The Element of Meanness in Edson's Play

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

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...

(This entire section contains 1702 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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.

Redemption in Wit

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2647

Vivian Bearing is a witty yet (as she admits in her opening lines) "unwitting accomplice" in search of her own life. The paradox is that she has to die to find it. She doesn't have long to live. Her fifty-year-old body is making a courageous last stand against advanced ovarian cancer, but the heroics of her campaign against the double onslaught of drugs and disease is more than matched by the battle she wages on the metaphysical field.

The dramatic irony and poetic truth of Margaret Edson's play Wit builds around the sense that her heroine (like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz) has always been in possession of the secret to her own salvation. Dorothy inherited magic shoes; but only her trials in Oz prepared her to use them to get home. Vivian inherited the conceits of seventeenth-century "metaphysical poet" John Donne; but she must act out her own death to learn about the animating spirit of Donne's poetry. In replaying instructional scenes from her life, she belatedly recognizes the cost of living from the neck up. In her defiance of death, just before it is too late, she finds a saving grace, a comforting compassion, a new "bearing."

Wit is relentless in its exposure of Vivian's private parts, both in regards to her body and her psyche. There is no relief from the discomfort the audience feels as voyeurs. Vivian wears only a hospital johnny and a baseball cap until, in the final moment, she is stark naked. The audience watches as she submits to a gynecological exam performed by clinical fellow Jason Posner, Vivian's former student. They see her trembling, vomiting, and weak from unprecedented doses of cancer drugs. Her emotional life, too, is laid bare. She receives no visitors to interrupt her meditations on life and death, except briefly from her former teacher. Jason takes her medical history, and in her relating it, it is apparent how bereft she is of love, family, and friends. As the play notes tell us, there is no break in the action between scenes, no intermission. The audience never leaves the hospital.

It is possible to endure watching Vivian because of her bearing. She never waxes sentimental; she remains "tough," as Doctor Kelekian warns her she must, and maintains her sense of dignity and control by relying on her wit. The audience is first addressed by a woman who, far from exhibiting signs of emotional distress, is flippant and satirical about the hospital staff's "feigned solicitude.'' This woman in a baseball cap will make a game of death. "How are you feeling today?'' she asks. It is both a challenge and an observation on the absurdity of hospital protocol. She is dying. She couldn't be less well. And yet clinical practice demands the question, regardless of its absurd logic:

I have been asked, "How are you feeling today?" while I was throwing up into a plastic washbasin. I have been asked as I was emerging from a four-hour operation with a tube in every orifice, "How are you feeling today?" I am waiting for the moment when someone asks me this question and I am dead. I'm a little sorry I'll miss that.

She is composed in the face of death; in fact, she composes this first-person narrative, directing the action until the moment of unconsciousness. "I think I die at the end," she says, "They've given me less than two hours." In her chronicling mode, she already appears to be above and beyond her life, looking down or back upon it. It is another brain-tickling paradox in a play about the power of paradox that the protagonist is telling the story of her own death. The play resists a neat generic label: is it comedy, tragedy, or theatre of the absurd? Or is it some of all three?

In the next scene, she flashes back to two episodes. In the first scene, Dr. Kelekian, the chief of medical oncology, tells her she has advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. In the second, she is a twenty-two-year-old in conference with her mentor and teacher, E. M. Ashford, when she finds she has misunderstood John Donne's Holy Sonnet Six, "Death Be Not Proud." In both instances, her response is the same: "It was something of a shock. I had to sit down." In the first flashback, Vivian's scholarly habits of mind spontaneously protect her from human sentiment. In a somberly comic give and take, each professor, Kelekian and Bearing, regards the disease as a new experiment or object of study that must be treated and charted in the name of science and the humanities. Vivian determines to "get some books, articles. Assemble a bibliography." She treats her disease as she would an academic assignment. Neither of the two has much regard for her feelings. It is as if they are beside the point. She shows no fear:

I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne's Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language.

Of course, this exploration will take place outside the text, or, more pointedly, on the text of her own body.

