The Play

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Wit dramatizes the last days of a renowned professor of English, who is dying of ovarian cancer. As the play opens, Vivian Bearing, a noted scholar specializing in the study of Metaphysical poet John Donne’s holy sonnets, is alone onstage in hospital garb, attached to an IV pole. Her opening lines and many others thereafter are addressed directly to the audience, to whom she describes her reactions as she learns of the progress of her disease. Her physician, Harvey Kelekian, a renowned oncologist, enters and, in an exchange that Vivian can hardly follow, suggests a series of strong and potentially painful chemical injections to arrest her cancer. Although she agrees to the procedure, it is clear that she and Kelekian have a strained relationship. He proposes treatment because “it will make a significant contribution to our research,” while she accepts treatment to show her independence and toughness.

The scene shifts back in time to Vivian’s undergraduate years, when she was the protégé of the great English scholar E. M. Ashford. While Vivian looks up to Ashford as the model of a strong woman, Ashford seems interested only in sharpening Vivian’s focus on literary study. Lecturing her on the requirements of word choice, punctuation, and wordplay, Ashford teaches Vivian that to succeed in academe, one must master the arcane knowledge and specialized vocabulary that will be accepted by academic peers.

Back in the present, Vivian undergoes a series of medical tests conducted by technicians, who understand only the rote procedures of medical care. She discovers that the clinical fellow working with Kelekian at the hospital is Jason Posner, a former undergraduate in her Metaphysical poetry class. Jason subjects her to a grueling inquiry into family and medical history and eventually conducts a physical examination that Vivian finds particularly degrading, as it is performed by a former student.

The central scenes of the drama display Vivian’s deteriorating condition. She is repeatedly poked and prodded not only by physicians but also by interns, who see her as a classic case study in the invidious effects of disease. Despite the efforts of the medical staff and of her nurse, Susie Monahan, the cancer resists treatment and continues to spread throughout her body. At the same time, Vivian explains to the audience how her confinement in the hospital has made her aware of her isolated existence as a professor. The joy she has taken in explicating Donne’s works has been earned at the expense of friendships.

In a key scene that gives the audience insight into her character, Vivian describes “the very hour of the very day” when she knew “words would be my life’s work.” In a flashback, she recalls her fifth birthday, when, while reading a fable to her father, she became enamored of the word “soporific.” What the audience notices is the interplay between father and daughter: The enthusiasm of the child, who discovers how words convey both action and feeling, is contrasted with the restraint of the adult, who gently leads her to awareness but refrains from expressing a shared feeling of joy in her discovery.

As Vivian falls further into the grip of the disease, she struggles to recapture some sense of the dignity and power she experienced in her own milieu, the university classroom. To demonstrate her power in that realm, she lectures the audience on Donne’s “Holy Sonnet V,” reciting the textual history of the poem, citing important modern criticism, and explaining the interplay between God and the speaker. In the midst of the imaginary lecture, however, she is whisked away for more tests, becoming once again a...

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pawn in the hands of hospital staff.

Following her tests, in a conversation with Jason, Vivian finally glimpses what has been wrong with her life as a scholar. Jason is intent on gathering data for his research and seems unaffected by the knowledge that his patient and former teacher will soon die. “Do you ever miss people?” she asks him. While he says he does, his behavior makes it clear that he is merely humoring her to keep her stable for further medical analysis. Immediately thereafter, Vivian imagines herself talking to her students about Donne’s poetry. Her unflinching demands on them demonstrate that she has treated them as Professor Ashford, Doctor Kelekian, and Jason now treat her.

The nurse Susie interrupts Vivian’s reverie to discuss the hospital’s policy regarding resuscitation in case of the failure of major organs. Vivian opts not to be resuscitated, and Susie marks “DNR” (do not resuscitate) on her chart. While heavily sedated, Vivian experiences a final flashback: She is visited by Professor Ashford, who, instead of talking of literature, climbs into bed and reads to her the same fable that Vivian read to her father when she was five years old.

