Margaret Edson Criticism: Wit (1993) - Essay

Stefan Kanfer (review date 5-19 October 1998)

(Drama Criticism)

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

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

The academy and the cancer ward share many of the same terms: “exam,” “study,” “test results,” “research,” “analysis,” “course.” Yet as playwright Margaret Edson demonstrates in her new drama, Wit, context is everything. In one arena the words concern illumination and explication; in another, they are a matter of life and death.

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

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

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

As the treatments grow more drastic, Bearing's thoughts slip back to a...

(The entire section is 945 words.)

Kerry Reid (review date 11 May 2000)

(Drama Criticism)

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

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

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

(The entire section is 607 words.)

Richard Hornby (essay date summer 2000)

(Drama Criticism)

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

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

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

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

(The entire section is 581 words.)

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

(Drama Criticism)

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

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

In the concluding scene of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit, we are shown Dr. Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. in English literature, and foremost scholar of John Donne's metaphysical “Holy Sonnets,” rising from the hospital bed in which she just died of stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. Slowly she loosens the ties of the...

(The entire section is 2649 words.)

Martha Greene Eads (essay date winter 2002)

(Drama Criticism)

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

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

Winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize, Margaret Edson's medical drama Wit has garnered nearly unanimous acclaim. The play's honors include the Drama Desk, Dramatists Guild, New York Drama Critics Circle, Outer Critics Circle, Los Angeles Drama Critics, and Newsday Oppenheimer awards. Reviewers, too, have had high praise for the show. Lancet critic Bertie Bregman lauds Edson for having turned her work experience in a cancer...

(The entire section is 5828 words.)

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

(Drama Criticism)

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

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

This essay is an exercise in the bringing together of apparently disparate roles. I am an assistant professor of Renaissance literature, and I am a cancer patient. These two identities rarely overlap, since cancer has not proved a popular literary subject. As Susan Sontag notes, although nineteenth-century writers glamorized tubercular patients, “nobody conceives of cancer … as a...

(The entire section is 7505 words.)

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

(Drama Criticism)

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

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

For reasons internal and external to Margaret Edson's play Wit, it is easy to miss the serious dialogue with John Donne's poetry to be found in it. Internally, the last utterance we hear from the dying scholar on the subject of her studies seems to be a rejection—she...

(The entire section is 5458 words.)