In the second flashback, Professor Ashford characterizes young Vivian's essay as "a melodrama, with a veneer of scholarship.… Do it again," she commands. Ashford confirms for her that "the effort must be total for the results to be meaningful." It is a lesson that Vivian's father has already instilled. But Ashford delivers another, subtler message. While she is critical of the "hysterical punctuation" that characterizes the inauthentic text (she favors the comma over the semicolon and detests the exclamation point), she emphasizes that the comma indicates the natural borders between life and death, soul and God, past and present. "Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons." But Vivian misses her point. She thinks only of Donne's "metaphysical conceit," the witty and stunning logic of the play of words and punctuation. The comma becomes the focal point rather than the sentiment being expressed. When Ashford tells her she should forget the paper for a while and go socialize with friends, Vivian can't do it. The insuperable barrier "between one thing and another" interposes itself, and she goes back to the library.

When the play returns to the present time, Jason is recording Vivian's history. She has two. The medical story is sterile and lifeless, the other is completely taken up with impressive academic achievements and intellectual pursuits. The scene indicts Jason and clinical medical conventions in general for skipping over the "interesting work," the heart of the patient's story. After ascertaining her age, her marital status, and whether she has living parents or siblings, he is satisfied. "Well, that about does it for your life history," he says. She replies, ironically, "Yes, that's all there is to my life history." As the audience has now come to expect, the scene is fraught with sarcasm. When Jason asks, "What do you do for exercise?" she says, "Pace." The medical history is superficial at best, however, the scene also alerts us to the sterility of her personal life. She has managed no better than he has. The single-minded pursuit of knowledge has made her a proud, outstanding scholar, revered among colleagues, notorious as a "difficult" professor, and quick witted. It has also left her completely alone and unable to access her feelings or those of her students.

It is Jason who performs the gynecological exam, so difficult to watch on stage. The audience is excruciatingly aware of the intimacy of this act. And women, one assumes, especially will understand the delicacy with which such an invasive and potentially violating procedure should be performed. Added to the public spectacle of a private act is Jason's disregard for the humane treatment of the patient and his willingness to reduce her to an object that he leaves literally suspended in stirrups, putting Vivian to her most severe test as a "guinea pig'' in Dr. Kelekian's experimental therapy. While she is waiting for Jason to return with Nurse Susie, Vivian quotes Donne's Holy Sonnet # 6 for comfort. While she must place her body through countless indignities, she will find a sanctuary for her mind and her feelings in the poetry. Jason's nervousness as he examines her heightens the audience's urge to squirm. He is as uncomfortable as Vivian is with the intimate details of human interaction. He tells Susie during the exam that the reason he took her course (echoing her own reasons for studying Donne) was because she was "hard." Receiving a high grade from her, he continues, "looked very good on my transcript.…" When he feels the cancerous lump inside her, though, all talk ends abruptly, and he involuntarily exclaims, "Jesus!" Susie asks, "What?" Vivian asks, "What?" But Jason cannot elaborate; he does not have the tools to carry on meaningful human dialogue.

Early in her undergraduate career, English professor Vivian Bearing unerringly chooses a literary hero best suited to assimilate heart and mind, body and soul. As Frank Kermode tells us in John Donne, Donne was "so naturally" able to "blend thought and passion," to bring the "play of an agile mind within the sensuous body of poetry." But in Vivian no such complementarity can be found. She delights in satire and games of logic. She certainly admires Donne for his "wit," the ability to make a point by playfully linking unlikely elements. (In his poem "The Flea," for example, he proposes to strip his lover of her virginity by the absurd but compelling logic that a flea has already taken and mingled blood from both of their bodies. The flea, then, serves as a kind of "marriage" bed; therefore, he argues, no impediment can now be admitted to their physical union.) Vivian admires the exercise of mind, the intensity of intellect required to read, understand, and teach Donne. She makes of Donne a culture and a god. But of Donne's own God, of the faith that makes his wit riveting, however embattled or tortured in its expressions, no place can be found in her personal experience.

In a recent interview with Adrienne Martini for American Theatre, Edson said her play is about redemption. "Grace," she says, "is the opportunity to experience God in spite of yourself, which is what Dr. Bearing ultimately achieves." But in "Continuing the Conversation," Edward Wheeler questions whether the redemption is earned. He points out that whereas

Donne wields his wit in a confessional struggle with God and against the forces that would damn him, including all those fallen aspects of his body.… There is no Christ in Wit, not even a generic God or a plain-wrapper religion.… Wit trades faith for spectacle, sacramental sign for irony.

