Margaret Edson 1961-
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.
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.
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.