Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 897
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 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....
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