Margaret Edson Essay - Critical Essays

Edson, Margaret


Margaret Edson 1961-

American playwright.

Edson has garnered widespread critical recognition for her debut play, Wit (1993; first produced 1995), which dramatizes the diagnosis, treatment, and death of a college professor afflicted with ovarian cancer. Critics laud the work as an absorbing, affecting, and well-written theatrical experience. In 2001 the play was adapted into a highly praised television movie directed by Mike Nichols.

Biographical Information

Edson was born on July 4, 1961 in Washington, D.C. She became interested in drama as a child, and in high school she performed in several drama productions. In 1979 she began her college career at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. In 1983 she received her bachelor's degree in history. She spent a year in Rome, living in a Dominican convent. She then held a series of jobs, including selling hot dogs out of a cart. In the mid-1980s she worked as a unit clerk in the AIDS/oncology unit of a Washington, D.C. hospital, which provided her with the origins of the subject matter of Wit. In 1992 she completed her M.A. in literature from Georgetown University. While at Georgetown she began volunteering through her church as an English as a Second Language tutor. She became interested in teaching, and eventually became a kindergarten teacher. During this time, she also wrote Wit and began to send it around to theaters. In 1993 the play garnered attention when it won the Drama League's annual prize for an unproduced play. In 1995 the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, agreed to stage a production of the play. The South Coast Repertory production was very well received, winning six Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards. Wit moved to the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, and then off-Broadway. That production won New York Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle awards. Today Edson is a kindergarten teacher in Atlanta, Georgia.

Major Dramatic Works

Edson's reputation as a playwright rests on Wit, her only dramatic work to date. The play opens with Vivian Bearing, a fifty-year-old English professor specializing in the poetry of John Donne, addressing the audience about her experiences as a cancer patient. In her hospital room, Vivian is dressed in a hospital gown and baseball cap, which hides her hair loss from her aggressive chemotherapy treatments. She flashes back to her teaching days, when she was a very hard-nosed professor with tight-fisted control over her classroom, which proves a stark contrast to her current role as a helpless and frustrated patient. Her doctors see her as little more than a research project, as they try experimental treatments on her that take a toll not only physically but also emotionally. As Vivian's body and mind deteriorate, she begins to come to terms with her impending death with the help of a supportive nurse, Susie, who seems to be the only one who views her as a fellow human being. She also attempts to reach out to one of her young doctors, a research fellow named Jason Posner, a former student of hers; however, she realizes that, like her, he prefers research and scholarly pursuits rather than humanity. As Vivian nears death, Susie lays out her options; after reflection, Vivian chooses a DNR (do not resuscitate) order. When Vivian's heart stops, Jason orders resuscitation, only to have his order countermanded by Susie. Humiliated, he collapses in front of his colleagues. Meanwhile, Vivian rises from her bed, takes off her hat, hospital bracelet, and gown. Naked, she reaches for the light.

Critical Reception

Wit proved to be a great popular and critical success. Several critics have viewed the play as an academic drama, as it focuses on the life of academia and Vivian's love of her work. Reviewers have noted the parallel between the depiction of academia and medicine, as Vivian realizes that she has emphasized cold intellectuality and reason over humanity and personal contact. Commentators have evaluated the integral role of John Donne's verse to the drama, particularly his famous sonnet “Death Be Not Proud.” In fact, the importance of language in general is a significant topic of critical discussion. Wit has also been analyzed as a medical drama, and is commended as a compassionate and candid depiction of a dying patient struggling to maintain her independence and dignity while facing her own mortality. A few critics have discussed the role of spirituality in the play; in fact, Edson has identified the theme of redemption as a central one. However, some have questioned the implications of using cancer as a vehicle for Vivian's redemption. Regarded as a compelling, poignant, and rewarding play, Wit deftly explores issues of dignity, mortality, redemption, and humanity.

Principal Works

Wit 1993 [first produced 1995]

Criticism: Wit (1993)

Stefan Kanfer (review date 5-19 October 1998)

SOURCE: Kanfer, Stefan. “Leaps of Faith.” The New Leader 81, no. 11 (5-19 October 1998): 22-3.

[In the following review of the off-Broadway production, Kanfer finds Wit to be an absorbing and witty play.]

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...

(The entire section is 945 words.)

Kerry Reid (review date 11 May 2000)

SOURCE: Reid, Kerry. Review of Wit, by Margaret Edson. Back Stage West 7, no. 19 (11 May 2000): 17.

[In the following review, Reid praises the 2000 San Francisco production of Wit as “a soaring triumph and a wonderful melding of heart, soul, spirit, and mind.”]

“Only a comma separates death from life everlasting,” notes Dr. Vivian Bearing, the dying John Donne scholar in Margaret Edson's Wit. And Beating's valiant struggle to cross over from one side of that comma—present in Donne's famous “Death, be not proud” sonnet—to the other with grace, intelligence, courage, and, yes, wit makes for an utterly absorbing, moving, smart, and...

(The entire section is 607 words.)

Richard Hornby (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Hornby, Richard. “The Two August Wilsons.” The Hudson Review 53, no. 2 (summer 2000): 291-98.

[In the following excerpt, Hornby deems the role of Vivian to be “a great vehicle for a star actress.”]

Margaret Edson's Wit, another play first developed at South Coast Rep, is a rare and welcome depiction of a professor as a positive figure, in contrast to the way we are usually depicted, as hypocrites, lechers, or fools. Perhaps to counteract this iconoclasm, Edson depicts her heroine as dying of ovarian cancer, at the peak of her career at age fifty.

Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., is a prominent scholar of John Donne. She narrates her...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Rosette C. Lamont (essay date winter 1999-2000)

SOURCE: Lamont, Rosette C. “Coma Versus Comma: John Donne's Holy Sonnets in Edson's Wit.The Massachusetts Review 40, no. 4 (winter 1999-2000): 569-75.

[In the following essay, Lamont considers the relationship between death and sensuality in Wit and examines the seminal role of John Donne's verse in the play.]

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...

(The entire section is 2649 words.)

Martha Greene Eads (essay date winter 2002)

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

[In the following essay, Eads explores redemption as a central theme 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...

(The entire section is 5828 words.)

Jacqueline Vanhoutte (essay date fall-winter 2002-2003)

SOURCE: Vanhoutte, Jacqueline. “Cancer and the Common Woman in Margaret Edson's Wit.Comparative Drama 36, no. nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 2002-2003): 391-410.

[In the following essay, Vanhoutte considers the implications of using cancer as a vehicle for Vivian's redemption in Wit.]

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...

(The entire section is 7505 words.)

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

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

[In the following essay, Sykes argues that Wit is largely concerned with two theological issues expressed in John Donne's poetry: “the recalcitrance of human pride and the utter graciousness of the Resurrection.”]

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...

(The entire section is 5458 words.)

Further Reading


Brustein, Robert. “Ways to Break the Silence.” The New Republic, 219 no. 18 (2 November 1998): 27-9.

Praises the final scene of Wit.

Daniels, Robert L. Review of Wit, by Margaret Edson. Variety 372, no. 7 (4 October 1998): 189.

Identifies Wit as a “potently cogent and illuminating first play.”

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

Calls Wit a thrilling theatrical experience.

Gordon, Suzanne. “Doctors' Brains.” The Nation 269, no. 4 (26 July...

(The entire section is 315 words.)