When Vivian’s vital signs fail, Jason ignores the DNR notation on her chart and calls in a team to try to keep her alive. Only when hospital personnel force him to rescind the order does he back away, disappointed that he may not be able to continue his research. As the staff cleans up the room following the pronouncement of death, Vivian rises from her hospital bed, raises her arms, and disrobes, the light bathing her as a sign that she is moving from this world to the next.

Dramatic Devices

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Written to be staged without scene breaks or an intermission, Wit displays the inexorable progress of the protagonist toward a death that she is powerless to prevent. Though the action cuts back and forth between past and present, there is always a sense of inevitability created by the dialogue and transitions from initial scenes involving exploratory diagnosis to the final, hectic scene in which the hospital staff tries to resuscitate Vivian.

Edson also makes excellent use of flashbacks, moving the action from the present back to key periods in Vivian’s life to illustrate why she became isolated and where she missed opportunities to demonstrate her humanity. In this fashion, Wit resembles Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949), a play that skillfully melds past and present to dramatize the tragic end of the life of the protagonist, Willie Loman.

Edson herself has said on more than one occasion that the play presents the tragedy of isolation in modern society. The concept of “wit” serves as the principal device for dramatizing that sense of isolation. The eighteenth century man of letters, Samuel Johnson, gave the term its modern literary definition: “a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” The specific kind of wit practiced by John Donne and his contemporaries among the Metaphysical poets informs Edson’s critique of modern society. Taking two highly specialized professions, medicine and literary studies, she demonstrates how professionals caught up in their work not only develop a coded language almost impervious to outsiders but also frequently behave with disdain toward those not possessing the specialized knowledge that they have mastered.

The play is an extended exercise in metaphysical wit, constantly comparing two dissimilar professions: one highly regarded by the general public, one usually perceived as ephemeral and of little use to mainstream society. What Edson demonstrates in Wit is that there are more similarities than differences between the practice of medicine and the practice of literary study. Both, when raised to the level of an intellectual game, actually harm society by devaluing personal relationships. The pedantry in Vivian’s insistence that students understand the significance of Donne’s use of a comma rather than a semicolon in the final line of his sonnet “Death Be Not Proud” shares chilling similarities with the inhumane conversations among research physicians and their interns at the bedside of dying patients.

Historical Context

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War and Terrorism The decade in which Edson wrote Wit and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize began with then-President George Bush sending troops to the Persian Gulf to combat Iraqi aggression against the country of Kuwait. During the second month of this war, the drug pyridostigmine bromide was issued to as many as three hundred thousand U.S. soldiers to counter the effects of nerve gas. Later, upon the return of U.S. soldiers, this drug was associated with what became known as the Gulf War syndrome. At the time of the administration of the drug to the soldiers, the drug was not fully approved by the FDA, and the military personnel were not informed of its side effects. A few years later, terrorists in Japan released a poisonous gas into one of Tokyo's busy subways, making over five thousand people sick.

The year that Edson's play celebrated its world premiere (1995), the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. One hundred and sixty-eight people were killed. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were later convicted of charges related to the bombing. Two years prior to this bombing, The World Trade Center in New York was bombed.

Politics and Justice The year 1991 was memorable for the release from prison of Nelson Mandela and the repeal in South Africa of the political system of apartheid. This same year saw the fall of the Soviet Union in Russia, ending communism in that part of the world. A year later, the United States and Russia signed a treaty officially ending the Cold War.

Despite sexual harassment allegations against him, Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1991. The following year, Carol Mosely Braun became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate. On the flip side of those celebrations, riots flared up in Los Angeles after police were caught on videotape beating Rodney King. In 1995, sports star O. J. Simpson's trial for the murder of his wife was a national obsession.

Social Issues Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, died m 1991. It was through his works that many children were introduced to reading, inspired by his zany characters and language. In this same time frame, the Internet was introduced to the public. Although Geisel will never see it, today thousands of websites focus on the worlds that Geisel created.

In terms of health, the world was focused on the epidemic of AIDS. France suffered a tragedy as over three thousand people were infected with the AIDS virus accidentally through blood transfusions that were tainted with the virus. This prompted action in the United States by the American Red Cross, which promised to intensify measures to assure more careful screening for the virus in the U.S. supply of blood.