Indeed, Vivian's only truck with divinity is involuntary, as is Jason's "Jesus!" Just after the gynecological exam, Vivian is running to throw up yet again, and she cries out, "Oh, God … Oh God, Oh. Oh. Oh, God. It can't be. Oh, God. Please, Steady. Steady. Oh—Oh, no! Oh, God. What's left?" Calling on God must be awkward for Vivian, but she invests it with the humility to which desperation yields, and one can't help but feel the naturalness of her beseeching. The conceit of the "comma" is being played out in Vivian's psyche. Now E. M. Ashford's earlier words resonate:

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.

Vivian's spiritual transformation continues when she revisits scenes from her childhood and from a classroom. She is only five when her father (a "disinterested but tolerant" man who reminds us of Dr. Kelekian) teaches her the meaning of "soporific" by way of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. His influence has clearly prepared the way for her rapid advancement from child to adult, from experience with feelings to her dependence on vocabulary. So, when in Grand Rounds her body is read as a text by the medical students, it comes as no surprise. No bedside manner is expected or given, as none is expected or given in her classroom. When she returns to the classroom in her meditations, she is teaching Donne's sonnet "If Poysonous Mineralls," which is projected directly onto her as she walks in front of the screen. Here she unwittingly asks the central question of her own metaphysical journey:

The speaker of the sonnet has a brilliant mind, and he plays the part convincingly, but in the end he finds God's forgiveness hard to believe, so he crawls under a rock to hide .… We want to correct the speaker, to remind him of the assurance of salvation. But it is too late. The poetic encounter is over. We are left to our own consciences. Have we outwitted Donne? Or have we been outwitted?

She revisits the classroom a second time after having been interrupted for more tests. This time, her students speak, and they are not so "deaf" after all. In fact, "student two" offers insightful questions and comments, though they are not well phrased. But she refuses to help them master their thoughts and can only revert to the cynical teacher when they appeared puzzled by their own sense of paradox:

Um, it's like, the more you hide, the less—no, wait—the more you are getting closer—although you don't know it—and the simple thing is thee—you see what I mean?

It is Vivian who must find the "simple thing." She finds it in Susie Monahan's kindness. The degradation Vivian undergoes has made her uncomfortably aware of the emptiness and fragility of her past. Only when she is most vulnerable to death, when she can no longer hide behind her wit, does she wholeheartedly accept the ministrations of her primary nurse who is, as Suzanne Gordon in "Doctors' Brains" reminds us, the "only true caregiver in the hospital." The action comes full circle when her former professor visits her just as she is dying and reads to her from a children's book, The Runaway Bunny. Vivian rejects her teacher's offer to read Donne. Instead, the last thing she hears before sinking into unconsciousness is a simple but moving story of unconditional love.

Vivian suffers one last indignity as Jason and the Code Blue team try to revive her despite her stated wishes to the contrary. Since Vivian is finally at peace, it is all the more hair-raising to watch as the efficient team invades the quiet of the room with all the hue and cry of an emergency situation. In defiance of the blind mandate to save her life, only Susie realizes that she has already been saved. She finally "pushes them away from the bed" and warns them to "Get away from her!"

Transformed in the last scene, Vivian discards cap and gown, standing naked and silent in bright light before the final curtain. At the very moment she loses consciousness, she gains the light of awareness. As Donne would have it, death is no more. Death has died.

This has been a play on and about words. As Robert Brustein has observed in the New Republic, it is unlike most contemporary theater pieces in that language is still at the heart of the matter. While he finds it "a little disconcerting that the most powerful moment in this eloquent play is a wordless one," it makes perfect dramatic sense. Death is more than a clever paradox or a lapse into sentimentality. Rather, in its resurrection into afterlife wordlessness, the soul outwits any attempts to describe it.

Source: Kathy A. Smith, Critical Essay on Wit, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Smith is a Ph.D. specializing in American literature and creative writing.

Review of Wit

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 566

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.

Source: Richard Hornby, Review of Wit, in The Hudson Review, Vol. LIII. No. 2, Summer 2000, pp. 297-298.

Coma Versus Comma: John Donne's Holy Sonnets in Edson's WIT

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2629

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 Dcomma—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:

Susie: She's DNR! (She grabs him.)

Jason: (He pushes her away.) She's Research!

Susie: 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.

Source: Rosette C. Lamont, "Coma Versus Comma: John Donne's Holy Sonnets in Edson's WIT," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XL, No. 4, Winter 1999-2000, pp. 569-575.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

Such dual vision can be uncomfortable, even agonizing, as it is in another strikingly literary play that has taken New York by storm. The gorgeously intellectual Wit, elementary-school teacher Margaret Edson's remarkable first play, centers around a brilliant professor of English literature who is hospitalized with advanced ovarian cancer. As research-oriented oncologists swoop down to study her, Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (played with well-calibrated shrewdness and occasional vulnerability by Kathleen Chalfant, a red baseball cap on her bald head), reflects on her own field of study, the poetry of John Donne. With humor, irony, and a certain exhilaration, the play draws out contrasts and parallels between two kinds of knowledge—medical and literary—and two ways of approaching life—via thought and via sympathy. The taut off-Broadway production, which has been so successful it recently moved to a larger theater, is directed by Derek Anson Jones.

Bearing, who once reveled in the cerebral games (the "wit") of Donne's Holy Sonnets, finds that language can no longer shield her from the terrifying truths of existence. Death, a word she once parsed along with a verse's syntax, starts to overwhelm her as it becomes physical, a matter of tubes and fluids. (In the current production, scenic designer Myung Hee Cho exploits the average viewer's hospital phobia with sweeping synthetic curtain-partitions that change color, from stark white to sickly green, with the lighting.) Not that she succumbs without mustering an attitude: "I would prefer that a play about me be cast in the mythic-heroic-pastoral mode," she shifts in one of many direct remarks to the audience.

But, trained as she is in intellectual rigors, the dying professor can still detect the pattern behind the particulars. She can understand the distracted manner of the young medical fellow (the boyishly officious Alec Phoenix) who views her as a collection of cells, rather than a person. And she can even describe her own life's narrative arc: "I am becoming proficient at suffering," she observes—a remark Electra might echo.

Wit is full of suffering, but, to its credit, nearly devoid of sentimentality. Juggling ideas about knowledge and authority, the rift between the sciences and humanities, the power of words, and other weighty matters, it often resembles a poem by Donne. As in Donne, the emotion is in the thought. "A thought to Donne was an experience," T. S. Eliot wrote in his seminal essay "The Metaphysical Poets," in which he posited that metaphysical poets, like Donne, were among the last English writers able to "feel their thought as immediately as the odor of a rose." After them, Eliot believed, a "dissociation of sensibility" set into literature, driving a wedge between thought and feeling.

It is because our sensibility is still dissociated that productions like Electra and Wit shock. Because we approach thought and feeling as if they were oil and water, we are surprised when the word attitude means two things at once, when anguish suffuses a drama of ideas, or when petulance rages from the elegant frame of a Greek tragedy.

Source: Celia Wren, "Attitude," in Commonweal, Vol. CXXVI, No. 2, January 29, 1999, pp. 23-24.

Wit and Wisdom

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1158

Margaret Edson's Wit, having concluded a three-month run at the MCC Theatre, has recently reopened, at the larger Union Square Theatre; far and away the most celebrated new play of 1998, Wit stands a good chance of maintaining that status well into the new year. I confess to approaching it with wariness. There was that daunting, daring title, for one thing: right up front, the play seemed to declare itself an occasion that the audience had better be prepared to rise to. En garde! And there was the fact that the play concerned the life and death of a John Donne scholar: it would probably be too studied—one would be counting the ways in which it missed, or too easily hit, its marks. Perhaps there would even be homework.

The actual experience of seeing Wit, however, is thrilling, and part of the thrill is that the play is an experience; the evening has a sublime indivisibility and power that no account of particulars can, finally, get at. It's not that the play is, or sets out to be, "perfect'' or seamless, on the contrary, it is written with deliberate self-consciousness, every line "matters" in a way that you can't fail to notice, and the play frequently calls your attention to its devices. That's its success, and that's its poignance: its devices mirror the human devices we see at work in the main character, in a way that highlights the essential tragedy and comedy of being human—devices are all we have, and they're not enough.

