The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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

(Drama for Students)

War and Terrorism
The decade in which Edson wrote Wit and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize began with...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Metatheater is often defined as "theater about theater,'' and as a theatrical technique, it has a long...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

  • Research the five stages of death as defined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. Did Vivian Bearing go...

(The entire section is 351 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

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

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

  • "Joseph Pulitzer and the Pulitzer Prizes" is a website that includes a very short biography of Margaret Edson at...

(The entire section is 587 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Albis, Theron. "In the Spotlight, Margaret Edson," in Stage & Screen, www....

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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 66 words.)