In 1993, the American Medical Association (AMA) drafted the first Patient Protection Act. Two years later, it drafted the Patient Protection Act II with the goal of protecting patients from unfairness in managed care. In 1997, the AMA held its first ethics conference in Philadelphia. It established the Institute for Ethics to explore the tough decisions now affecting physicians and their patients. One of its main concerns is to research end-of-life issues. Three years later, through its Educating Physicians on End-Of-Life Care project, it started providing training to practicing physicians on the core skills needed to provide quality end-of-life care.

Cancer In the decade 1985-1995, the National Institutes of Health calculated that there was a 30 percent increase in the number of ovarian cancer cases (from 18,500 to about 27,000) and an 18 percent increase in the number of ovarian cancer deaths. Statistics show that every year more than 350,000 women are diagnosed with cancer (breast, lung, colorectal, and cervical). There is no reliable screening test for ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. In 1998, doctors started using a new drug called Herceptin to treat breast cancer. Due to favorable outcomes, this drug is now being tested on women with ovarian cancer. The severity of cancer is ranked one to four, according to how far from the original site the tumor has spread. Stage four cancers have spread to distant organs, therefore they are much more difficult to treat.

Literary Style

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Metatheater Metatheater is often defined as "theater about theater,'' and as a theatrical technique, it has a long history. By using the construct of metatheater, the playwright toys with the boundaries or art, collapsing the walls between fantasy and reality. Some of the Greek dramatists, as well as Shakespeare, have used this technique.

In Edson's play, the main character has a running rapport with the audience from the very beginning, when she introduces herself directly to the audience. Edson uses this ploy not only to tighten the relationship between Bearing and the audience by revealing Bearing's inner thoughts in a running monologue but also to set up the humor. It is through metatheater that Edson exposes most of the wit. For instance, in the opening lines, Bearing says, "Hi. How are you feeling today?" Then she immediately reveals to the audience that this is not her typical way of greeting people. She further explains that in the hospital this greeting is not only very typical, but the meaning behind these words is completely lost.

By talking to the audience, Bearing is pointing out the essence of the play; she is collapsing the time required for the audience to "get" the overall meaning. In this way, not only can the audience dig into the deeper elements of the play, they can also understand the humor. Since the topic of the play is extremely serious, it is necessary to release the tension, so the audience can relax every once in a while. Otherwise, the topic is so difficult that the audience might get up out of their seats and leave. This technique also allows for a simpler set. There are very few props needed, because Bearing explains what is happening as the play progresses. This places the audience's focus on the dialogue, the language, and the wit. Since it is language and wit that Bearing has hidden behind all her life, the emphasis then becomes more dramatic, as language and wit start falling apart by the climax of the play.

Flashback Edson uses several flashbacks, a literary technique that allows the author to move her setting from the present moment to an earlier time. Flashbacks help fill in the gaps of the work's present moment, giving related details of the character's life, thus helping the audience better comprehend the present situation.

One flashback takes the audience back to the moment that Bearing is first told that she has cancer. This flashback is important because it exposes how clinically and dryly such dramatic news can be told.

Another flashback shows how the relationship between Bearing and her college mentor, Ashford, began. This scene also brings John Donne and his poetry concerning death into the picture. It also sets up a later scene in which Ashford visits Bearing right before her death.

Another significant flashback gives the audience a sense of what Bearing was like as a professor. It demonstrates not only her intellectual strength but also her emotional weakness—Bearing is as cold-hearted as her doctors.

Media Adaptations

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  • A movie adaptation of Wit premiered in March, 2000. The two-time Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson stars as Vivian Bearing in the movie, directed by Mike Nichols on HBO.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Albis, Theron. "In the Spotlight, Margaret Edson," in Stage & Screen, www. Margaret_Edson.htm (February 2001).

Allen, Jamie. "Pulitzer Is Wonderful, But Teaching Is Edson's Life," http://www.cnn. com/books/news/9905/03/margaretedson/ (May 3, 1999).

