon in order to accommodate descriptions of her decaying bodily functions.

The play that comes to mind is Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III, where another amiable character is mangled and lacerated by the whips of medicine. Bennett showed that even a royal sovereign is likely to be tortured by well-meaning practitioners. Now Vivian Bearing is seeking among her doctors the touch of human kindness that she gradually realizes she has denied to her own students. All they can tell her is to keep pushing fluids. As one by one her vital organs fail, she is moved from room to room (scraping hospital curtains dramatize the changes in locale) until she ends up in an isolation ward. The one person who treats her like something other than a conduit for tubes and pills is her nurse Susie. In a touching moment, they share a popsicle together, Susie providing her only relief from pain; and it is Susie who reminds the doctors, after Vivian's heart has stopped, that she left strict orders not to be resuscitated.

The final exquisite scene lifts this play from a display of taste and intelligence into something more exalted. Unheeding of Susie's remonstrances, the doctors are trying to bring this “data collector” back to life so that she can continue to serve as a source of research. There is pandemonium in the isolation room as their efforts fail. Suddenly, the dead Vivian rises from her bed, removes the baseball cap that has concealed her baldness, takes off her hospital gown, and in absolute nakedness ascends to her God. It is a little disconcerting that the most powerful moment in this eloquent play is a wordless one. But the emotional wallop of that final image would not have been possible without the language that preceded it. Villa Villa and Wit approach the theater from entirely different ends of the verbal spectrum. That each succeeds so well in its own distinct way of breaking silence testifies to the infinite variety of dramatic art.

Rosette C. Lamont (essay date winter 1999)

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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 of one another throughout the play, constantly ready for an invasive pelvic examination by a team of cancer specialists and their students. She discards the baseball cap she wears over her skull, bare of hair following eight cycles of chemotherapy, and takes off her ID hospital bracelet. Deliberately, almost in slow motion, she pulls off her gown, standing naked, her arms raised. The stage directions read: “The instant she is naked, and beautiful, she reaches for the light.”

The recent production of Wit opened at the Union Square Theatre in New York City, on January 7, 1999. Produced by the MCC Theatre, it featured Kathleen Chalfant of Angels in America fame. Both the play and the principal actress were awarded the Drama Desk first prize in the Spring of 1999. Presently there is a partial change of cast, with Judith Light playing Vivian Bearing. Each of the two actresses was wonderful in the demanding role. Chalfant was more of a fighter as she manipulated her IV pole like a pilgrim's staff along the Via Dolorosa and its stations of the cross suggested by swiftly pulled hospital curtains. Until the final scenes, she struggled to preserve her intellectual lucidity and independence, the marks of a profession in which she established herself as “a force.” The appropriately named Judith Light kept a spiritual glow which intensified in the phases of unbearable suffering, even as she was “barfing her brains out.” Her emphasis was less on Bearing's “Anglo-Saxon vocabulary,” and ironic twist of mind (“If I actually did barf my brains out, it would be a great loss to my discipline”) than on her discovery of the young nurse's humanity. “I am learning so much about kindness” she said in the course of one of the post-production symposia. Both actresses presented an almost unbearable image of extreme pain, and of the gradual dissolution of the body. Donne's metaphysical and highly physical poetry is interwoven with the hyper-realistic text. It is important to remember that Margaret Edson, presently an elementary school teacher in Atlanta, Georgia, worked in the cancer and AIDS unit of a research hospital while earning degrees in history and literature.

What was particularly striking about the final stage image of Wit was its seamless amalgam of mortality and sensuality. It is of course endemic to the conceit, and more broadly to literary irony. In her initial soliloquy, an address to the audience, Vivian Bearing speaks of being an “un-wit-ting accomplice” of the ironic mode. At this point in her life—what's left of it—she sees the humor in her situation: “It is not my intention to give away the plot; but I think I die at the end. They've given me less than two hours.” There are echoes here of Ionesco's metaphysical farce, Exit the King. Both plays in fact are clear examples of metatheatre, a play within the play. Bearing's tough mind revels in the ironic situation of being asked: “How are you feeling today?” at the moment she is throwing up into a plastic washbasin. There is nothing “unwitting” about her sense of humor, still present on the edge between living and dying: “I am waiting for the moment when someone asks this question and I am dead. I'm a little sorry I'll miss that.” This is pure Ionesco and pure Donne: the reconciliation of opposites.

This reconciliation is also present in the paradoxical union of death and sensuality. It can be studied in an early poem, “Elegy 19, To his mistress going to bed.” A connection can be established between this daring anti-Petrarchist, anti-Renaissance Platonistic poem, and the mysterious final image of Margaret Edson's play. “Elegy 19” has been called “an Ovidian love poem,” inspired by Ovid's Amores. In it, the poet enjoins his mistress to strip off her armor of underwear and elegant clothing, and hasten to the bed in which he awaits her, lying “in labor” like a woman, and ardently waiting to be fully a man, “to labor.” His tone grows increasingly ardent as he orders: “Off with that wyerie coronet and show / The hairy diadem which on you doth grow.” In the second half of the elegy he explains: “Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee, / As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be, / To taste whole joys.” We have in this erotic poem as in Edson's play the Renaissance debate between Body and Soul. Thus, as Clay Hunt states in Donne's Poetry: “The Beatific Vision is like taking off your clothes to experience full joy, then taking off your clothes to experience full joy is like the Beatific Vision.” The equation is between the pleasures of the flesh and the bliss of heaven. The naked soul is equated with the nudity of a body offering itself. Clay Hunt states without hesitation: “The bright young man who set himself up, at the start of his literary career, as a special practitioner in the shock effect of a witty paradox never devised a more shocking paradox than this.” Indeed, “Elegy 19” concludes with a provocative couplet which can be read on more than one level: “To teach thee I am naked first; why then / What need'st thou have more covering than a man?” We picture the lover, naked on the feather bed to which he is luring his mistress by telling her that he is ready to become her “cover.” Yet, the erotic connection is not the sole goal. Rather it may be viewed as a rite of passage, leading to the ultimate transition, that between life and life everlasting.

Central to Edson's play is the famous Donne sonnet: “Death be not proud.” It appears first in a flashback scene in which a young Vivian Bearing faces her demanding teacher, “the great E. M. Ashford.” A twenty-two-year-old Vivian comes in to pick up her paper. Dr. Ashford is not pleased: “Your essay Miss Bearing is a melodrama, with a veneer of scholarship unworthy of you—to say nothing of Donne.” The student has missed the point because of her use of an “inauthentically punctuated edition in which the simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation.” Ashford states that the only reliable edition is the Gardner, the one based on the Westmoreland Manuscript of 1610.” The scholar launches a withering attack: “And Death—capital D—shall be no more—semicolon! / Death—capital Dcomma—thou shalt die—exclamation point!” She now reads the corrected line: “And death shall be no more, comma, Death thou shalt die.” Gone the semicolon and the capital D. Only the comma is left. Professor Ashford indulges herself in the fine delirium of scholarly endeavors and literary analysis. She states: “… death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It's a comma, a pause.” What does this “holy sonnet” teach us: “Life, death, Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.” The comma is part of the coma.

A chastened Vivian claims her readiness to return to the college library in search of the Gardner edition which had been checked out earlier. Dr. Ashford states: “The sonnet begins with a valiant struggle with death, calling on all the forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. But it is ultimately about overcoming the seemingly inseparable barriers.” This pronouncement dignifies the scholar's primary purpose, yet Ashford reverses herself. This is a bright, sunny day, the kind of day when one takes joy in being alive. Students are sitting on the lawn, “talking about nothing.” There is value in the enjoyment of this precious moment. Dr. Ashford shifts from the formal “Miss Bearing” to “Vivian” as she declares: “You're a bright young woman. Use your intelligence. Don't go out to the library. Enjoy yourself with your friends.” We, the audience, looking at the dying Vivian in her hospital gowns, know what the girl of twenty-two could not fathom: there is so little time to savor one's good health, to taste life fully. Yet, we must also keep in mind the fact that for a complex, highly intelligent human being there is more to living than creature comforts, there is the superior joy of savoring words and ideas, of reading in depth and cultivating the mind. The Vivian we meet at the start of the play is rightfully proud of the life she shaped. She is within her rights when she claims our respect, and she is also correct in respecting the scholar she became, an authority in her field (John Donne's Metaphysical poetry), “a force.”

Unlike her protagonist, Margaret Edson is a modest elementary school teacher who loves to work with children. She is also a highly cultured woman, a sensitive thinker, and, as the writer of Wit, a true artist. Her portrait of Vivian Bearing, an inspired lecturer, is feminist without a trace of posing or preaching. Edson has no pulpit, no podium; she has now claimed the stage of life, and of life's inevitable dissolution. Unlike Wendy Wasserstein who until now never showed us a convincing woman-scholar, revelling in the supreme pleasure of thinking, feeling, and sharing this endless joy with her peers, present and future, Edson conveys the full meaning of an existence devoted to an art. Indeed, an imaginative scholar is also an artist.

One of the most exciting moments in the play is a flashback to a mature, self-confident Vivian, the master of her classroom. She is armed with her knightly sword, a pointer, with which she occasionally “wacks the screen” upon which is projected Donne's Holy Sonnet Five, “from the Ashford edition based on Gardner.” Edson establishes this magnificent line of three women scholars, three women in love with the life of the mind. Facing a class of students we must imagine, Vivian proceeds to a reading of the sonnet: “If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree, / Whose fruit threw death on else immortall us, / If lecherous goats, if serpents envious Cannot be damn'd; Alas, why should I bee?” The question is both metaphysical and highly physical since the sick Bearing, who must bear the pain of poysonous chemotherapy, is crucified upon a paradox.

What is deeply moving about Vivian is her respect for the proper definition, and her love of words. She recalls the moment in her childhood when that love came to the fore. Once again we have a flashback, this time to Vivian's fifth birthday. Her father (the same actor plays both Vivian's father, and her cancer specialist, Dr. Kelekian) is seen reading a newspaper. Vivian, now a child, flops next to a pile of books by Beatrix Potter. In “The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies” she encounters a word she never heard before: “so-po-rific.” “What does this mean?” she questions her father. From behind his paper he volunteers: “Makes you sleepy. Causing sleep.” Vivian repeats the definition. Mr. Bearing goes on enlightening his intelligent child: “Now use it in a sentence. What has a soporific effect on you?” The child has never experienced this feeling. She is wide awake, curious, eager to understand. What makes her dad sleepy? He answers: “Boring conversation … after dinner.” Vivian picks this up eagerly: “Me too, boring conversation.” Edson, the elementary school teacher, shows how determining education at home can be. Later she meets with exciting words in John Donne: ratiocination (logical reasoning); concatenation (linking together events); coruscation (intellectual brilliance, a gleam); tergiversation (shift of opinion). The acquisition of vocabulary, Vivian explains, is her only defense. But how can she protect herself from the medical jargon which disguises the fact that she is being used, with her consent, as a guinea pig. Vivian, who has been put into isolation, faces a terrible fact: “My treatment imperils my health. Herein lies the paradox. John Donne would revel in it. I would revel in it, if he wrote a poem about it.” Words are fine, particularly as they are used by a poet. Jargon is inimical to the life and death process; it turns people into machines operated by machines. Thus, Jason, Vivian Bearing's former student at the university (he took her famous course in Donne because it looked good on his application to medical school) tells the suffering, dying woman: “Cancer's the only thing I ever wanted.” Cancer was his research of choice. In a burst of scientific enthusiasm he intones a paean: “You grow cancer cells and they never stop … They just pile up, just keep replicating forever. (Pause) That's got a funny name … Immortality in culture.” Still the literary scholar, Vivian suggests: “Sounds like a symposium.” The hidden truth, however, is that radiation destroys the immune system. Even the perfunctory way in which doctors inquire about how their patients feel: “How are you feeling today?” amounts to a cynical betrayal of their oath as healers. The only answer to their question is a lie: “Fine!”

Edson's ear is tuned to the lie. Medicine can be a kind of lie if one pretends to believe that a couple of days of survival, at the price of unbearable suffering, has value. For the medical profession, for the possible advance of science, it might mean a break-through, but patients are not offered an existential choice. The only member of the hospital staff who treats Vivian Bearing with respect and kindness is the nurse Susie. In fact she and Vivian develop a friendship, almost a family feeling. Having checked with the patient what her choice would be in the event her heart gives up, stops, Susie makes sure that her file states DNR (DO NOT RESUSCITATE). In fact, when this happens, Jason summons by mistake, and excess of scientific zeal, the “Code Blue” team. As they begin to pump the dead woman's chest Susie stops them. There is a highly dramatic struggle between the nurse and Jason:

She's DNR! (She grabs him.)
(He pushes her away.) She's Research!
She's NO CODE!

There is a physical struggle. Susie pushes Jason off the hospital bed as he tries to give mouth to mouth resuscitation. The nurse and the young doctor are fighting over a corpse. At this moment the Code Team swoops in. With their equipment they knock Susie out of the way. She grabs a phone: “Cancel code.” But the team continues to do what it usually does in such cases. Loudspeakers in the hall announce: “Cancel code, room 707.” All the machines and instruments have gone wild. Edson has written the perfect metaphor for the dehumanization of our modern world. A dehumanized world even as we pretend to advance science. Jason howls: “I MADE A MISTAKE!” No commas here, just exclamation points. Jason keeps on repeating: “Oh, God.” But God is not there, not with Jason. God gives strength to Susie, the heroic fighter on the battlefield of death. God is the light Vivian reaches for when she steps out of the bed, a resurrected Christ figure.

Let us conclude with Edson's Hamlet intertext, spoken by E. M. Ashford: “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Edson's Wit is a celebration of a life dedicated to the art of literature. For those of us who are literary scholars and writers this is a particularly moving experience. The play is a tapestry of languages but it will not permit us to forget that literature is language within language.

Celia Wren (review date 29 January 1999)

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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 shrewdness and occasional vulnerability by Kathleen Chalfant, a red baseball cap on her bald head), reflects on her own field of study, the poetry of John Donne. With humor, irony, and a certain exhilaration, the play draws out contrasts and parallels between two kinds of knowledge—medical and literary—and two ways of approaching life—via thought and via sympathy. The taut off-Broadway production, which has been so successful it recently moved to a larger theater, is directed by Derek Anson Jones.

Bearing, who once reveled in the cerebral games (the “wit”) of Donne's Holy Sonnets, finds that language can no longer shield her from the terrifying truths of existence. Death, a word she once parsed along with a verse's syntax, starts to overwhelm her as it becomes physical, a matter of tubes and fluids. (In the current production, scenic designer Myung Hee Cho exploits the average viewer's hospital phobia with sweeping synthetic curtain-partitions that change color, from stark white to sickly green, with the lighting.) Not that she succumbs without mustering an attitude: “I would prefer that a play about me be cast in the mythic-heroic-pastoral mode,” she sniffs in one of many direct remarks to the audience.

But, trained as she is in intellectual rigors, the dying professor can still detect the pattern behind the particulars. She can understand the distracted manner of the young medical fellow (the boyishly officious Alec Phoenix) who views her as a collection of cells, rather than a person. And she can even describe her own life's narrative arc: “I am becoming proficient at suffering,” she observes—a remark Electra might echo.

Wit is full of suffering, but, to its credit, nearly devoid of sentimentality. Juggling ideas about knowledge and authority, the rift between the sciences and humanities, the power of words, and other weighty matters, it often resembles a poem by Donne. As in Donne, the emotion is in the thought. “A thought to Donne was an experience,” T. S. Eliot wrote in his seminal essay “The Metaphysical Poets,” in which he posited that metaphysical poets, like Donne, were among the last English writers able to “feel their thought as immediately as the odor of a rose.” After them, Eliot believed, a “dissociation of sensibility” set into literature, driving a wedge between thought and feeling.

It is because our sensibility is still dissociated that productions like Wit shock. Because we approach thought and feeling as if they were oil and water, we are surprised when the word attitude means two things at once, when anguish suffuses a drama of ideas, or when petulance rages from the elegant frame of a Greek tragedy.

Bertie Bregman (review date 6 March 1999)

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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 Donne. Fiftyish, bald, dressed only in a hospital gown, she addresses the audience in the authoritative voice of someone used to lecturing to large audiences. She has advanced, metastatic, ovarian cancer and, through a mixture of narrative, present action, and flashback she relates the story of her illness and treatment with experimental high-dose chemotherapy.

The characters we meet along the way, as might perhaps be expected, do no honour to the medical profession. The attending physician, Dr Harvey Kelekian, treats Vivian with respect, but beyond collegiality he has little comfort to offer.

Dr Jason Posner is the oncology fellow in charge of her daily management; he is one of her former students and took her course, he tells her earnestly during the initial interview, to seem well-rounded for medical school. Always rushed, he is oblivious to irony or nuance, enraptured by biochemistry yet lacking the very rudiments of bedside manner. Only Vivian's nurse Susie, sweet but dim-witted, is able to provide the compassionate attention that is so central to the needs of a dying person.

Vivian's dilemma is that of a superior intelligence trapped in a powerless role. Brilliantly articulate, she uses to full advantage her formidable analytical skills in a desperate attempt to regain control of her life. Dissecting medical jargon—“neoplasm”, “insidious”, “grand rounds”—down to its etymological roots, parsing the petty degradations at the hands of the hospital staff, she continually reminds us of who she was before she became a patient. The sheer power of her subjectivity turns the rest of the cast into supporting characters in the truest sense: we are interested in them only to the extent that they reflect her experience, not necessarily objective reality.

But there is deeper reason why the authenticity of the hospital characters seems an almost incidental concern. Wit turns out to be a classic tragedy, with its hero, by the rules of the genre, complicit in her own suffering. Vivian's doctors, in their zeal to battle the disease even at the expense of the patient, are portrayed as the mere executors of a fate for which she shares responsibility.

According to conventional wisdom, if doctors today are cold and heartless, more concerned with laboratory values than with people, then the emphasis on science and technology in medical training is to blame. Proponents of this view often turn to the liberal arts as a potential corrective. Thinking, perhaps too literally, they see the humanities as humanising, expecting the study of poetry, say, to smooth the rough edges of the biochemist.

Wit undermines this false dichotomy of arts and science, revealing to us what anyone who has spent enough time in academia knows: the cold intellectuality that precludes empathy is a function of the scholar, not the discipline.

We see Kelekian and Posner quizzing the medical students around Bearing's hospital bed, barely acknowledging her existence, prodding her like an object, and we feel the disgrace. But then we see Vivian with her own students, mocking the stupid ones, allowing the smarter ones to talk until they “self-destruct”, and it becomes clear that the rigid perfectionism that propelled her to the top of her field is accompanied by a contempt for anything less. Vivian, no less than her doctors, despises weakness and elevates the intellect above all other human qualities. By the end of her life, those other qualities are understood to matter most.

In a deeply moving and evocative scene, Vivian's mentor, now a grandmother, climbs into her former student's deathbed, takes her in her arms, and reads to her from a children's book (noting of course, the use of allegory in the text). Vivian is in a morphine-induced stupor by then, so the meaning of the scene is ambiguous. Is it a real visit, or is it just a dream? No matter. To Vivian, and by extension to us, her beloved mentor is as real as any other aspect of her illness. And we are left, along with the chilling awareness of how bondage to pure intellect can desiccate a life, with a more redemptive vision of intelligence coexisting with tenderness and love.

It's hard to ask more of a play.

Pamela Renner (review date April 1999)

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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 far from unwary. Both, in fact, are penetrating witnesses to extreme rites, impassioned observers able to coax astonished laughter from audiences confronted with tragic circumstance. Wit and The Waiting Room are dramas of mortality set in the harsh amphitheatre of the modern research hospital. Both Edson and Loomer sprinkle their dialogue liberally with the polysyllables of medical lingo, and their property lists groan beneath the burden of hospital beds, morphine drips and IV poles. The effect of all this theatrical scaffolding of terminal illness, however, is not a slavish naturalism, nor even a fascination with the mechanical flora and fauna of dying. Instead, the hospital setting serves to underscore the human absurdity at the core of the scientific worldview. Very simply, these are plays about the search for empirical knowledge as it fails—brutally and painfully—to postpone the final chapter of a human life.

This is no country for young women, to paraphrase W. B. Yeats. Nonetheless both playwrights have come ashore here, determined to stake their authenticity upon the factual as well as the emotional accuracy of the presentation. Loomer's The Waiting Room, which premiered in 1994 at Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum and has since been widely produced, is a strenuously researched fantasia, spanning and uniting three diverse centuries through its chromatic triplet of ailing female protagonists: a 20th-century secretary from New Jersey, a 19th-century Victorian doctor's wife and an 18th-century Chinese noblewoman. All three meet in the oncologist's waiting room, a space outside of time and habit where each character can examine the conditions that led to her fate. Loomer's ironies hinge upon authentic physical horrors: mutilations of female body and spirit such as foot-binding, plastic surgery and bone-laced stays. As the three women develop a friendship, they begin to reclaim their own lives, right at the breaking point.

Wit sticks closer to realism, and closer to home. Edson puts up no shield against a suspension of disbelief. And Kathleen Chalfant, in her bravura performance in the current New York production, commands belief, playing Dr. Vivian Bearing—a formidable scholar of John Donne's poetry who's stricken by ovarian cancer. The performance is a landmine: explosive, unsentimental and wise to the core.

How does one know the self at this terminal moment? Not as a collection of cell pathologies and blood chemistry data, as Bearing's young doctors assume. Bearing cannot be reduced to the suffering animal life shivering beneath the hospital gown. She is more than a body and a past—although even the metaphysical poets can only speculate about the future of a woman who, in the ordinary sense, has no future.

Another possibility is suggested by Wit's E. M. Ashford, a venerable literary critic who instructs a young Bearing about punctuation in the sonnets of Donne: “Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really.” Edson's drama doesn't venture off into terra incognita; it stays fiercely grounded, strapped to the scrutiny of the clinic. No matter how simple death may be, the act of trying to cheat and stall it through chemotherapy is filled with complexity.

Seven years ago, long before she consciously intended to write the play, Atlanta-based Margaret Edson worked as an inpatient floor captain in the AIDS and cancer wards of the National Institute of Health's research hospital in Washington, D.C. The low-level administrative position put her in the thick of things, but, at the same time, left her virtually invisible within the hospital's hierarchy.

Edson watched the doctors make their rounds and listened to their conversations about their patients. Later, when she talked about what she'd seen, some of her friends encouraged her to write, but the real impetus came from within. A kindergarten teacher by vocation, Edson wrote Wit because she needed to speak, and drama gave her a momentary language. She completed the play in 1993, and it premiered in 1995 at California's South Coast Repertory Company. Wit won several awards, then temporarily disappeared.

Derek Anson Jones, a longtime friend of the author, showed the script to Chalfant, and in the fall of '97 New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre mounted the play under Jones's direction, with Chalfant in the demanding central role. This production, with only minor cast changes, was restaged in New York, moving from the 99-seat MCC Theater to the 499-seat Union Square Theatre on the wings of critical acclaim and audience response. It's a difficult play with a simple message: “lean, mean and redeemed,” Edson quips over the phone, quoting her director's pithy phrase.

The redemption in question takes an unexpected form. Susie Monahan, the oncology ward nurse who cares for Bearing during the eight-month ordeal of chemo treatment, offers a rare kind of succor to her patient: she gives her a popsicle and tells her the truth. The nurse's compassion is crucial to Vivian; it humanizes her and gives her the courage to make a crucial decision about her treatment. If there's a villain in Wit, it's not a person or an institution, but a thirst for knowledge regardless of human consequences. Susie's honesty is the closest thing to heroism that Edson's drama admits.

Edward T. Wheeler (review date 9 April 1999)

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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, and other weighty matters, [Wit] often resembles a poem by [John] Donne. As in Donne, the emotion is in the thought.”

The play's protagonist, Vivian Bearing, is a professor of English literature and a Donne scholar. Donne's poetry is used as a weapon in her struggle with doctors and with death. The powerful language of medical research and treatment is seen as forcing a false identity on the patient. The technical vocabulary and the “clinical” patter of the bedside manner reduce her to an object—the focus of an experiment, the mere recipient of treatment.

The playwright, Margaret Edson, creates in Bearing a testy literary critic whose familiarity with death is derived chiefly from the poems of Donne in which she specializes. The struggle Dr. Bearing (as she wants herself called) wages against doctors, nurses, and disease is conducted with words. The wit of Donne allows Bearing to assert her professional and personal self against dehumanizing technical terms and the empty familiarities of her caregivers. (“How are you feeling?” is particularly irksome.) At one point in the play, Bearing acts out a lecture she once delivered. On a screen at the back of the stage is projected the text of Donne's Holy Sonnet no. 5. The play wryly points out that interpreting poems about death is one thing, facing death is another. Still, the force of the dramatic action asserts that Bearing salvages what she is as a human being insofar as she retains the wit of Donne's poems. She must combat flaccid language if she is to retain her own sense of purpose and identity.

Wit is tremendously moving, even as Bearing goes through a morphine-induced escape from terminal pain. Her death rattle, however, is followed by a dubious physical transfiguration. In the play's final moment, Bearing appears naked and brilliantly lit in a triumph of the body over death. The woman who battled treatment and death so bravely—and so brilliantly conveyed the physical destruction cancer imposes—is transformed and reborn before our eyes.

Unfortunately, this viscerally compelling moment is something of a theatrical lie, a willful separation of thought and feeling. Not to put too fine a point on it, the play's resolution is a betrayal of Donne's poetry. The Holy Sonnets are not about preserving an essentially sentimental belief in human physical incorruptibility. Surely even a casual reading of part of sonnet 5:

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damned, alas, why should I be?

tells us that we are dealing not with Wit's preoccupation with the degradation of the body, but with the damnation of the soul. Donne wields his with in a confessional struggle with God and against the forces that would damn him, including all those fallen aspects of his body:

Why should intent or reason, born in me,
Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous?

The sonnets, which ask the “three-personed God” to “break, blow, burn, and make me new” (sonnet 10), talk about recalcitrant flesh; they focus on mistaken love, pride, failure to acknowledge the Incarnation's significance. In short, as a Christian the poet faces the ultimate frailty of our bodies and faculties, and his own utter reliance on Christ crucified.

Father, part of his double interest
Unto thy kingdom, thy Son gives to me,
His jointure in the knotty Trinity
He keeps, and gives me his death's conquest.

(sonnet 12)

There is no Christ in Wit, not even a generic God or a plain-wrapper religion. Rather there is the struggle with words: the words of the secular humanist against the medical researcher. To force Dr. Bearing to be “Vivian” is to force her to accept the definition of herself as patient. To accept such a definition is to cease to be human and to become an object. The play uses John Donne's wit to deny such a reductive view of human life. But Donne has a profoundly transcendent aim.

Wit trades faith for spectacle, sacramental sign for irony. Death of the body is not irrelevant for Donne; it is part of the great mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption. Death's defeat is spiritual, not crudely physical. If we pass gloriously out of life, we do so in the spirit. The resurrected body is a spiritual body, nothing as tactile or as familiar as Vivian Bearing's triumphal form on stage. Wit misreads Donne's very dark and strange words; he was, after all, a poet/priest who had his portrait painted showing him cowled in his burial shroud. There is no resurrection of the body until the Final Curtain.

Suzanne Gordon (review date May 1999)

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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 see a very different kind of nurse. Wit tells the story of Vivian Bearing, a professor of English literature who is dying of ovarian cancer. The action takes place in a cancer research hospital where Bearing is receiving an experimental treatment from her attending oncologist, his eager young fellow, and her primary nurse, Susie Monahan. Susie is the fulcrum of the drama: The main character's fate, her hope of redemption, and the play's startling final scene all hinge on Susie's action.

First-time playwright Margaret Edson, a kindergarten teacher, wrote Wit after leaving a unit clerk job in a cancer research hospital. “They were doing the first clinical trials of AZT for Kaposi's sarcoma, and were also working on a couple of different protocols for ovarian cancer and for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma,” she told me in a recent interview. “The nurses were so good at expressing their compassion through skilled action. Like Susie, they were always doing something. Everyone in the audience is always so moved that the nurse in the play puts lotion on the dying patient's hands. But that's a typical nursing intervention.”

Edson was so impressed with nursing that she not only made the nurse her hero, she also hired an oncology nurse to consult with her and recommends that every production of the play hire a certified oncology nurse as consultant. As Edson puts it, Wit is about “different kinds of love and different kinds of skill and knowledge.” The physicians' obsession with fighting Vivian's cancer until her last gasp stands in contrast to the emotional intelligence the patient so desperately needs—and which the nurse embodies.

Here, it's the nurse who stops the oncology fellow from degrading the patient during a pelvic exam. It's the nurse who protests that the chemotherapy regimen is far too aggressive for this patient. It's the nurse who acknowledges Vivian's pain and recommends treatment to maintain her prized mental acuity. It's the nurse who recognizes that the experimental chemotherapy is failing and who has the courage to talk to Vivian about code status. Because of this conversation, Vivian chooses to forego treatment that will only prolong her death. But to get the eager, young physician to respect these wishes, the nurse literally throws herself between doctor and patient.

What's most important to the play's moving conclusion is Susie's ability to penetrate Vivian's intellectual defenses to comfort the terrified woman hiding underneath—without which the play would be an exercise in despair. (Watching some of these scenes, one would think Edson had read Patricia Benner's From Novice to Expert.) Wit also offers nurses an extraordinary opportunity to talk to the audience. Every Tuesday, audiences are invited to stay after the performance and talk to the cast about their impressions. Several moderators of these discussions have been RNs.

Nurses won't like everything about Wit. Susie is introduced flirting with a doctor. And while Edson doesn't agree with the actor's and director's rather stereotypical depiction of the role, she points out that it highlights the nurse's development. “What's so important,” Edson says, “is that the nurse changes. By the end she really comes into her own power as a person and the audience sees the power of nursing.”

Wit is nothing short of remarkable. If you live in New York, see it. And if you don't, it's definitely worth the trip.

James S. Torrens (review date 22 May 1999)

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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 Atlanta, knew almost nothing about John Donne and his sonnets when she began writing this play 10 years ago, yet her instinct was sound. The evidence of “salvation anxiety” and the planned ambiguity of so many of Donne's lines—in short, their wit—perfectly fit this story.

Donne enters the play in a flashback scene of Vivian as an undergraduate, berated by her mentor, E. M. Ashford (Helen Stenborg) because, in her paper, she followed the wrong punctuation in the final line of the sonnet “Death be not proud.” The line generally appears with a semicolon in it: “And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.” No, says Ashford, the best manuscript has only a comma; death is a simple comma between life and life everlasting.

A later scene takes Dr. Bearing back even farther, to when she was hooked on language at age five by her father's explanation of the word “soporific.” This is the woman then who finds herself at the start of the play in a doctor's office chewing on the medical term for her ovarian cancer in its fourth phase: “insidious.” Dr. Bearing, ultra-rational and demanding, has alas fallen among the M.D.'s as a subject of experimental research. That is the gist of the story. Death is no more a hypothetical matter.

The research doctors in this play, above all Jason Posner (Alec Phoenix), an ex-student of hers, come off as brains without sensitivity. Vivian's attentive nurse (Paula Pizzi), their foil and their opposite, tends her kindly as her assurance and erudition break down. Vivian has to admit, toward the end, “You may remark that my vocabulary has taken a turn to the Anglo-Saxon.” Indeed it has.

What makes for quality in Wit is one fine stroke after another. From the start, the playwright sounds a cheery question, “How are you feeling?” which becomes more and more incongruous as the pain worsens. Edson, once a clerk in an oncology ward, gives us a devastating rendition of grand rounds. At the conclusion she ties up a thematic thread of the story, John Donne's habit of hiding from God behind his wit, with a children's tale that E. M. Ashford reads to the barely conscious Vivian Bearing. It is a fable of young animals trying to run away from their parents and always being found—an allegory, says Ashford. Author, take an A.

Nelson Pressley (essay date 27 February 2000)

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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 still running in New York, where it won an armload of awards, including the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for drama. A production opened in Los Angeles last month, with more to come across the country. HBO is planning a film version. And Judith Light is starring in the national touring company, which opens this week at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

Yet despite all this, Edson, who teaches kindergarten at a public school in Atlanta, maintains that it is impossible for her to think of herself as a dramatist.

“I just wrote this one little play,” she explains.

This, then, is a story about arguably the most famous kindergarten teacher in America.

On a cold winter night, Edson, 38, stands erect at the front of a conference room in a downtown Washington hotel, charming a few hundred members of the Association of American Colleges and Universities as she lectures on punctuation. The matching of speaker and topic seems sensible: In Wit, a good deal of philosophy hangs on whether a key phrase in one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets should have a comma or a semicolon. In advertisements, on programs, even on the published play, the spelling of the title includes the semicolon: W;t.

On Edson's cue, Rosalind Jones, one of her former professors at Smith College, reads from Wit with the playwright. Appropriately, Jones plays E. M. Ashford, a former professor of Vivian Bearing, the drama's main character. Edson plays Vivian, a cold, intimidating Donne scholar who has ovarian cancer. Between bouts of what is often brutal (and impersonal, given Vivian's brusque professional methods) medical treatment, Vivian's mind flashes back to scenes like the one Edson and Jones read.

“And death shall be no more, comma,” argues Jones as Ashford to a younger Vivian. “Death thou shalt die.”

When her role is done, Jones leaves the stage, but Edson keeps reading her own part; she doesn't want the scene to be interrupted by exit applause. This is a lecture, not a theater. What matters now is the lesson.

The next morning Edson, a Washington native, takes the stage of the arts center at Sidwell Friends, where she went to high school in the late 1970s. She talks about Derek Anson Jones, a close friend since their days at Sidwell.

Four days before this, Edson's triumphant return to her alma mater, Jones—who directed the New York and touring versions of Wit—died of complications from AIDS. Edson had planned to share the stage with him this morning. Unhappily, she can't, so she stands before the Sidwell crowd and remembers her times with Jones: the way he stole the show from her as Touchstone when she was playing Rosalind in As You Like It at Sidwell; the way he optimistically carried the script of the undiscovered Wit in his backpack for years as he was building his directing career in New York.

