The Element of Meanness in Edson's Play

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1702

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Margaret Edson has stated that she wants any message in her play to be conveyed with deep meaning and interest, as well as with humor. This last sentiment might be somewhat unexpected considering that Wit is about cancer and death. But then, the unexpected and wit are two of the main ingredients in Edson's play, and both can produce humor, no matter how serious the topic.

Edson is not oblivious, of course, to the fact that her play concerns very serious topics, but she says that these are just the starting points. These are the forms around which the play wraps itself. What the play is really about, Edson says in an interview for Stage & Screen, is "… kindness. And yet all the way through," she says, "it's just the meanest little play you'll ever go to—a lot of the people are horrible to each other. So, if the message is that people should just love one another, the best way for me to say that is to show people not doing that. The message is revealed in its opposite." It is these elements of meanness that this essay will explore, pulling out parts of the play that most clearly depict them and exploring the emotions behind them in an attempt to find the kindness that Edson wants her audience to see.

The first sense of meanness in the play is subtle, but the fact that it is repeated throughout the play gives it enough weight to be mentioned. This initial meanness is expressed in the greeting that Vivian Bearing gives to her audience upon entering the stage as well as in the greeting that Bearing's doctors and medical technicians give her every time they see her: "Hi. How are you feeling today?"

This phrase, as well as its many variations, is commonplace in dialogues throughout many cultures. So what is so mean about it? Well, the difference is in the attitude and circumstance. It is common to pass someone on the street and say, "Hey. How are you doing?" and then not take the time to wait for an answer. However, viewed from a different perspective, this action takes on a bit of the absurd. For instance, what if a person were in obvious physical distress? Would it still be considered polite to ask this question and then continue walking? Usually under these stressful circumstances, either the question is not asked and the whole situation is ignored, or the question changes to something like,"Do you need some help?" This is the point that Bearing makes in her opening statement to the audience. By doing so, she foreshadows the meanness (both subtle and obvious) that will prevail throughout the play. It is the meanness of not caring, of not tuning in to the obvious. By their choosing to ignore the stress and pain of their patient, the medical staff unwittingly emphasize their patient's discomfort. Whereas empathy on the part of the medical staff would help soothe Bearing, their lack of compassion irritates her, adding to her suffering. Thus, unwitting or not, meanness is conveyed.

The next incident of unwitting meanness is witnessed in Dr. Kelekian's dialogue with Bearing, when he tells her that she has cancer. In the telling, he wraps his diagnosis in esoteric medical terminology. It is through Bearing's simultaneous thought-dialogue, as Kelekian discloses the details of her disease, that the audience relates to Bearing's shock of being told that she has a terrible disease. By being able to hear her thoughts, the audience also hears the confusion in Bearing's reactions. As Kelekian babbles out his medical jargon, Bearing wrestles with definitions of his words. As it turns out, the medical and the literary professions have different meanings for the same words. So not only is Bearing having to face a very serious threat against her life, her complete understanding of that threat is hindered by her lack of a medical vocabulary. Kelekian has probably presented this heavily weighted news in an obscure language because he has grown used to talking to his colleagues, who understand the jargon. This obscure way of talking has become second nature to him. Is he aware that his patient might perceive his vocabulary as heartless? Does he care one way or the other? Has he placed himself inside the obscure language in order to protect his feelings? Or has he completely lost his sense of compassion? These are some of the questions that Edson's play forces the audience to answer. And it is in facing these questions that she hopes the audience will face the lack of compassion not only in the medical profession, as she portrays it, but also in their own lives as well. After all, these are the same questions that her main character, Vivian Bearing, must ask of her own life as the play progresses.

Bearing has gone through her share of detachment from the rest of humanity. It is not until she is well into her fight for life that she realizes her own lack of concern, her own lack of sympathy and compassion. The audience soon discovers that not all the meanness in this play comes from the mouths of medical professionals. Some of it comes out of Bearing's mouth as well. Bearing's meanness, at first, is revealed in flashback scenes that place her in a classroom with her students. Bearing, much like Kelekian, prides herself in her version of esoteric language. She has spent her life immersed in literary vocabulary. Her mastery of her subject matter elevates her (in her mind) to a superior position, leaving little room for her students to gain either her attention or her praise. She talks sharply to them and then explains to the audience that she does this to teach them lessons. When she discusses their capacity for improvement, she mocks them. Her comments about their efforts are belittling. She bemoans the fact that she has to allow a student's brain "to rest after that heroic effort" of thinking. And she is often irritated by her students' "undergraduate banality." What she is implying with all these sentiments is that her students, for the most part, bore her.

It is through this flashback with her students, which demonstrates her capacity for meanness, that Bearing gains insight into her own lack of compassion. And it is through this realization that she begins to understand what she is missing and longing for in her present state. Bearing's pain and suffering are forcing her to face her own emotions, facing them, possibly, for the first time in her life. By opening up to her feelings, she senses an emptiness inside of her and attempts to fill it with something. Because she respects Dr. Jason Posner's intelligence and relates to his passion for knowledge, Bearing turns to him, hoping to find that something that she can't quite put into words. But Jason is too busy and too focused on his task at hand to realize that Bearing is searching for something. And much as Bearing has treated her students, Jason likewise treats her.

Jason is blunt about life but very much unaware of his own emotional frailties as a human being. He is young, and his own mortality is far removed from his thoughts. He looks upon death as something that happens to other people. Maybe it is necessary for him to shun his emotional side, because every day he has to face pain and suffering in his patients. Or maybe he just never had the time to develop his emotional side, having pursued a tremendously demanding and very rational profession. He is a scientist totally involved in the search for knowledge. When Bearing attempts to make contact with him, trying to connect on a humanitarian level, Jason tells her that the thing about medicine he dislikes the most is dealing with people. His ambition is to do pure research. Dealing with patients and the necessary development of a bedside manner impede his progress. He doesn't have time for either of them. And that is how his meanness enters the play.

Jason's narrow focus on life has made him cynical. His cynicism makes him come across as mean. When Susie, the nurse, tries to bring a sense of humanity and kindness into Jason's world by reminding him that he helps people, Jason responds, "Oh, yeah, I save some guy's life, and then the poor slob gets hit by a bus!" Jason is not driven by the desire to save people's lives. He is driven solely by the desire to unravel the complexities of a particular puzzle, which in his case is cancer. Sentimentality is useless, according to Jason, and thinking about the "meaning-of-life garbage" makes people go nuts. Jason has cut himself off from humanity in much the same way that Bearing has. The difference between Bearing and Jason is that Bearing has discovered, through her disease, that she is vulnerable. She has needs that the pursuit of knowledge cannot satisfy. Jason, in contrast, has not yet come face-to-face with his own vulnerability. And until he does, he cannot empathize with Bearing's vulnerability. When confronted with any sign of weakness in Bearing, Jason immediately questions her mental state, believing that her disease has weakened the functions of her brain.

Not until the final moments of the play is there a hint that Jason has realized that he might have pushed the purely rational definition of life too far. There is a bit of hope that Jason may have come face-to-face with his own meanness, his cold-hearted evaluations, and his lack of kindness. In the end, Jason admits that he made a mistake, and in this admission there is hope that something has brought forth his sense of humanity. Something has touched him, made him reflect. And so the play ends, with Bearing releasing herself from the constraints of her life, freeing herself through the kindness of Susie, leaving Jason behind to ponder the so-called meaning of life garbage that makes people go nuts.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Wit, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing. She is a copy editor and published writer.


Critical Overview