Brustein, Robert. "Ways to Break the Silence," in New Republic, Vol. 219, Issue 18, November 1998, pp. 27-30.

Butler, Susan Lowell. "Portraits of Women Changing Our Lives," in USA Today, March 30, 2000.

Cohen, Carol. "Margaret Edson's 'Wit'—An Audience Guide," in Madison Repertory Theatre Audience Guide, August 21, 2000.

Gordon, Suzanne. "Doctors' Brains," in Nation, Vol. 269, Issue 4, July 1999, p. 34.

Kermode, Frank. John Donne. Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd., 1957, pp. 5-12.

"London Theatre Guide," http://www.smuedu/~tmayo/wit_ london.htm (October 18, 2000).

Lyons, Donald. "'Wit' Gains Bright Light," in New York Post Online Edition, September 13, 1999.

Marks, Peter. "'Wit': Science and Poetry Face Death in a Hospital Room," in New YorkTimes, September 18, 1998.

Martini, Adrienne. "The Playwright in Spite of Herself," in American Theatre, Vol. 16, Issue 8, October 1999, p. 24.

McCallum, John. "Doomed Teacher Is Donne to Death," in The Australian, July 10, 2000.

Osgood, Charles, and Eugenia Zuckerman. "Witnessing 'Wit,' CBS," in CBS News Sunday Morning, March 14, 1999.

Rose, Lloyd. Review in Washington Post, March 3, 2000.

Sime,Tom. "Repartee of Wit' Candid to a Fault," in Dallas Morning News, March 2, 1999.

Smith, Liz. "Hare Apparent," in New York Post Online Edition, April 25, 1999.

Wheeler, Edward T. "Continuing the Conversation," in Commonweal, Vol. 126, Issue 7, April 1999, p. 36.

Zuger, Abigail, M.D. "When the Patient, Not the Doctor, Becomes the Hero," in New York Times, December 15, 1998.

Further Reading Cassel, Christine K., ed. Approaching Death: Improving Care at the End of Life. National Academy Press, 1997. This study by the Institute of Medicine to evaluate end-of-life care examines such topics as patients' preferences, barriers to high-quality care, and the state of knowledge in the field, and it concludes with steps for improvement.

Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying, 1969, reprinted, Collier Books, 1997. This book was originally published more than thirty years ago and became one of the most important psychological studies of the late twentieth century. Dr Ross explores the now-famous five stages of death that have become a standard reference for understanding the psychological state of mind of someone who is facing imminent death.

Miller, Sukie, and Suzanne Lvpsett. After Death: How People around the World Map the Journey after We Die. Touchstone Books, 1998. This book was written from case studies Miller collected during her own psychotherapy practice. It is a collection of stories about beliefs that have evolved in various cultures about dealing with death.

Mitford, Jessica. The American Way of Death Revisited, rev. ed., 1998, reprinted, Vintage Books, 2000. This informal anthropological study of the mortuary business pokes fun at the funeral parlor industry. The first edition of the book was first published in 1963 and became an instant bestseller.

Spiro, Howard M., ed. Facing Death: Where Culture, Religion, and Medicine Meet. Yale University Press, 1998. This book brings together health professionals and authorities in the field of humanities to reflect on medical, cultural, and religious responses to death. Doctors describe their experiences in witnessing death, and theologians, anthropologists, and other scholars discuss how cultures perceive death. The collective picture that is presented shows death as a natural part of life.


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Sources for Further Study

Iannone, Carol. “Donne Undone.” First Things: The Journal of Religion and Public Life 100 (February, 2000): 12-14.

Kanfer, Stefan. “Leaps of Faith.” New Leader 81 (October 5-October 19, 1998): 22-23.

Philip, Abraham, MD. “Wit: A Play.” JAMA 283 (June 28, 2000): 3261.

Simon, John. “Well Done.” New York 31 (September 28, 1998): 78-79.

Sulmasy, Daniel P. “At Wit’s End: Dignity, Forgiveness, and the Care of the Dying.” Journal of General Internal Medicine 16 (2001): 335-338.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide