Stefan Kanfer (review date 5-19 October 1998)

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

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[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 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.

Kerry Reid (review date 11 May 2000)

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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 heartfelt evening of theatre.

Edson's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama (her first and, she says, her last) is now in its Bay Area premiere, with Judith Light brilliantly recreating her New York role as Bearing. Directed by Leah C. Gardiner (from the original staging by Edson's high school friend Derek Anson Jones, who died of AIDS-related illness in January), this production is a soaring triumph and a wonderful melding of heart, soul, spirit, and mind.

And it is Light's show all the way, though she receives solid support throughout from the eight other members of the ensemble. A disciplined academic whose tongue is as sharp as her mind, Bearing has forsaken marriage, children (and, seemingly, friends) in pursuit of winnowing out the complexities of Donne's verse (who, as one of the other characters observes, “makes Shakespeare seem like a Hallmark card”). Stricken with Stage 4 ovarian cancer (“There is no Stage 5”) at age 50, Bearing takes us on a trip through her life and imminent death.

Given the grim topic, the play, at nearly two hours without intermission, would seem to be too much to sit through. But Edson is no lachrymose disease-of-the-week screenwriter; this script crackles with the joy of learning, and soars as its protagonist begins to realize the inability of the brain to conquer the decay of the body. In one of the more disturbing parallels, Bearing is placed under the care of an oncological researcher (one woefully lacking in bedside manner) who used to be her student. The scene in which Dr. Posner (Daniel Sarnelli) clumsily administers a pelvic exam is sure to cause every woman in the audience to squirm. But it is Beating's realization that her student has chosen a similar path to hers—pure research over emotional connectivity—that has the most resonance.

Balancing out these two heady and thorny personalities is the warm nurse, Susie (Lisa Tharps), a bright, charming, empathetic presence. Though I generally am suspicious of plays in which the warmhearted minority carries the emotional weight for the other characters, Edson's script—and Light and Tharps' performances—make it work here. When Bearing tells Susie late in the play, “I'm a teacher,” it's the first time we've heard her identify herself in those terms, instead of as a scholar or academic. And it's clear that she's learned much about accepting inevitable death—and the rare gift of grace and love from other people—by play's end. By the time Bearing's tweedy, starched mentor, Dr. Ashford (Diane Kagan), comforts her by reading the highly unlikely The Runaway Bunny, there were few dry eyes in my row of the theatre. It's a moment that transcends schmaltz through emotional truth and simplicity.

Though I think the show would have more impact in a smaller house, Myung Hee Cho's stark set design (green-painted walls and white hospital curtains on tracks) and Michael Chybowski's chilly lighting work well at suggesting the sterility of Beating's hospital room. And Light's performance is fluid, strong, brave, clear-eyed, and absolutely luminous—one of the best I've seen in years.

Richard Hornby (essay date summer 2000)

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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 experiences as she is dying, including the clinical details, with insight and wit worthy of Donne himself. “It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end,” she remarks with typically wry humor. There is also deft satire of doctors, who are depicted as concerned but detached, viewing their patient more as a scientific case study than as a person.

Bearing's students, who appear to be all undergraduates, view her with respect mixed with dread, not only because of her stringent requirements and sharp tongue, but also because of the difficulties of Donne himself. “Makes Shakespeare sound like a Hallmark card,” sighs a former student, now one of her doctors. Bearing's interaction with students, counterpointed by witty asides to the audience, enhances the comic tone of the play, despite the funereal theme. A lecture in which she brilliantly dissects the “If poysonous mineralls” sonnet is a highlight. The contrast between Donne's detached yet dignified view of death, and the doctors' detached cold-heartedness, is another of the play's great strengths. At one point, Bearing even has to undergo the indignity of a pelvic exam from the physician who is a former student. Dismayed yet resigned, she remarks, “I wish I had given him an A!”

The weakness of the play is that Bearing is shown in isolation. We see no family (aside from a flashback with her father), no friends, no lovers, and certainly no colleagues. She seems a fugitive from the 1950s, a New Critic still plugging imagery, irony, and complexity, concepts that the younger generation of literary scholars have not so much rejected as ignored. In real-life university literature departments today, aesthetics are out and politics (especially sexual) are in. A quick Internet search of works on Donne over the past five years produced titles with phrases like “John Donne and Elizabethan Economic Theory,” “Uncovering Gender,” “Depicting Lesbian Desire,” and even “John Donne's Homopoetics.” Professor Bearing would not write like that (indeed, the same search turned up plenty of traditional Donne scholarship going on), but surely she would be aware of such approaches, and their challenge to her own research and reputation.

But all that is probably quibbling. Professor Bearing is a marvelous figure, a great vehicle for a star actress. There are few enough good roles for intelligent middle-aged women! Kathleen Chalfant, best known for her performances in Angels in America, roared through the part, playing all its aspects with force, even including the painful, messy moments. Beautiful but bald (as if from chemotherapy), well-spoken and vivacious, she seemed incredibly alive even as her character was dying. I first saw the play last season in New York, then again in Los Angeles this year near the end of its American tour, just before it opened in London. See it, and her, wherever you can.

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

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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 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 D—comma—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.

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 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 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 out 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 doctors' 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.

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7505

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 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 Wit, a play that dramatizes the diagnosis, treatment, and death of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor of seventeenth-century literature suffering from advanced ovarian cancer. Wit 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. Wit 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, Wit 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 Wit 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

Wit'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). Wit 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, Wit 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. Wit'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 Wit 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, Wit'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, Wit 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 Wit'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. Wit 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, though 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 Wit'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 Vivan'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 Wit'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 Wit, 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 Wit, 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 Wit'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, Wit 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 Wit 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, Wit 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. Wit 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. Wit'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.

Wit'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 Wit 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 Wit'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 Wit. More representative is the clever Jason, who views cancer as an invigorating “game” or “puzzle” (77) and who disregards his patient's feelings. Wit'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.

Wit'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 Wit, 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, Wit (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 Wit,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 soliloquies, 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 Wit 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 Wit 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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5458

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 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 Poser, 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 he 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 l

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.

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