The play begins abruptly and unceremoniously, in a stark hospital setting, with the shoving aside of a white curtain by Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor at an unspecified university, who is wearing a hospital gown and a baseball cap, and is pushing an I.V. pole as she walks toward the audience. As Dr. Bearing, Kathleen Chalfant gives an excruciating, powerful performance. It's a role that requires her to pull off two very different tours de force: one that's close to being over the top (Bearing is one of those larger-than-life professors who are terrifyingly smart, and proud of it), and one that involves flying in the dark (how does a person die? how does this person die?). Chalfant brings spine and seventy to the role, as she did to the stern Mormon matriarch in "Angels in America," six years ago, and also a brave nakedness. Her piercing eyes have the wrath of God in them, but her broad face and pale skin make her vulnerable—and Bearing has lost all her hair from chemotherapy treatments, which heightens the aura of mortality, the sense that you're seeing the skull beneath the skin.

The first few minutes of the play are giddily, awfully, hilarious. (They are, in fact, the essence of wit.) Bearing delivers a devastating disquisition on the true meaning—and ultimate pointlessness, in her case—of the standard question directed at hospital patients: "How are you feeling today?" "There is some debate as to the correct response to this salutation," she says dryly:

Should one reply, "I feel good," using feel as a copulative to link the subject, I, to its subjective complement, good, or "I feel well," modifying with an adverb the subject's state of being?

I don't know. I am a professor of seventeenth-century poetry, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne.

So I just say, "Fine."

Bearing is playing games with words, but word games will not save her, as she herself knows: "I 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." Such is the effectiveness of Bearing's crisp eloquence that you almost believe she could trump the facts; but, as she says—almost as an aside, and with exquisitely calibrated self-dramatizing restraint—"There is no stage five."

In an early scene, we see Bearing learning the news of her illness from her doctor, a cancer researcher named Kelekian, who is played by Walter Charles. Wit alternates between the present and the past, and in a later scene Charles doubles as Bearing's father. The parallels are eerie: Bearing at fifty sits next to the doctor's desk, being instructed in the fine points of her illness; as he talks, she focusses on certain words—"insidious," "antineoplastic." Bearing at five sits on the floor next to her father's easy chair and reads from a Beatrix Potter book; she fixes on the word "soporific" and asks her father what it means, and his answer opens up a whole new world to her: the enchanted forest of words. It's very easy to judge Dr. Bearing's behavior toward her students (the actors playing her students also play hospital workers—it's their turn to push her around) and to assess the justness of her isolation (no friends visit her in the hospital, and there's no indication that she has ever had, or cared to have, a love life), but your thinking about her becomes more complicated once you see how the very idea of knowledge makes her five-year-old face come alive.

If Wit errs on the side of neatness, it is only in one respect, and that is the open-and-shut irony of Bearing's having a doctor who is too much like her, who is much more interested in research than he is in people: Dr. Posner (Alec Phoenix), a young research fellow under Dr. Kelekian, actually has to remind himself to ask his patient how she is feeling. Dr. Posner, who regards Bearing more or less as packaging—it's her cells he cares about—makes her realize for the first time how blithely she humiliated her students. And what do you know—he was once one of them. Other roles in Wit contain some of the same pitfalls of coincidence, but the performers manage to skirt them. Helen Stenborg, who plays Bearing's rigorous, unforgiving academic mentor, and Paula Pizzi, as an oncology nurse who embodies the milk—condensed milk—of human kindness, maneuver their characters beautifully.

Right up to the last second, Wit has riches of acting, writing, and stagecraft that you revel in, even in the atmosphere of death, and it is directed with just the right touch by Derek Anson Jones. Its use of Donne's Holy Sonnet X—"Death, Be Not Proud"—even pulls the poem out of the overheated, drowsy classroom of your past and into your active consciousness. (Imagine a play that made you feel newly fascinated by the Pledge of Allegiance.) Remarkably, Wit is Edson's first play; she wrote it seven years ago, when she was thirty. Watching it isn't easy—it isn't easy to watch human beings be tested, knowing they can only fail—and yet you feel that its lessons and pleasures amount to a second chance, to an amazing grace.

Source: Nancy Franklin, "Wit and Wisdom," in The New Yorker, January 18, 1999, pp. 86-87.


Critical Overview