Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 983
Beginning Edson's play Wit begins with the main character, Vivian Bearing, entering an empty stage, pushing an IV (intravenous) pole. She is dressed in two hospital gowns (one with the opening to the front, the other to the back) and a baseball hat. She is thin, barefoot, and hairless. She turns to the audience and talks to them directly, first with a false sense of pleasantry, then in her more usual formal manner. Her first line is "Hi. How are you feeling today?" This line will be repeated throughout the play by various characters, most times exemplifying the undertone of the play, which is that even though these words are spoken, their speakers do not listen to or care about the answer.
Within the next few minutes of the play, the entire drama is placed before the audience. They learn who Bearing is, what she has done with most of her life, and that in less than two hours (the length of the play) she will die of ovarian cancer. Bearing introduces the ironic tone that will run through the play, as well as the obvious theatrical trickery (as in the actress stepping out of character to address the audience) that will prevail.
Next enters Dr. Harvey Kelekian. This scene is done in flashback to the time that Bearing is first told that she has cancer. Kelekian delivers his news to Bearing in very technical terms and in a very dry tone. In response, Bearing challenges Kelekian's choice of words, exposing her trait of retreating into her intellect in order to avoid her emotions. Kelekian continues divulging all the medical terminology of her disease, while Bearing voices (out loud) her thought process. She must read up on cancer, she tells herself, and assemble a bibliography—much as she would do if she were researching a literary topic.
Then Kelekian and Bearing talk directly to one another. Kelekian says, "The tumor is spreading very quickly, and this treatment is very aggressive. So far, so good?" With this statement, Kelekian demonstrates his lack of sensitivity toward his patient's state of mind. First he hands her grave news. Then he uses a cliché without thinking about his choice of words.
Bearing is very proud of her strength, and she is addicted to the search for knowledge. "I am tough," she says, "Never one to turn from a challenge." Then she explains to the audience that those are the reasons she chose to study John Donne. With this statement, E. M. Ashford, Bearing's former professor and mentor, enters the stage (in another flashback scene). In a short exchange between Bearing and Ashford, the audience is introduced to one of Donne's major poetic themes—death.
Susie Monahan, nurse, and Jason Posner, clinical fellow, are introduced next. These two characters will be involved in the main interactions with Bearing throughout the remainder of the play. Susie portrays the caring side of Bearing's medical treatment, while Jason exemplifies the objective and sterile side.
Middle Bearing submits to the heavy doses of chemicals used to treat her cancer and experiences their consequences. She states that she is learning to suffer. During this section, although her suffering intensifies, Bearing continues to hide behind her wit. She looks upon herself much as she looks upon a poem that is being studied. "It is just like a graduate seminar," she claims in the midst of a humiliating and protracted examination by a group of interns. "Once I did the teaching," she concludes, "now I am taught."
It is through these examinations that the audience observes Jason's narrow and calculated demeanor. His intelligence matches...
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Bearing's, as does his ambition. Bearing even takes pride in Jason's attention to detail. "I taught him, you know," she says, reflecting on the fact that Jason took one of her literature classes. But at the end of this examination, Jason has to be reminded to respond to Bearing as a person.
After this exam, Bearing flashes back to when she was five years old. She and her father share a brief dialogue, demonstrating Bearing's love of language. And it is through language that Bearing hopes to remain objective throughout the remaining elements of her hospital ordeal.
End The chemical dosage that Bearing has withstood takes a serious toll. Susie understands Bearing's suffering and suggests to Jason that he lower the dose. Jason refuses. From this point through the final moments of the play, Susie takes on a more dominant role. She informs Bearing that she has certain rights and should chose whether or not she wants to be resuscitated in the event that her heart stops. Bearing realizes the irony in the fact that she will soon die not from her disease but from her treatment.
Although her body is failing, Bearing's wit remains intact. In one last moment of fantasy, she conjures up a classroom filled with students. She finds strength in her compulsion to perplex her students with the poetry of John Donne. In the middle of her imaginary lecture, she is interrupted by Susie, who informs her that more medical tests are required.
From this point on, Bearing's physical deterioration is swift. But in this deterioration, her emotions open up. She finds that she is scared. The only thing that quells those fears is human kindness and empathy. She looks to Jason, but he is incapable of consoling her. Only Susie is able to calm Bearings fears.
In the very last moments of the play, Susie fights Jason for Bearing's right to die. And in these last seconds, Bearing comes to understand, through her own suffering, that life requires more than intellect and wit. Life also requires human kindness. Bearing demonstrates that she has found her soul by letting go of Donne, language, and intellect. She slowly rises from the hospital bed, takes off the baseball cap and the hospital gowns, and walks naked toward the light.