At the end of these sessions (and at the beginnings), Edson gets long, deeply appreciative ovations. Edson, oddly, stands stock still, impervious to the acclaim; she looks as if she's waiting for a bus. This is not what playwrights do. Playwrights bow or smile or wave or blush. Their instinct for dramatic action demands it.

Edson, on the other hand, merely waits—like a teacher—for the room to get quiet.


Margaret Edson wrote “this one little play” in Washington almost nine years ago. Nothing about her life up till then pointed to dramatic theatrical success.

She grew up across the street from American University; her father, who died in 1977, wrote for newspapers, and her mother continues her career as a social worker. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, later of Saturday Night Live and Seinfeld, lived next door. The two girls would invent dramas with Barbie dolls or act out fantasies of being college girls.

She dabbled in drama at Sidwell, then went to Smith College, majoring in Renaissance history. Not finding herself particularly employable after graduating, she helped a friend move to Indiana, then settled outside Iowa City (where her sister lived) for a summer, selling hot dogs by day and working at night in a bar at the end of a dirt road. Then she went to Rome to live in a French convent for a year.

After Rome, she returned to Washington, landing a job in the cancer ward of a research hospital. Later she worked in publications at the St. Francis Center (now the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing), cranking out grant proposals.

In the summer of 1991, Edson quit her position at St. Francis and got a low-pressure job working in a bike shop near Tenley Circle. In effect, she was taking the summer off so she could write this one little play that had been taking shape in her mind, triggered in part by what she had seen of cancer treatment.

But she would allow herself only the summer to write. She was enrolled at Georgetown University for the fall, ready to pursue a master's in English. She wasn't setting out to become a writer.

“Oh, no,” Edson says, horrified by the idea. “That would have been too dangerous for me.”

Why does writing seem more dangerous than—

“Than saying, ‘Now I'm going to be a waitress?’ I don't know. I haven't thought about it.” She pauses. “Because if you're a waitress, you're doing something. You're getting up and getting dressed every day and you're part of the world. And if you're a writer, you're just not good for anything. You're not in the mix when you're a writer. It just wouldn't do for me to be a writer.”

What she wrote, that one time that she wrote, was rejected from coast to coast. Finally, in January 1995, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., produced Wit. Edson says she was surprised at how unsurprising the experience was: “It happened exactly like it was in my mind, as though I was whispering to each person what to do. So instead of being astonished by it, it was … correct. That was the most exciting thing—to have it be exactly as I imagined it, to the tiniest detail, and to have strangers bringing that about. It was so proper, so correct, that it was thrilling. I was delirious. And that hasn't gone away.”

But she says the production, which won a number of Los Angeles Drama Critics Awards, did not make her think, “Aha, I'm a playwright.”

“Because I was a teacher by then,” she says. “By the time it was produced, I was in my fourth year. I was really into it.”

While she was completing her master's at Georgetown, Edson had begun teaching English as a second language through her church, St. Margaret's Episcopal on Connecticut Avenue.

“I started liking my tutoring more and more,” she recalls, “and feeling less and less comfortable in the academy. So at the end of that year, it was clear to me that I wanted to be in the elementary classroom.”

She launches into a topic that genuinely excites her: the alternative certification plan started by the D.C. school system eight years ago. She was in the inaugural group of the program, which allows promising people from other professions to begin teaching without first wading through the certification process, which Edson says takes at least a year (full time) to complete. Instead, they start teaching right away, taking certification classes at the same time.

“In inner-city schools,” Edson says, “there's about a 40 percent exit rate in the first three years for teachers. Alternative certification programs have a much higher retention rate because people go into it knowing more about it. They're not 21. We were older and sadder and wiser, and had had some kind of experience in the classroom. So I taught ESL for five years, and I never could have done it without this program. It was really the big break of my life.”


It was Jones, whose years of study and dues-paying were beginning to yield fruit in and around New York in the mid-1990s, who finally got Wit produced on the East Coast. Artistic Director Doug Hughes agreed to let Jones direct it at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., where it opened in October 1997. The play had been rejected for two years even after its success at South Coast Rep. Edson ticks off the reasons listed in her rejection letters: “cast size, subject, too much talk, too academic, too haughty, too unsure of itself, whether it was funny or sad. … Now people are scratching their heads about it. But it was unanimous.”

The script was cut by an hour at South Coast by Edson (who hated the cuts at the time), dramaturge Jerry Patch and director Martin Benson. “The effect it has now, especially in Derek's production, is of this very fast-swerving drive,” she says. “You're brought very quickly over to laughing and then ripped right back into something harrowing—very shocking, in fact. And it happens so quickly and smoothly in his production that it makes me seem like I really know what I'm doing.” She laughs.

There is a thick streak of redemption running through Wit (and made abundantly clear in its final image) as Vivian Bearing comes to terms with her tough personality, her illness, her isolation and the implications of Donne's poetry. Edson, a Christian, says it's fair to say that she has written a Christian—though certainly not proselytizing—play, yet it is seldom described that way.

“And that's very interesting to me. To me, it's obvious. Duh.”

Edson has said repeatedly—for she is invariably asked—that she will not write again until she feels she has something else to say. “If Wit works, it's 'cause it's the one thing that I had in my heart,” she insists. “And I'm not going to go and try to crank that up again.”

Of course, the pressure of writing a follow-up to Wit would be enough to intimidate even more experienced writers.

“I don't think that's what's keeping her from doing it,” says Linda Merrill, Edson's longtime partner, by phone from Atlanta. (Merrill, who wrote a number of scholarly art books while at the Freer Gallery for 13 years, is now curator of American art at Atlanta's High Museum of Art.) “She is very wrapped up in her other life, which is her life as a kindergarten teacher. That occupies so much of her thinking and her energy that she doesn't have a lot left over for anything else. So the rest of this is something that's going on somewhere else.”

Edson says, “The job I have now, ‘people person’ doesn't even begin to describe it. I'm with my students every minute of the day—lunch, everything. So the isolated languor of the writer is just really not part of my world.” She laughs again, and you can practically hear the relentlessly inquisitive voices of 5-year-olds buzzing in her ear.

Because she has achieved a degree of fame and fortune—and possibly because of the scholarly tone of her play—it confounds people that Edson continues to teach kindergarten. She got a hero's applause, for instance, from the university crowd when she was introduced as the toast of American theater and a public schoolteacher.

“It's a government job,” she says later, rolling her eyes in a neat summation of the drab hassles implied by the phrase. “There's nothing heroic about it.”

Still, teaching, given her circumstances, strikes people as a heroic choice.

Edson isn't buying it. “Ms. Rivers in the room next door has made the same choice,” she says flatly. “Not out of the same number of options. But all my colleagues are doing the same thing I'm doing. People who know me slightly, or who have maybe read about me or heard about me, find it hard to understand. But to people who know me better, it makes perfect sense. They know the ways that I'm … odd.”

“She loves to draw, for instance,” says Merrill, who has known Edson for 20 years dating back to their days at Smith, “but she's not very good at it. They're funny little pictures, so they're just right for kindergartners. She's an excellent mimic—in fact, she used to take mime classes and she can imitate animals in amazing ways. And that's a skill that you wouldn't think she'd have occasion to use.

“Writing is a lonely profession,” Merrill adds, “and it was hard for her to write the play. She likes having the immediate response from her students. And if there's something about it that isn't working, she can change it immediately. Whereas writing a play is a long, drawn-out process, and it's a long time before you know whether you've been effective.”

Add to that the fact that Edson—a private school product—appears to be one of public education's evangelicals. To be in a public school is “critical” for her, she says. “Completely. The school where I teach is a Title One, free lunch/free breakfast school. My students are people who would be … well-served by good education.” Her voice is very soft now; she is deeply serious. “I feel very clear about what I'm doing. I'm perfectly sure of the positive impact of what I'm doing. And I'm the only person I know who can say that. Except for the people down the hall, Ms. Rivers next door.”

Yet once upon a time she wrote a play, and it became a very big hit. …

Edson comes up with an allegory to explain it.

“A friend of ours, in his garden, decided to build a shed. He'd never built anything, and he just got this idea that he was going to build this shed. And so he got all these books and plans, and he poured a foundation. For somebody who'd never built anything to build such a shed was incredible. He worked for the government, came home from work, and worked on this shed. And this was his … shed. And I was working on my play. We had the same spirit: that whatever else happens, I'm makin' my shed.

“So now,” Edson concludes, “he has his shed. And I have my play.”

Abraham Phillips (review date 28 June 2000)

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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 exalted heights she is thrust into an entirely new world of hospitals, physicians, and chemotherapy, when she is diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer. Initially, her approach to her illness is rational and probing, though mixed with cynical responses to the situation that she is pushed into by current medical practices. Without much choice, she is made the initial patient in an experimental chemotherapeutic protocol. The process by which she reassesses her life and work, and critiques medicine with profound insights and cynical good humor, transforms both the patient and audience.

The playwright grips us intellectually and emotionally from the first few lines of dialogue: the typically perfunctory “Hi. How are you feeling today?” and the reflex response, whatever the patient's answer or condition, “Great. That's just great.” In the next two hours of uninterrupted drama, the patient at center stage freezes the action around her—the parade of doctors, nurses, technicians, and medical students—to comment on her life, its metaphors and conceits. Through the eight cycles of chemo that ultimately take her life, she realizes the irony that it's not the disease that makes her sick but the treatment itself, to wit, when she is forced to return to the hospital with fever and neutropenia: “In my present condition every living thing is a health hazard to me … particularly health-care professionals.”

The play parodies our habit of breaking bad news impersonally, without even the offer of a chair to break the shock. Eloquent irony is introduced in the person of Jason Posner, MD (Grant Show), who, while a biochemistry major, had taken one of Professor Bearing's required poetry courses. Physicians' idiosyncrasies and the foibles of unsympathetic and mechanical technicians are woven into the play in wonderfully crafted sequences. A masterly scene parodies grand rounds, which are neither grand nor worthy of applause, but rather full of “subservience, hierarchy, gratuitous display, sublimated rivalries.” Bearing describes her role in the proceedings: “I just hold still and look cancerous. It requires less acting every time.” In this scene she sums up the crucial difference between her past and present life: “Once I did the teaching, now I am taught.”

In another scene Professor Bearing helps Jason verbalize why he is so interested in oncology, exposing the limitations of his vocabulary despite his “well-rounded education.” Dr Posner is absorbed in his research, working to unravel the mysteries of cancer cells “and their endless powers of multiplication … immortality in culture.” For him, bedside manners and empathy are, as poetry had been, unwelcome chores. Although the dying Bearing is called “sweetheart” and “sweetie,” no one gives her a hand when she is vomiting or an empathetic touch when she is in dire pain. In my own medical training, I was encouraged to sit at a patient's bedside during history taking and physical examination, and therefore found the sterility of the clinical scenes shocking.

But to portray the play as simply an exposé of the medical profession would be an injustice, as it is an equally searing critique of academia in general. Bearing and her mentor, E. M. Ashford, argue at length about the appropriateness of a comma versus a semicolon in a Donne poem. In another brilliant scene Bearing lashes out as she lectures on a poem of Donne's, “If Pysonous Mineralls,” projected on a screen. Her powerful whacks with the pointer are metaphorical blows meted out to her students. Despite her appreciation of fine English poetry, her humanity is not moved by her students' difficulties, and her demands on them are unceasingly exacting. A powerful prickly personality, Vivian Bearing is capable of dry asides even during gut-wrenching nausea or while discussing code status. But, as her time draws to a close, a change occurs in the way she reflects on life, death, and Donne. The most awesome irony is that while Vivian Bearing is sterile (emotionally, physiologically, and symbolically), she never had a love affair—has not given birth or accepted anyone into the essence of her body—she ultimately succumbs to ovarian cancer, a malignancy of a life-giving or renewing organ.

The play, brutally human at one level, is layered: it disturbs, enlightens, and, strangely, comforts. The author won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished drama by an American author, an award that is richly deserved. Margaret Edson is a kindergarten teacher in Atlanta, who while earning degrees in history and literature worked in the cancer and AIDS unit of a research hospital, and the events in the play unfold with authenticity. Several productions of Wit are planned. While the play's ferocious intensity may intimidate, its transformative power should be provocative and enlightening for those of us who must make life-and-death decisions for our patients.

Bruce Michelson (essay date 2000)

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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 dreams. But what was once a certainty now drifts in a gulf of doubt wider than the millennium itself.

—Richard Powers

As 1999 began, an off-Broadway production of an austere drama with the darkly witty title Wit, written by first-time playwright Margaret Edson, a teacher from Atlanta, was causing a stir in literary New York. The excitement held, and in April of that year Wit won a Pulitzer Prize. Presenting Vivian Bearing, a middle-aged English professor virtually alone in a battle with ovarian cancer—she has spent her life as a rigorous, aloof expert on John Donne and the literary wit of the Metaphysical poets—Wit has grueling stretches of realism, presenting the sort of struggle that goes on behind sound-deadening hospital doors everywhere in the Western world. The play looks relentlessly at the cold ugliness of the medical practices that Vivian must endure: dehumanizing wards and therapies and clinicians, the word wilderness of treatment for her dreaded disease, and prospects that professional affectations and exotic science can rarely brighten now. But contemporary clinical medicine, with its penchant for alienation, pretense, and euphemism, isn't a new subject in literary or popular culture. What sets Wit apart is the other half of the drama, its sustained interest in Professor Vivian Bearing's interest in wit—as a literary practice, a subject for study, a core of belief around which to organize a life, face catastrophe, and define professional and personal identity. At the opening of the play, Vivian enters an empty stage pushing an IV pole, introduces herself as “a professor of seventeenth-century poetry, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne,” and about thirty seconds later, she tells her audience, “They've given me less than two hours”—which creates a blur of voices and significations, for no ovarian cancer patient given “less than two hours,” to both tell her story and complete her time on earth, will be pushing her own IV pole in the ward hallways and orating in this ruefully chipper manner. Right away, Wit calls attention to its own ingenious and complex design: the artificial “less than two hours” signifies that Vivian is speaking here, and also the actress who plays her, and also the playwright who ventriloquizes for them both, who has to trim and pack this literary text into less than two hours of precious theater time. This virtuoso blending of voices and times keeps up until the final moments of a play that is all one act and scene, and Vivian soon appears to us as young graduate student, as teacher, as a mature and arrogant scholar, and as a variously defiant and vulnerable human being at moments in the course of her disease and its treatment. At the end we see that “less than two hours” refers not just to Vivian's account of herself, but to Vivian, who with absolute fidelity to Macbeth's last and darkest great speech, struts and frets her hour upon the stage and then dies silent before our eyes.

About four hundred years before Edson's Wit, a certain John Redford, who like Edson was a school teacher, was serving as master of a boy's choir at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Sometime around 1530 he put together a short stage piece called The Play of Wyt and Science,1 apparently to give his young charges an amusing fable about the value of learning their lessons and proper Anglican ways of growing up both virtuous and bright. Redford's play survives as a fragment. A portion of the opening scene or scenes is gone—exactly how much we cannot be sure. As Master Redford's hero, the allegorical Wyt is a breezy young innocent who after some mostly comic tribulation is happily married off to a blushing maiden called Science, with festive closing music and song, and with “Reson,” as the bride's kindly, lordly father, presiding over the rites and paying the pipers. This is a lively innocent play from the infancy of English drama, an amateur entertainment that might have been a hit for pleasing and instructing Redford's corps of squirmy choirboys.

Young Wyt and his companions and foes carry the stock allegorical significations of the time, and if we want to frisk them for hidden profundities we will turn up little. There are no signs that Edson's Wit takes notice of John Redford, and on the subject of literary wit, neither play suggests any last word on interpretive problems described in the foregoing chapters. Even so, a glance into these two very different dramas—one of them a festive antique, the other new and sometimes excruciating—can bring together useful perspectives regarding ways in which literary wit is understood, negotiated, or resisted in today's interpretive communities. Together, the plays can clarify how certain understandings have been mislaid over a stretch of time, and at a cost—to the art of engaging with art.

Edson's play centers on a scholar who has sacrificed everything to one intellectual and professional quest, to have the interpretive “last word” on a supremely canonical body of English literary wit. Redford's play presents a promising barbarian who gets his head knocked and then weathers seizures of farcical stupidity, yet who ends up happily wedded to this young allegorical maiden called Science. With regard to understanding potentialities of literary wit, much can be gained from looking at each play in the reflected light of the other. Redford was not writing about wit as literary discourse; like his contemporaries, he took it for granted that wit meant intelligence, adaptability, cleverness, insight, mental variety of every useful sort. Nonetheless, like Margaret Edson, Redford brings “wyt” (no matter what human skill it means) through an epistemological barrier by moving it onto the stage, by situating it as a subject to be observed in a theater or chancel or some other place apart—in other words, as a subject in a distinctly literary arena. His boys were not watching “wyt”; they were watching a young man (one of their schoolmates perhaps, or someone else whom they knew in “real life”) impersonating Wyt in a context that required extra measures of suspended disbelief. Allegories always require that—as do monologues and apostrophes from on-stage people like Vivian Bearing, who is presumably already dead when she speaks. When we go to hear Vivian's monologues, we go into a theater and hear an actress speak words from a playwright, words about a self and an illness and a culture and also about wit as a subject, and she speaks these words in a narrative context saturated not only with rituals of the clinic but also with rituals and sanctities of “serious” contemporary theater. In either case, an audience knows acutely where it is—or rather it understands certain rites and mysteries of where it is—and knows also that the subjects raised here for consideration are ultimately being raised by literary texts, or by writers of imaginative discourse, for an audience assumed to be open to that most peculiar kind of communication. John Redford was evidently not the Tom Stoppard or the Oscar Wilde of his day, and in the opening scenes of Wit Edson's graphic realism makes clear that we are a long way from the domestic gentility of Sidley Park. Nonetheless, the artifice of both Wit and Wyt and Science is strongly asserted, and that artifice has an important impact on the way that wit as a subject is presented. And because each play contains an imaginative critique of wit as cultural value in a particular historical moment, in each work we can consider both the idea and the critique: Redford's conception of wit in Tudor England; Margaret Edson's presentation of what literary wit was, and is, and finally becomes for a professional scholar who has given her life to that subject, and of what it might really count for, beyond the reach of old poems and tidy scholastic analysis. But more than that, we can glimpse what can happen when wit becomes a central subject in a literary text rather than a dimension of its discourse. If Redford's idea of wit is as quaint as his play, can it nonetheless suggest recognitions that a modern literary culture might usefully recognize? Does Edson's play achieve kinship of sorts with Redford's on this subject, an understanding that eludes the literary scholar who is Edson's protagonist? In considering such questions, we can revisit and extend some of the observations in the opening chapter of this book.

As was true for the Angels in America plays, Tony Kushner's Broadway triumph of a few years ago, much of the impact and signification of Wit depends on skillful and innovative direction and on how specific lines in Edson's text are delivered and situated. Much like Angels, Edson's essentially agnostic play about a death from cancer ends in a flash of mysticism, a moment of ambiguous spirituality. In Wit, however, no angel crashes at last through the clinic wall to lift Vivian from her deathbed. As a fruitless and mistaken “code blue” resuscitation riots around her, she rises silently and alone, shedding hospital gowns and IVs and all other medical and corporeal encumbrances, until finally she stands naked—and as isolated as always—reaching toward a bright light above, for an instant before the scene goes black and the drama ends, and we try to figure out what has happened.

Vivian seems to be free at last; yet of exactly what is she free? Of worldly and bodily suffering, surely, but also perhaps of the accumulated burden of her own identity, which is coextensive with her intellectual life. Is she also free now of the psychological encumbrance of literary wit (again, as she herself has defined it, and affirmed it, and lived with it, and perhaps lived behind it) and of studying and teaching it to waves of unappreciative students as intellectual calisthenics and an illusory stay against confusion? Has Vivian's intellectual life—again, equivalent to her entire adult life—turned out to be a fatal mistake? a blessing? Has that life-consuming literary practice turned out to be a body of formulations that she finally outgrows? Or is it a valid body of faith that she finally and marvelously grows into? Early in the play and late, Vivian's attention focuses on Donne's Holy Sonnet Six, the sonnet beginning with “Death be not proud” and ending with “Death, thou shalt die!” We cannot be sure that this is the way things work out for Vivian, or that Vivian has been right or wrong about the truth of this sonnet. Amid the chaos of the rescue drill, Vivian ends the play, and her worldly existence, in pantomime. This person of words, words, words passes away from shouts and shocks and hubbub; or she transfigures perhaps, or ascends with perfect privacy and silence into the perfectly unknowable. There is no way to know exactly what is going on, except that silence has won out over talk and that the formulaic symmetries and certainties of Professor Bearing in her prime have given way to some apprehension that cannot be spoken or written. At the end, words have become useless; Vivian's avalanche of talk about her travail and her personal history gives way to distracting pain, then to the drowsiness of analgesics, and then to incoherence, and then to the end of talking. And the literary wit of Donne and the Metaphysicals—her one true subject and social and personal identity since her college days—this wit has perhaps ultimately failed Vivian Bearing too, not because of what it is or can be but rather because of how she has configured it, as an extension and expression of her own temperament. But regardless of what grand theme one does or doesn't find in it, Wit is wonderful in its quest to open and energize a conversation from which literary culture—except for a few (literally) diehard academics like Vivian herself—and a larger world have largely turned away. An understanding of what might be at stake in this play and of the problems that seem to emerge within it, with regard to the scope, nuances, and powers of literary wit, can open a few un-final perceptions, with which to end.

Professor Vivian Bearing begins Wit as a patient in a chemotherapy clinic, giving her audience a perky “Hi. How are you feeling today? Great.” Right away, however, she shifts to acerbic grammatical analysis of the contrived perkiness that she now has to endure and play along with, along with everything else in this chummy but essentially inhuman context. Here and hereafter, the play takes care to establish Vivian as an isolated figure, a severely professional academic of a sort familiar enough in modern academe: a supposed humanist without family, without close friends, even without students who feel sufficient love or gratitude to visit her in her months of struggle against insidious disease. Professor Bearing's name says it all, and wittily—especially if one accepts an idea like hers, that literary wit amounts to handsome, cool, and psychologically serene contrivances of puns and clever turns of phrase and schematic ironies. Enduring her eight months of chemotherapy and the degradations of hospital existence, Vivian has been “bearing” these ills she has (more like a Brecht character than a Hamlet) rather than fly to others that we know not of. Dying from an insurrection of cells in organs that—more grim irony here—she has never used for “bearing” a child, Vivian has (on the evidence of flashback scenes) been bearing down for twenty years on the decoding of Renaissance English poetry; she has (as we see in other flashbacks) been overbearing in college classrooms, using her expertise about Donne, the Metaphysicals, the Renaissance, and English linguistics not to interest and educate young people so much as to confound them and to condescend to the vast witless world beyond her classroom.

Vivian's students are shown to be quite capable of wit themselves, but theirs is wit of another more spontaneous and serendipitous sort than Vivian can appreciate or indulge. They have dutifully borne the burden of her course; and then they have all gone away, bearing their textbooks to the buy-back counters and never bearing to look at a Metaphysical poet again. The Professor Bearing whom we are shown lacks human relationships, except for these awkward, coerced ones with a few doctors and later with a clinical researcher named Jason and a compassionate nurse (a “simple” woman, Vivian assures us) named Susie. It turns out that years before, Jason himself has endured Vivian's Metaphysical poetry class as a required course, a hurdle to jump on his way to medical school. He is the only ex-student of hers who turns up in this hospital, but professional duty and curiosity have brought him here, not any fondness for either Bearing or Donne. In an aside to Susie, Jason remembers his encounter with literary wit in those classes: “Listen, if there's one thing we learned in Seventeenth-Century Poetry, it's that you can forget about that sentimental stuff. Enzyme Kinetics was more poetic than Bearing's class. Besides, you can't think about that meaning-of-life garbage all the time or you'd go nuts” (77).2

Ultimately then, it is with Susie that Vivian creates her strongest relationship, in the last days of her life, yet to Vivian, Susie can never be more than a good-hearted bumpkin—“poor Susie,” she calls her near the end, whose brain “was never very sharp to begin with.” In one of their final conversations Vivian shatters an intimate moment, a little of the human kindness she has yearned for, by laughing uncontrollably at the young nurse's misunderstanding of the word soporific. Vivian's feelings for Susie never seem to ripen into more than a condescending affection, the sort of fondness that one might acquire for the pet in a hospice.

In the classroom yesterdays, Vivian's students don't seem to have ranked much higher in her regard. On one dangerous occasion, however, one particular class has almost spoken the words that might have changed everything, has almost named the inadequacy of Vivian Bearing's profession of literary wit—the limited, limiting analytic principles on which she has built a two-decade academic career. In this key flashback, a class of undergraduates stirs toward rebellion against a Donne sonnet—as Vivian has presented, prescribed, and circumscribed the poem:

I think it's like he's hiding. I think he's really confused, I don't know, maybe he's scared, so he hides behind all the complicated stuff, behind this wit.
Hides behind wit?
I mean, if it's really something he's sure of, he can say it more simple—simply. He doesn't have to be such a brain, or such a performer. It doesn't have to be such a big deal.
(The other STUDENTS encourage him.)
Perhaps he is suspicious of simplicity.
Perhaps, but that's pretty stupid.


Suddenly Vivian finds herself in both professional and personal trouble with this class, and the implication is strong that down in some silenced corner of her own consciousness, she understands what they are suggesting—that she herself has been hiding behind literary wit for a long time. Her professional description of it cannot embrace uncertainty, or simplicity, or deep conflict in the psyche, or anything of a more personal nature than what she lists in her antiquated half-definition of her subject, which she offers midway through this play: “In his [Donne's] poems, metaphysical quandaries are addressed, but never resolved. Ingenuity, virtuosity, and a vigorous intellect that jousts with the most exalted concepts: these are the tools of wit” (48).

The “tools of wit”—Vivian never says “literary wit” because she never seems to notice any special circumstances in the literary context, no distinctions worth heeding between the kind of wit that informs poems and the wit that breaks out in negotiations with experience and people out beyond them. Vivian's failure, or refusal, to imagine such differences when dealing with Metaphysical verse or her own crisis is crucial to her professional identity, her personality, and her existential suffering. Her students have tried (and failed) to say that a polished Renaissance sonnet might be both a world apart and a foray into experience before and after the poetic interlude. In their bewilderment in Vivian's classes, they may have wanted to try reading Donne's poetry as an arena where a performance, a free play of words and surprising imaginative connections, might matter in the confrontation with mortality, with the darkness that surrounds—and at the same time might not matter at all, might in fact be an evasion of all that, favoring instead handsome resolutions that can satisfy and console only within the tidy rhymes and scansion of well-made sonnets or the safe slow-time surfaces of some Grecian urn. Twain, Wilde, Wilbur, and Stoppard can engage and evade within the same utterance; their literary wit can at once plunge into darkness and keep it at bay. Vivian Bearing never gives a hint of comprehending that possibility. For her, wit is wit; and because she cannot or will not countenance special and paradoxical dimensions of wit in the literary context, she evidently cannot make distinctions, which, to borrow one of Wilbur's phrases, give “Clearance to our human visions.”

Briefly, Vivian tries again to explain her conception of what literary wit is really for, what sides and motions of the mind it can signify or betray. As white-coated technicians close in to transform her back to a dehumanized patient, she offers a hasty backward glance at her own scholarly zeal. The pause is Vivian's: “To the scholar, to the mind comprehensively trained in the subtleties of seventeenth-century vocabulary, versification, and theological, historical, geographical, political, and mythological allusions, Donne's wit is … a way to see how good you really are” (20).

Literary wit then as performance first and last—for the poet, for the scholar—and as pretext for self-congratulation and also perhaps for self-deception as to one's own insight and merits. Elsewhere in Wit we see that Vivian actually hasn't been trained to think this way or to be so self-congratulatory regarding her own analysis of texts and worldly experience. Using literary wit to avoid simplicity, to avoid encounter with the most unsettling paradoxes of both poetry and life: this has been her own project, and not that of her graduate school mentor Professor Evelyn (E. M.) Ashford, with whom Vivian first opened Donne and the Metaphysicals. Decades before (as seen in another flashback) Ashford has tried to convince Vivian not to go back to the library again to rewrite a clumsy, prescriptive paper about these poets but instead to walk out into the sunshine and “Enjoy yourself with your friends”—to experience a little unprogrammatic, unpredictable actual life and perhaps bring that real experience to bear on the reading of Renaissance verse, which Ashford considered as valuable as the Polonius sequence of “historical, geographical, political, and mythological allusions” Vivian commends to anyone who will or won't listen. When Ashford herself, an old woman now, appears unexpectedly in the clinic at the end of the drama to spend a few minutes with Vivian (who by this point is on “soporific” painkillers and well past wit of any variety), Ashford modestly appears as a scholar who nonetheless has lived, in ways that Vivian tragically has not. A greater academic than her protégé, E. M. Ashford has also filled her years with more than decoding poets and intimidating undergraduates. Eighty years old, the retired professor has come to the city to visit her grandchildren. Finding her former student in this terrible state, she has the “mother wit” (in the Shakespearean sense) to realize that at this moment in Vivian's life, more peace, consolation, and even more truth will be found in an intimate reading to her of an old children's book she has with her, The Runaway Bunny, than in those elaborate lyrics to which Vivian Bearing, when she had all her wits about her, has given over so much professional life.

Other than her own disease and the fixed professional habits of her own mind, Vivian Bearing does have a nemesis of sorts in Wit. The lead researcher in her experimental treatment program is the self-satisfied doctor named Jason, the former student who would rather forget all that he ever learned about Renaissance poetry. Not really menacing so much as egregiously unpoetic and unwitty (at least by Vivian's criteria) Jason seems preoccupied and callous in his role as mainstay (by default) in Vivian's life and as a center of her attention. The ironies here are of a sort that Vivian, as a connoisseur of literary irony, ought to appreciate but apparently doesn't. Below those situational ironies, however, there is a deeper and more troubling one: Professor Vivian Bearing has helped to create Jason. The grueling and (to Jason) gratuitous experience of her course in Metaphysical poetry has led him to his conclusions that enzyme kinetics is a subject more poetic than Donne, and that seventeenth-century poetry has no touch of “that sentimental stuff.” As a mild try at wit, his remarks are a small whirlpool of significations, blending in a way that would put Professor Bearing on the defensive if this were an outbreak in one of her classes. Jason's wisecracks are facetious, yet they are also sincere; they are superficial yet perhaps accidentally profound. Personally, Jason really has found more “poetry” in hard science than in canonical English verse, because, as he tells Susie, hard science brings him the exhilaration of “looking at things in increasing levels of complexity” and “trying to quantify the complications of the puzzle.”

There we have it: if these words don't describe satisfactorily the art of decoding literary wit—Metaphysical or otherwise—they are as good a description as Vivian Bearing offers. Her students have wanted to assert volatile perspectives and possibilities about Donne. They have wanted to suggest that in his verse one can sense fear and internal conflict and minglings of courage and cowardice, perspectives that would actually make the poetry more interesting, more intense—not at the expense of its literary wit but as a celebration of its eloquence. They have wanted to say that the “tricky stuff” in his verse might possibly be evasion as well as magisterial expression, a performance so exquisitely complex as to contain within it recognition that elegant literary performance may signify nothing and count for nothing and that simplicity, as a consummation to be feared, might also be a consummation to be wished.

As a teacher, Vivian Bearing has been closed to such possibilities. When her students have ventured into that uncharted territory, she has apparently waited them out or pushed them back into those readerly bypasses she herself prefers. Oblivious, through most of her life, to that need in others for the “simple human kindness” that she yearns for at the end, she ultimately loses the capacity not only for wit but also for coherent thought, becoming dependent on the professional judgment and kindness of near strangers. The ironies in her final predicament are obvious, frighteningly familiar, and in this context—again, a literary context as well as a life context—deeply provocative. For Wit is a narrated play, a story told, enacted (and mysteriously reenacted), and meditated on by a woman who in the final scene dies and transcends … perhaps. Drawing attention to its contrivance and reflexivity as well as to its verisimilitude, Wit plays the tech talk of the clinic as a chorus and orchestral background to Vivian's solo performances of her own past and present. An actress speaks to us, as a character speaking to us from the stage, the hospital, the classroom, and apparently also from beyond the grave—and the vertigo created by this blurring and blending of identities and conditions and voices is ingenious, clever—witty. What results, in fact, is a fuller expression of literary wit than Donne's poem “Death be not proud,” not as that sonnet really is or could be, but as Vivian Bearing would control it. Margaret Edson's Wit has the wisdom to let the mysteries of experience remain mysterious, beyond the reach of either the professed old-school humanist or the contemporary scientist. In her “soporific” final hours, listening to The Runaway Bunny read by the now-old scholar whom she has revered, is Vivian closer to some truth than she was when her wakeful, laboriously clever and highly trained intelligence was humming along at full strength and (just possibly) obstructing the way? That question of course isn't answered. It is not answerable, except perhaps in formulaic literary discourse, the kind of discourse for which Vivian herself ultimately apologizes, offering a single, quiet “Sorry” to her audience after a burst of explication—of Holy Sonnet 6, of death, of her own life of reading. For Vivian, the consolation and triumph of the sonnet tethers to almost nothing, a use of a semicolon in the final verse. In the face of actual and personal death, that kind of intellectual lifeline will not hold. Life, death, poetry, and literary wit, as a lifelong subject of Vivian's concentration—these all slip back into the mystery. What is shuffled off and left behind, there on the gurney with the hospital gowns, the needles, bottles, and tubes, is Vivian Bearing's way of seeing, of reading—the cultural and psychological confinements that only her own death will allow her to escape.

