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...
(The entire section is 897 words.)