So—a reading of one new play as a kind of morality play, with a theme that happens to correspond tidily with premises of this book, especially when this play is situated (again, with suspect neatness) alongside a certifiable morality play about wit from a golden age of such dramas. A caution: Margaret Edson's play can be understood as witty in a better, more literary, and more obstreperous way than Vivian Bearing in her classroom prime could appreciate. For no matter how many embedded ironies in this text can be totted up, this text mingles its own wit with humility, with a quiet, pervasive recognition that no arrangement of scenes and clever words and clever thoughts can evade for long the deeper mysteries about our experience: what it is for and whether any arrangement of modern life, or modern thinking, or modern drama can be surely other than a wasteful passing of time. In Wit,The Runaway Bunny does have the literary last word; not John Donne, and not Vivian—and not because The Runaway Bunny is inherently the wiser text, or because Donne's sonnets and modern books for children all amount to the same gibberish. On the contrary: this play is inherently gentle enough and skeptical enough about final formulations (literary or otherwise) to avoid such glibness in its final scenes. Vivian's silence at the end is the play's supreme moment of utterance, and also perhaps its supreme moment of literary wit, in which the self, aware at last of so much in a single instant, refuses to limit or profane with words and saying. Vivian's lifelong mistake has been her quest to have the last word—and only at the last does she discover that no word, last or otherwise, is ever sufficient as an expression of what we intend, and what we are.

But such an alternative reading of Wit should be as dubious as the one that it questions. One recognition that emerges here more surely, in Edson's play and even in John Redford's old moralizing farce, is that we do injury to texts, and ultimately to ourselves as readers and reasoners, when we reduce literary wit to irony or cleverness, or when we understand the intellect as an entity distinct or disconnected from the whole self. Donne, Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, Anne Bradstreet—these poets understood much about literary wit; and they also evidently understood something about love and about “the touch of simple human kindness” that Vivian comes to appreciate at the last. Vivian's tragedy, or at least a part of it, is not that she has dismissed literary wit as superficial and trivial but that she has loved it too much and too narrowly, reading it as a personal refugee and a world elsewhere. In Wit, we never see that Vivian has seen the psychological complexity of Metaphysical poetic discourse or found in it anything larger and richer than this virtuoso aloofness she has loved too much, and around which she has constructed her ethos. Literary wit has not failed Vivian Bearing. Her way of reading it has. She cannot countenance a possibility that literary wit can signify not knowing, or psychological and moral conditions in which serene cleverness does not enthrall and pacify the mind.

In Vivian's reality—meaning reality as imaginatively shaped and defended by this professor in a modern research English department—science is the enemy of poetry, literary wit, and the self. The science she encounters and endures is frightening, insensitive, deficient in beauty, mechanical in its intelligence, verbally pretentious yet inarticulate, and hostile to Vivian's personal and professional ways of seeing. And if John Redford's text brings Wyt and Science together in matrimonial bliss at the end, what of that? Because Science has grown and changed so immensely since Redford's day, could modern literary wit (as controlled by Professor Bearing or described in any other way) have anything in common with whatever “wit” it is that Redford's Wyt represents? In The Play of Wyt and Science, Wyt is only a loosely defined assemblage of virtues that Shakespeare might have taken for granted. Reason, Instruction, Honest Recreation, Diligence—these wiser elders who roll across the stage in The Play of Wyt and Science are not Wyt's rivals or adversaries. They come to him as kin, friends, teachers. Wyt's enemies are only three: Idleness seduces him into a drowsy trance; Ignorance garbs him in a fool's coat and a coxcomb; and Tediousness, appearing out of nowhere in armor and with a visored face, attacks without a quarrel and clubs Wyt so hard that “Wyt fallyth downe and dyeth.” The good lad does get on his feet again, as allegorized virtues in old simple plays are wont to do, and armed Tediousness makes no return appearance. We could bring Tediousness back quickly, of course, by bearing down too hard on this light-hearted play from another age. But even a glance at Wyt and Science, with Edson's Wit fresh in mind, raises the inkling that John Redford might have been on to something. Isn't it possible, for instance, that the worst enemy of wit (literary or otherwise) is neither sentiment nor learning, nor reason, nor any other human quality or practice that from Tudor times to modern ones has been upheld as a virtue? This club-swinging Tediousness doesn't explain himself. He comes crashing out of the wings and puts out the light, knocking silly the human capacity to connect, to think, to speak with the kind of freedom and curiosity that can keep the self and the world interesting, open, and young. What might this signify, if indeed it signifies anything at all?

An answer requires only a little coercion. Road test The Play of Wyt and Science as a modern sort of morality play, if only to arrive at relevant speculations. If science has been a happy companion of wit from the days of Bacon through Franklin and the philosphes and straight ahead through Huxley and Einstein and Feynman, is literary wit blackballed from the party? Only perhaps by a scattering of academics like Vivian Bearing, who may have forgotten something that John Redford apparently knew. A constrictive modern scholastic idea of literary wit—which really isn't modern at all but a lingering Romantic and Victorian prejudice—must reacquire empowering notions taken for granted by writers in the English Renaissance. A young Cambridge mathematician in Arcadia loves an age of hyperscience for the invigorating uncertainty it brings to the contemplation of life and the self, a wonderfully unstable context in which “everything you though you knew is wrong.” John Redford's Lady Science, who (or which) marries Wyt at the end, bears at least a family resemblance to Valentine's kind of science. The virtue of Wyt's new wife is her festive curiosity and her delight in both knowing and not knowing. But Redford's play can help us open richer possibilities, especially if we can avoid doing a Professor Bearing interpretive job on this gentle allegory. Wit, science, reason, instruction, honest recreation—these values and practices are taken for granted in the play rather than defined, but together they suggest an over-arching concept of the self, a paradigm of consciousness in which such virtues and dimensions are assumed to be neither static nor antithetical. In such a consciousness, wit can embrace science without losing that humanitas that makes literary wit powerful and appealing as an engagement with experience. In Redford's time, reason is not construed as dulling wit, or formulating it, or setting it at odds with intuition, empathy, piety, or any other psychological or moral value. If Redford's conception of wit seems naïve, at least it is not constricted by prejudice or reduced to fit some model of consciousness that contemporary “science” has already left behind.

Though wit and humor may not be inherently reflexive, literary wit characteristically is. For in disrupting the dramatic circumstance, the intellectual and emotional flow, the textual moment, and the patterns and habits of thought and literary ritual that sustain the moment, literary wit unmasks the contingency of literary utterance, the multiplicity of the dimensions in which the text and its disruption (which is also the text) can resound. In the same instant, Vivian Bearing's rueful wisecracks echo in a hospital ward, in her classroom, in a theater, in some realm beyond worldly life, and also in the mood and manner of the actress who gives Vivian being and voice, and even in an implied printed text, for in the collective rituals of drama, a crafted script, a page with words—and in this case, semicolons—arranged just so, is always there in the backstage shadows. When Vivian quotes and ponders John Donne's wit, Donne's clever lines are also a printed text; and they are also Donne's psychological crisis, and Vivian's crisis of professional and theological faith, and a crisis in the plot and dramatic structure of the play. When Wyt rises from the dead in Redford's play, the literary wit of the drama blossoms, for young men rise from the dead only if they are gods, messiahs, or allegories, and allegories are contrivances that flaunt the freedom of an author's imagination, a freedom so great that it can ignore even rules of life and death.

A recurring assertion in this book has been that literary wit is a much more interesting variety of discourse than our critical strategies, vocabularies, and prejudices have allowed. In the opening chapter, I also proposed that prevailing descriptions of literary wit are outmoded because they depend implicitly on outmoded models of consciousness and Victorian-era theories of literary discourse. When she thinks about Donne, Vivian resists the speculations of her own students because she cannot accept a model of the mind as being serendipitous and methodical in the same moment, or bold and fearful, or direct and evasive, or capable of combinations of thought that embarrass such dualisms as these. The significations of Redford's Wyt are at once too innocent and too disheveled for a modern literary audience schooled on illusory distinctions with which nineteenth century thinkers organized thinking itself. The exciting uncertainty in Valentine's quantum-theory and chaos-theory universe has its parallel in the worlds of cognitive science and artificial intelligence,3 and it would be absurd to configure some new theory of literary wit to suit one or another specific, and probably transient, new body of thought about thought itself, some evolving and vigorously debated model of consciousness and the various capacities and agilities of the mind. In a sense, anyone who considers the problematics of literary wit runs a risk of Jason's mistake, and Vivian's as well, for with taxonomies and methodologies replacing each other so rapidly, nobody's hard-won expertise about the structure and activity of human thought can be assumed to remain valid for long. Cognitive-science-based explications for literary wit should spoil overnight, and disciplines in the humanities already have trouble enough of this sort, valorizing and laboring under formulations that have lost credibility in other venues. We need to keep in mind that literary wit can both express and thrive on that kind of instability, that uncertainty about what thinking is and what we consciously and unconsciously intend by our own literary utterance; and we must remember as well that literary wit can be a variety of utterance that rejoices in multiplicity and mystery, reconciling or obliterating in amazing moments the distinctions between the flippant and the profound, the light and the heavy heart, the whim and the credo, the affirmation, the hesitation, the negation.

When we do not know, or do not assume we know, answers about the motions of the mind, literary wit can excite our attention. Happily, we find ourselves in a time of enormous uncertainty with regard to what goes on within the brain, as well as out there in the cosmos. As Richard Powers tells us rather cheerfully, we are now afloat in a gulf of doubt “wider than the millennium itself.”4 In some of the better newspapers, section 3 stories offer a column or two on the latest from the astrophysicists. Stephen Hawking, Andrei Linde, Wendy Freedman, Alan Guth—these surfers of the vast unknown raise possibilities that creation might be perpetual, infinite, with parallel universes, “eternal inflation,” and countless new ones (not galaxies, universes) arising out of nothing every second. The contemplations grow wilder from there. To think steadily about such a reality, or realities, or whatever they are would seem to require some unimaginably perfect suppleness of mind—or perhaps an admirably finite imagination, a salutary obtuseness, so as not to lose grip on whatever it is that passes for sanity in this (perhaps luckily) deluded historical moment. Jason seems admirably and happily finite: his comfort with the rush and flux of scientific inquiry and expertise allows him to wander amid the uncertainties and maintain an ability to function. As a supporting character in Wit, he isn't developed clearly enough for us to tell whether he has considered the implications of what he thinks he knows. Though his research does not heal, it does keep moving along; and change and movement for Jason are evidently comfort enough—so long as he doesn't find himself on the other side of a doctor-patient relationship, a victim of the terrible diseases that, in his youth and his health, he regards as a curiosity. Perhaps this is why he is only a clumsy ironist. His imagination cannot bring him to face the moral and psychological consequences of accepting a world without values. Jason is an incarnation of method. Modern literary wit requires, and nurtures, an openness of mind which methods, interpretive and otherwise, inherently resist.

Literary wit explores, exploits, and celebrates differences between conventions of textuality and the broader possibilities inherent in language and the mind. It marks an exhilarating open space between culturally defined processes and constructions relating to the expression and interpretation of written thought and wisdom, and those leaps of the literary imagination that those processes and constructions cannot anticipate, situate, or adequately describe. To put it simply, literary wit signifies distinction between thinking and the rules, habits, and norms for the written representation of thinking. As modern readers and critics, we are confined and coaxed by texts and interpretive strategies into powerful but limited patterns of logic, rituals of subject and verb, of paragraphs, and chapter 1's and chapter 2's, and conclusions and last words and supposedly authoritative citations. It's all valuable; or at least it is what we do. But obviously no imaginable sequence of such stuff could achieve representation, in language and print, of the mental motions and complications of even one sentient human being. Language and grammars make trouble enough; but we have plenty of cultural habits to make the situation worse. Dogmas and agendas are used to reduce the minds of other humans, and the mind of God, to our own deplorable level, flattening and diminishing possibilities of thought and expression. When ideology is on the move—as perhaps it always is—literary wit is devalued, and mechanized ridicule is substituted for the real thing. The culture of the humanities is still a long way from outgrowing its long-standing obsessions with dyads, dialectics, agonistic structures. Though taxonomies and interpretive strategies proliferate and quarrel, the larger patterns of literary discourse have still not made their escape, for it is in the nature of professional scholars to prefer simple contrasts and oppositions. Ideology and agency, love and will, exteriority and interiority, consciousness and false consciousness, humor and seriousness, the diachronic and the synchronic, comedy and tragedy, discours and histoire, genotext and phenotext, hypertext and hypotext, meaning and significance, the readerly and the writerly, the ego and the id, reason and understanding, education and training, sanity and madness, base and superstructure, fancy and imagination, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, art and science, the human and the machine, and life and death, and so on from three hundred years ago until this moment. A modern liberal arts education, especially with a concentration in the humanities or the social sciences, still seems inherently a tour through sequences of paired words, arranged in supposedly meaningful oppositions, as insight into literary and human experience. In some graduate programs, where bright students spend so many additional years acquiring their expertise, the curriculum can be dyads, dualisms, and binaries all the way down.

It is no surprise, then, that the interpretive environment remains perilous for literary wit. It can be paradoxical, dangerous, like Thomasina Coverly's final dream-dance, which accepts, and denies, and fears, and welcomes all in an instant the possibility of an empty shore, or Oscar Wilde's elegantly artful lessons that literary art teaches nothing, or Richard Wilbur's darkly playful camaraderie on the edge of his own abyss, or Mark Twain's world-jarring, text-jarring hodgepodge of agnostic proverbs from Nobody and Nowhere. Literary wit can take us into the core of a text, into its deepest and broadest intensity, its consequence as a human document. To reach that core, one simple-sounding first order of business is to assume, or at least countenance as a possibility, that with regard to the dynamics and interpretation of modern literary wit, almost everything we thought we knew is wrong.

About this undervalued discourse—undervalued because of its subversive powers and its celebration of the mind's freedom from the constructs of culture, of intellectual and literary culture, and of the mind itself—nothing final can or should be said. A last word on literary wit is grotesquely out of the question, except perhaps for this: literary wit anathematizes the ideology of the last word. This short book has been a call to reopen a necessary general conversation not to settle its major issues. There is so much to be done. There is as yet no strong body of commentary about literary wit in the African American experience,5 or in the Native American or Hispanic American experience, or about its importance in gay and lesbian literary culture or in the postcolonial literary renaissance, or in other literary discourses that now flourish. I have been writing predominantly about a few white English-speaking males. If that provokes or incenses others to take the discussion in very different directions, then so much the better. With that purpose in view, a few larger propositions, or provocations, can be summarized, and a few more added to those with which the book began.

Modern literary wit is resistance to conclusiveness and resistance to the confining powers of language, syntax, grammar, and literary discourse. Literary wit worthy of our attention is resistance to QEDs and complete answers and finality in any sort of human inquiry or narrative. Like the four characters on stage, together and yet two centuries apart, who wordlessly end Arcadia, the mind dances onward after the last word, the last scene, in faith and in faithlessness, unbounded by time, or logic, or even one's own utterance, or the ingenious contrivances of one playwright working (alas, or thank heavens) in the English language. Richard Wilbur's brilliant poem “Walking to Sleep” is a skein of words, puns, paradoxes, quick “clever” allusions and associations—the characteristics of the Wilbur voice that some readers value and others patronize. But it is also a poem about a quest to get away from all that, to escape into the dangerous, wordless, unbounded seeing that comes with sleep and deep dreams. The psychological strategy of the poem is to make the mind word-dizzy, so thoroughly hypnotized that talk and similes and likenings and flashes of logic and poems will not matter anymore. The closing lines of “Walking to Sleep” are a bravura performance of literary wit but also an incantation, casting a spell, which, if it works, leaves witty performance behind:

As for what turn your travels then will take,
I cannot guess. Long errantry perhaps
Will arm you to be gentle, or the claws
Of nightmare flap you pathless God knows where,
As the crow flies, to meet your dearest horror.
Still, if you are in luck, you may be granted,
As, inland, one can sometimes smell the sea,
A moment's perfect carelessness, in which
To stumble a few steps and sink to sleep
In the same clearing where, in the old story,
A holy man discovered Vishnu sleeping,
Wrapped in his maya, dreaming by a pool
On whose calm face all images whatever
Lay clear, unfathomed, taken as they came.


A breakthrough into a contemplation of everything and nothing, a condition of consciousness in which readiness is truly all, a readiness whose essence is its own liberation from all conventions of conditioning and preparation? After the last line of the loquacious Oscar Wilde's laconic preface, “All art is quite useless,” there is a paper-white space of silence; and then with a page turned, thick artful paragraphs start whirling and cranking again, contriving a novel from which we may receive much that is not useless, much because we have been instructed to expect nothing—which does not mean that nothing or uselessness follow but rather that useless expectations should be left at the portal. The welter of epigrams in Pudd'n-head Wilson and atop the chapters of Following the Equator are proverbs out of the dark, a miscellaneous, dubious wisdom of a man who does not exist—not even as a plausible or even consistently visible character in a novel that bears his name—and from an author whose own equatorial ocean of printed words teaches over and over the absurdity of receiving printed words as having anything to do with wisdom or truth.

Literary wit is not only moments of carefree adventure in thought but also celebration of thinking, of a possibility that, like Schrödinger's famous photon, human consciousness can occupy more than one “state” and “place” in a given instant, that it can move with immeasurable speed and multiplicity, that it can operate free of restrictions and limits inherent in any culture or description of thinking. Literary life and the discourse of critics are marred by elaborate attempts to achieve superiority not only to other readings and readers but also to the interrogated text. This is a commonplace fact that sometimes triggers delusions of superiority to all critical discourse. In such an interpretive landscape, literary wit can be misvalued and ignored because it is volatile and troublesome to such rituals of interpretive aggression. If a text, or specific moments within a text, can break away in unpredictable directions, embarrassing the one-two-three dance steps of interpretive methodology, then a natural inclination is to steer clear of that kind of art, as if it were some enemy position too strong to engage head-on. In opening a better discussion of modern literary wit, the primary interpretive need is to cease trying to avoid it or reduce it. When it is read with lively humility, and with a renewed wonder not only for possibilities within the work but also within ourselves, then literary wit can open to us as a source of intensity, insight, and pleasure.

Though it is a serious mistake to undervalue or circumscribe the importance of wit in a literary text, it is also wrong to overvalue its cultural or moral impact, for such overvaluation is likewise a circumscription. The evidence is clear in countless essays, accumulating for most of a century, about how Shakespeare's wit, or Wycherley's, or Fuller's, or Dickinson's, or Wilde's, or Swift's destroyed or devastated or otherwise palpably affected some great wrong, corrupt social institution, or malign cultural practice. This kind of evangelizing for the moral power of literary wit or literary satire saps credibility from the reading. The returns are in: those Armados and Tartuffes confounded on stage did little against pedantry and affectation; Congreve's Witwoud and Lady Wishfort had no measurable effect on the way of the world; Swift's proposal has not perceptibly lightened the miseries of poor children. In fact, to make such claims for the social or moral importance of literary wit is to indulge in a pretense that some of that literary wit may be about. Worse, this way of reading can degrade wit into mechanism, into a presumptuous simple “tactic” or a distraction in a literary text. The pleasure and power of that text might be apprehended better if literary wit is allowed to be anything, and not merely simple and tactical.

The richest kind of literary wit destabilizes and refreshes not just perceptions of social ills and moral hypocrisies but also habits of thought, ingrained patterns of the mind—not ways of seeing something, but ways of seeing. The delight is a delight of sheer escape—from confinements of culturally inflected identity, even from patterns and values that are revered as transcendent, at least most of the time. In literary criticism, we seem to have learned, by a sequence of painful steps, to free ourselves from reducing every dimension of literary discourse, every rhetorical device, to a means; we have learned the pleasures of discovering or rediscovering poetics as an end. Few varieties of discourse are left behind in the old place, still treated as devices and strategies and tools of the craftsman rather than as strengths of the literary art. Literary wit has unfortunately been one of these castaways—and the harm to criticism and to our conversation with the modern literary heritage has been severe.

Nonetheless, a misvaluation or dismissal of literary wit is a commonplace tactic in interpretive struggles with difficult texts. Professional readers can achieve short-term advantages by keeping such works confined within an aesthetic or thematic category. Outbreaks of literary wit, however, can allow a text to slip loose, playing havoc with such categories and with narratives of cultural and literary history. If the ulterior motive is dominion over texts, then literary wit can be a nuisance, allowing texts to stay wild and have the last laugh.

Valentine's haunting summation echoes as I try to sum up the situation myself, with regard to the potential importance of literary wit in a new century. In a time in which almost everything we thought we knew is wrong, our literary culture seems to cling to deep misapprehensions and complacent assumptions, to cling so tightly that our fingers have grown numb and we no longer know what we are grasping. The incongruity seems enormous, between the kind of reality that an informed public is beginning to apprehend—a universe of universes where possibilities seem endless, where absolutes crumble, and where all theoretical bets, as it were, are off—and a preference, in too many corners of the imperiled humanities, for reductive formulations and interpretive strategies, many of which derive from paradigms concocted when the world had barely ceased being flat and when Valentine's “nearly everything” could still be modeled with crystal spheres. This lag, this resistance, is not quaint, nor is it even intelligently contrarian. As humanistic disciplines strive to catch up with the larger culture—which means to respond to a scientific, technological, commercial culture and regain a measure of plausibility as a locus for expression of culture—the real problems may not lie in specific interpretive idea systems that pass in and out of vogue but rather in the aura of certainty with which they are advanced, the implicit message that some given strategy might settle any literary or cultural question worth thinking about, beyond reclassifying a few texts which may have lost relevance, for the time being, in an endless conversation about who and what we are. Literary wit is a nemesis of certainty. It is free sacrifice to the water gods in Richard Powers's gulf of doubt. It is life-saving affirmation of the certainty that we know nothing for certain. If the millennial gulf really is to be out habitat for the foreseeable future, then literary wit is one of those human achievements that can keep us awake, afloat, moving, and spiritually alive.

But if any part of the above polemic is even partially true, What then of this presumptuous little book—the one you are now done with? Does it end up caught in its own springe? Certainly. Any meditation about possibilities of modern literary wit must recognize the importance of escape from its own descriptions. The varieties of literary wit that we have been sampling, if they are as interesting as I have urged, must ultimately out-face all such interpretive assaults. The best that we can achieve is a rediscovery of this neglected dimension of our literary legacy, a reawakening to possibilities, and a questioning of outmoded assumptions that have kept our thinking and our reading closed.


  1. A standard edition of Wyt is in Joseph Quincy Adams's anthology, Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas.

  2. All quotations from Wit are from the 1999 edition. Page numbers are given in the text.

  3. Cognitive neuroscience and related disciplines focused on consciousness, intentionality, and processes of thought are energized by controversy, research from psychology and biological sciences, technological leaps in artificial intelligence (AI), and gifted outsiders saying subversive things about the nature of the mind. For interested nonspecialists, a prudent strategy is to try to let go of discredited models without cleaving to any particular new ones—at least not yet. To understand how far such disciplines have moved from assumptions that supported Victorian-era psychology and literary analysis, one good place to begin is with connectionism, a loose heading for a dynamic array of theoretical models and investigative strategies that accept a hypothesis that thinking is essentially a nonlinear process. Though connectionism can seem a locus of controversy rather than a new model of the mind, connectionism's various schools firmly reject Cartesian and Freudian models of consciousness and twentieth-century descriptions inspired by the structure and operations of serial computers. In Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, Gerald Edelman, a Nobel Prize-winning physiologist and leading advocate for new directions in the cognitive sciences, catalogs a range of outworn ideas that a modern public, and many fellow scientists, must finally move beyond:

    One is that human beings are born with a language acquisition device containing the rules for syntax and constituting a universal grammar. Another is the idea, called objectivism, that an unequivocal description of reality can be given by science (most ideally by physics). This description helps justify the relations between syntactical processes or rules and things or events—the relations that constitute semantic representations. Yet another idea is that the brain orders objects in the “real” world according to classical categories, which are categories defined by sets of singly necessary and jointly sufficient conditions.

    I cannot overemphasize the degree to which these ideas or their variants pervade modern science. They are global and endemic. But I must also add that the cognitivist enterprise rests on a set of unexamined assumptions. One of its most curious deficiencies is that it makes only marginal reference to the biological foundations that underlie the mechanisms it purports to explain. The result is a scientific deviation as great as that of the behaviorism it has attempted to supplant. The critical errors underlying this deviation are as unperceived by most cognitive scientists as relativity was before Einstein and heliocentrism was before Copernicus.

    What is it these scholars are missing, and why is it critical? They are missing the idea that a description of the mind cannot proceed “liberally”—that is, in the absence of a detailed biological description of the brain. They are disregarding a large body of evidence that undermines the view that the brain is a kind of computer. They are ignoring evidence showing that the way in which the categorization of objects and events occurs in animals and in humans does not at all resemble logic or computation. And they are confusing the formal power of physics as created by human observers with the presumption that the ideas of physics can deal with biological systems that have evolved in historical ways.


    Concerned that such constrictive models of consciousness (e.g., low-speed serial computers) will be supplanted by dubious models borrowed from elsewhere, Edelman is hostile to the spread of quantum paradigms by anyone, whether credentialed physicists or enthusiastic amateurs. “Quantum this, quantum that, quantum everything,” he grumbles (263), and he gives special attention to refuting propositions of Roger Penrose, the British mathematician and astrophysicist who has called for quantumizing cognitive theory. In AI circles and among biological neuroscientists, Penrose's well-known 1989 book, The Emperor's New Mind, finds little favor, perhaps because it denies the possibility that AI, which Penrose describes as still operating from an assumption that the brain is essentially algorithmic in its functions, will achieve understanding of “all mental qualities—thinking, feeling, intelligence, understanding, consciousness” (17), and because Penrose evangelizes for a quantum paradigm with little solid research to support his propositions.

    The rift between Penrose and Edelman is one of many such in the contemporary debates about consciousness, intelligence, and the nature of thought, and no lay person can presume to enter a matter of this complexity and consequence. With relevance to wit, however, Penrose and Edelman do seem to share one premise that would have seemed outlandish in 1900, when theories of humor, laughter, and wit were taking a form that still persists. They begin from a proposition that consciousness is much more complex and much less serial, or linear, than nineteenth-century psychology, neuroscience, and academic humanism could conceive. Penrose's proposal of consciousness as a quantum computer might show more fervor than precision—but when it is considered alongside other new formulations, including connectionism, fin de siècle ideas of mind, still dominant in humanist disciplines, seem all the more quaint:

    “oneness” of conscious perception seems to me to be quite at variance with the picture of a parallel computer. That picture might, on the other hand, be more appropriate as a model for the unconscious action of the brain. Various independent movements—walking, fastening a button, breathing, or even talking—can be carried on simultaneously and more or less autonomously, without one being consciously aware of any of them!

    On the other hand, it seems to me that there could conceivably be some relation between this “oneness” of consciousness and quantum parallelism. Recall that, according to quantum theory, different alternatives at the quantum level are allowed to coexist in linear superposition! Thus, a single quantum state could in principle consist of a large number of different activities, all occurring simultaneously. This is what is meant by quantum parallelism, and we shall shortly be considering the theoretical idea of a “quantum computer,” whereby such quantum parallelism might in principle be made use of in order to perform large numbers of simultaneous calculations. If a conscious “mental state” might in some way be akin to a quantum state, then some form of “oneness” or globality of thought might seem more appropriate than would be the case for an ordinary parallel computer.


    An inclusive overview of “the new cognitive neuroscience” is Stephen M. Kosslyn and Olivier Koenig's Wet Mind, which attempts to find points of reconciliation between AI and biological and psychological studies of cognitive process. Conserving a hypothesis that the brain operates in some way like a computer, Kosslyn and Koenig alter the Neumann model to allow for a higher level of liberation and free connection than the digital-computer metaphor usually permits. “In an actual network model,” they say, “each input unit is connected to many hidden units, and each hidden unit is connected to many output units” (24). Computation, therefore, is

    … nothing more than a rule-based association game; given an input, a particular output is required by the rules. The inputs and outputs have interpretations in the context of the larger system, which includes other components that produce the inputs and act on the outputs. Note that a computational system need not actually involve rules that are explicitly specified (“mentioned”) and followed; the system need not include a cookbook that specifies recipes, which in turn are read and followed a step at a time. Rather, … the system may not specify rules at all, but rather is “wired” in such a way that the relations between its inputs and outputs can be described using rules.


    Another useful overview is Howard E. Gardner. The Mind's New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution. For an informed consideration of the applicability of all this to a refreshed theorizing of humor in American literature, see Gregg Camfield's fine chapter “Humorneutics,” in Necessary Madness, 150-86.

  4. Richard Powers, “Eyes Wide Open,” 83.

  5. Though not specifically about literary wit, or even about humor as a literary mode, Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism provides strong foundations on which to build discussions of literary wit in African American discourse. Establishing the special situation of African American texts—West African folk-narrative traditions and their powerful applicability to slave culture and postslavery underclass predicaments—Gates emphasizes the importance of wit and wordplay in the black American speaker-author's Fabian struggle for survival and self-expression against “The Lion” and “The Elephant,” representing powerful Others that cannot be resisted head-on. Gates offers unprecedented insight into the complexity of this discourse:

    The ironic reversal of a received racist image of the black as simianlike, the Signifying Monkey, he who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language, is our trope for repetition and revision, indeed our trope of chiasmus, repeating and reversing simultaneously as he does in one deft discursive act. If Vico and Burke, or Nietzsche, de Man, and Bloom, are correct in identifying four and six “master tropes,” then we might think of those as the “master's tropes,” and of Signifyin(g) as the slave's trope, the trope of tropes, as Bloom characterizes metalepsis, “a trope-reversing trope, a figure of a figure.” Signifyin(g) is a trope in which are subsumed several other rhetorical tropes, including metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony (the master tropes) and also hyperbole, litotes, and metalepsis (Bloom's supplement to Burke). To this list we could easily add aporia, chiasmus, and catechresis, all of which are used in the ritual of Signifyin(g).


    Gates's project here is to describe the strength and profundity of the connection between an African-African American oral tradition, the “speakerly text,” and a more distinctly and self-consciously literary variety of “Signifyin(g)”: “the play of tradition, the play on the tradition, the sheer play of indeterminacy itself” (227). Especially with regard to Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker, Gates begins to establish the importance and complexity of wit in the contemporary African American novel. Gates is a pioneer: there are many other such novels by black American writers that can be effectively recognized and discussed in similar ways.

Martha Greene Eads (essay date winter 2002)

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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 Edson for having turned her work experience in a cancer research hospital into “a production of uncommon emotional force” that offers, “along with the chilling awareness of how bondage to pure intellect can desiccate a life, … a more redemptive vision of intelligence coexisting with tenderness and love.” While Bregman situates the play's “redemptive vision” in its pairing of mind and heart, American Theatre reviewer Pamela Renner claims that Wit's “redemption … takes an unexpected form.” Renner asserts that in Wit an oncology nurse's willingness to speak the truth to Professor Vivian Bearing, a Donne scholar dying of ovarian cancer, gives the patient-protagonist “the courage to make a crucial decision about her treatment” (35-36). Renner thus situates redemption in honest communication.

That critics describe Wit as a play about redemption is readily apparent. The nature of that redemption, however, is difficult for many of them to describe. Journalist Adrienne Martini confesses in American Theatre to having felt put on the spot in a conversation about the subject with the dramatist:

According to Edson, there is more to the play than most of the critical response has acknowledged. “The play is about redemption, and I'm surprised no one mentions it,” she says, fixing her bright eyes on me. I feel as if I've been asked a question in school and have no idea what the answer should be. Suddenly, it is easy to picture her in a classroom. “Grace,” she clarifies, “is the opportunity to experience God in spite of yourself, which is what Dr. Bearing ultimately achieves.” As for herself, Edson professes to Christian faith, but declines to elaborate about it.


Edson's caginess about Christianity is more than a promotional gimmick. In part, it reflects her appropriate reluctance to dictate Wit's meaning. “It's not my place to tell people what the play's about. If I have to explain it, I haven't done my job,” she said in a telephone interview. Also at work, though, is Edson's deep ambivalence about orthodox Christian faith, despite her high regard for Christ, whom she described in the same interview as being in “a club of one.” In a conversation with Betty Carter for Books and Culture, she asserted: “If you're completely united with God, you don't need religion” (26). Indeed, Wit's final scene depicts a redemptive moment devoid of any specific religious association.

In addition to its ambiguous treatment of religion, the play reveals Edson's related ambivalence about the life of the mind. Wit's protagonist, Vivian Bearing, ultimately eschews the poetry of her research subject, John Donne, for a children's book titled The Runaway Bunny. That choice mirrors Edson's own decision to abandon graduate studies to teach kindergarten. After studying Renaissance history at Smith College, she worked as a clerk for a hospital cancer and AIDS unit before writing Wit in 1991. While pursuing a master's degree in literature at Georgetown University in 1992, she began teaching English as a second language in the Washington, D.C., public schools. In 1998 she moved to Atlanta, where she teaches five-year-olds.

Few kindergarten teachers are likely to write about the intricacies and implications of Donne scholarship, but Wit reflects its author's unusual personal struggle to come to terms with both academia and orthodoxy. In the play Donne serves to symbolize both the intellectual life and Christian faith. The play's apparent rejection of Donne has prompted First Things reviewer Carol Iannone to accuse the playwright of being both anti-intellectual and anti-religious. Iannone asks:

Why must great art be diminished in order to affirm the contemporary cult of feelings? Why must a false dichotomy between mind and heart substitute for a fuller comprehension of the human soul and the poetry that expresses it? For that matter, why can't a contemporary playwright appreciate that something real actually goes on in religious thought?


Any redemption Wit offers, Iannone suggests, is little more than cotton candy that Edson spins from sentiment, not the strong meat of the Christian intellectual tradition Donne represents. “In Ms. Edson's play,” Iannone goes on to charge, “the excellences of the past get pared down to the sentiments of Oprah.”

What Iannone fails to recognize, however, is that Wit ultimately affirms both Christian faith and serious scholarship. The affirmation may be subtle, but it is there. Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny is not, as Iannone claims, a refutation of Donne's religious poetry but a complement to it. The children's book preaches the irresistible grace for which Donne's poetry expresses a deep longing. And, by having Vivian Bearing's retired poetry professor read the children's book aloud, Edson reveals her own hope that the life of the mind need not preclude that of the heart. Through the character of E. M. Ashford, Vivian's scholarly mentor, Edson shows that academic excellence (even attention to Donne minutiae) need not quench faith and compassion but may even enhance them. In tracing the path of Vivian's redemption through her encounter with Ashford, Edson unwittingly affirms both serious scholarship and a Christian understanding of God's persistent pursuit of His children.

First, however, Edson takes the measure of professional researchers, both in the humanities and in the hospital. Lancet reviewer Bregman revels in that equal-opportunity exposé of professorial pomposity. Acknowledging that medical specialists have a reputation for being little more than cold academicians, Bregman applauds Edson for revealing that their scientific training is not necessarily to blame. Her protagonist, English professor Vivian Bearing, is initially as aloof and exacting as any of the play's doctors. Wit demonstrates, Bregman asserts, that “cold intellectuality that precludes empathy is a function of the scholar, not of the discipline.” Vivian's approaches to Metaphysical poetry and to her own ovarian cancer are coldly intellectual, and her dealings with others show her limited capacity to empathize.

When the play opens, Vivian greets the audience with a dignity that belies her incongruous costume. Wearing two hospital gowns, one tied in front and the other in back, her bald head topped by a baseball cap, she informs viewers: “I am a professor of seventeenth-century poetry, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne” (5). Flashbacks take us to her classroom, where she berates a student for his inability to answer her questions and refuses to grant his classmate a paper extension. When the young woman explains that her grandmother has died, Vivian responds, “Do what you will, but the paper is due when it is due” (63). If pressed, Vivian would undoubtedly argue that she simply demands academic excellence and sees through that time-tested excuse for late work and absences—the fabricated funeral of a grandparent. Even so, Vivian is not merely savvy; she is downright cynical about her students.

Vivian's attitude toward teaching does enable her to connect to some degree with her senior physician, Dr. Kelekian. As a professor at the teaching hospital where Vivian undergoes cancer treatment, Dr. Kelekian supervises a gaggle of medical students. After his pupils fail to name the most obvious side effects of Vivian's treatment, Dr. Kelekian asks her, “Why do we waste our time, Dr. Bearing?” Delighted, Vivian commiserates: “I do not know, Dr. Kelekian.” “Use your eyes,” Kelekian orders his pupils. “Jesus God,” he sputters, “Hair loss.” While the students protest their supervisor's having posed a trick question, Vivian and Kelekian share a moment of amusement (40). This pairing of professors that so delights Lancet's Bregman almost certainly arises from Edson's experiences as a graduate student and hospital staff member.

Edson adds another layer of academic critique in her treatment of Jason Posner, Kelekian's right-hand clinical fellow and Vivian's former student. Although he is decades younger than she, having taken one of her classes as an undergraduate, Jason is no less driven and only a little less confident than Vivian when the play begins. He confesses that he had found Vivian an intimidating teacher but explains that her class had helped him achieve his goal of becoming a doctor. “You can't get into medical school unless you're well-rounded,” he informs nurse Susie Monahan, “And I made a bet with myself that I could get an A in the three hardest courses on campus” (21). Having earned an A- in Vivian's class, Jason credits her approach to Donne's poetry with preparing him for his profession. He tells Susie, “The puzzle takes over. You're not even trying to solve it anymore. Fascinating, really. Great training for lab research. Looking at things in increasing levels of complexity” (76).

“Looking at things in increasing levels of complexity” is Jason's specialty, but only things he can quantify. Like Vivian, whose interest in teaching lies in the material rather than in her students, Jason wants to know about cancer, not about cancer patients. He acknowledges to Vivian that his hospital fellowship is a means to an end:

Everybody's got to go through it. All the great researchers. They want us to be able to converse intelligently with the clinicians. As though researchers were the impediments. The clinicians are such troglodytes. So smarmy. Like we have to hold hands to discuss creatinine clearance. Just cut the crap, I say.


Instead of recognizing that Vivian is trying to initiate a conversation with him about dying, Jason thinks that she is suffering from dementia. After their talk about researchers and clinicians, Vivian muses: “So. The young doctor, like the senior scholar, prefers research to humanity. At the same time the senior scholar, in her pathetic state as simpering victim, wishes the young doctor would take more interest in personal contact” (58). As her interactions with Jason help her recognize her own preference for research at the expense of human connection, Vivian continues a process of reflection that suggests repentance.

Vivian's reflection begins even earlier, when treatment strips her of her professional identity. Aside from rare instances of collegiality with Dr. Kelekian, she suffers countless assaults to her sense of self-worth in the hospital. Near the beginning of the play, a medical technician asks, “Doctor?” She replies, “Yes, I have a Ph.D.” “Your doctor,” the technician prompts her. She names Dr. Kelekian and continues, “I am a doctor of philosophy … a scholar of seventeenth-century poetry” (16-17). The technician takes no interest in her commentary, interrupting frequently to conduct the medical procedure. Eventually Vivian gives up, simply telling new technicians her name and her doctor's name.

As she loses her professional status, Vivian also adjusts her use of her professional tools—words. At first she faces her cancer treatment as a good researcher should, assembling a medical bibliography and acquiring a new vocabulary. She holds her own in early conversations with Kelekian and Jason, but her ability to keep up flags as her condition deteriorates. She notes her changing use of language after an especially bad treatment cycle. Having vomited violently, she says to the audience:

Oh, God. What's left? I haven't eaten in two days. What's left to puke?

You may remark that my vocabulary has taken a turn for the Anglo-Saxon.

God. I'm going to barf my brains out. …

If I did barf my brains out, it would be a great loss to my discipline. Of course, not a few of my colleagues would be relieved. To say nothing of my students.


While she retains her biting sense of humor, Vivian's use of language changes as her illness strips her of physical and emotional strength. Words that had formerly fascinated her—“ratiocination,” “concatenation,” “coruscation,” “tergiversation”—give way to terms that reflect her new focus on the earthy realities of digestion, excretion, and pain.

Vivian's sensitivity to language serves as a focus for her changing understanding of herself and others as her condition worsens. In explaining her initial drive to learn the medical terms that describe the processes she faces, Vivian thinks back to childhood, when words first became meaningful for her. In a flashback the actress who plays Vivian adopts a childlike manner to talk with Vivian's father about one of Beatrix Potter's books. Sounding out the word “soporific,” which Potter uses to describe the effect of lettuce on rabbits, the five-year-old Vivian asks her father what the word means. He tells her that anything with a soporific effect will make her sleepy. Noticing that the book's illustration shows sleeping bunnies, young Vivian has an epiphany: “The little bunnies in the picture are asleep! They're sleeping! Like you said, because of soporific!” (43). An adult again, Vivian tells the audience, “The illustration bore out the meaning of the word, just as he had explained it. At the time, it seemed like magic. So imagine the effect that the words of John Donne first had on me. … Medical terms are less evocative. Still, I want to know what the doctors mean when they … anatomize me. … My only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary” (43-44). Vivian's acquisition of medical vocabulary reveals her desperate attempt to arm herself against the assaults of cancer and cancer treatment. Elsewhere Edson has explained the empowering effect of language. Discussing her work with five-year-olds in an interview with People magazine, she said: “Reading and writing is power. I like handing that power over to students” (“Play Right”).

Vivian finds that her learning as a five-year-old is more meaningful than her adult studies of literature and cancer treatment. The word “soporific,” acquired in childhood, has a new kind of transformative power for her as she moves toward death. As Susie, whom Vivian describes as “never very sharp to begin with” (69), sets up her dying patient's morphine drip near the end of the play, Vivian says wryly, “I trust this will have a soporific effect.” Susie replies, “Well, I don't know about that, but it sure makes you sleepy.” Instead of rolling her eyes at the audience or even openly ridiculing Susie, Vivian laughs with her nurse in utter delight. Vivian explains the word's meaning to Susie, who says, “Well, that was pretty dumb.” The exchange that follows is perhaps the play's most moving:

No! No, no! It was funny!
(Starting to catch on) Yeah, I guess so. (Laughing) In a dumb sort of way. (This sets them both off laughing again) I never would have gotten it. I'm glad you explained it.
(Simply) I'm a teacher.
(They laugh a little together. Slowly the morphine kicks in, and VIVIAN's laughs become long sighs. Finally she falls asleep. SUSIE checks everything out, then leaves. Long silence)


Because she has so recently reflected on her own childhood acquisition of the word “soporific,” Vivian is able to explain its meaning to Susie in a companionable, compassionate manner. At long last, she uses language as a point of human connection rather than as the subject of her own intellectual reflection.

While Vivian is only beginning to recognize her vocation as a ground for meeting others, Susie Monahan clearly makes medicine a ministry to patients. Unlike Kelekian and Jason, who prioritize research over patient care, Susie exemplifies empathy. Kelekian and Jason quiz Vivian about her symptoms without really listening to her responses, but Susie anticipates her needs and serves as her advocate. She rebukes Jason for abandoning a gowned Vivian in examination-table stirrups before a pelvic exam, urges him to lower Vivian's experimental treatment dosage, and asks Kelekian to give her a patient-controlled analgesic pump so that she can maintain some sense of control as death approaches.

Susie's kindness to Vivian throughout the play helps the dying professor lower her defenses; indeed, Vivian comes to rely on Susie as if the nurse were her mother. Like a frightened child who summons a parent for a late-night drink of water, Vivian pinches her IV tube so that an alarm will bring Susie to her room during the graveyard shift. “I wanted her to come and see me,” Vivian explains to the audience. “So I had to create a little emergency. Nothing dramatic.” “What's the trouble, sweetheart?” Susie asks. Vivian addresses the audience again: “Do not think for a minute that anyone calls me ‘Sweetheart.’ But then … I allowed it” (64). Susie quickly recognizes that Vivian is afraid of dying. She acknowledges the difficulty of Vivian's situation, stroking the older woman as she weeps. She comforts her: “Vivian. It's all right. I know. It hurts. I know. It's all right. Do you want a tissue? It's all right. (Silence) Vivian, would you like a Popsicle?” Edson's stage note indicates that Vivian, “like a child,” says, “Yes, please” (65). Although she tries to regain her dignity by telling the audience that the “cold Popsicle feels good, it's something I can digest, and it helps keep me hydrated,” Vivian is more comforted by Susie's mothering than by the prospect of the snack (66).

This exchange enables Susie to talk with Vivian about her final wishes. The nurse explains that Dr. Kelekian and Jason will likely resuscitate Vivian when her heart stops unless she requests a “do not resuscitate” order. When Vivian asks Susie for her opinion, the nurse tactfully hints at her objections to their approach:

Well, they like to save lives. So anything's okay, as long as life continues. It doesn't matter if you're hooked up to a million machines. Kelekian is a great researcher and everything. And the fellows, like Jason, they're really smart. It's really an honor for them to work with him. But they always … want to know more things.


Although Vivian the professor understands the doctor's desire to continue their research on her, Vivian the patient is worn out. She tells Susie that she wants her heart to stop. After a pause she asks, “You're still going to take care of me, aren't you?” (69). Of course, Susie assures her, and she does—to the very end. She later speaks soothingly to the sleeping Vivian as she inserts a catheter, even though Jason scoffs, “Like she can hear you” (75). Susie lingers after he leaves to rub baby oil on her patient's hands, demonstrating the empathy that an outstanding medical professional ought to exhibit but that Jason clearly lacks.

It is Susie who challenges Jason's decision to resuscitate Vivian when he finds that her heart has stopped. In the play's dramatic final scene, Jason calls a code blue and begins CPR. Susie defies the young doctor, jerking him away from the dying Vivian and shouting, “Kelekian put the order in—you saw it! You were right there, Jason! Oh, God, the code!” (82). When the code team enters, pushing her out of the way, Susie calls the central office: “Cancel code, room 707. Sue Monahan, primary nurse. Cancel code. Dr. Posner is here” (82). Recognizing that he has acted inappropriately, Jason struggles to stay on his feet. He joins Susie in trying to stop the team, finally howling, “I MADE A MISTAKE!” (84). Crushed by the awareness of his fallibility and the disapproval of his colleagues on the code team, Jason collapses on the floor as the team questions his competence:

CODE Team:
—It's a doctor fucking up.
—What is he, a resident?
—Got us up here on a DNR.
—Called a code on a no-code.


All the young doctor can do is to repeat the phrase, “Oh, God.”

Jason's howling and subsequent collapse are not unlike a two-year-old's tantrum. Facing his own mistake and contemplating its consequences leave him a helpless mess. His breakdown is embarrassing, not only for him but also for the audience. Even so, the play does not end on a note of despair. As Jason's catastrophe takes place on part of the stage, Vivian's triumph emerges on another. After Susie lifts her blanket, Vivian rises from the bed and sheds her cap, hospital bracelet, and those hateful gowns. In a column in the script parallel to that in which she describes Jason's agony, Edson's stage notes indicate, “The instant she is naked, and beautiful, reaching for the light—Lights out” (85).

Presenting Vivian's and Jason's situations side by side, on the page and on the stage, links them powerfully. Earlier Vivian has recognized that she and her former student Jason, now her doctor, are two of a kind and wished that he were less like she is—more humane. Vivian does become more humane, though. As she approaches death, she gives up her authority and her independence to trust as a child would—in Susie and, perhaps, in God. Her move toward the light at the play's end signifies her salvation. Edson explains, “Her redemption is delayed through her own efforts. It could have happened a lot sooner, but she keeps putting it off and putting it off and putting it off, and finally there's a breakthrough, and it happens in the last ten seconds of her life, which is plenty of time” (“John Donne” 26). Clearly Edson sees Vivian's redemption as the product of her having relinquished her autonomy, her authority, and, ultimately, life itself.

With regard to Jason, the play's ending is more ambiguous. Even so, Edson's depiction of the doctor's despair next to the patient's “good death” suggests that Jason might emerge out of darkness as well. His tantrum is as much the stuff of childhood as were Vivian's Popsicle, storybook, and baby oil. The play suggests that becoming like a little child—and abandoning the certainty that intellect affords—has set both Vivian and Jason on the road to redemption.

Certainly many Christian viewers will find here only a vague and secular salvation. The play makes no mention of Christ's atoning work, and not only does Edson appear to dismiss Vivian's and Jason's intellectual gifts, but she also seems to be suggesting that simple humility and kindness have salvific power. Iannone argues that Edson's elevation of Susie is especially problematic in this regard: “The most exemplary woman on the medical team that cares for Vivian is a nurse who never reads poetry and is not at all a thinker, but she is good and kind and compassionate to Vivian in her illness; these are the values of the heart that the play puts into counterpoint with the excessive intellectualism of John Donne” (14). Obviously Iannone regards the registered nurse as no match for the Metaphysical poet.

Despite Iannone's dismissal of Susie as an intellectual lightweight, Edson does present the younger woman as an excellent nurse. She is both bright and insightful, unlike Kelekian and Jason, whose extensive medical training seems to have destroyed their capacity for empathy. Susie's superiority to her overeducated supervising physicians seems to bear out Ianonne's accusation that Edson is anti-intellectual. Susie is not, however, the only person who shows concern for Vivian. Professor E. M. Ashford, Vivian's academic mentor, comes to see her in her final hours, and their encounter is a critical component of the play. If Vivian parallels Jason, then Ashford is Kelekian's counterpart, and Edson's depiction of her reveals at least a glimmer of hope for the serious scholar.

The eighty-year-old Ashford, the dying woman's only visitor, enters after Jason and Susie insert Vivian's catheter and leave the hospital room. Ashford explains that she has come to town to celebrate her great-grandson's fifth birthday. When Vivian begins to weep in agony, Ashford offers to recite some of Donne's poetry. No, Vivian moans, so Professor Ashford reads instead from The Runaway Bunny, the book she has brought for her grandson. Cradling Vivian on the bed, Ashford reads to her about the little rabbit whose mother assures him that she will pursue him wherever he goes. “Look at that,” she explains. “A little allegory of the soul. No matter where it hides, God will find it. See, Vivian?” Vivian can only mumble in response, and she is soon asleep. Ashford kisses her before she leaves, saying: “It's time to go. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (80). The elderly academic has demonstrated remarkable compassion, a striking ability to draw literary connections, and spiritual insight in one brief appearance.

In making Ashford the mouthpiece for Brown's “little allegory of the soul,” Edson provides her play with an additional level of complexity (80). Vivian's visitor is no candy-striper; she is “the great E. M. Ashford,” author of the “monumental critical edition of Donne's Devotions upon Emergent Occasions” (12, 18). In a flashback scene Ashford rebukes the college-age Vivian for having relied on a second-rate edition of Holy Sonnet VI to write an essay. Ashford takes Vivian to task for producing a paper “unworthy of you—to say nothing of Donne” (13). The older professor explains:

You take this too lightly, Miss Bearing. This is Metaphysical Poetry, not The Modern Novel. The standards of scholarship and critical reading which one would apply to any other text are simply insufficient. The effort must be total for the results to be meaningful. Do you think the punctuation of the last line of this sonnet is merely an insignificant detail?


Such precision will later serve as a model when Vivian undertakes her own exacting scholarship.

In this scene, however, the hapless Vivian listens intently as her academic idol explains that the presence of a comma, rather than a semicolon in the incorrect edition, suggests that only a breath separates life from eternity. Eager to please, Vivian responds: “Life, death … I see. … It's a metaphysical conceit. It's wit! I'll go back to the library and write the paper.” Ashford corrects her, “It is not wit, Miss Bearing. It is truth. … The paper's not the point” (15). Softening, Ashford urges Vivian to continue thinking about the poem but not to go back to the library right away. Instead, she should go outside with her friends. Vivian, however, has no friends and thus makes her way back to the library.

This glimpse of E. M. Ashford offers us hints about what Vivian Bearing could be: a woman whose keen scholarship enables her to see in Donne's complex poetry lessons about life and eternity, God and the human soul. Ashford is exacting enough to have set the standard for Vivian, yet she recognizes the value of enjoying the company of friends on a sunny day. When we see her twenty-eight years later at Vivian's bedside, she is still quoting Donne and William Shakespeare, but she also kicks off her shoes and nestles on the hospital bed with her dying former student. Unlike Vivian, who has no family, Ashford now has a fourth generation of offspring to love and teach. Because she is a great-grandmother, she has with her The Runaway Bunny to read to Vivian. Because she is a scholar trained to recognize the theological implications of the texts she studies, she looks even to a children's book for an “allegory of the soul.”

The contrast between Ashford and Vivian is stark, but Vivian's is not a hopeless case. Her final exit into the light suggests her salvation, as does her mentor's visit. That visit is almost certainly a product of Vivian's morphine-induced dreams, coming sometime after 4:00 a.m. but before Jason's early-morning rounds. During his previous check on Vivian, Jason tells Susie, “She's out of it. Shouldn't be too long” (78). Vivian's failure to respond to the insertion of a catheter during this scene suggests that she is completely unconscious. Her subsequent waking to talk with Dr. Ashford, then, seems highly unlikely, as does Ashford's account of having already been to Vivian's university office, where she says she learned about Vivian's hospitalization. Almost certainly, then, Vivian is dreaming of Ashford's visit, recounting the story of The Runaway Bunny and recognizing the book's spiritual significance.1 Although Vivian cannot respond articulately to Professor Ashford's analysis of the children's book, her acceptance of its message is implicit. Having lost her independence, her voice, and even consciousness itself, Vivian has finally learned to see more than wit in a literary work. Death and The Runaway Bunny are helping her grasp what lay in Donne all along—the promise of irresistible grace.

Wit is never didactic enough to suggest outright that The Runaway Bunny and Donne's Holy Sonnets are equally profound works; if anything, Edson probably prefers the straightforward children's book to Metaphysical poetry. When Books and Culture interviewer Carter asked the playwright whether she liked Donne's poetry, Edson replied:

It's very fun to get yourself educated to a level where you can get it. But it takes a lot of hard work, and the fun of catching it is greater than the benefit of the insight to be gained. So the points that are made about it in the play are that it's complex and difficult, but the complexity doesn't necessarily lead you to a higher level of insight. The poems are complex for their own sake. They were written not to be published, but to be passed around in manuscript among a group of friends. … [Donne] wasn't trying to reveal any truth or even pursue any truth. He was just trying to be witty and clever.

(“John Donne” 25)

Certainly Edson's remarks suggest that she regards Donne as more of a decoy than a role model. “I don't myself see Donne as a perfectly realized spiritual being,” she said wryly in a telephone interview.

As skeptical as she may be about Donne's work, Edson does not undermine his poetry's power in the play. It shines through. During her interview with the playwright, Carter challenged Edson's view of Donne:

I don't approach Donne the same way [you do]. Maybe that's because I like cerebral poetry. To me Donne's poetry is very passionate. … I guess I sympathize most in the play with Vivian's old professor Dr. Ashford, a person of deep feelings who also takes a great interest in punctuation. So it's not that you're getting on Donne himself, right? There can be intellect and passion at the same time?

(“John Donne” 25-26)

To that question Edson responded, “Yeah. I don't see them as distinct” (“John Donne” 26). Another critic who recognizes the play's underlying affirmation of Donne's passionate poetry is Rosette C. Lamont, who praises Wit's final scene for its “amalgam of mortality and sensuality.” Lamont compares Vivian's disrobing to Donne's “Elegy 19, To his mistress going to bed,” because both present a “paradoxical union of death and sensuality” (570). Pointing out that such links are “endemic to the conceit, and more broadly to literary irony,” Lamont concludes that Wit itself is “a celebration of a life dedicated to the art of literature” (575). While Lamont's conclusion may be in part the product of wishful thinking, her article demonstrates that Edson has revealed an affinity rather than an antipathy for Donne.

Unwilling or unable to recognize the degree to which her play celebrates Donne's work and literary scholarship, Edson also seems not to notice that a distinctively Christian understanding of irresistible grace informs Wit. Although she does declare the play to be about “grace and redemption,” Edson insists that it is “not doctrinal.” In a telephone interview she mused, “People are surprised by how jazzed up they feel when it's over. The audience feels the relief of having laid down a heavy burden.” When Carter asked her whether she had intended a religious message, Edson praised her for being the first interviewer to recognize the play's spiritual dimension:

People always want to talk about the medicine, want to talk about the punctuation [in the Donne poetry], and so I compliment you and thank you for that. It's not doctrinal, and that's a very important distinction. And it's about a point that a lot of people who call themselves religious would not necessarily commend, which is the point where you leave off even religion. Vivian has to let go of knowledge, of scholarship, of pride, of everything, including religion.

(“John Donne” 26)

That description of “letting go” is in keeping with what Christ advocates in Matthew 18:2—namely, becoming “as little children” to enter the kingdom of heaven. Wit shows Vivian Bearing doing just that: exchanging her professorial wardrobe for hospital gowns; covering her baby-bald head with a baseball cap; finding herself addressed by her first name or “Sweetheart” instead of “Dr.” (and learning to like it); trading her Latinate diction for a simpler Anglo-Saxon vocabulary; accepting caresses and a Popsicle from a motherly nurse; preferring The Runaway Bunny to Donne's sonnets.

Granted, Edson's powerful depiction of Vivian Bearing's physical and mental decline does not make Wit an overtly Christian play. While she does become increasingly childlike, the protagonist repents only of “prefer[ring] research to humanity”—and even that is debatable (58). She makes no mention of Christ, much less any profession of religious faith. Even so, Wit's account of Vivian Bearing's death is life-bearing. Vivian's scholarly vocation ultimately finds affirmation in the example E. M. Ashford provides, and her apparent acceptance of The Runaway Bunny's message and subsequent reaching for the light at the play's conclusion are echoes, at least, of Christian salvation. The medium—Margaret Wise Brown's book for children—may be humble, but what Professor Ashford finds there is profound: “No matter where it hides, God will find it. See, Vivian?”

Whether or not she realizes it, Edson has depicted in her play the same desire that Donne expresses in Holy Sonnet XIV:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend,
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.


No, Vivian Bearing's Deliverer is not overtly Trinitarian. And, no, Vivian cannot articulate the specific spiritual longings that Donne's speaker voices so eloquently. Edson's own ambivalence prompts her to write in more ambiguous terms. Even so, Wit does offer an unabashed celebration of “the opportunity to experience God in spite of yourself” (Martini 25)—the same possibility that Donne celebrates, the possibility offered to humankind in Jesus Christ.


  1. The play's setting is vaguely contemporary, and Vivian is fifty years old. If the play takes place as early as 1991, the year in which Edson wrote it, Vivian would have been born around 1940 and could have read The Runaway Bunny at about the same time as she read Beatrix Potter's books. Ashford reveals The Runaway Bunny's copyright date to have been 1942 (79).

Works Cited

Bregman, Bertie. “Blame the Scholar, Not the Discipline.” Lancet 6 Mar. 1999: 851.

Donne, John. Holy Sonnet XIV. John Donne's Poetry. Sel. and ed. A. L. Clements. New York: Norton, 1966. 86.

Edson, Margaret. “John Donne Meets The Runaway Bunny.” Interview with Betty Carter. Books and Culture Sept.-Oct. 1999: 24-26.

———. “Play Right: Wit Author Margaret Edson Loves Teaching Kindergarten.” Interview. People 5 Apr. 1999: 179.

———. Telephone interview with Martha Greene Eads. 8 Feb. 2000.

———. Wit. New York: Faber, 1999.

Iannone, Carol. “Donne Undone.” Rev. of Wit, by Margaret Edson. First Things 100 (2000): 12-14.

Lamont, Rosette C. “Coma Versus Comma: John Donne's Holy Sonnets in Edson's Wit.Massachusetts Review 40 (1999-2000): 569-75.

Martini, Adrienne. “The Playwright in Spite of Herself.” American Theatre 16.8 (1999): 22-25.

Renner, Pamela. “Science and Sensibility.” American Theatre 16.4 (1999): 34-36.

Mary K. DeShazer (essay date fall 2002)

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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 millennium that a play about incest and transgressive desire, Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1998? Or that a play about a middle-aged woman's metastatic ovarian cancer, Margaret Edson's Wit, won the same prestigious award in 1999? Incest and cancer: betrayals of women's bodies, if not the body politic, sources of anguish and rupture that occur “between the body and the flesh.” In interrogating recent dramatic representations of bodily invasion by lesbian playwrights, I wish to contribute to an ongoing feminist effort to determine what and how it “means” to (re)produce traumatic events on stage and to witness such productions as members of an audience who have also experienced gendered trauma. To undertake this critical task I must inevitably turn to the theoretical insights of Lynda Hart, whose writing on sexuality, embodiment, and theater has informed a generation of feminist scholars. I want also to explore witnessing these two plays—in every sense of that elusive verb—on the New York stage in the company of Lynda, my friend of seventeen years before her death in December 2000, and to consider what I learned from her about the sites and insights of these performances.

Testifying from a place of trauma for/about/on behalf of the dead, even one's beloved dead, presents insurmountable difficulties, as no one realized better than Lynda Hart. Analyzing the narrative tensions in Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina, she noted that

[i]f as [Shoshana] Felman argues, “testifying from the inside … would mean testifying from inside the death, the deadness … of the witness,” then the voice that witnesses a trauma, such as incest [or, I would add, the ravages of cancer], must literally be a voice from beyond the experience of the survivor—yet only the survivor can narrate her own experience.

(Hart 1998, 182)

In Between the Body and the Flesh Lynda theorized brilliantly about incest, sadomasochism, and their textual representations. In the journals and memoirs she left behind, she wrestled with the paradoxical struggle for both remembrance and amnesia—an effort shared by incest survivors and dying cancer patients. She did not survive to narrate her own struggle, or to assess the plays we saw together that bear witness to such struggle. Hence the narrative difficulty and the emotional urgency of my effort to capture adequately even fragments of the many conversations that Lynda and I had about trauma, performance theory, feminist theater, and testimony. This process has required multiple voices to emerge: the academic voice of Lynda Hart, the voices of two women in intimate dialogue, the autobiographical voice of Lynda as she nears death, and her voice filtered through my memory. Some of these voices are disjunctive, others connective; all of them, I hope, will testify to the woman that I loved and to our joint commitment as scholars of women's literature.


LI'L Bit:
Someone will get hurt.
Have I forced you to do anything?

—Paula Vogel, How I Learned to Drive

In How I Learned to Drive Vogel takes her audience on the road with Li'l Bit, a woman in her forties, as she and a chorus of sympathetic and unsympathetic witnesses reveal the sexual abuse she experienced throughout adolescence at the hands of her beloved Uncle Peck, a father figure who uses driving lessons as a site of exploitation. When Li'l Bit is eleven, Peck gives her a first lesson, placing her on his lap at the wheel so that by fondling her he can reach orgasm. By the time she is a teenager Li'l Bit has agreed to these liaisons, believing that in spending time alone with Peck she helps him to stay sober. In a freewheeling retrospective that breaks the silence around the complexity and complicity of the incestuous dyad, Vogel presents the struggle of coping with the classic symptoms of incest survivors, symptoms that Lynda catalogued in Between the Body and the Flesh: the erosion of basic trust, difficulties with body image, alternate aggression and psychic anesthesia, survivor guilt, obsession with scenes from childhood, and shame. As Lynda argued,

[s]hame is perhaps the survivor's symptom most resistant to therapeutic intervention. For while all these traits are coping mechanisms for the survivor, despite the fact that they are also self-destructive repetitions inherited from a period of crisis in which they served the survivor as safety devices … in order to work through shame, one must in a sense re-experience it.

(Hart 1998, 172)

Li'l Bit is shamed long before Peck's incestuous advances begin—shamed by being a girl. As her nickname suggests, she has been both infantalized and objectified from birth by her family, who choose her designation because she “has only a “li'l bit” between her legs. “In most families,” she explains, “relatives get names like ‘Junior’ or ‘Brother,’ or ‘Bubba.’ In my family, if we call someone ‘Big Papa,’ it's not because he's tall. In my family folks tend to get nicknamed for their genitalia” (Vogel 1998, 13). Her nickname recalls the pornographic description of women as a “li'l bit of pussy” and exposes the lurid male fantasy of “getting a li'l bit” on the side—precisely what Uncle Peck will undertake to do.

As Vogel's protagonist enters adolescence her clitoris is no longer overtly on display, but her growing breasts replace it as objects of familial ridicule and fetishization.

FEMALE Greek Chorus (As Mother):
Look, Grandma. Li'l Bit's going to be as big in the bust as you are.
LI'L Bit:
Mother! Could we please change the subject? …
MALE Greek Chorus (As Grandfather):
Yup. If Li'l Bit gets any bigger, we're gonna haveta buy her a wheelbarrow to carry in front of her—
LI'L Bit:
—Damn it—…
FEMALE Greek Chorus (As Mother):
I tell you, Grandma, Li'l Bit's at that age. She's so sensitive, you can't say boo—…
MALE Greek Chorus (As Grandfather):
Well, she better stop being so sensitive. 'Cause five minutes before Li'l Bit turns the corner, her tits turn first—

(Vogel 1998, 14-16)

Part of Uncle Peck's appeal for Li'l Bit is that he alone attempts to disrupt such exchanges. “How 'bout those Redskins on Sunday, Big Papa?” he interjects when the grandfather holds forth about his granddaughter's “tits.” He also advises his niece to ignore these verbal assaults: “Li'l Bit, you can't let him get to you. Then he wins.” Such useless interventions reveal Peck's unwillingness to make any real effort to challenge Li'l Bit's persecutors, for “family is family,” their misbehavior therefore unassailable. Moreover, Peck's purported sympathy for Li'l Bit when she claims “I'd like some privacy, that's all” is one of many gestures that cause Vogel's audiences profound unease, since we recognize his motives in a way that his teenaged niece can only sense (Vogel 1998, 15-19). Indeed, the adult protagonist identifies retrospectively both her naivete and the nature of Peck's illness: “[e]ven with my family background, I was sixteen or so before I realized that pedophilia did not mean people who loved to bicycle …” (Vogel 1998, 14).

After seeing this play, Lynda and I reflected angrily upon the cultural reality that while child sexual abuse is purported to be a rare and isolated occurrence, research shows that one-third to one-half of all women experience some form of it before or during adolescence. We had both recently read the work of the feminist psychoanalyst Laura Brown, who explains that while trauma is generally believed to occur “outside the range of human experience,” incest is nonetheless “one of the most widespread ‘secrets’ of women's lives” (Hart 1998, 173). Indeed, therapeutic interventions are most successful when patients finally realize that their experiences are not unique. As Lynda argued in Between the Body and the Flesh, “[i]ncest survivors' ‘shame’ contains within it two contradictory components: on the one hand the conviction that they are alone, on the other the knowledge that incest is not an isolated deviance but rather a widespread occurrence indicative of a patriarchal symbolic in which men are taught that access to female bodies is their entitlement” (Hart 1998, 173). Assumptions of male entitlement are evident in How I Learned to Drive through the conversations that Mother and Grandmother have about men as “bulls” driven by “Mr. Gut and Mr. Peter,” and through the family's compliant laughter at Grandfather's constant sexual innuendo and his pursuits around the table of Grandmother as she tries to evade his lascivious grasp (Vogel 1998, 32). Such assumptions are also evident through the ploys of the deceptively courteous Peck, who asks permission of Li'l Bit every time he touches her—“Just let me undo you. I'll do you back up”—yet who gets her drunk on martinis at sixteen so that she will go “upstairs” with him at a hotel, and who assumes that it is only a matter of time before they have intercourse: “[n]othing is going to happen between us until you want it to” (Vogel 1998, 11, 29-31, 38). Plenty, of course, has happened already.

As Lynda and I discussed, Li'l Bit's experience of sexual abuse is complicated by the fact that her sexuality is shaped by and through her trauma. Uncle Peck touches her in part because he loves her, as she does him; there is a grim tenderness in the scene in which Mother explains, “[w]hen you were born, you were so tiny that you fit in Uncle Peck's outstretched hand” (Vogel 1998, 14). One of Vogel's finest accomplishments, we felt, was to present what Lynda called “the double bind of the traumatic voice”: the playwright evokes not only scenes from the adult Li'l Bit's shaky “present” and her abusive “past” (via flashbacks, dialogue, 1960s music, and commentary from a chorus representing various family members' perspectives), but also scenes that reveal Li'l Bit's transgressive desire in all of its “belated historicity.” Vogel's play shares with Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina what Lynda described as “a hybridity of forms that partakes of the conventions of a traumatic narrative and attests to the paradoxical modes characteristic of the testimonial as a genre that speaks its ‘truths’ in the belated historicity of trauma. And it does so, not only in its narration of incest but also in its depiction of a sexuality that is formed through and fantasized within the traumatic memories” (Hart 1998, 178). Unlike Allison's Bone, who confronts her abuse by fantasizing during masturbation about an audience who would witness her stepfather's assaults, Li'l Bit claims to have become sexually numb after Uncle Peck's first driving lesson: “[t]hat day was the last day I lived in my body. I retreated above the neck, and I've lived inside the ‘fire’ in my head ever since” (Vogel 1998, 90). This assertion near the end of the play oversimplifies the status of her sexuality, however, since she responds to Peck's embraces by kissing him in the first hotel scene and “starts to lower herself to kiss him” in the second hotel scene, before, as the stage directions indicate, she “wrenches herself free” (Vogel 1998, 32, 83). Li'l Bit desires Peck's “warm hands” and “bedroom eyes” even as she recognizes and resents his abuse.

Like Allison, Vogel allows her protagonist to separate at last from her abuser and begin slowly to heal. The playwright reveals this process by chronicling parts of the play's narrative in the future anterior, a tense which, according to French feminist Catherine Clément, serves as “a memory curious about its own future … the miraculous tense of healing” (Hart 1998, 181). In discussing Bastard Out of Carolina Lynda analyzed this technique in a way that sheds light on the struggle of Li'l Bit to make sense of her profound ambivalence toward Peck: “[t]hese fantasies are not monologues that narrate the history of her abuse. They are dreams of a performance that takes place in psychoanalytic time—the future anterior—the past that will have been” (Hart 1998, 181).

When Li'l Bit “floors it” at the end of Vogel's play, having borne witness to her abuse on stage and having invoked an audience as witness, she drives headlong into the future anterior. She survives to unmask the patriarchal symbolic.

Not only is incest marked as a founding taboo and therefore presumed not to happen if the culture is to retain its illusion of coherency, but also, then, the survivor is not meant to survive. The fact that she does so is due to her ability to create her own system, her own symbolic if you will, that is necessarily discordant with the dominant order's symbolic.”

(Hart 1998, 178)

Vogel, of course, has created the alternate symbolic that Li'l Bit enters, and in this sense she “is” both Li'l Bit and her witness. Since the memories that are Li'l Bit's salvation require multiple confirmations, moreover, we as theater-goers bear witness to both Li'l Bit's healing and to Vogel's belief in this possibility. Although the theater has a set of frameworks and conventions that audiences and actors must observe, and thus as spectators we “know” we are watching not actual events but performances, we are nonetheless called upon to witness an incest survivor's hybrid “reality” of pain and pleasure. Such memories of “a past that will have been,” as Lynda recognized, “are distinctly theatrical in that they require a spectator and, as such, they inhabit a borderline between fantasy and reality” (Hart 1998, 179).


Childless women get it
And men when they retire;
It's as if there had to be some outlet
For their foiled creative fire.

—W. H. Auden, “Miss Gee”

Margaret Edson's Wit has been critically acclaimed as a “brutally human and beautifully layered new play,” a “dazzling and humane play you will remember till your dying day” ( Much of this applause is deserved. Edson presents her engaging protagonist, Dr. Vivian Bearing, as a brilliant scholar and a tough customer willing to confront the fact that she will soon die: “I have stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. There is no stage five” (Edson 1999, 12). The playwright also deploys John Donne's poetry to offer a lyrical meditation on time's passing, death's inevitability, and the persistence of human longing for something beyond life itself. As Vivian's mentor, the learned Professor E. M. Ashford, declares in one of the play's most memorable passages (speaking of Donne's most famous holy sonnet, “Death be not proud”), “Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points” (Edson 1999, 14). The play also offers effective “postmodern” moments in which the protagonist's monologues shift from interior reflections to a self-conscious dialectic with members of the audience:

(She ceremoniously lies back and looks at the ceiling.) You cannot imagine how time … can be … so still. It hangs. It weighs. And yet there is so little of it. It goes so slowly, and yet it is so scarce. If I were writing this scene, it would last a full fifteen minutes. I would lie here, and you would sit there. (She looks at the audience, daring them.) Not to worry. Brevity is the soul of wit. But if you think eight months of cancer treatment is tedious for the audience, consider how it feels to play my part.

(Edson 1999, 35)

Despite such compelling scenes, Lynda and I responded ambivalently to Wit, largely because we thought Edson had drawn on a stereotype that we hoped had been laid to rest by 1999: that of the sexually repressed English teacher, middle-aged, single, and friendless; so obsessive about her work that she fails to have regular pap smears and thus contracts the cancer that on some level she deserves. As she nears death, Vivian Bearing blames herself for being insufficiently compassionate toward her students, for being too absorbed in Donne to nurture them. She recalls a clever exchange by two students after class and critiques herself for her rigidity in not laughing with them: “Vivian (to the audience): That was a witty little exchange, I must admit. It showed the mental acuity I would praise in a poetic text. But I admired only the studied application of wit, not its spontaneous eruption” (Edson 1999, 62). When a student once asked for an extension on a paper because her grandmother had died, the dying Vivian recalls, she responded, “the paper is due when it is due.” Such memories cause the teacher self-doubt and an uncharacteristic loss of words: “I don't know. I feel so much—what is the word? I look back, I see these scenes, and I …” (Edson 1999, 63, 65). Although one might argue that Edson developed Vivian Bearing as a character who needed to find her compassionate side, the fact remains that she is “made” to suffer not only from her cancer but also for her lack of a capacity to nurture.

Moreover, while it is true that Wit critiques the medical establishment for its objectification of patients and its maniacal desire to preserve life at any quality or cost, it is also true that Vivian is blamed implicitly for her own cancer because she did not observe medical protocol.

JASON [her attending intern]:
How often do you undergo routine medical checkups?
Well, not as often as I should, probably, but I've felt fine, I really have.
So the answer is?
Every three to … five years.

(Edson 1999, 26)

When Lynda and I discussed Wit after the performance, we reflected on the theory of Susan Sontag, whose classic Illness as Metaphor I had just read and Lynda had recently reread in the aftermath of her first diagnosis with breast cancer the preceding winter. In her efforts to examine how cancer has been used metaphorically in a variety of cultures and historical epochs, including our own, Sontag undertakes to “rectify the conceptualization of the disease, to de-mythicize it.” Thus she critiques, among other representations, the views of late-19th and early 20th-century physicians and psychoanalysts regarding cancer and its origins: Herbert Snow, who claimed that “of 140 cases of breast cancer, 103 gave an account of previous mental trouble, hard work, or other debilitating agency” and “of 187 cases of uterine cancer, 91 showed a similar history”; Wilhelm Reich, who described cancer as “a disease following emotional resignation—a bio-energetic shrinking, a giving up of hope”; Karl Menninger, who saw illness as a result of “what the victim has done with his world and with himself”; and Wittgenstein, who viewed cancer as the “gruesome penalty exacted for a lifetime of instinctual renunciation” (Sontag 1977, 3, 23, 46, 52). Although Sontag realizes that neither late-20th century oncologists nor most laypeople support the idea of cancer personalities as such, she argues that we still psychologize about diseases over which we have no control and suggest that people can prevent or cure them by “a mobilization of will.” As she further notes, “[p]unitive notions of disease have a long history, and such notions are particularly active with cancer.” Cancer patients are hardly helped, she concludes, by being blamed for their illness or “by hearing their disease's name constantly being dropped as the epitome of evil” (Sontag 1977, 53, 76).

Like Sontag, Lynda and I concluded that neither cancer patients nor feminist theater was helped by stereotypical representations of culpable dying women. The overly arch performance of Kathleen Chalfant as a condescending, self-righteous, and ultimately infantalized Vivian Bearing—our view of it despite the rave reviews and awards Chalfant had accumulated—reinforced the sense Lynda and I had that Edson and the play's director, Derek Anson Jones, had chosen to represent Vivian Bearing as a dying woman guilty of that most culturally resilient of all female flaws: the lack of sufficient femininity.

This is not to say that Wit did not affect me profoundly, and I believe it affected Lynda as well. After all, we sat in the Union Square Theater in 1999, just a year after Lynda had first been diagnosed with breast cancer. I recall vividly her acknowledgment that seeing this play would be too scary were it not for my companionship and the “coincidental” presence in the row behind us of her spiritual advisor, Sensei Pat Enkyo O'Hara. The scenes of a bald, vulnerable Vivian Bearing in the hospital, suffering from excruciating pain, were riveting; examined retrospectively, they seem eerily prescient, given Lynda's own experience of a virulent inflammatory breast cancer just over a year later. Vivian's ironic words could have been Lynda's in the future anterior: “[i]n everything I have done, I have been steadfast, resolute—some would say in the extreme. Now, as you can see, I am distinguishing myself in illness” (Edson 1999, 53).

The scene that we both found most memorable, however, occurred when Dr. Ashford, Vivian's only visitor, climbed into bed with her and read “The Runaway Bunny.” The necessarily harsh, desperate discourse that the dying Vivian intoned—“There is cancer eating away at my goddam bones, and I did not know there could be such pain on this earth”—is momentarily mitigated by the presence of maternal sustenance, in the story as well as the hospital room:

“If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny, “I will become a bird and fly away from you.” “If you become a bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, “I will be a tree that you come home to.”

(Edson 1999, 80)

Edson powerfully juxtaposes the reassuring words of Margaret Wise Brown's children's story with the metaphysical poet's urgent claim that “death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die”—leaving audiences filled, paradoxically, with both despair and comfort.


Knowledge in the testimony is … not simply a factual given that is reproduced and replicated by the testifier, but a genuine advent, an event in its own right.

—Dori Laub, Testimony

The testimonies of Holocaust survivors that Laub recorded are, of course, different in nature and historical context from the testimonies of incest or cancer survivors, as Lynda noted repeatedly in her application of trauma theory to lesbian and feminist texts in Between the Body and the Flesh. Certainly vital differences exist between the witnessing of Jewish survivors offered in the semi-private, “safe space” of the therapist's office, even with tape recorder running, and the witnessing of women's bodily traumas offered in the gaudy public space of the contemporary theater. Yet both types of testimony, I propose, are “genuine advents,” advents that herald the possibility of resistance and transformation.

Dramatic advents, ironically, appear most often in a play's ending, where, on the modern feminist stage, the hero's tragic epiphany and the audience's subsequent catharsis have given way to the s/hero's defiant witness against forgetting, a spectacle forged in testimonial collaboration with both author and audience. In How I Learned to Drive Li'l Bit moves successfully through what Lynda describes as not only the trauma survivor's “relentless struggle for remembrance, but for the self-negating, contradictory, conflictual remembrance of—precisely—an amnesia” (Hart 1998, 174). Eschewing both the anesthetization of alcohol and the lure of denial that a part of her actually desired Uncle Peck, a reflective, adult Li'l Bit firmly takes the driver's seat. She looks simultaneously backward at Peck through the rear-view mirror and forward to the road ahead, fully conscious of her status as survivor: “And then—I floor it” (Vogel 1998, 92). In a similarly redemptive gesture at the conclusion of Wit, Vivian Bearing, who does not survive, nonetheless retrieves her bodily autonomy at the instant of her death. Indeed, she rises from her hospital bed and the intrusive physicians who surround her, strips off her institutional gown, and “floors it”—stands naked, that is, arms spread wide, in a luminous gesture of self-reclamation.

Meanwhile, in the audience, Lynda and I bear witness to this survivor discourse, these advents. Indeed, acknowledging the suffering of women whose bodies are invaded and applauding those courageous enough to write about such invasions and present them on stage have become our responsibilities. “The incest survivor [add: the woman dying of cancer?] is trapped in the absolute necessity for both of these opposites to be realized simultaneously—at once to keep her secret and to have it (her) be known. What the child who is abused and the adult survivor of incest mush accomplish is not to become a witness but to have a witness,” Lynda claimed. “We are all participants in this spectacle. Rather than fleeing from the scene while shouting fire in this crowded theater, we had better attend to the uncanniness of our own homes” (Hart 1998, 186, 190).

In her own safe space with her beloved partner, Stacey Foiles, Lynda chronicled both the uncanny home of her childhood and the terrifying cliff's edge at which she found herself when her breast cancer metastasized in the summer of 2000. In Dreamsicles, the Memphis memoir that she wrote in 1995 and revised shortly before her death, Lynda testifies to abuse and abandonment, but also to the power of lesbian desire and the possibility of healing. As she argued in Between the Body and the Flesh, “lesbians are the people who most frequently speak out about sexual abuse because they have already chosen social positions that require courageous enunciation” (Hart 1998, 195). Like the plays of Paula Vogel and Margaret Edson, Lynda's autobiographical writings provide courageous enunciation. Vogel's representation of incest survival and Edson's depiction of a woman's death from cancer intersect, ultimately, at the nexus Lynda identifies in her memoirs: they reclaim women's bodies not as sites of fetishization or abuse but as sites of affection and memorialization. As tribute to Lynda's indomitable spirit, then, I offer excerpts from her autobiographical texts as a conclusion to my/our reflections on incest, cancer, theater, and testimony

First, near the end of Dreamsicles, this dreamscape of an abuse survivor's moment of self-reclamation and realization of a sustaining Other:

On a cold night when the lightning was flashing across the windows and the “guardian life” sign was blinking its orange eyes, and the sirens in the city were howling on their way to rescue travelers who had stepped into too deep puddles, I would dream that there could be a few more temperate days … before I was frozen into the ground like hardened snow. It could be a hot summer night again and the rain was warm. I could run out onto the terrace and strip off my clothes and dance in the moonlight while you watched, scolded, and laughed.

I would dream of a girl who peeked wearily out of the shed door one last time and saw that someone was looking. Someone was listening. Someone coaxed her out. And she would say her own name. And hear it repeated.

(Hart 1995, 140)

Like Vogel's Li'l Bit, Lynda dreams that the girl she was can somehow reclaim her bodily autonomy and her lost childhood if she speaks her truth in the presence of another. What the wounded child and the adult survivor long for, Lynda ultimately suggests, is both to become a witness and to have a witness.

These symbiotic desires are evident as well in her journal entry of July 29, 2000, written as she awaited the results of tests that would confirm the presence of cancer:

“It is of our nature to have ill health. It is of our nature to grow old and die.” How old is old enough to die? Now I'm 46 and 2 years past a round of breast cancer—lumpectomy and radiation—the least of it—the total psychic/emotional meltdown was the hardest part. But out of it came a different spirit—one I had been hiding for a long, long time—“behind walls made out of paper” a psychic told me on the phone as I wept and knelt on the floor … All this time I've thought the “walls made out of paper” was not a metaphor, i.e. paper-thin, but PAPER—the writing, the painting—the blank page. So many, many filled. “You're so prolific” they say of me. I fill up paper with words and paints. I thought she meant I was hiding THERE—so I've done very little of it lately. 2 years lately. In 2 years I would, before, have written hundreds of pages.

Now I want to write again—about a lot of things. Another biopsy on Tuesday—it could be positive and I would surely lose my breast and perhaps my life. But I would have time to write. About: Deb, my dearest friend ever, my confidante, my soul-mate, even my guru at times … And about Dom—her beauty is extraordinary … And Stacey—I want to write about how she delights me, astounds me, I want to write about how I love to unroll her shirt sleeves as I put them in the wash—how I see and feel her beautiful forearms in the space where the rolled sleeves have opened. And I want to write about my breasts—memorialize them.

(Hart 2000)

As Edson's Vivian, dying of cancer, walks naked into the light at the end of Wit, so Lynda, dying of cancer but not yet certain of it, bares herself: she emerges from behind those paper walls, testifying to her desire to commemorate other women and to be commemorated. Such rewritings of the patriarchal symbolic require witnesses. I bear witness, then, not only to the power of Vogel's and Edson's plays but also to the pages Lynda filled, the “different spirit” she embraced, her fractured body, and the beautiful breasts she wanted to memorialize.

Works Cited

Edson, Margaret. 1999. Wit. New York: Faber and Faber.

Hart, Lynda. 2000. Unpublished Journal.

———. 1998. Between the Body and the Flesh: Performing Sadomasochism. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1995. Dreamsicles. Unpublished Memoir.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. 1992. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge.

Sontag, Susan. 1977. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Vogel, Paula. 1998. How I Learned to Drive. In The Mammary Plays. New York: Theater Communications Group.

Wit: A Play by Margaret Edson.

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

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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 proved a popular literary subject. As Susan Sontag notes, although nineteenth-century writers glamorized tubercular patients, “nobody conceives of cancer … as a decorative, often lyrical death”; she adds that “cancer is a rare and still scandalous subject for poetry; and it seems unimaginable to aestheticize the disease.”1 Cancer's resistance to aesthetic rendering poses an additional difficulty for patients like myself, accustomed to turn to imaginative literature in times of need. Hence my attraction to Margaret Edson's highly acclaimed W;t, a play that dramatizes the diagnosis, treatment, and death of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor of seventeenth-century literature suffering from advanced ovarian cancer. W;t has achieved to general acclaim what Sontag had deemed “unimaginable.” I had initially hoped that the play would help me make sense of what had happened to me. The fact that I now approach it in a scholarly mode is itself an indication that the play was a disappointment to me on a more fundamental level.

Having cancer is a disorienting experience. All cancer patients expect to suffer physical pain. But few, I imagine, are ready for the social stigma that attaches itself to the disease. A personal anecdote will illustrate the point. Shortly after I returned from my six-month course of treatment, I encountered an acquaintance at the gym. She approached me reluctantly, as if my disease might be infectious. This reaction would become familiar to me; indeed, it is a common response to persons diagnosed with cancer. After nervous assurances about how good I looked, my acquaintance offered the opinion that I “must have learned so much about [my]self” as a result of having cancer. What, precisely, did she mean? Did she think that all diseases led to enlightenment, or did she imagine that cancer was especially efficacious from a pedagogical point of view? Would she have said the same thing to someone suffering, say, from a potentially fatal case of botulism? The comment, I told myself, might simply reflect this person's new-age tendencies. In any case, cancer had taught me little about what this person referred to as my “self.” It had ravaged my body but had left my sense of “self” intact. Had I the capacity for pleasure while in treatment, I suppose I might have found it in this reassuring consistency of my personality in the face of trauma. So why had this person's response shocked me? What lesson was I supposed to have learned? Did she think that, prior to the diagnosis, I had not “known myself”? Was my cancer an indication of this failure, a sort of punishment exacted for the sin of self-delusion, a cure for ignorance about my own deepest impulses? What logic could have accounted for her perception of my disease?

Her comment was part of a series of troubling reactions that my cancer elicited in my community. When word of my diagnosis first circulated, for example, several people assumed that I had breast cancer (because I was a woman) or lung cancer (because I was a smoker). Interestingly, men assumed that I had breast cancer and nonsmokers assumed that I had lung cancer. People defined my disease in ways that helped them mark their own distance from it. Their assumptions about my cancer, in other words, were comforting to them. Like my acquaintance at the gym who protected herself from disease by imagining it as part of a program of self-improvement, these people could not tolerate the possibility that cancer strikes arbitrarily. My actual diagnosis gave little enough support to this view: I had parotid cancer—a very rare form, for which there are no known risk factors. Remarkably, however, when I tried to explain to various people that my personal habits had not contributed to my disease, they were disinclined to believe me. They preferred to think that I was sick because I smoked, as they did not.

As this anecdotal evidence suggests, we still think about cancer as a disease of the self. W;t proves no exception to this rule: it proposes that cancer offers an occasion for self-extension. After a medical team botches an attempt to resuscitate Vivian, the stage directions stipulate that she steps out of her bed, “moving slowly toward the light” as she sheds her clothing, and “the instant she is naked and beautiful, reach[es] for the light. …” Jason, the resident in charge, accompanies Vivian's progress by the refrain “Oh God.”2 Ironically, the young doctor registers his patient's death as a failure while the play presents it as a success. The final scene offers a theatrical analogue of John Donne's “Death Be Not Proud,” a sonnet that, according to Vivian's teacher E. M Ashford, is about “overcoming the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life, death, and eternal life” (14). Through such references to the Holy Sonnets, W;t establishes a homology between Vivian's cancer and Donne's God: cancer breaks, blows, burns, and makes Vivian new.3

My concern is not with the nature of Vivian's redemption but with the implications of using cancer as a vehicle for that redemption. Vivian experiences her disease as a ritual degradation—a painful and humiliating erosion of the barriers that had separated her from, and elevated her above, other human beings. She learns, as Raymond-Jean Frontain observes, “that the only way to be raised up is to allow oneself to be thrown down.”4 Although W;t advertises its interest in seventeenth-century poetry, the play depends for its effects on the conventions of a different Renaissance genre. For all her citing of Donne, Edson owes a more important debt to his near-contemporary Shakespeare. Arrogance, irony, elevation, fall, illumination, self-knowledge: this is the stuff of tragedy. By imposing tragic shape on Vivian's suffering, Edson conveys the devastating sense of isolation and alienation that follows a diagnosis of cancer. But tragedy also assumes causal connections between human agents and the fate that befalls them; as A. C. Bradley puts it, “the necessity” that impresses us in tragedy “is that the calamities and catastrophe follow inevitably from the deeds of men.”5 To make a cancer patient the subject of a tragedy is to reproduce and legitimate the “moralistic and punitive” fantasies about cancer that Sontag describes.6

W;t's reliance on cultural commonplaces may account for the fact that, despite the play's apparent brutality, some critics report feeling “in a strange way, enormously comforted by it.”7 Its central characters are all stereotypes: the cold doctor, the caring nurse, and the repressed female academic. It is structured, moreover, around commonplace oppositions, most obviously that between intellect and emotion. Edson's basic understanding of cancer is no more sophisticated than that of my acquaintances, who so diligently sought to distance themselves from my disease. But she does provide a powerful and authoritative frame for that understanding: tragedy proves the perfect medium for the dissemination of our pernicious fantasies about cancer. These fantasies lend themselves to tragic treatment in part because they construe the disease as a metaphysical problem. Cancer occupies a central place in our imagination because its etiology remains mysterious. According to Sontag, even “the evidence that there are cancer-prone families and, possibly, a hereditary factor in cancer can be acknowledged without disturbing the belief that cancer is a disease that strikes each person, punitively, as an individual. No one asks ‘Why me?’ who gets cholera or typhus. But ‘Why me?’ (meaning ‘it's not fair’) is the question of many who learn they have cancer.”8 To ask why someone is afflicted with cancer is to invite a response that theorizes a connection between the affliction and the individual suffering from it (because you are a woman, because you smoke). W;t not only urges the validity of such connections but proposes that cancer results from a judgment “of a deeper kind.”9 When Vivian is put in isolation because her “treatment imperils her health” (39), she recalls one of Donne's sonnets:

If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortall us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn'd; Alas; why should I bee?

The dramatic context invites us to reformulate Donne's query: Why should Vivian be “damn'd” to cancer and to the “poysonous mineralls” used to treat it? Why Vivian? By positing a providential answer to that question, W;t quiets the metaphysical anxieties that this mysterious disease raises and affirms cultural myths about its causality. While this strategy tends to comfort those free from cancer, it also tends to increase the onus on those suffering from it. To Vivian's burden of physical pain, Edson adds a burden of guilt for that pain.

Edson assigns responsibility to Vivian for her cancer by relying on modern psychologizing theories of cancer. These posit the same fit between character and disease that tragedy posits between character and fate. Bernie Siegel, for example, includes in his enormously popular Love, Medicine, and Miracles sections on the “Psychological Profile of Cancer” and “The Mind—Benign or Malign.” According to Siegel, “our state of mind has an immediate and direct effect on our state of body.” More specifically, he claims, cancer results from psychological repression: the “lack of emotional outlet is a common theme in the histories of cancer patients.”10 Like all those who identify psychology as a root cause of cancer, Siegel promotes the illusion that the disease is to some extent in the control of the patient: “there are no incurable diseases, only incurable people.”11 Given such a paradigm, cure, however construed, becomes the responsibility of the patient. Sontag points out the cruelty inherent in theories that link repression and cancer: they instruct patients “that they have, unwittingly, caused their disease” and so make them “feel that they have deserved it.”12 Vivian in every way fits the so-called “Psychological Profile for Cancer”: in the opening soliloquy, she even describes herself as an “unwitting accomplice” (6).

Edson makes us feel that her heroine has deserved her cancer by combining tragic convention and psychological speculations regarding the origins of cancer. W;t's reliance on the device of the soliloquy in itself constitutes an homage to Shakespeare; to ensure that we register the point, the first soliloquy ends with a quotation about mortality from Pericles.13 But Vivian soon clarifies that W;t is not a romance. After promising that “irony is a literary device that will necessarily be deployed to great effect,” she asserts that she would prefer “that a play about me be cast in the mythic-heroic-pastoral mode; but the facts, most notably stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer, conspire against that. The Faerie Queene this is not” (6). When Edson elected to write about a cancer patient, she determined the “facts” of Vivian's disease. She decided, in other words, not to write a play in the “mythic-heroic-pastoral” mode—a play that might have closed on the survival of one or more cancer patients. Such a treatment would have alienated the audience from the commonly held assumption that a diagnosis of cancer is a death sentence. Rather, W;t's insistence on the inevitability of the “facts” replicates that assumption even as it curtails generic possibilities. The play's tragic aspirations are fully revealed when Vivian observes that “I have been, at best, an unwitting accomplice. I think I die at the end. They've given me less than two hours” (6). The peculiar collaboration of heroes with forces that conspire against them is the hallmark of tragedy. Nor does Edson's choice of qualifier diminish the attribution of agency to Vivian. All tragic heroes are to some extent “unwitting” in that their actions result in unintended consequences. That is, of course, why the “literary device” of irony is so important to the genre—one need only think of Oedipus to see the point. Oedipus did not intend to kill his father; Vivian did not intend to incur cancer. Nevertheless, both plays suggest that their heroes contributed in fundamental ways to their appalling fates. The word unwitting is especially fitting in Vivian's case: although it appears to absolve Vivian from some degree of responsibility, it also gestures toward what Aristotle calls the “great error” that accounts for her “misfortune.”14 Her wit is precisely what makes Vivian an “unwitting accomplice”: she believed that “being extremely smart would take care of it” but she has “been found out” by cancer (70). Guilty of intellectual hubris, she is in effect outwitted by the disease.

Through a series of juxtapositions, Edson makes Vivian's cancer consequent on her career as an academic. Like Miller's Death of a Salesman,W;t eschews the linear structure of classical tragedy in favor of a series of flashbacks that connect Vivian's past decisions to her present suffering.15 The first of these concerns Dr. Kelekian's blunt diagnosis: “You have cancer.” Just as Willy Loman sits to signal his degradation, Vivian observes that the announcement was “something of a shock. I had to sit down.”16 The stage directions stipulate that she follow the word with the action: “she plops down” (7). This bit of stage business acquires additional meaning when it is repeated in a subsequent flashback to Vivian's youth. A metatheatrical transition urges us to consider the possibility of a logical connection between these two memories. After Kelekian asserts that the experimental treatment will “make a significant contribution to our knowledge,” Vivian reminds the audience that she was “never one to turn from a challenge.” That, she says, is “why I chose … to study Donne” (12). This recognition prompts a dramatization of her career decision, made twenty-eight years before. In the episode, Professor Ashford instructs an undergraduate Vivian to “do” her paper on Donne “again,” and, as Vivian informs us, this, too, “was something of a shock. I had to sit down. (She plops down)” (13). Through this pattern of sitting down (or falling), Edson exposes similarities between dissimilar events: the respective diagnoses of Professor Ashford and Dr. Kelekian have an identical effect on Vivian. The juxtaposed scenes of judgment—one medical, one academic—imply that the treachery of Vivian's body follows a logic of its own.17

Edson's insistent correlation of Vivian's academic career and her stage-four ovarian cancer duplicates a widespread fantasy about cancer as “a form of self-judgment.”18 Tragic convention helps Edson articulate this fantasy since, as Miller famously observed, tragedy is the “consequence of man's total compulsion to evaluate himself justly.”19 Immediately after her diagnosis, Vivian initiates a drawn-out process of evaluative retrospection. The fact that she turns first to the conference with Ashford identifies this event as an originary moment in Vivian's life. What Ashford says influences every decision that Vivian subsequently reaches, and every one of those decisions in turn heightens her vulnerability to cancer. Sontag notes that cancer is widely “imagined to be the wages of repression.”20 Significantly, Ashford's comments all urge the desirability of dissociating the intellectual from the emotional. She describes Vivian's essay, for example, as “melodrama, with a veneer of scholarship.” Noting that “hysterical” readings are more appropriate to Shakespeare than Donne, she advises her student to begin future papers “with a text … not with a feeling” (13-14). Oddly enough, despite T. S. Eliot's influential praise for Donne's synthetic and “sensuous apprehension of thought,” the metaphysical poet becomes W;t's shorthand for this dangerous dissociation of sensibility.21 Ashford makes it clear that choosing Donne means choosing thought at the expense of feeling. Although she later moderates her advice by suggesting that Vivian spend the day with friends, Vivian has already internalized her professor's hierarchy of values. She decides to head for the library and begins making her “immeasurable contribution to the discipline of English literature” (17). Twenty-eight years later, Vivian can recite her curriculum vitae with confident pride; “no one,” she claims, “is quite as good” as she is (20).

But no one is quite as lonely as she is either. Vivian conforms entirely to Sontag's “modern bogey of the cancer-prone personality”: she is “unemotional, inhibited, repressed.”22 Her wittiness is itself a sign of this repression, since wit exerts rational control over irrational phenomena. Vivian's opening riff on “the standard greeting” of the hospital staff illustrates the distancing effect of her intellect. As she points out, convention dictates that the response to “How are you feeling today?” is “Fine” (5). In a hospital, the question ironically means to suppress the emotions that it claims to elicit. But to offer her critique of this aspect of hospital culture, Vivian in turn has to repress the pain that these conventions inflict. Her wittiness is a form of coping: she invites laughter because her only alternative is to cry. Although this dynamic is familiar to many seriously ill patients, it forms an especially apt introduction to one who has ever but slenderly known her feelings. Indeed, what is most striking about Vivian, aside from her intelligence, is her emotional isolation. She recoils at her nurse's touch, for example, because “she is uncomfortable with kindness” (34). Her only visitor in the hospital is Ashford, a fact that speaks volumes about the affective poverty of Vivian's life.23 In the twenty-eight years that separate the second flashback from her diagnosis, Vivian has apparently been unable to sustain any meaningful ties to other human beings. Her death might well constitute “great loss to [her] discipline,” but she suspects that her students and her colleagues will delight in the news (32).

According to Jason, cancer results from “an error in judgment, in a molecular way” (57);24 the play extends this Aristotelian observation to the whole organism. In other words, it locates the origins of Vivian's cancer in her professional dissociation of sensibility. Several flashbacks to lectures confirm that Vivian has consistently chosen “research” over “humanity” (58). Presumably, Vivian could have bridged the gap between thought and feeling through her pedagogy; however, she considers teaching a form of competitive display, aimed at re-enforcing her distance from the students whom she loves to “perplex” (48). Like Donne, Vivian uses her “agile wit” not to resolve “the issues of life and God” but to revel “in their complexity” (60). She prizes Donne's poems because they offer a way of demonstrating “how good you really are” (20). Not surprisingly, this intellectual test is invariably decided in Vivian's favor: she excels at affirming her superiority over her students. A brilliant classroom performer, she construes herself as “powerful” (48) while she labels her students “simpering” (59). Vivian's favored pedagogical tools—derision and humiliation—further implement her separation from and elevation above her students. The impression that these classroom flashbacks create is of Vivian as a fortressed self—she lets no one in at all. Only a force commensurate to her powerful intellect could break the walls that she has erected around herself. Cancer turns out to be that force; however, initially she sees even the disease as one more opportunity to distinguish herself. No wonder, then, that she makes no contact with other patients. Vivian's emotional isolation is so severe that when she is put in medical isolation because chemotherapy has compromised her immunity, it makes almost no difference, theatrically speaking. She has occupied a stage of her own throughout her career. The fact that her doctors now approach her with masks and gloves seems merely an acknowledgment on their part of her low tolerance for human contact.

Edson proposes that, in privileging reason over emotion, “research” over “humanity,” Vivian has pursued a course that ensures her “immense success” (19) as an academic even as it proves detrimental to her health. W;t makes the causal connection explicit in the scene of the medical interview, which suggests that Vivian's “interesting work” impinged on her “life history” in ways that account for her “medical history” (24). In an attempt to discover the presence of risk factors contributing to the cancer, Jason asks the usual questions about tobacco and alcohol consumption. Vivian, as it turns out, is innocent of these carcinogenic habits. But she is nevertheless found guilty of hastening her own illness. She reveals that she “started noticing [in her] body … a sharp pain” four months prior to her diagnosis but that she ignored these symptoms because she “was working on a major project, the article on John Donne for The Oxford Encyclopedia of English Literature” (27-28). As always in this play, the mention of Donne signals a moment of dissociation and repression. Despite her pain, Vivian completes the article before seeking treatment. This particular act of suppression, thought it did not cause the cancer, contributed to its late diagnosis and thus to its intractability to treatment. It is also emblematic of Vivian's long history of emotional and physical repression, the final denial that catapults her into the category of the terminally ill. The kind of cancer that Vivian has may even gesture toward a specifically sexual repression. A commonplace of cancer lore is that the disease assails symbolic bodily locations; Wilhelm Reich, for example, theorized a connection between Freud's repression, his oral cancer, and his verbal dexterity.25 Edson could have saddled Vivian with some inscrutable and arbitrary cancer; by opting to afflict her heroine with ovarian cancer, she implies that Vivian's procreative organs are taking their revenge for a lifetime of neglect. The suggestion is abetted by Vivian's acknowledgment, during the interview, that she is not sexually active. While Edson takes exception to the abject treatment reserved for cancer patients, she perpetuates the very stereotypes about cancer that encourage such treatment.

Indeed, the idea that cancer constitutes a form of redress governs W;t's presentation of the disease. Vivian's condition provides an extended comment on her past; every time she is sinned against, she recalls one of her own sins. A medical exam teaches her, for example, to “know how poems feel” (16). This wry observation is one of several that casts her suffering as a form of Aristotelian reversal, a “change from one state of things within the play to its opposite,” leading to enlightenment.26 Cancer, in other words, makes Vivian feel like a poem so that she may finally know how to feel. When her doctors objectify her, she notes that “what we have to come to think of as me is … just the white piece of paper that bears the little black marks” (43). Their dehumanizing treatment precipitates memories of her own cruelty toward her students. As she looks back at these classroom “scenes,” Vivian is flooded by an unfamiliar emotion: “I feel so much—what is the word?” (63). Sympathy? Regret? Sadness? Guilt? Vivian has allowed herself to feel so little in the past that she does not have the vocabulary for describing emotional processes. But by transforming her from textualist to text, from agent to object, from tyrant to victim, cancer restores her access to her own emotions. It also forces her into a position of vulnerability, so that, for the first time, she experiences her relationship with her students in terms of connection rather than distance. For Vivian, the “calamity of disease” produces “insights into lifelong deceptions and failures of character.”27 Her degradation plays a crucial part in this process of illumination; in Aristotelian terms, by causing her fall, cancer leads ineluctably to the “discovery” of her guilt.28

The play's most disturbing scene highlights what Edson takes to be the retributive and the pedagogical nature of cancer. Considering Vivian's profile as a teacher, no horror could match that of submitting to a pelvic exam administered by an ex-student. Yet Edson subjects her heroine to precisely such an experience. Jason's double status as resident-in-charge and former student exemplifies W;t's strategy of relating Vivian's past to her present through a process of inversion. During the exam, Vivian lies exposed, her legs spread in stirrups; Jason, meanwhile, orders his former teacher to “relax” as he gropes her private parts. Manifestly uncomfortable with his task, Jason launches into a series of reminiscences about Vivian's class. His commentary, intended to mitigate the cruelty of the situation, ends up heightening it. As Jason recalls the previous terms of their relationship, a medically necessary exam accumulates all the negative associations of a taboo violation.29 The scene records in detail Vivian's fall from the pedestal that she used to occupy as a brilliant teacher to the position that she currently occupies on Jason's examining table. In a single gesture, his gloved hand sweeps aside the boundaries that his teacher maintained between herself and her students. The spectacle of a powerful woman humiliated by a previously vulnerable young man has faintly pornographic overtones. Vivian categorizes the grotesque reversal as “thoroughly degrading”; indeed, she says that she “could not have imagined the depths of humiliation” that she suffers (32). I would guess that Edson probably did not intend to evoke a pornographic scenario. The fact that she does so “unwittingly,” as it were, reveals just how punitive her attitude toward her central character is. Given that Vivian relies on humiliation as a pedagogical tool, an ironic sense of justice attaches to her situation. Vivian suffers degradation at the hands of a male student whom she once degraded; an “unwitting accomplice” in her cancer, she submits to a condign form of punishment.30 The matching of punishment to crime gives the scene of the pelvic exam a distinctly Dantean flavor. In W;t, cancer strikes with the force of providential logic.

Certainly, Edson asks us to consider that Vivian's punishment is in excess of her sins—but this, too, is a convention of tragedy. As Bradley puts it, although tragedy posits a “causal sequence” between the acts of human beings and the calamities that befall them, the consequences are not “limited to what would follow ‘justly’ from them.”31 This imbalance makes tragedy suited to the perpetuation of punitive fantasies about cancer, since these posit a psychological rather than an overtly moralistic connection between patient and disease. In W;t, the consequences—stage-four ovarian cancer—are clearly out of proportion with the crimes—the traditional flaw of “overweening intellect” (50) and the more modern “sin” of emotional repression. This disproportion serves Edson's didactic purposes.32 As Vivian observes, “one thing that can be said for an eight-month course of cancer treatment” is that “it is highly educational” (31). Even the time span of the treatment seems significant; at the end of eight months, Vivian is reborn and redeemed. The ravages of the disease predictably teach “the simpering patient” to yearn for “the touch of human kindness” that she has “ruthlessly denied her simpering students” (59). The healthy Vivian's love of intellectual complexity precluded an acceptance of “simple human truth” of any kind (15); like Donne, whose wit shields him “from God's judgment” (50), Vivian was ever “suspicious of simplicity” (61). Cancer apparently erodes Vivian's resistance to “profoundly simple meaning” (14). It forces her to accept that she might not be in control; it raises “doubts” about the efficacy of her own intellect in resolving problems; it encourages her to give up her preference for “hard things” (65). Although the test and treatments may be “infernal” (43), Edson asks us to believe that they prepare Vivian for a spiritual lesson that has eluded her in her healthier state.

Vivian's gradual shift of allegiance from her cold, brilliant doctor to her caring, dim-witted nurse marks her progress toward this supposed illumination. Jason and Susie function as allegorical figures; a modern Faustus, Vivian is torn between the allure of the intellectual life (Jason) and the possibility of redemption (Susie). Unlike Faustus, however, Vivian ultimately chooses the better angel. Eating popsicles with Susie may not make for a “profound” experience, but, as Vivian admits, it sure makes for a “nice” one (66). Despite the fact that “poor Susie's” brain “was never very sharp to begin with” (69), the nurse manages in the end to persuade the formidable professor. The last decision of Vivian's life concerns the matter of resuscitation in case of heart failure. In her discussion of the implications of this decision, Susie invokes the play's structuring opposition of intellect and emotion. The doctors, the nurse claims, will want to resuscitate Vivian because they “always … want to know more” (68). Susie fails to find this argument compelling given the intensity of Vivian's suffering. Vivian is tempted to disregard Susie's concerns and to give the order for resuscitation; after all, as she notes, “I always want to know more things. I'm a scholar.” But she then immediately undermines her identification with these “really smart” men: she was a scholar when she “had shoes, when [she] had eyebrows.” Now, however, she prefers not to “complicate the matter” anymore (68). She chooses, finally, to disregard the claims of “research.”

In one of her final speeches, Vivian presents her acquiescence in Susie's recommendation as a rejection of the intellectual values that she had previously affirmed:

That was certainly a maudlin display. Popsicles? “Sweetheart”? I can't believe my life has become so … corny. But it can't be helped … Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination, and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit. And nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis. Erudition. Interpretation. Complication. (Slowly) Now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness. (Searchingly). I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see that I have been found out. Ooooooh. I'm scared. Oh, God. I want. … I want. … Now. I want to hide. I just want to curl up in a little ball. (She dives under the covers. Scene change. Vivian wakes in horrible pain. She is tense, agitated, fearful. Slowly she calms down and addresses the audience. Trying extremely hard.) I want to tell you how it feels, to use my words. It's as if … I can't … There aren't … Say it, Vivian. It hurts like hell. It really does (Susie enters. Vivian writhing in pain.) Oh, God. Oh, God.


This, one might say, is Vivian's epiphany. What matters is not the heady labor of intellectual competition. What matters in the end is learning to say what you feel—learning to accept “simplicity,” “kindness,” and “God.” The number of invocations of God in this speech is typical of Vivian's speech patterns; after every test, after every degradation, after every pain, Vivian exclaims “Oh God” (see, e.g., 32). Vivian wrote her dissertation on the importance of ejaculations in Donne's poetry, a fact that should make us attentive to the ironies attending her own frequent reliance on the trope. In Vivian, the experience of pain produces intimations of the divine presence; scared witless, she learns to forego hiding and to accept the judgment of this higher power. Vivian's decision not to be medically resuscitated signifies, in other words, her acknowledgment of a special providence at work in her disease. To quote Miller, confronted with “skepticism of science,” Vivian finds that the encounter stimulates a regeneration of her “organs of belief.”33 The play's “simple” meaning is made more evident still when Ashcroft reads The Runaway Bunny as an “allegory of the soul. No matter where it hides, God will find it” (80). Although “the smartest guys in the world, with the best labs” do not “know what to make of” cancer (57), Edson provides an account of its provenance. In her allegorical schema, cancer is God's method for finding the runaway souls of overweening intellectuals.

Edson's use of Shakespeare underlines this aspect of her portrayal of cancer. At W;t's end, Susie trumps Jason, feeling trumps thought, simplicity trumps complexity, and Shakespeare trumps Donne. Donne's “verbal swordplay” routinely fails to do justice to Vivian's experiences in the hospital; in fact, her last word, “noooooo,” is a rejection of Ashcroft's proposal to “recite something by Donne” (79). In contrast, Edson always gives Shakespeare le mot juste. As Ashford kisses Vivian good-bye, she echoes Horatio's parting words to Hamlet: “It's time to go. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (80). Edson thus makes explicit what had hitherto been implicit: Vivian is a tragic heroine, cast in Hamlet's mold. Like Hamlet, Vivian is witty, skeptical, rationalistic; a proponent of reason; a derider of passion; an enforcer of distinctions. Both Vivian and Hamlet learn to overcome their tendency to think too precisely on the question and learn to recognize instead that “there's a divinity that shapes our ends” (Hamlet, 5.2.10). Donne never learns this “simple” lesson: a “brilliant guy,” he may make “Shakespeare sound like a Hallmark card,” but he cannot handle “salvation, the whole religious thing” because “it doesn't stand up to scrutiny” (76). Just as Susie seems “maudlin” when compared to Jason, Shakespeare seems sentimental when compared to Donne. But these appearances, W;t suggests, are deceiving: Susie and Shakespeare have a better handle than their counterparts on what Jason refers to dismissively as “the meaning-of-life garbage” (77). Metaphysical poetry is, because of its intellectualism, “Great training for lab research” (76). But, by engaging emotions instead, Shakespeare shows the way to a more spiritual illumination.

Or so W;t would have us believe. Horatio's vision of the immortal soul ascending to heaven prepares the audience for the conclusion of the play, in which Vivian's soul reaches symbolically for the light. This last scene actualizes the promise inherent in Jason's earlier description of cancer as conferring a peculiar form of “immortality” (56). By forcing Vivian to overcome “the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life, death, and eternal life,” the disease succeeds where the “forces of intellect” have failed (14). It makes Vivian new, “naked and beautiful” (85); if she cannot be resuscitated medically, she is resuscitated spiritually. In its concluding emphasis on redemption, W;t turns away from the tragic conventions it invoked earlier. Faustus's ultimate failure to forego his intellectual passions reflects on his flaws as a character but also on the severity of the theological system that demonizes such a passion. W;t trades such tragic ambiguity for the certainty of the pre-Reformation morality play, which ends with the assumption of the soul into heaven. According to Edson, “Grace … is the opportunity to experience God in spite of yourself”; if so, cancer is what gives Vivian that opportunity.34 Like Death, God's messenger in Everyman, cancer reveals the need for contrition and paves the way for spiritual redemption. By prolonging suffering, cancer enables the guilty to prepare their reckoning. Since Vivian does not share the stage with any other cancer patients, we are invited to think of her as a sort of Everypatient.35 Edson never complicates her simplistic and punitive construction of the disease by including among her cast of characters a cancer patient who does not fit the “psychological profile”—like a child. W;t's smug moralism also distinguishes it from Hamlet, a play far more ambiguous than Edson acknowledges. Although Horatio's farewell invokes the comforting conventions of the pre-Reformation morality play and of the divine providence celebrated through those conventions, Hamlet's own account of his “arrest” by “this fell sergeant, Death” is far less reassuring (5.2.335-36). The living Horatio hears angels singing; the dying Hamlet, however, hears only silence (5.2.358). Shakespeare thus leaves open the possibility that moralistic accounts of human suffering exist not because they are true, but because they are comforting to those who observe the suffering of others.

W;t's representation of cancer distorts the experience of having cancer in potentially harmful ways. In addition to the stigma it imposes on the patient, the play devalues the possibility of effective medical treatment. The scene of the pelvic exam focuses on an important medical procedure strictly in terms of its potential for degradation. By figuring cancer as a disease of the self, moreover, Edson suggests that a psychospiritual evaluation is the appropriate reaction to diagnosis. She thus concurs with Siegel's claim that cancer patients must engage in “personality programming.”36 But whereas Siegel, a surgeon, is also a strong advocate of Western medicine, Edson reproduces pernicious stereotypes about the medical establishment. Medical doctors fare as poorly in W;t as brainy poets and scholarly professors. All fall victim to the play's anti-intellectualism.37 Edson regards intelligence and kindness as mutually exclusive propositions. The only character in the play who demonstrates both qualities is E. M. Ashford: in her first appearance, she is scholarly, and, in her second appearance, she is kind. As her lapse into nursery rhymes illustrates, however, even Ashford cannot seem to sustain kindness and intelligence at once.

Whereas W;t's negative portrayal of English professors is harmless, its similar treatment of medical personnel is irresponsible. As Rosette Lamont points out, “the only member of the hospital staff who treats Vivian Bearing with respect and kindness is the nurse Susie.”38 Not coincidentally, Susie is also the least intelligent character in W;t. More representative is the clever Jason, who views cancer as an invigorating “game” or “puzzle” (77) and who disregards his patient's feelings. W;t's doctors are all monsters of insensitivity, devoted to knowledge and to intellectual one-upmanship. Only when she rejects their values can Vivian be saved. As this presumably suggests, Edson's play demonizes modern medicine. The research hospital is an “infernal” place, staffed by the cold, skeptical, and degrading devils who make Vivian feel like hell. Vivian leaves this place for a better one; Jason, however, is clearly there to stay.

W;t's totalizing representation of the medical profession compromises the play from an ethical point of view. Sontag has warned us about the extent to which “the metaphoric trappings” that we impose on cancer discourage patients from seeking medical treatment.39 The uncaring doctor is a no less dangerous modern fantasy than the repressed cancer patient. Pamela Renner claims that “if there's a villain in Wit, it's not a person or an institution, but a thirst for knowledge regardless of human consequences.”40 The distinction is a spurious one, it seems to me for the play clearly associates this villainous “thirst” with specific institutions and professions. More significantly, perhaps, it never offers an alternative paradigm for the pursuit of knowledge—one that regards human consequences. According to W;t, it's either Susie or Jason; popsicles or pelvic exams. Edson's infatuation with facile oppositions forecloses the possibility of anything like a useful critique of modern medical practices. This is not to say that doctors like Jason do not exist. Of course they do. But broad critiques, in order to be valid, should aim for a balanced view of the object under consideration. And Edson makes no effort in that direction.

In my experience, the research hospital is not staffed entirely with insensitive demons and caring dolts. My treatment protocol involved being fitted with a mask that pinned my head to a table, so that the radiation could be accurately aimed at the site of my tumor. This was a traumatic procedure—half space-age and half dark-age. When the time came for the first simulation, my oncologist, a highly regarded specialist working in an elite institution, held my hand. He effortlessly and gracefully combined science and kindness; had Horatio witnessed this scene in my play, he would surely have identified this doctor as a “noble heart.” My time in the hospital was marked as much by noble hearts as by cold monsters. In that sense, having cancer was like being involved in an epic, very much in the “mythic-heroic-pastoral mode.” The whole point of “episodic” plots is that, as Aristotle observes, “there is neither probability nor necessity in the sequence of the episodes.”41 To invoke Sontag's evaluative category, it might therefore be “morally permissible” to write an episodic play about the obscure disease that is cancer.42 But it cannot be “morally permissible” to write about cancer in the tragic vein. “Above all else,” as Miller notes, “tragedy requires the finest appreciation by the writer of cause and effect.”43 To speculate on the causes of cancer, given the present state of scientific knowledge, is both dangerous and cruel.


  1. Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, in “Illness as Metaphor” and “AIDS and Its Metaphors” (London and New York: Doubleday, 1989), 20.

  2. Margaret Edson, W;t (London and New York: Faber and Faber, 1999), 84-85. Subsequent references to the play are to this edition and will be indicated parenthetically.

  3. John Donne, Holy Sonnet 10, in John Donne, ed. John Carey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 177.

  4. Raymond-Jean Frontain, “Reaching for the Light: Donnean Self-Fashioning in Margaret Edson's W;t,Publications of the Missouri Philological Association 25 (2000), 1.

  5. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy 2nd ed. (1905; reprint, New York: Macmillan, 1949), 13. Bradley shares his emphasis on causality and consequence with other theorists of tragedy; see, e.g., Aristotle, who argues that the action of tragedy “involves agents, who must necessarily have their distinctive qualities of character and thought, since it is from these that we ascribe certain qualities to their actions. There are in the natural order of things, therefore, two causes, Thought and Character, of their actions, and consequently of their success or failure in their lives” (The Poetics, trans. Ingram Bywater, in The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle, ed. Edward P. J. Corbett [New York: Modern Library, 1984]), 230-31. See also Arthur Miller, “The Nature of Tragedy,” in The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller, ed. Robert A Martin and Steven R. Centola (New York: Da Capo, 1996), 6.

  6. Sontag, “Illness as Metaphor,” 46.

  7. Peter Marks, “‘Wit’: Science and Poetry Face Death in a Hospital Room,” New York Times, 18 Sept. 1998, Sec. E, 3.

  8. Sontag, “Illness and Metaphor,” 38.

  9. Ibid., 39.

  10. Bernie Siegel, Love, Medicine, and Miracles: Lessons Learned About Self-Healing from a Surgeon's Experience with Exceptional Patients (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), 69, 83.

  11. Ibid., 99.

  12. Sontag, “Illness as Metaphor,” 57.

  13. Edson alludes to Shakespeare throughout. During one of Vivian's metatheatrical soliloquys, for example, she lies silently on her hospital bed, staring at the ceiling in order to illustrate her employment of time “between dramatic climaxes.” Lest her audience get bored, however, she desists, noting that “brevity is the soul of wit” (30). The first soliloquy's remarks about generic blending also echo Polonius's litany of genres in Hamlet 2.2.396-400. All references to Shakespeare in my article are to The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed., gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

  14. Aristotle, The Poetics, 239.

  15. The fact that W;t is a memory play is strange, to say the least, given that many cancer patients experience trauma-induced memory losses.

  16. See, for example, Arthur Miller, Collected Plays (New York: Viking, 1957), 217.

  17. This idea is common to the fantasies described and criticized by Sontag; see, e.g., “Illness as Metaphor,” 40.

  18. Ibid., 40.

  19. Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” in The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller, ed. Martin and Centola, 4.

  20. Sontag, “Illness as Metaphor,” 21.

  21. T. S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets,” in Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950), 246. Although Edson's opposition of Donne's intellectualism to Shakespeare's lyricism recalls Eliot's influential theory regarding the seventeenth-century dissociation of sensibility, he in fact aligned the metaphysical poets of the early seventeenth century with the dramatists of the previous century. Metaphysical poetry, he claims, evinces a “fidelity to thought and feeling” (245). In fact, Eliot contrasts Donne to Milton and Dryden specifically on the grounds that “a thought for Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility” (247). Apparently, Edson chose Donne to represent a dissociation of sensibility because his poetry “was the ‘most difficult,’ or so she'd been assured by her fellow students when getting her master's degree” (quoted in Adrienne Martini, “The Playwright in Spite of Herself,” American Theatre 16 [1999], 22).

  22. Sontag, “Illness as Metaphor,” 39.

  23. See also Frontain, who notes that Vivian's “personal, more ‘spontaneous’ relations” are marked by “sterility” (“Reaching for the Light,” 1).

  24. The comment recalls Arnold Hutschnecker's appalling suggestion that “cancer is despair experienced at the cellular level” (The Will to Live [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1958], as quoted in Siegel, Love, Medicine, and Miracles, 80).

  25. Sontag, “Illness as Metaphor,” 40. Siegel routinely attributes symbolic significance to forms of cancer; see e.g., Love, Medicine, and Miracles, 85.

  26. Aristotle, The Poetics, 236.

  27. Sontag, “Illness as Metaphor,” 42.

  28. Aristotle, The Poetics, 237.

  29. The only dramatic analogue I know for this scene is an episode in the Chester Cycle where the skeptical midwife Salome tries to touch Mary's “sexu secreto” in order to test the claim of virginity. Her punishment for this taboo gesture is immediate and condign: her arm shrivels. See The Chester Plays, ed. R. M. Lumiansky and David Mills, EETS, s.s. 3, 9 (London: Oxford University Press, 1974-86), 1:118.

  30. Frontain suggest that Jason may in fact be one of the students ridiculed by Vivian in the classroom episodes (“Reaching for the Light,” 9-11).

  31. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 32.

  32. On the didactic aspects of tragedy, see also Miller, “The Nature of Tragedy,” 9.

  33. Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” 1.

  34. Martini, “The Playwright in Spite of Herself,” 22. Edson also expresses surprise at the fact that no one notes that her play “is about redemption” (ibid., 22).

  35. See also Frontain, who notes the play's similarities to Everyman (“Reaching for the Light,” 3).

  36. Siegel, Love, Medicine, and Miracles, 84.

  37. Despite the play's harsh portrayal of academics, Rosette Lamont finds in W;t a stirring tribute to feminist scholars, “Coma versus Comma: John Donne's Holy Sonnets in Edson's Wit,The Massachusetts Review 40 (1999), 572.

  38. Ibid., 574.

  39. Sontag, “Illness as Metaphor,” 102.

  40. Pamela Renner, “Science and Sensibility: Lisa Loomer and Margaret Edson Turn a Lens on the Medical Establishment,” American Theatre 16 (1999), 34. See also Frontain, who praises “Edson's satiric commentary upon the dehumanizing aspects of the contemporary American health care system” (“Reaching for the Light,” 10).

  41. Aristotle, The Poetics, 236.

  42. Sontag, “Illness as Metaphor,” 102.

  43. Miller, “The Nature of Tragedy,” 6.

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

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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 seems to be a rejection—she emphatically does not want to hear Donne recited to her in her extremity, preferring a children's story. Equally telling seems to be the play's condemnation of what a character calls Donne's “salvation anxiety”—the endless complicating of God's simple gift of grace. Externally, audiences and reviewers seem resistant to two stark Augustinian themes sounded by the play: the recalcitrance of human pride and the utter graciousness of the Resurrection. I shall argue that far from rejecting Donne, the play grapples with these theological issues in terms largely set by Donne's divine poems.

As readers familiar with the play are aware, Wit presents us with the ordeal into which a distinguished middle-aged scholar of seventeenth century English poetry is plunged when she is diagnosed with deadly ovarian cancer. Assigned for treatment to the research hospital at her university, she is under the care of Dr. Harvey Kelekian, head of medical oncology, but she is most often attended by a former student, Jason Posner, who is now a clinical fellow in oncology, and by Susie Monahan, primary nurse for the cancer inpatient unit. During the entirety of her fatal illness, Vivian Bearing receives but one visitor: Professor E. M. Ashford, her former mentor and predecessor as eminent Donne scholar. Although she is gowned in hospital garb throughout, it is not the medical apparatus surrounding Professor Bearing that provides the primary material for reflection in the play; rather, it is the theological substance to be found in the poems she has so often anatomized.

In order to make this case, it will be helpful to frame the texts used by Edson with two well known poems that are not quoted in the play. The first is so strikingly apropos that one might easily imagine it to be the Donnean origin of Wit; it is “Hymn to God, My God in My Sicknesse.” For in that poem, the speaker, like Vivian Bearing, lies in the grip of a fatal disease from which he does not expect to recover. He describes himself stretched out,

Whilst my Physitians by their love are growne
          Cosmographers, and I their Mapp, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be showne
That this is my South-west discoverie
Per fretrum febris, by these streights to die.


Although this second stanza of the poem is the only one to mention the physicians, it is clear that we are to envision the entire scene as one in which they are in close attendance as the speaker contemplates his soul's last journey. And in view of issues which emerge in Wit, two aspects of their relation to the patient are worthy of note. One is that their “love” of the patient has led them to turn him into a “Mapp.” With the best of intentions, they have reduced his body to a series of signs which they may read. Secondly, their prognosis seems to be a given. The patient will die. The only question that frets them is, how? By what strait will the soul make its exit from one life to the next?

The connections between these physicians and those who attend Edson's Donne scholar are easily drawn. Dr. Kelekian and his team know perfectly well that patients do not survive stage four metastatic ovarian cancer. From the time Vivian receives her diagnosis, her prognosis is certain. Thus, their “love” for her quickly turns her into a set of signs to be read. How long can they keep her alive? How many chemo treatments can she withstand? What can they learn about her “febris” as they chart her passage through it? Bearing herself is acutely aware of the nature of this interest. And the irony of the fact that the medical doctors are doing to her what she has so often done to a literal text in the past is borne out to her when she is visited on Grand Rounds. As she observes the medical observers she muses:

Full of subservience, hierarchy, gratuitous displays, sublimated rivalries—I feel right at home. It is just like a graduate seminar.

With one important difference: in Grand Rounds, they read me like a book. Once I did the teaching, now I am taught.


This moment of self-recognition on Dr. Bearing's part is also mirrored in Donne's poem. For while his physicians determine the manner of his death, Donne contemplates its meaning. And so Vivian, too, is forced to face in existential terms what for her medical colleagues remains a matter of research. Her attention must be turned so that she, too, will “thinke here before” what “I must doe then.”

Such a turning to the business of preparation for death is precisely what Vivian needs. Unlike the speaker in Donne's poem, Bearing is not ready to look beyond the horizons of the world in which she has successfully made her way. Thus the poem is not only descriptive of Vivian's state as an object of research laid out before her doctors; it is also theologically prescriptive, charting the course she must follow. Her own spiritual self-examination must be as rigorous as the scrutiny her physicians employ. And it will be painful. As Vivian says after eight months of treatment, “[I]t is highly educational. I am learning to suffer” (31). Given Bearing's ironic tone it is easy to miss the fact that here she speaks the plain truth. Within the Augustinian context established by the Divine Poems she knows so well, suffering, insofar as it leads to self-examination and helps to defeat pride, is a blessing.

But “Hymne to God my God, in my sicknesse” is predictive of the play in one final way. Unlike much of Donne's religious poetry, this poem may be said to surmount the doubt of salvation that accompanies acute awareness of sin.1 The central assertion of the poem is that “death doth touch the Resurrection”: just as on a world map the opposite edges (east and west) indicate the same line, so the end of this life is the beginning of the new. And the key to this paradox is Christ's resurrection, the means by which, in Christian reckoning, death is overcome by new life that utterly supplants it. The speaker in the poem asks God to account him one of Christ's own; he prays for his suffering to be identified with Christ's, so that he may also share in Christ's glory (“By these thornes give me his other Crowne”). Thus this hymn may be said to adumbrate Wit's surprising conclusion, when Vivian Bearing's death is succeeded by a resurrection gesture: she gets up from her deathbed, her clothes fall away from her, and she reaches upward toward the light. In this image, indeed, “death doth touch the Resurrection.”

Since “Hymne to God my God in my sicknesse” contains both the medical setting to be found in the play and the resurrection telos towards which the play points, I will suggest that it also provides a fitting motto for Vivian Bearing's spiritual pilgrimage: “Therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down.”2 Without death, there is no resurrection. Even so, joyful allegiance to God comes only after self-centered pride has been conquered. In the spirit of the Augustinian tradition to which he belongs,3 Donne believes pride, understood as rebellious indifference to God, to be the root of human sin. And so deeply rooted is this pride that only God's intervention can dig it out. Since sin's reach extends throughout our being, extracting it is painful. Adversity and even suffering thus paradoxically become occasions for thanksgiving, for they are signs of God's radical surgery.

This lesson, implicit in so much of Donne's work, is most boldly taught in a second Divine Poem that Vivian does not mention. Perhaps the most offensive of Donne's Holy Sonnets to modern sensibility is “Batter my heart.”4 For it not only condones human suffering, but demands it from God's hand as the only corrective to sin. It is not sufficient for God merely to “seek to mend” the speaker's heart as a tinker might mend a pot; God must beat, fire, and remake the vessel entirely if it is to be once again serviceable to its maker. In the two paradoxes that close the poem the speaker asks God to “enthrall” (enslave) him in order to free him, and to “ravish” him in order to make him chaste. Battery, slavery, rape—these horrors of human conduct are employed as metaphors of God's dealings with those he loves. In a sermon, Donne provides a rationale for such unlikely love. It is much worse for us, notes Donne, if God does not punish us than if he does, for to be spared means that He has forgotten us. How woeful we are if God, “forbearing to take knowledge of our transgressions, … shall say of us, as he does of Israel, Why should ye be smitten any more?” For this happens only “when god leaves us to our selves, and studies our recovery no farther, by any more corrections. …” (qtd. in Gardner 283).

This notion that suffering may indeed be a vehicle of God's mercy is crucial to an understanding of Wit. And in fact, it may be no coincidence that Dame Helen Gardner provides the sermon quotation above immediately after quoting from, “If poysonous mineralls,” the Holy Sonnet that is the subject of Vivian Bearing's lecture in the play. For both Donne and Gardner's scholarship loom large in this work. What has largely gone unappreciated about the play in the commentary that has so far appeared is that Professor Bearing herself undergoes an inner religious drama remarkably like one portrayed in the sonnets in which she is expert. Her suffering during her ordeal with ovarian cancer and its treatment is, as Donne suggests, a means to correction, and ultimately salvation. Just as it is difficult for modern sensibility to accept Donne's drastic metaphors in “Batter my heart,” so audiences resist the suggestion that Vivian Bearing's ordeal might actually be a needed antidote to that form of sin Donne knew so well, pride. And equally startling is the gesture of resurrection at the end of the play, which like the grace which Donne anxiously doubts, offers the full redemption neither she nor her doctors can supply.

In interviews, Margaret Edson has expressed mild surprise that critics have not paid more attention to the religious aspect of her play: “The play is about redemption, and I'm surprised no one mentions it. Grace is the opportunity to experience God in spite of yourself, which is what Dr. Bearing ultimately achieves” (Martini 24). Despite notable exceptions in essays by Betty Carter and especially Martha Greene Eads, most commentators have fastened upon the medical aspects of the play. Victims of ovarian cancer have used it as a rallying point. Medical professionals have employed it to discuss patient rights and research ethics. In several American cities, sold out performances have been followed by lengthy talk-back sessions that have focused on these issues. The play thus seems valuable to much of its audience for its realistic portrayal of courageous suffering and its attack on the indifference of doctors. But Edson is right to be surprised. At its moral center, the play is not about kindness, but redemption.

Despite what at least two critics (Iannone and Wheeler) have claimed, there is a clear connection between the spiritual crisis Bearing faces and the poetry she studies. Like the Donne of the Holy Sonnets, she is unable to trust God, in large part because she lacks the humility to do so. For example, Dr. Bearing is much more like her physicians than unlike them. In her absorption in research she resembles Kelekian and his research fellow Jason. Like them, she is ambitious, having worked her way to a position of eminence in her profession, of which she is understandably proud. Her callousness to students anticipates Jason's indifference to bedside manner. When her former student turned physician prepares her for a pelvic exam and leaves her, feet still in stirrups and knees spread apart while he searches the hall for a nurse, Vivian can only wryly register that she wishes she had given him an “A.” This observation seems to acknowledge that while power relationships have been reversed, she has been as ruthless in her own arena as the callow doctor. Further, her reliance upon “wit” keeps her at a distance from others and initially increases her suffering. She has made no friends and has no remaining family. Her only visitor is the faculty mentor who originally inspired her, the Gardner-like Prof. Ashford.

Thus, in the long run, her illness humiliates her in an edifying sense, breaking down her pride to prepare her for a childlike faith. Although Bearing does not invite God's excruciating remediation, as Donne does when he asks God to “breake, blowe, burn and make me new,” the ordeal of cancer ultimately has this effect on the once aloof professor. In other words, the secularized exegete is made to follow the Augustinian trajectory described by her subject: God raises up only those whom he has first cast down. As terrible as it sounds to contemporary ears accustomed to regarding suffering as pure evil, Vivian's pain is a good thing. Her suffering brings salvation. To borrow the title of Tim McLaurin's novel, she is cured by fire.

Taking our cue from Dr. Bearing herself, we can turn to the texts within the text of the play to “read” the progress of her soul. The first important text is delivered in a flashback from Bearing's college days; it is “death, be not proud.” Bearing remembers a confrontation with her great mentor Prof. Ashford over textual accuracy. Prof. Ashford informs the young Vivian in stern tones that she has used the wrong edition for her paper on the most famous of the Holy Sonnets. In the edition Vivian used, the punctuation is incorrect. Instead of a semi-colon and exclamation point, the final assertion of the poem should be preceded by a comma and followed by a period: “death, thou shalt die.” In this way, Ashford explains, “Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting.” The application of this point as it arises later in connection with Vivian's illness is that death is to be accepted as a part of life, the final victory over it having been secured. Thus, the individual need not approach it with inflated drama. Rather, quiet confidence is in order. Secondarily, Prof. Ashford urges her pupil to curb her inclination to approach life's difficulties as intellectual puzzles to be solved. After the brief lecture on textual accuracy, Vivian mistakenly concludes that what the poem says about death is simply a metaphysical conceit. “It's wit!” she declares. Her older and wiser teacher disagrees. The poem, she insists, is about life and truth. She urges Vivian to turn aside from her paper for the afternoon and enjoy her friends, thus gaining the experience that will free her from over-intellectualizing. But Vivian returns to the library.

The second text examined in the play is one that Prof. Bearing herself analyzes. It is another Holy Sonnet—one in which she sees mirrored what we come to know as her own wit-ful anxiety. In her remembered classroom explication of “If poysonous mineralls” the professor stresses that in Donne's poems, “metaphysical quandaries are addressed, but never resolved” (48). The speaker in this poem, she argues, begins with the brash certainty that God will not punish human sin if He overlooks the deadly actions of poisons and serpents. But the poet quickly loses his nerve. Recognizing the heinousness of his own sin and the reality of God's judgment, he is gripped by fear, and instead of pleading for God's mercy, asks that God forget him: “when the speaker considers his own sins and the inevitability of God's judgment, he can conceive of but one resolution: to disappear” (50). What the speaker skips over, in other words, is the obvious and simple solution that he has only to accept God's forgiveness. But this he apparently cannot do.

We might describe the speaker's failure as a lack of faith. Unable to escape judgment through wit, he cannot admit that God might extend the salvation he cannot supply for himself. Rather than trust to God's mercy, he prefers to hide. And in the course of the play, we are meant to see that this is precisely Vivian's situation. Here we come to the second important theological concept registered in Wit. The pride which led her to that state of isolation characteristic of sin has but one cure, and she cannot avail herself of it. Plainly, Vivian is a victim of both cancer and her doctors. Equally obvious is her courage. But most important of all is the fact that her loneliness is self-inflicted. Like Ivan Ilych before her, but most particularly like the Donne she creates for her students, Vivian's greatest obstacle as she faces death is her own pride. The point is borne out in a subtle way by the fact that immediately after the reverie in which she recalls her lecture—indeed before she has finished it—she is summoned out of her room for an ultrasound. “It should not be now,” she insists. “I am in the middle of—this. I have this planned for now, not ultrasound” (51). Since this exchange calls attention to the intrusiveness of hospital procedures, it is easy to miss that Vivian resents any imposition on the imperious control she has exerted over her life. Distinguished professors are not used to having their lectures interrupted. And it is not only physicians, but more profoundly mortality that has wrested control from Vivian's hands.

Of course, Vivian would be mistaken to place her ultimate trust in modern medicine. But she would be equally misguided to attempt to regain her old autonomy. The hard spiritual lesson of her ordeal is that her position has been false all along. This is the point of the final text she hears—a text that is the product not of wit but of wisdom. When Vivian's old mentor comes to visit her in her extremity, she has with her a children's book, bought for her great-grandson. It is this book the enfeebled Vivian wants to hear, not recitations of Donne. This final text, explicated by Vivian's mentor, provides a neat contrast to Vivian's own virtuoso interpretation of Donne's sonnet. The book is simple where Donne is complex, reassuring rather than provoking. But it is also profound, as Prof. Ashford explains, for it is a testament to faith, and thus offers the spiritual medicine that Vivian most needs.

This final text is The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. In it, the bunny tells his mother he is going to assume a new shape and run away. But regardless of the guises he proposes, the mother has an answer: “‘I will be a bird and fly away from you,’ says the bunny. ‘If you become a bird and fly away from me,’ said his mother, ‘I will be a tree you come home to.’” Finally, the would-be truant gives up: “‘Shucks,’ said the little bunny, ‘I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.’ And so he did” (80).

The message for Vivian is twofold. First, this simple tale is an antidote to the anxiety-producing complexity of Donne and the competitive interpretative hubris to which Vivian and her medical counterparts have fallen prey.5 The straightforward consolation of the children's book is very much like that of the orange popsicle Vivian shares with the sympathetic nurse, Susie. But secondly, the book offers a directly theological affirmation. Prof. Ashford sees in this tale, “A little allegory of the soul. No matter where it hides, God will find it” (80). Thus the hopefulness of the book springs not from human kindness, but from trust in God's overriding mercy. Not only is the manner of the story contrary to Donne, but its content provides an answer to the fearful sonnet explicated earlier by Prof. Bearing: it is impossible to hide from God, but also unnecessary. One has only to relinquish one's defenses to find the security they could never provide.

Precisely this theological message is suggested by Prof. Ashford's final words, and by Vivian's triumphant gesture at the conclusion of the play. When Prof. Ashford finishes reading the book, Vivian has drifted into a childlike sleep. Before she leaves, Prof. Ashford pronounces what amounts to a benediction: “It's time to go. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” While the Shakespeare quotation seems strictly conventional, these words are fraught with meaning. For it is Vivian's time to “go” as well, and the request for angel song is a prayer for the dying consonant with the “little allegory of the soul” we have just heard.

These words also provide the framework for Vivian's last, symbolic action in the play. Rising from her bed, the woman we know from the pronouncements of the medical staff to be dead walks toward a light and begins removing her few garments. At last she lets fall her hospital gown, and according to the stage direction, stands “naked, and beautiful, reaching for the light” (85). Given the context of Donne, The Runaway Bunny, and Prof. Ashford's benediction, this action must be seen as a sign of resurrection, when as St. Paul says, “We shall be raised incorruptible.” And the fact that it is the power of God that allows Vivian so to rise is underscored by the medical defeat that precedes her triumphant gesture. Jason Posner, the brash young resident, has ignored the “do not resuscitate” order on Vivian's chart, and vainly summoned the code team. After belatedly recognizing the order, he collapses in chagrin, and tellingly murmurs, “Oh, God,” in unwitting testimony to the real agent of Vivian's salvation.

In Margaret Edson's play, God eschews the manner of the hound of heaven for the way of a mother, refusing to let us outrun the bounds of divine love. Although Vivian Bearing's victory over the pride that separates her from God's grace is never registered in a moment of conscious renunciation, it is begun in her acceptance of her friends' sympathy. And indeed, the audience has been prepared for her transformation by an earlier moment of self-reflection that recalls her reading of “If poysonous mineralls.” After confessing her fear and confusion to Susie, Vivian shares a popsicle with the nurse and with her help comes to the decision not to be resuscitated should her heart stop. Vivian comments on this exchange:

Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit.

And nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis. Erudition. Interpretation. Complication.

Now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness.

I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see that I have been found out. Ooohhh.

I'm scared. Oh, God. I want … I want … No. I want to hide. I just want to curl up in a little ball.


While she fails at this point to complete the process, the movement of grace has begun in Vivian. Her self-disclosure in this passage amounts to a confession. She forsakes self-sufficiency and turns to God. And what she wants when she speaks the sentence that she cannot bring herself to finish can be supplied from her own interpretation of “If poysonous mineralls.” What the speaker in the sonnet wanted but could not bring himself to accept, according to the lecture, was forgiveness. The hesitation she shows by attempting to follow Donne's speaker into hiding is temporary, the action of grace having gained its last needed momentum from her confession.

Edson herself insists that her character does respond in this way: “finally there's a breakthrough, and it happens in the last ten seconds of her life” (Carter 26). When asked at a conference why Vivian is naked at the end of the play, Edson answered, “What else would you wear to a redemption? It's ‘Come as you are!’” (Carter 25). And fittingly, God completes for Vivian what she, stripped of the illusion of self-sufficiency, cannot accomplish for herself. To adapt a Biblical metaphor, she is clothed (only!) in righteousness, but it is a borrowed outfit.

Not surprisingly, the play's ending has puzzled viewers. Typical and plain spoken is this response from a generally appreciative reviewer:

The only problem I have personally with Wit is in the perception of what it's about. As Chalfant [Kathleen Chalfant, the actress who played Vivian Bearing in a New York production] proclaimed in a recent interview, the feeling is that the play is about redemption. In this instance, I simply don't get it. Although it is a staggering artistic accomplishment, I am definitely not redeemed. As the brilliant mind and stalwart singular lifestyle of Dr. Bearing is reduced to dependency on [a] dear but slow-witted nurse—and ignoring the final gorgeous but obviously theatrical device of the character rising from her deathbed, throwing off all her clothes and standing bald and naked facing upward toward a bright white light—I personally could see only the anguish of loss, not an uplifting experience.

(Holder 2)

Holder's problem is that the ending is only redemptive and not merely theatrical if one sees it as a sign of resurrection and finds the Resurrection credible. Vivian Bearing can only be remade and newly whole through a miracle. Clearly, her final gesture is metaphoric, but the metaphor only offers hope to those who see it with the eyes of faith. The gesture, we might fairly say, is a kind of promise, just as Christians from the time of St. Paul have looked on Christ's resurrection as a promise, the very one which Donne claimed in the hymn written in his sickness: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. … For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (I Cor. 15:20, 22). Vivian's renewed and transformed body is neither a happy fantasy nor an ill-conceived image of a soul's ascension into heaven. Rather, it is an emblem of hope based upon faith that Jesus' resurrection has accomplished, in Rowan Williams's words, “A restoration of the world's wholeness” (72). The process of redemption now begun will be completed in a future which Christ's resurrection has revealed.

As an ending to Bearing's story, the resurrection gesture could hardly be more fitting. For, as Donne knew, it is only through this drastic act of God that the terrible wrongs of life can be set right. Given the reach of human pride and the finality of death, nothing but the power of God can save us. This is why both Christian intellectuals such as Carol Iannone and secular interpreters such as the makers of the HBO film get the play wrong. It is neither about simple kindness as Iannone believes, nor can a wishful (and fully clothed!) return to youth convey Bearing's redemption, as it is made to do in the film version of the play. The grace to which Edson refers in interviews must be God's prevenient grace.6 That is, it is only as God is at work before and in spite of our actions and intentions that redemption is possible at all. The awful temptation of pride is the refusal to acknowledge that grace. The miracle of grace is that God overcomes our pride, even when pride is defended with all the subtlety of wit. And the ultimate and life-restoring instance of this shocking and undeserved grace is the Resurrection, in which we may hope to share: “Therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down.”

Wit should be regarded as an expression of what Karl Rahner called anonymous Christianity, or even more precisely, as one of Karl Barth's parables of the Kingdom. Although Professor Bearing makes no explicit connection between the Christian orthodoxy of the Holy Sonnets and her own crisis, we are invited to see her in that light. And in fact, the three texts within the text of the play supply that context. Her redemption at the end does indeed remain what Wheeler calls a “theatrical lie” unless we see it as participating in the Resurrection of the One whom the play never names. But if we are willing to grant that the triune God is at work extra muros ecclesiae, we are free to let Edson's character bear witness not to the strength of the human spirit, but to the healing power of Easter.


  1. Frontain maintains that Donne goes so far as to attempt to provoke God to violent action against him in order to gain assurance that God has elected him for salvation.

  2. This line, the poem's conclusion, is a reworking of the Vulgate translation of Ps. 146:8. See Shawcross's note, 392.

  3. Various critics have placed Donne along a wide band of the theological spectrum of his time. Most convincing to me is the view that the mature Donne sought a middle way within Anglicanism, adopting some of the emphases of moderate or conforming Calvinists without rejecting the broad mainstream of Catholic theology. Thus the term “Augustinian” seems most appropriate, especially where the matters of sin and grace are concerned. See Young and Johnson.

  4. Theologian Sarah Coakley explores the connections between sexual desire and desire for God, using this sonnet as her point of departure. She chooses this poem precisely because it is so offensive, particularly in light of feminist concerns. She admires Donne for making explicit a connection that she believes to be implicit throughout Trinitarian theology, although she sharply criticizes the “Western, Augustinian heritage” he represents. See Coakley.

  5. On this point, I, at least, find Edson to be an astute theological critic of Donne, contra Iannone. Although Donne is searing in his analysis of sin's hold on the human soul, his grasping after the assurance of faith often seems unsuccessful, and he can only pray for what he has not received. Mary Arshagouni Papazian argues that this same emotional experience is registered in the Confessions of Augustine and the works of John Bunyan (343). See also John Carey's treatment of Donne's anxiety concerning death.

  6. In this way, too, Edson follows Donne (and Augustine). Young makes a solid case for Donne's unreserved acceptance of the doctrine of prevenient grace, at the same time that he rejected Calvin's notion of irresistible grace on the grounds that it denied free will.

Works Cited

Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.

Carter, Betty. “John Donne Meets The Runaway Bunny.Books and Culture (Sept/Oct 1999): 24-26.

Coakley, Sarah. “‘Batter My Heart …’? On Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity.” Graven Images 2 (1995): 74-83.

Donne, John. The Complete Poetry of John Donne. Ed. John T. Shawcross. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967.

Eads, Martha Greene. “Unwitting Redemption in Margaret Edson's Wit.Christianity and Literature 51:1 (Winter 2002): 241-54.

Edson, Margaret. Wit. New York: Faber and Faber, 1999.

Frontain, Raymond-Jean. “‘With a Holy Importunitie, with a Pious Impudence’: John Donne's Attempts to Provoke Election.” Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association 13 (1992): 85-102.

Gardner, Helen. “The Religious Poetry of John Donne.” Excerpted in John Donne's Poetry. Ed. Arthur L. Clements. New York: Norton, 1992. 282-290.

Holder, Travis Michael. “Wit,” Ticket Holders. 19 Jan. 2002 <

Iannone, Carol. “Donne Undone.” First Things 100 (February 2000): 12-14.

Johnson, Jeffrey. The Theology of John Donne. Cambridge: Brewer, 1999.

Martini, Adrienne. “The Playwright In Spite of Herself.” American Theatre 16:8 (October 1999): 22.

Papazian, Mary Arshagouni. “Literacy ‘Things Indifferent’: The Shared Augustinianism of Donne's Devotions and Bunyan's Grace Abounding.” John Donne's Religious Imagination: Essays in Honor of John T. Shawcross. Ed. Raymond-Jean Frontain. Conway, AR: U Central AR P, 1995. 324-49.

Wheeler, Edward T. “Continuing the Conversation.” Commonweal 126:7 (April 9, 1999): 35.

Williams, Rowan. Resurrection. New York: Pilgrim P, 1984.

Wit. Dir. Mike Nichols. Perf. Emma Thompson, Christopher Lloyd, Eileen Atkins, Audra McDonald, Harold Pinter. HBO, 2001.

Young, R. V. “Donne's Holy Sonnets and the Theology of Grace” in “Bright Shootes of Everlastingnesse”: The Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric. Claude Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth, eds. Columbia, MO: U Missouri P, 1987. 20-39.

Mary K. DeShazer (essay date summer 2003)

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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 One-Breasted, Menopausal, Jewish Bisexual Lesbian Mom and I am the topic of our times. I am the hot issue. I am the cover of Newsweek, the editorial in the paper. I am a best-seller. And I am coming soon to a theatre near you.

—Susan Miller, My Left Breast (1995, 219)

The women's cancer movement is indeed the “topic of our times” after decades—some would say centuries—of silence and denial by many physicians, researchers, and sometimes women themselves. “THE NEW THINKING ON BREAST CANCER,” screams the 18 February 2002 cover of Time magazine, “The Smartest Drugs/The Gentlest Treatments/The Latest on Mammograms” (Gorman). Inside, the article reports that 200,000 U.S. women will learn each year that they have breast cancer, double the number from 1980. Forty thousand will die from it. The article acknowledges that the American Cancer Society's emphasis on mammograms might have resulted in overdiagnoses, causing thousands of women who might otherwise live long and healthy lives to undergo invasive radiation and chemotherapy treatments for microscopic cancers and even pre-cancerous conditions. The article further claims that tamoxifen, hailed in the early 1990s as an estrogen-based drug that could both treat breast cancer and reduce the risk of contracting it, may increase the risk of uterine cancer. At the same time, the author hails new research methods in the battle against breast cancer and glibly promises readers “a guide to saving lives” (50).1

As media headlines and research technologies have proliferated, so have works of literature by women about their carcinomas. Although breast cancer has attracted the most media attention, women contract the same cancers that men do, as well as a few that are gender-specific. Breast, uterine, and ovarian diseases account for 43 percent of all women's cancers (Proctor 1995); they thus provide the primary subject matter for the hundreds of cancer narratives, memoirs, and poems written by North American women. The late 1970s and 1980s produced such important cancer narratives as Rose Kushner's Breast Cancer (1975), Betty Rollin's First, You Cry ([1976] 2000), Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor (1977), and Audre Lorde's The Cancer Journals (1980). Some of this literature was not feminist; rather, it contributed to what Barbara Ehrenreich describes as an “ultrafeminine” cancer marketplace:

In the mainstream of breast-cancer culture, one finds very little anger, no mention of possible environmental causes, few complaints about the fact that, in all but the more advanced, metastasized cases, it is the “treatments,” not the disease, that cause illness and pain. The stance toward existing treatments is occasionally critical … but more commonly grateful; the overall tone, almost universally upbeat.

(2001, 48)

Certainly mainstream approaches to cancer literature and activism have been fruitful; they have brought valuable research and federal budget dollars as well as awareness to the cause of women's health. But early feminist approaches to cancer such as Sontag's and Lorde's questioned the equation of illness with femininity and the pathologizing of cancerous bodies; examined the politics of mastectomy, reconstructive surgeries, and prosthesis; and documented the power of feminist communities to resist society's discipline and punishing of ill bodies (Foucault 1977). These narratives thus provided vital critiques of what Ehrenreich terms “the Cancer Industrial Complex” (2001, 52).

The four plays under consideration here—Margaret Edson's Wit (1999), Susan Miller's My Left Breast (1995), Maxine Bailey and Sharon M. Lewis's Sistahs (1998), and Lisa Loomer's The Waiting Room (1998)—offer trenchant feminist perspectives on cancer and embodiment. Written and produced in the 1990s, these plays express outrage at the disease and its invasive treatments, examine environmental and cultural factors that may cause cancer, challenge the medical establishment, and foreground links between the personal and the political. In the words of Nancy Datan, a feminist psychologist who died of breast cancer, “It is a central tenet of feminism that women's invisible and private wounds often reflect social and political injustices. It is a commitment central to feminism to share burdens. And it is an axiom of feminism that the personal is political” (Wilkinson and Kitzinger 1994, 124). Theorist and breast cancer survivor Zillah Eisenstein similarly politicizes her mastectomy through a feminist lens: “Feminism's brilliance is found in this recognition that the body is not simply personal, that there is a politics to sex, that personal and political life are intermeshed. … Maybe it is this feminist autonomy of the body that has allowed me to live fully without all my body parts” (2001, 3). These plays engage postmodern feminisms as well by interrogating the body's cultural history, exploring such concepts as the politics of appearance, the body in pain, and the privilege of the temporarily able-bodied. Theatrical representations of women's cancer thereby enrich and complicate “our understandings of social justice, subject formation, subjugated knowledges, and collective action” (Garland-Thomson 2002, 1).

The saga of English Professor Vivian Bearing's unsuccessful struggle to overcome advanced ovarian cancer in the face of increasingly invasive medical treatments, Wit is the best-known play about a woman's cancer. First performed in 1997 at Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, it moved to New York's Union Square Theatre and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999. My Left Breast, which premiered at Actors Theatre in Louisville in 1994, features a lesbian's account of the effects of her mastectomy on her family and her sense of self. Sistahs, first produced at Poor Alex Theatre in Toronto in 1994, explores the nurturing aspects of soup-making and women's friendships for a woman with advanced uterine cancer who has refused further chemotherapy. And The Waiting Room, performed in Los Angeles in 1994 at the Mark Taper Forum and in 1996 at the Vineyard Theatre in New York City, spans history and cultures to join women suffering from footbinding in eighteenth-century China, “hysteria” in Victorian England, and breast cancer in the contemporary United States. Two of the protagonists in these plays are lesbians, two are women of color—facts that signify the diversity of feminist perspective and acknowledge the increased risks for African American women and lesbians. As contributors to the women's movement, and as “illness testimonials,” such plays constitute “counter-authoritative text[s], a revisionary genre, and a call to activism” (Schmidt 1988, 73).2

In offering a feminist analysis of women's performance narratives, I argue that they differ from other cancer narratives in three significant ways. First, these plays employ what Rebecca Schneider has called “the explicit body in performance” to mark women's cancerous breasts, ovaries, and wombs as sites of social meaning that transgress from the “rules” of normative female bodies and convey powerful embodied histories (1997, 2). As Schneider notes, explicit body theatre aims to

explicate bodies in social relation … to peel back layers of signification that surround [them] like ghosts at a grave. … A mass of orifices and appendages, details and tactile surfaces, the explicit body in representation is foremost a site of social markings, physical parts and gestural signatures of gender, race, class, age, and sexuality—all of which bear ghosts of historical meaning.


Second, women's theatrical narratives challenge the capacity of a spectatorial, consuming “male gaze” to appropriate, fetishize, or otherwise sexualize women's bodies (Mulvey 1975). As the protagonists touch, flaunt, inspect, or bare their bodies in pain, they enact on stage what Schneider describes as “an in-your-face literality, a radical satiability that thwarts the consumptive mantra of infinite desire” (1997, 8). Third, these plays invite empathy and activism on the part of readers/theatre-goers by fostering a complex sense of intimacy among playwrights, actors, and audience, each of whom becomes a “penetrating witness to extreme rites” (Renner 1999, 3-4). While women read most cancer literature in private spaces, theatre offers a public space at which audiences can reckon with the physical and emotional ravages as well as the politics of the disease. Although voyeurism remains a potential response, feminist performance narratives strive to evoke a “complicit, satiable reciprocity between viewer and viewed rather than the traditional perspectival one-way-street relationship” (Schneider 1997, 8).

In the sections that follow, I explore the diverse representations of body politics and medical politics in these four plays. An analysis of body politics demonstrates how the protagonists view their breasts, uterus, and ovaries; how they cope with their disease and the accompanying fear, loss, and rage; and how they survive or prepare for their deaths. An exploration of medical politics reveals how the playwrights interrogate the behavior and discourse of medical practitioners and the complex problem of debilitating cancer treatments. In probing how the graphic representations of suffering women, who nonetheless claim agency, provide these works with dramatic urgency, I examine the source and nature of the plays' narrative coherence. As Laura K. Potts has noted many cancer texts by women follow a formal patterning of structure that she labels the “proairetic code,” shaped by such common points of reference as “discovery, diagnosis, decisions about treatment, confronting possible death and life after treatment” (2000, 114)—yet the plays under consideration here tend to depart from this model, and I explore why. Finally, I consider the tension between voyeurism and empathic witness and the forms of reciprocity that audiences may experience while viewing these plays. The ways in which feminist plays about women's cancers can activate their audiences provides a rich area of theoretical exploration.


My breast cancer body does not say enough about how other body demands have choreographed my life. Although breast cancer has often suffocated me … my body has had other selves. I am never simply my cancer because I have other bodies and I am something besides my body struggles.

—Zillah Eisenstein, Manmade Breast Cancers (2001, 42)

Feminist theories of the body illuminate theatrical representations of women's cancers by foregrounding the body's materiality, its erotic force, its subjugation, and its politics. In the 1970s and 1980s, French feminist theory offered creative women many reasons to write: to disrupt and subvert patriarchal definitions of “the feminine,” to reconstruct a fluid yet forceful female identity, to locate women's subjectivity centrally in the realm of the body. Luce Irigaray (1981) argued that woman's sexuality and creativity emerge through her totality of body, a huge erotic field that brings her jouissance—a term that suggests both sexual satisfaction and the pleasure of the written text. The practice of the woman scribe “inscribing woman” Irigaray called parler femme, Hélène Cixous l'écriture féminine (Cixous and Clément 1975). U.S. feminists inscribed their own bodily manifestoes; Adrienne Rich, for instance, defined the body as “the geography closest in,” that territory which women have a right to claim and settle on their own terms (1986, 212). However liberating Rich's metaphor might seem, considering women's embodiment in geographical terms reminds us of how often women's bodies, particularly those of women of color, have been raped, plundered, and colonized. For many women writing the body, autonomy is impossible until violation and its aftermath have been painfully inscribed.3

Postmodern theory from the 1990s has demonstrated that raced and gendered bodies are never fixed but ever in process, multiple, contingent, and fluid. This theory posits that since the body is both material and discursive, any feminist understanding of its corporeality must be constantly mediated by its spoken contexts. In Judith Butler's words, “there is no reference to a pure body which is not at the same time a further formation of that body” (1993, 10). How women's bodies have been constructed and politicized, therefore, becomes a central question for contemporary feminism and its textual representations. Indeed, the constructions of gender and embodiment found in women's performance narratives of cancer draw important links between “the everyday body as it is lived, and the regime of disciplinary and regulatory practices that shape its form and behaviour” (Shildrick and Price 1999, 8).

It is with these theoretical contexts in mind that we must consider contemporary playwrights' liberatory strategies for writing about cancer. As Sontag has noted, in traditional literary representations” the person dying of cancer is portrayed as robbed of all capacities of self-transcendence, humiliated by fear and agony” (1977, 17). Feminist dramatists' portrayals of cancer bear the weight of such condescending representations even as they attempt to upend them. They depict the bodily betrayal and suffering of women diagnosed with cancer but present as well their struggles for autonomy, their multiple subjectivities. Furthermore, they often do so with outrageous humor, evoking in audiences astonished laughter, itself a healing force, and employing transgressive discursive strategies to represent cancer. For example, the fact that cancers are diagnosed in stages one through four provides an opportunity for self-referential punning. Edson's protagonist in Wit acknowledges this when she explains wryly that “there is no stage five” (12). Similarly, the speaker in Miller's My Left Breast foregrounds cancer's pervasiveness with comic irony, claiming that women's cancer is “coming soon to a theatre near you” (219). Such meta-commentary reveals the playwrights' valorization of the power of theatre to promote feminist awareness and lead to social change.

The medicalized body is clearly on display in Wit, as Vivian Bearing appears on stage emaciated, bald, and hooked up to an intravenous pole. She is eight months into her cancer, hospitalized and terminal; thus the play begins not with her diagnosis, as Potts's proairetic code would dictate, but with the inevitability of her death. As a distinguished scholar of seventeenth-century poetry, however, Vivian remains authoritative; indeed, she couches her cancer confessional in the terms of textual criticism. “Irony is a literary device that will necessarily be deployed to great effect,” she tells the audience.

I ardently wish this were not so. I would prefer that a play about me be cast in the mythic-heroic-pastoral mode; but the facts, most notably stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer, conspire against that. The Faerie Queen this is not.

And I was dismayed to discover that the play would contain elements of … humor. I have been, at best, an unwitting accomplice. (She pauses.) It is not my intention to give away the plot; but I think I die at the end.


In contradiction to the predictable opening of many cancer narratives—a traumatic diagnosis, subsequent despair, and a loss of grounding—Vivian's initial self-presentation exudes confidence. She banters with the audience, acknowledges the dramatic dimensions of her struggle, and employs irony to distance herself from her disease, even as she predicts her imminent demise. Accustomed to scholarly detachment, Vivian remains impassive as she recounts the diagnosis of her “insidious adenocarcinoma” by a physician who, like herself, hides behind a professorial mask. Indeed, they debate the meaning of “insidious,” with the surgeon defining it as undetectable at the source, the patient as “treacherous” (8).

As the disease progresses and the treatment fails to provide a cure or eliminate her pain, Vivian uses irony as a shield: “One thing can be said for an eight-month course of cancer treatment: it is highly educational. I am learning to suffer” (31). Ultimately, however, she reveals her vulnerability, as she moves from discomfort to agony:

Yes, it is mildly uncomfortable to have an electrocardiogram, but the … agony … of a proctosigmoidoscopy sweeps it from memory. Yes, it was embarrassing to have to wear a nightgown all day long—two nightgowns!—but that seemed like a positive privilege compared to watching myself go bald. … Oh, God. … Oh, God. It can't be.


A former healthcare worker in a hospital cancer unit, Edson refuses to downplay the anguish of the dying patient. As Vivian's condition deteriorates, her doctor's initially inane question—“Dr. Bearing, are you in pain?”—becomes cruel:

(Sitting up, unnoticed by the staff) Am I in pain? I don't believe this. Yes, I'm in goddamn pain. (Furious) I have a fever of 101 spiking to 104. And I have bone metastases in my pelvis and both femurs. (Screaming) There is cancer eating away at my goddamn bones, and I did not know there could be such pain on this earth.


This play is not for the squeamish; Vivian does not mince words about her misery. Indeed, Edson herself has described Wit as “ninety minutes of suffering and death, mitigated by a pelvic exam and a lecture on seventeenth-century poetry” (Zinman 1999, 25). Moreover, Vivian's suffering is psychological as well as physical, since she faces her cancer alone.

Like Wit,Sistahs violates the proairetic code by skipping over the cancer patient's discovery and diagnosis. This play, too, features a professor with metastatic cancer who is grappling with her own death; however, Sandra Grange-Mosaku teaches history, not English, and her cancer is uterine rather than ovarian. “I carry my story in my womb,” she admits in the play's initial scene. “Most women do, but not all” (4). In contrast to the friendless Vivian Bearing, Sandra boasts a kitchen full of loving friends as well as an attentive female partner and a concerned, if truculent, teenaged daughter. The presence of these supporters is insufficient, however, to quell Sandra's wrath at the ravages of her disease, a wrath that she unleashes on her loved ones when they fail to adhere to her script for preparing West Indian soup and making peace with one another:

You couldn't make an effort to get along this one time? A lot to handle? I wanted a dinner, one dinner with the people that I care about. Try waking up each morning, deciding whether or not to be drugged up, or sit with the pain all day. Getting needles stuck in you. It took me three hours to get off the bed this morning. A lot to handle? Fuckery! Pure fuckery running through my blood.


Like Vivian, Sandra rages at the attack of her body by renegade cells and at her subsequent loss of control. As she stirs the soup, blood runs between her legs, forcing her to change her skirt and hide the ruined garment so that her daughter will not see. Although Sandra initially feels humiliated—the female body, after all, has been culturally constructed as “unpredictable, leaky, and disruptive” and therefore shameful—she finds comfort in the soothing touch of her sister (Shildrick and Price 1999, 2). Nonetheless, both cancer patients find appalling the invasion of their bodies: having destroyed her ovaries, cancer “eats away” at Vivian's bones; it “runs through” Sandra's blood and assaults her womb—insistent, ghastly.

Both Sandra in Sistahs and Vivian in Wit employ battle imagery, a conventional cancer trope, and each woman perceives herself as losing the contest. Although Sontag has justly critiqued the oppressive use of battle metaphors in medical discourse (1977, 68-71), in feminist performance narratives such metaphors can be liberatory—perhaps because the spectacle of ill women angrily resisting bodily appropriation has been so rarely visible. Sandra approaches her defeat head-on and blames herself for having misplaced her rage and striking her daughter:

I lost my temper. I lost control. Casualties. I lost control of the situation. … I've LOST! This war. Fighting, and trying to control my child. I've hit her. Fighting. This gift from my womb, and … this thing in my womb. I have done something terrible.


Both the violence of “this thing in [her] womb” and her own internal violence horrify Sandra. Vivian, in contrast, is a measured combatant who initially claims to be destined for fame, if not victory, by “distinguishing [her]self in illness.” Yet she realizes that becoming the subject of a scholarly article in a medical journal does not prevent her objectification:

I have survived eight treatments of Hexamethophosphacil and Vinplatin at the full dose, ladies and gentlemen. I have broken the record. I have become something of a celebrity.

But I flatter myself. The article will not be about me, it will be about my ovaries. It will be about my peritoneal cavity, which, despite their best intentions, is now crawling with cancer.


Such are the fears of many women cancer patients on and offstage: that they have become merely the sum of their body parts, and of parts that fail to comprise a whole. They feel no longer themselves, indeed, no longer human. “What we have come to think of as me,” Vivian muses, “is, in fact, just the specimen jar, just the dust jacket, just the white piece of paper that bears the little black marks” (53).

Despite this apparent loss of autonomy, both Vivian in Wit and Sandra in Sistahs experience a transformation that allows them, at least in part, to reclaim their intellectual and bodily selves. It is significant that Edson and co-authors Bailey and Lewis create characters that are university professors, since in their subject matter lie the protagonist's intellectual passion and life's meaning. In retrospective scenes in which each woman lectures to a roomful of engaged, if mystified, students, these playwrights offer insights that characterize their philosophical vision. Edson has claimed that Wit is “about redemption”; for Vivian, the vehicle of redemption is John Donne's poetry, with its emphasis on paradox and its intricate punctuation: “And Death—capital D—shall be no more—semi-colon! Death—capital D—comma—thou shalt die—exclamation point!” As Vivian's graduate school mentor, the renowned scholar E. M. Ashford, explicated the poem years earlier, life and death exist on a continuum; what divides the two states of being are “not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma”—a belief to which the dying Vivian holds tenaciously (14-5). For Sandra, the possibility of redemption is cultural rather than individual. In her classes she lectures on the horrible realities of slavery—“the middle passage … the surgical removal of female reproductive organs” (24)—topics that evoke her racial history as well as the loss of her own uterus to a different invading force. But she also teaches her students about cultural survival by urging them to redefine family—not as a patriarchal unit but as “a recipe to survive genocide” (38).

Both Vivian and Sandra find a reconciled peace, and in each woman's transformation her body figures prominently. Near the end of Sistahs, Sandra asks her partner Dehlia, her sister Rea, and her friend Cerise to care for her daughter, Assata, after Sandra's death. However, the play's denouement focuses not on her demise but on the healing properties of the communal soup. “It's alchemy,” claims Dehlia; “it's magic,” intones Rea. “It's voodoo,” insists Cerise; “it's Obeah,” chimes Assata. “It's soup,” concludes Dehlia, demystifying the healing brew that Sandra has requested. “Sistahs” is the last word Sandra utters, naming the source of the strength she conjures, even as her body continues to suffer. “Sandra doubles over in pain,” proclaims the final stage direction. “Lights come down onstage” (61). This stage direction undermines the potentially transcendent discourse of healing potions, since Sandra's leaky body continues to cause her agony. Yet in doubling over—enfolding her wounded belly—she affirms the resilience of still-living flesh, a site of power for African women ravaged by disease or cultural genocide. As Bibi Bakare-Yusuf notes, because African women during slavery often perceived their flesh as their own, “hidden from the violations of the body,” the embrace of one's own flesh can serve as a liberatory gesture for postcolonial women (1999, 321). As a source of “counter-memory” and strength, flesh “retrieves, recovers the memory of the body's capacity for resistance, for transformation, for healing” (321).

Wit ends with Vivian's death and one final violation, as doctors attempt to resuscitate her, and in so doing ignore her request that no life-prolonging treatment be administered. Despite this ultimate invasion, Edson preserves her protagonist's dignity. As the doctors recognize their error and grapple with possible repercussions, the dying Vivian rises from her hospital bed, “attentive and eager, moving slowly toward the light.” The stage directions reveal that as Vivian strips off the cap that hid her baldness and the bracelet that provided her hospital name and number, she is luminous, in control of her body and its movements, whole:

(She loosens the ties and the top gown slides to the floor. She lets the second gown fall. The instant she is naked, and beautiful, reaching for the light—Lights out).


This nude, ghostly Vivian “doubles back” to reveal an absent presence, a transgressive strategy that is characteristic of explicit body performance. According to Schneider, “the subject returns for a second time in relation to its own death, as if beside itself … exposing the historical mechanisms of a social drama which has parsed its players, by bodily markings, into subjects and objects” (1997, 180-1). As Vivian, newly dead, moves toward the light, she assumes what Schneider calls “the guise of subjectivity,” an uncanny “second sight/site” (180).

My Left Breast and The Waiting Room, both of which address breast cancer, also move between anguish and autonomy. In My Left Breast the narrator, Susan, has lived for more than a decade since her mastectomy, though she is aware that she might not remain cancer-free. In The Waiting Room, Wanda flaunts her prosthetic body, especially her enormous breasts, the products of cosmetic surgery, until she learns that a faulty implant may have caused or hidden an incipient cancer. While her diagnosis is unnerving and several lymph nodes are involved, Wanda grapples with the tough decision of conventional versus alternative treatment, not with the immanence of her death. Controlling one's own body, rather than confronting death, constitutes the dominant motif in these two plays. Both plays disrupt the proairetic code, however, by denying the closure that reconstructive surgery or even death provides.

The celebratory tone of My Left Breast is evident when the play begins, as Susan comes out dancing. Indeed, her liberated movement mirrors her frank speech, as she confronts the audience immediately with the reality of her amputated body through a defiant juxtaposition of a “real” and a prosthetic breast: “The night I went to the hospital, that is what I did. I danced. (Indicates breasts) One of these is not real. Can you tell which?” (214). Later she shows the audience her prosthesis, using it to expound upon the commercial spectacle and emotional vulnerability of cancer patients:

Don't worry. It's a spare. When you go for a fitting, you can hear the women in the booths. Some of them have lost their hair and shop for wigs. Some are very young and their mothers are thinking: why didn't this happen to me, instead?


Contrasted with the insistent presence of the prosthesis is the poignant absence of the breast itself—an absence the protagonist notes but refuses to find mournful. Like Eisenstein, who claims herself as “something besides my body struggles” (2001, 42), Miller's speaker defines her missing breast as beloved but expendable:

I miss it but it's not a hand. I miss it but it's not my mind. I miss it but it's not the roof over my head. I miss it but it's not a sentence I can't live without. I miss it but it's not a conversation with my son. It's not my courage or my lack of faith.


In addition to assertions of bodily autonomy, Miller foregrounds the epidemic of breast cancer, thus politicizing her play overtly. Specifically, Miller's narrator challenges two cultural stereotypes: that women's illnesses matter little in light of AIDS and that women who contract breast cancer somehow bring it on themselves. Regarding the first stereotype, it is useful to contextualize Miller's play in an early 1990s timeframe, when breast cancer research dollars were sorely lacking and activists yearned to have physicians and government leaders use the term “epidemic” as a measure of public accountability comparable to that which AIDS was finally receiving. The tensions that occurred between certain lesbian and gay male health activists are reflected in this monologue:

A man I know said to me, Lesbians are the chosen people these days. No AIDS. I said, Lesbians are women.

Women get AIDS. Women get ovarian cancer. Women get breast cancer. Women die. In great numbers. In the silent epidemic. He said, I see what you mean.


In a play characterized by rapid-fire monologues, this passage stands out for its staccato language and strategic repetition. Susan unpacks two false assumptions: that lesbians are not “real women,” and that women, lesbians included, are less vulnerable to fatal diseases than men are.

The second cultural stereotype, that women cause their own cancers by living unhealthily or internalizing their emotions, also enrages Miller's protagonist. Debunking this stereotype lets Miller critique a variety of social ills: violence against women everywhere; racism in nineteenth-and early twentieth-century America; ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Somalia, the Middle East, and Cambodia. She therefore offers not the liberal feminist perspective of Edson and Bailey and Lewis but a global feminist perspective that links the women's cancer movement to other struggles for human rights.

There are those who insist that certain types of people get cancer. So I wonder, are there certain types of people who get raped and tortured? Are there certain types who die young? Are there certain types of Bosnians, Somalians, Jews? … Is there a type of African American who is denied, excluded, lynched? Were the victims of the Killing Fields people who couldn't express themselves? Are one out of eight women—count 'em, folks—just holding onto their goddamned anger?


Susan's use of urgent repetition, rhetorical questions, and direct challenge to the audience reveals her outrage at the presumption of a “blame the victim” mentality.

This emphasis on global feminist politics in My Left Breast intersects powerfully with the experience of one woman, Susan, who recognizes that her body carries political as well as personal signification: “This is my body—where the past and the future collide. This is my body. All at once, timely. All at once, chic” (219). Both grateful for societal recognition and resentful of her commodification, Susan determines to display her body on her own terms. The primary insignia of Susan's newfound subjectivity is her mastectomy scar, which serves as an erogenous zone and a marker of survival. The amputated breast thus becomes not a site of marginalization due to its difference from the normate body, but instead a site of pleasure and power. Indeed, a prominent theme in both My Left Breast and The Waiting Room is the effect of cancer on women's sexuality and body image. For Miller's protagonist, the loss of her breast pales next to the loss of her lover, Franny, which occurs not because of Susan's cancer but because their relationship is long-distance and troubled. A recurring erotic memory for the bereft Susan involves the sexualization of her scar: “Skinnied on the left side like a girl, I summon my breast and you there where it was with your mouth sucking a phantom flutter from my viny scar” (215). At the end of the play, when Susan has healed from the shock of her cancer and the end of her relationship, she reinvokes her scar, this time as “a mark of experience” to be “cherished”:

It's the history of me, a permanent fix on the impermanence of it all. A line that suggests that I take it seriously. Which I do. … There is no other sign on my body that repeats the incongruity and dislocation, the alarm. A scar is a challenge to see ourselves as survivors, after all. Here is the evidence. The body repairs. And the human heart, even after it has broken into a million pieces, will make itself large again.


Such capacity for regeneration provides hope for all women with cancer, to whom Susan refers metonymically as “the women in the changing booths.” Her message to them is simple but profound: “we are still beautiful, we are still powerful, we are still sexy, we are still here” (236). To document her/their resistant subjectivity, Susan opens her shirt and reveals her mastectomy scar.

The Waiting Room interweaves the cancer motif with feminist themes of sexuality and autonomy. As the play opens, three women meet in a doctor's clinic: Forgiveness from Heaven, an eighteenth-century Chinese woman whose bound feet have become infected; Victoria, a nineteenth-century Englishwoman seeking treatment for “shrunken” ovaries; and Wanda, a modern American woman whose breast implants are malfunctioning. None of these women initially claims bodily autonomy. Forgiveness and Victoria are bound by the judgments of their husbands: the apologetic Forgiveness would like to wash her stinking feet, “but my husband, he's crazy for the smell” (14); the corseted Victoria enjoys romantic novels but has been forbidden to read them, since her husband thinks that reading causes ovarian atrophy. Wanda at first appears to be independent; she is single, flamboyant, mouthy. As she confesses to her nurse, Brenda, however, Wanda received silicone breast implants for her thirtieth birthday as a gift from her father and has since had plastic surgery on everything else: nose, chin, cheekbones, stomach, thighs. Thus, Loomer conflates history to satirize patriarchal control of women's bodies across time and cultures, as well as women's complicity in the multi-billion dollar beauty industry.

With the support of Brenda, however, Wanda approaches her biopsy and cancer on her own terms. In scene nine of Act I, Brenda uses humor to calm Wanda's fears: “We don't even know you got cancer. Where you goin' get cancer? You don't have a single body part that's real” (40). Those silicone body parts, of course, are the cause of Wanda's cancer, diagnosed in Act II, scene iv, as a malignant tumor so large that lumpectomy is not an option; only mastectomy will suffice. In the recovery room after surgery, Wanda appears to have accepted the recommended treatment passively. When Victoria asks how she's doing, she replies: “I don't know. I guess that's for the doctor to say. They took a—they took my breast. … And my tits, of course. … And they took some lymph nodes to see if they're … ‘clear’” (60). The repetition of “they took” illustrates Wanda's lack of agency, intensified by the fact that the pronoun “they” has no clear antecedent and “took” bears the connotation of theft. But when her doctor later reports on Wanda's “bad” lymph nodes and recommends aggressive chemotherapy, she refuses both his condolences and his treatment: “Don't be sorry, doc. ‘Cause you're not shooting me up with a goddamn thing” (64). From telephone calls to her insurance agent and her boss at work, she has learned that her surgery isn't covered and her job is no longer hers; from Brenda she has learned about alternative cancer treatments available in Mexico. What she can control, Wanda finally determines, is the body that her cancer inhabits: “This cancer is … mine. For better or worse, till death do us part, it's about the one thing I got left that's all—mine. And if I want to take it to Tijuana or Guadafuckinglajara—I've never been out of the tri-state area!” Although her defiance diminishes as Wanda realizes the enormity of her plight, she continues to assert that “it's MY BODY! MINE” (70)!

Even feminist theatre, however, does not escape entirely the cultural edict that cancer is the female patient's fault—that she ate too much or too little, neglected to seek medical care or sought the wrong kind. In all four plays the protagonists blame themselves, at least momentarily, for their cancer. Vivian, in Wit, blanches when she admits to Jason, her intern, that she drinks “two … to six” cups of coffee daily: “But I don't really think that's immoderate.” She responds more defensively when he inquires how often she has had “routine medical checkups”:

Well, not as often as I should, probably, but I've felt fine, I really have.
So the answer is?
Every three to … five years.


Sandra in Sistahs laments the time she spends “cursing myself each day for not being more careful,” although she fails to explain in what way she has been careless (56). Wanda in The Waiting Room implies that her “lousy screwed up life” has led her to the operating table (70). Even Susan in My Left Breast, arguably the most feminist of these protagonists, infuses her probe of environmental causes with an implicit self-critique:

When I was pregnant, I took something called Provera. Later it was shown to cause birth defects. So, when I got breast cancer I wondered, was it the time someone sprayed my apartment for roaches? Or too much fat in my diet? Was it the deodorant with aluminum, or my birth control pills? Or was it genetic?


That such anguished questions abound among women diagnosed with cancer, on stage or in life, is undeniable. As Lorde has noted, however, blaming cancer patients for their illness is “a monstrous distortion of the idea that we can use our strengths to help heal ourselves” (74-5). Unfortunately, these otherwise feminist playwrights at times perpetuate that distortion, although Miller counters it more effectively than do the others.

Nonetheless, these dramatic representations of women's cancers successfully foreground four transgressive forms of embodiment that reveal women's ill bodies as disciplined but not subjugated—as subjected to the “stare” that tracks disabled persons but not undone by it (Garland-Thomson 1997). The medicalized body, most notably Vivian's in Wit, experiences poisonous treatments and public violations, but resists appropriation. The leaky body, exemplified by Sandra's in Sistahs, spurts bloody fluids at embarrassing moments yet asserts authority through its flesh. The amputated body, particularly Susan's in My Left Breast, speaks through its scar, the lost breast mourned but lovingly re-membered. And the prosthetic body, exemplified by Wanda's in The Waiting Room, embraces contradiction, “posthuman” in its alienation from itself but powerful in its hybridity (Herndl 2002, 150-1). Ultimately these protagonists insist on self-determination, if not self-healing. They break silence about their illnesses, assume the right to control their bodies, live with missing breasts and wombs, or die with dignity. Embodying cancer on stage, they “take the power of words, of representation, into their own hands” (Friedman 1988, 91).


The body and the identity of the woman with breast cancer become contested sites of meaning between the hegemony of the discourse of medical practice and her own sense of the disease and her relationship to it, the meaning she generates through the process.

—Laura K. Potts, Ideologies of Breast Cancer (2000, 117)

The authors of these four plays offer a profound indictment of callous physicians, hospital personnel, and pharmaceutical companies. These professionals are typically represented as inept or arrogant—at best, uncomprehending of women cancer patients' fears and needs; at worst, dismissive of them. Nurses (who are all women in these plays) generally fare better than doctors (who are almost all men), though occasionally a doctor is presented as empathic. Not only do nurses give care and comfort to the traumatized women, they often question the physicians' ethics and defy their orders. Yet even nurses are sometimes represented as apathetic or abusive. As their primary recourse, the protagonists struggle to comprehend and acquire a complex, ominous, and closely guarded medical vocabulary. These women work to bridge the gap between what Potts calls “the hegemony of the discourse of medical practice” and their own comprehension of their disease (2000, 117). In the doctor's office or the hospital room, they often suffer physical, verbal, and psychological indignities. Moreover, they face invasive treatments with painful side effects and uncertain outcomes rivaling the malignancy of the cancer itself. At times they experience or resist the disposition of their bodies for medical experimentation. Consequently, these cancer patients challenge the medical establishment even as they envision little alternative to seeking its assistance.

Both Sistahs and My Left Breast contain pivotal scenes in which the protagonist questions the effectiveness of her prescribed treatment. Sistahs explores Sandra's reasons for rejecting further treatment once chemotherapy and radiation have failed to prevent metastasis. This exploration occurs primarily through the tension that exists between Sandra and her frightened daughter, who desperately wants her mother to resume treatment. When Sandra complains about weariness and asks Assata to do more housework, her daughter rages: “Well maybe you wouldn't be so tired if you would go back to the doctor and get that stupid ciscarb-playtane” (7). Sandra's only response is to implore Assata to “make peace” with her. Later in the play, when the angry daughter accuses her mother of a defeatist attitude, Sandra's sister echoes her niece's criticism: “The last time we talked, Sandy, I thought you were trying alternative methods; now it seems you're not trying anything” (44). Impervious to such attempts at intervention, however, Sandra stands her ground. When Assata inquires a final time why her mother is “giving up,” Sandra claims her right to protect her body from further invasion:

I'm not, Assata. I'm fighting with everything I have left. Cutting and more cutting until there is nothing left of my womb. Three years of cutting and slicing, and pricking and burning. … It didn't feel like my body anymore. So many things in my life have been beyond my control. I'm doing the … cutting, chopping, and slicing. With help from my daughter.


Ultimately Assata comes to accept, if not understand, her mother's reasons for facing her death unimpeded by medical intervention.

In My Left Breast the condemnation of inadequate medical personnel is overt. Early in the play Susan recounts implacably one doctor's misdiagnosis of benign fibroadenoma and her initial acceptance of that diagnosis. Months later and in pain, she seeks an opinion from a second physician, who biopsies her breast and confirms that she has cancer. Mistakes she can tolerate, but Susan is moved to resist what she perceives as malice:

There were two positive nodes. I went through eleven months of chemotherapy and I had only one more month to go. But at my next to the last treatment, after they removed the IV, the oncologist and his nurse looked at me with what I distinctly recognized as menace. I thought, they're trying to kill me. If I come back again, they'll kill me. I never went back.


Although some might describe Susan's reaction as paranoid, her act of resistance has worked to her benefit, since she has survived for twelve years without a recurrence of her cancer.

Susan's survival, however, occurs at the cost of her bones. Thrown into early menopause by estrogen-depriving chemotherapy, she develops osteoporosis in her thirties and is driven to consult a bone specialist whom she detests. The subsequent consultation scene reveals Miller's frustration at the imperiousness of some physicians, the imprecision of their treatments, and the economic injustices of the breast cancer industry.

“Here are your choices,” the bone specialist in L.A. said. “Pick one. A shot every day of Calcitonin, which costs a fortune. I wouldn't do it. Etidronate, which can cause softening of the bones. Or Tamoxifen, an antiestrogen that acts like an estrogen.”

I really hate this arrogant, out of touch, son of a bitch specialist, you know? But my internist concurs, and him I love. So, I take the Tamoxifen.

Side effects: Increase in blood clots, endometrial cancer, liver changes.


While Susan's worst side effect from the Tamoxifen is aching ovaries, her ribs continue to fracture when she maintains the prescribed exercise regimen. Hence, she consults a gerontologist and experiences this “gracious woman” as impatient and incompetent. “Tired of hearing me whine,” Susan explains, the doctor asks her patient to experiment: “All right, look, I know this sounds like I'm waffling, but I think I want to put you on Etidronate. … We'll follow you closely for a year” (229-30). Although Susan takes the prescription, she decides not to fill it, having maintained little confidence in medical authority.

As might be expected since they take place in hospital settings, Wit and The Waiting Room provide especially ferocious interrogations of medical politics and women's cancers. Unlike Sistahs and My Left Breast, whose casts are women only, Wit and The Waiting Room feature male doctors and researchers whose own words and actions call their motives into question. Jason, the self-absorbed resident who treats Vivian Bearing at the teaching hospital where she is a patient, has a laughable bedside manner. “Why don't you, um, sort of lie back, and—oh—relax,” he urges Vivian, as if women whose feet are in stirrups can ever relax (28). Their doctor-patient relationship is further complicated by the fact that he was her student just a few years ago. “Yes,” Vivian assures the audience, “having a former student give me a pelvic exam was thoroughly degrading—and I use the term deliberately” (32). No longer in awe of his teacher, Jason uses her body as a text, pointing to various parts and speaking to medical students about and over her still form. Vivian recognizes the irony of her situation. “They read me like a book,” she tells the audience during one all-too-public medical exam. “Once I did the teaching, now I am taught” (37).

In his lectures, moreover, Jason employs medical jargon designed to exclude the layperson. The medication Vinplatin becomes “Vin,” tumors are “de-bulked,” patient charts are “I & O sheets” (36-7, 47). Vivian, however, refuses to be excluded: “My only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary” (44). As illustration, she riffs on the medical term “neutropenia,” likening it to a series of philosophical words on which she is the expert: “ratiocination, concatenation, coruscation, and tergiversation”—terms that connote a movement from logical reasoning to glittering insight to strategic evasion. Surely words in “Cancerland” are often used to obfuscate rather than to clarify, as Vivian is fully aware.

Edson uses the technique of simultaneous discourse to give Vivian's voice equal weight to the voices of her doctors. On stage, Vivian often muses aloud as Jason and her other physician, Dr. Kelekian, instruct their students. Stage directions reveal that the men's words are “barely audible,” though their gestures are clear; Vivian's words provide an authoritative voice-over:

“Grand Rounds.” The term is theirs. Not “Grand” in the traditional sense of sweeping or magnificent. Not “Rounds” as in a musical canon, or a round of applause (though either would be refreshing at this point). Here, “Rounds” seems to signify darting around the main issue … which I suppose would be the struggle for life … my life … with heated discussions of side effects, other complaints, additional treatments.
Very late detection. Staged as a four upon admission. Hexamethophosphacil with Vinplatin to potentiate. Hex at 300 mg. per meter squared. Vin at 100. Today is cycle two, day three. Both cycles at the full dose. (The FELLOWS are impressed.) The primary site is—here (He puts his finger on the spot on her abdomen), behind the left ovary. Metastases are suspected in the peritoneal cavity—here.


Vivian does not lie in silence as she is displayed and probed, nor does she fail to note the competitive atmosphere that Jason's classroom manner fosters—partly because she recognizes it as a style she once employed with her own students. “Full of subservience, hierarchy, gratuitous displays, sublimated rivalries,” she observes of her physician's performance; “I feel right at home. It is just like a graduate seminar” (37).

Although Vivian identifies to some degree with Jason's pedagogical pretensions, Edson ultimately presents this young physician not merely as arrogant but as irresponsible. He consistently privileges his own career goals over Vivian's care and rights, an attitude that costs him dearly when he calls in an emergency team to revive the dying woman, having ignored the fact that she has signed a “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR) order. When the nurse grabs Jason and shouts, “She's DNR!” the doctor shoves her away: “She's Research” (85)! Thus Edson dramatizes the extent to which the cancer patient risks becoming dehumanized in the modern teaching hospital. The Code Team whom Jason erroneously summons, however, hold him responsible for his mistake: “It's a doctor fuckup.—What is he, a resident”? As the dying Vivian leaves her bed, “naked, and beautiful,” Jason laments, “Oh, God”—bemoaning not her death but the blemish on his record (85).

The objectifying characters in The Waiting Room include Douglas, a surgeon who is “excellent with bodies, and befuddled by the people who inhabit them”; Larry, the vice-president of a drug company and board member of the cancer center where Douglas works; and Ken, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official described as “a scientist turned bureaucrat” (7). Loomer uses ironic dialogue to reveal these men's condescension toward cancer patients. “You know how vulnerable these people are—they're like children,” claims Larry to Ken (47). She also exposes the men's unwillingness to acknowledge flaws in their treatment methods, their dismissal of alternative treatments, and their complicity in a multi-billion dollar cancer industry. Of the four playwrights under consideration, only Loomer takes on the FDA and the pharmaceutical companies, and she does so with a vengeance. In Act I, scene ii, for example, Wanda explains to Douglas that her breast implants have malfunctioned: “The foam broke down. The casing hardened. It's funny, I can keep a couch six years, I can't keep a pair of tits six months” (17). Unmoved by her attempts to use self-deprecating humor as a relaxation tool, the doctor replies by spouting the party line: “Well, the FDA believes there is not enough evidence to justify having silicone implants removed if the woman is not having symptoms” (18). When Wanda expresses relief that her implants are not harming her, however, Douglas acknowledges that “unfortunately, there is no sure way to monitor for bleed, leakage, rupture” (18). Women and their physicians must obey FDA guidelines, he insists, even if those guidelines are potentially harmful.

Another political topic on which Loomer focuses is the FDA's refusal to make a successful Jamaican-based cancer treatment, Carson's serum, available to patients in the United States. Although Douglas's nurse, Brenda, who is from Jamaica, attests to the viability of this serum, the male researchers dismiss her as an unreliable source. Several scenes in the play take place in the steam room of a local health club, where Douglas, Larry, and Ken are pampered by Asian women they call “hon” and where they discuss the latest clinical trials. To his credit, Douglas hopes that his hospital will test the serum, given its success rates in Jamaica; Larry, however, prefers another drug:

Well, I love Jamaica … (Lightly) And you know, from what I've heard, Carson's serum isn't really all that different from INT-2, which Jones Pharmaceuticals is working on at Smith Memorial right now. And doing quite well with actually.
But INT-2 is toxic, isn't it?
All drugs have side effects—
Not Carson's serum apparently.
(Elbows Douglas) According to your nurse?
The girl's had two years of medical school, Larry.
You boning her?
Am I—No. I just thought it would be interesting for us to give this a try, Larry. And I'd think you'd be interested too, as a member of the board of Smith Memorial … if not as a vice president of Jones Pharmaceuticals—which stands to make a killing on INT-2.


The playwright uses Douglas to unmask the real reason Larry resists allowing clinical trials of Carson's serum: it is not to his economic advantage. We later learn that the FDA resists it too, on the grounds that the serum is “unproven.” Furthermore, the above scene reveals that if Douglas takes his nurse seriously, he must be sleeping with her—or so runs patriarchal logic.

Ironically, Nurse Brenda emerges as Loomer's spokesperson on behalf of economic justice and fairness in research of women's cancer. Brenda's case in point regarding the viability of Carson's serum is her own mother in Jamaica, as she later explains to Douglas: “My mother … got cancer. And she couldn't scare it away. Hmmmm-hmmmm. Doctors took a breast; it jumped to the other one. They took that, it jumped to the bones. Like a lizard with little feet. Quick little fucker. Doctors chasing it all over her body.” Thanks to Carson's serum, however, she is doing well, “back at work cleaning houses” (42). Such testimonials have little impact, however. In Act II, scene iv, an enraged Brenda, frustrated by the intransigence of the doctor for whom she works, exposes his motive:

(Quietly.) Maybe you good people just don't want to fix cancer. Maybe there's a cancer industry out there and it does not want to die. After all, no one is in business for their health.
(Voice rising) Oh fine. Now we are getting hysterical.
I am a hysterical woman, Douglas—I'm stressed!—forty-six thousand women died last year—we don't even put their names on a quilt!


Traditionally considered a sickness of the womb, hysteria emerges as a condition Brenda wants to claim—on her own behalf and that of other outraged women. What does it mean to live in a society in which women's cancers receive too little in research money, where alternative treatments proven effective in other countries are denied to women? The playwright ultimately indicts the U.S. cancer industry for its arrogance and greed. In this indictment, Loomer echoes the viewpoint of radical feminist activists, who expose the hypocrisy of “the multinational corporate enterprise that with the one hand doles out carcinogens and disease and, with the other, offers expensive, semi-toxic pharmaceutical treatment” (Ehrenreich 2001, 52).


For the testimonial process to take place there needs to be a bonding, the intimate and total presence of an other—in the position of one who hears. Testimonies are not monologues; they cannot take place in solitude. The witnesses are talking to somebody: somebody they have been waiting for for a long time. … Knowledge in the testimony … is not simply a factual given that is reproduced and replicated by the testifier, but a genuine advent, an event in its own right.

—Dori Laub, Testimony (Felman and Laub 1992, 62)

It is arguably the current project of postcolonial and cultural critical studies to ask: What can reciprocity look like? How can we do it? How do we access reciprocity in our approach to alterity, our approach to “objects” of study as well as our approach to our “selves”?

—Rebecca Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance (1997, 177)

The testimonies of Holocaust survivors that Dori Laub recorded are, of course, different in nature and historical context from the testimonies of cancer patients. Certainly vital distinctions exist between the witnessing of Jewish survivors offered in the semi-private “safe space” of the therapist's office and the witnessing of women's bodily traumas offered in the gaudy public space of the contemporary theatre. Yet both types of testimonies, I propose, are “genuine advents,” advents that herald the possibility of resistance and transformation. Although the theatre has a set of frame works and conventions that audiences and actors must observe, and thus as spectators we “know” we are watching not actual events but performances, we are nonetheless called upon to experience empathically the cancer patient's hybrid reality of pain and redemption. Acknowledging the suffering of women whose bodies have been invaded by cancer, and applauding those courageous enough to write about such invasions and present them, become the playgoers' charge.

To be sure, some audience members are uncomfortable with representations of women's cancers. Despite rave reviews, for example, Wit evoked ambivalence from viewers unprepared to bear witness to such raw suffering. As one reviewer noted, this play “was considered so much of a downer that it was originally rejected by almost every theatre that read it” (Martini 1999, 23). Similarly, for many there occurs a tension between witness and spectacle when, in Sistahs, Sandra wipes her vagina, strips off her bloody skirt, and hides it behind the sofa. Must we witness this private ritual in a public space? Yet audiences in New York came in droves to see Wit as they did in Toronto to see Sistahs, in Louisville to see My Left Breast, and in Los Angeles to see The Waiting Room. To understand why, we must consider a question that theorist Jackie Stacey poses: “What is the particular appeal of these cancer narratives in contemporary culture” (1997, 21)?

Certainly, it is the actors' job as well as the playwrights' to convince spectators of the power of witness. Indeed, actors are the primary agents of embodied consciousness:

For the playwright, the actor's body is, of course, the channel through which the play comes to life, but at a time when physicality is of such significance in theatre and cinema, it is not surprising that there should be a strong emphasis on the body in the work of many playwrights. No longer merely a vehicle for speaking the words written in the script, the body becomes the site of another theatrical language.

(Bassnett 2000, 79)

In women's performance narratives of cancer, women's ruptured bodies “speak” in ways that many theatre-goers have not previously experienced. Graphic depictions of suffering move most members of an audience, reminding them that everyone has lost some beloved woman to cancer, or fears doing so, and that all women are at risk. Moreover, the protagonists' outrage and the plays' “in your face” humor call spectators to awareness and action. This “language” of female embodiment often creates a collaborative knowledge and ethos that evokes reciprocity, which Schneider describes as “a project of recognizing the ricochet of gazes, the histories of who-gets-to-see-what-where” (1997, 184). Theatrical representations of women's cancers appeal in part because historically the one-dimensional perspectival gaze has been predictable and overcirculated, thus fostering a distorted audience-actor dynamic by which “masculinized producers are delineated from feminized consumers, just as the masculinized viewer is dislocated from the feminized view” (8). Women's cancer plays enrich viewers by presenting them with new forms of embodied knowledge via illness testimonies rarely before recounted in public but available to be witnessed now in innovative theatrical productions. These plays further enrich viewers by investing in them the power of a reciprocal gaze that ricochets daringly rather than targeting them through a linear gaze that narrows and delimits.

Another possible reason for the popularity of these plays, at least among feminist viewers, is that the theatrical foregrounding of women's cancer-affected bodies refuses to reinscribe patriarchy. This is not easy to do. Indeed, one risk that feminist playwrights take in producing cancer narratives for the stage is that some audience members will respond as voyeurs rather than as compassionate witnesses. Certainly feminist scholars are aware that a problem with women's onstage reclamation of their bodies, especially their unclothed bodies, is that there can be no guarantee that the naked body in this “woman-identified model” will subvert the sign of the feminine in dominant systems of gender representation. As art historian Griselda Pollock explains, the “attempt to decolonise the female body [is] a tendency which walks a tightrope between subversion and reappropriation, and often serves rather to consolidate the potency of signification rather than actually to rupture it” (Aston 1999, 9).

I argue, nonetheless, that patriarchal signification is ruptured when the naked body displayed is bald and shriveled yet luminous, as is Vivian's in Wit—or when the breast displayed is missing, marked by a puckered horizontal scar, yet eerily present, as is Susan's in My Left Breast. Signification is ruptured because the onstage presentation of such forbidden images as a wrinkled female corpse or a flat, scarred breast disrupts the all-too-familiar spectacle of women's sexualized bodies on prurient display, vulnerable to masculinist appropriation. As Garland-Thomson has argued, feminist counter-representations “produce a powerful visceral violation by exchanging the spectacle of the eroticized breast, which has been desensationalized by its endless circulation, with the medicalized image of the scarred breast, which has been concealed from public view,” thereby challenging “oppressive representational practices” (2002, 12). Ultimately, therefore, women's performance narratives of cancer participate in feminist decolonization by offering, in Elin Diamond's words, “a female body in representation that resists fetishization and a viable position for the female spectator” (1997, 44).

Thus envisioned, the plays of Edson, Miller, Loomer, and Bailey and Lewis contribute significantly to a feminist theatrical praxis that Schneider has termed “inspecting the cracks”: countering patriarchal representations of women's bodies as “always already different, aberrant, cracked,” yet “courting aberrance” by featuring onstage explicit bodies, ill, “stretched across this paradox like canvases across the framework of the Symbolic Order” (1997, 184). Elaine Aston has described feminist theatrical praxis similarly, claiming that it operates “formally and ideologically as a ‘sphere of disturbance’”—a sphere in which audience ambivalence can, for many viewers, be transformed into a desire to participate in cancer activism (1999, 17). Such activism may be mainstream—racing for the cure, wearing a pink ribbon—or it may be radical: tattooing one's scar, acting up, engaging in guerrilla warfare. Such is the power of feminist theatre. As audience members, potential activists, and intimate Others, we bear witness to the fractured borders that women with cancer negotiate.


  1. Similar accounts of research, risks, and possible cures have abounded since the women's health movement began in the 1970s, when feminists first promoted self-help, organized cancer support groups, challenged paternalistic physicians, and criticized the disabling Halsted mastectomy (Ehrenreich 2001). Women's cancer advocacy continued in the 1980s, most notably with the establishment of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in Texas in 1982 and the Mautner Project for Lesbians with Cancer in Washington, D.C., in 1989 (Klawiter 2000; Brownsworth 2000). However, feminist cancer activism entered the political mainstream with full force during the 1990s. In 1991, Dr. Susan Love, with Susan Hester and Amy Langer, founded the National Breast Cancer Coalition (, a lobbying group dedicated to increasing research funds. On 15 August 1993, Susan Ferraro analyzed “the anguished politics of breast cancer” and helped to popularize the well-known statistic that one in eight U.S. women will experience this disease in their lifetimes (24-5). “Breast Cancer Risk in Lesbians Put at 1 in 3,” proclaimed an article in the Boston Globe later that year (Boehmer 2000). “Deadliness of Breast Cancer in Blacks Defies Easy Answer,” asserted another New York Times headline (Kolata 1994).

  2. It is important to note that these plays address topics other than cancer. Wit offers a philosophical lens for examining mortality, death, and dying: “Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting” (14). My Left Breast traces the bonds of affection between a lesbian and her son: “Now he is twenty and I am still his mother. I am still here. We are still arguing” (215). Sistahs celebrates chosen family as a vehicle of resistance: “When I say family, I mean it in the biggest sense. A complex, extended, non-traditional family, with its own secret language, a recipe to survive genocide” (38). The Waiting Room explores how women reject the temptation of negative body image: “But the sisters kept saying, ‘You're beautiful.’ … And eventually the women started to buy it” (75).

  3. Although Irigaray, Cixous, and Rich offer embodiment and sexuality as sources of empowerment, their analysis raises the question of why writing about bodies has been difficult for many women historically. The belief in a mind/body dichotomy has characterized Western philosophy from Plato to Descartes to Nietzsche, and church fathers such as Augustine and Jerome have presented the body as the enemy of both spirituality and reason. Moreover, in this conception of body and mind as inimical, women have been identified with the bodily sphere and thus devalued, while men have been posited as rational and superior beings. The female body has been seen as fundamentally passive yet paradoxically dangerous, which has led to its social devaluation and, in turn, to the oppression of women (Grosz 1994).


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Principal Works


Further Reading