Wit – Margaret Edson

Wit Back Blurb

In this extraordinary play, Margaret Edson has created a work that is as intellectually challenging as it is emotionally immediate. At the start of Wit, Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., a renowned professor of English who has spent years studying and teaching the brilliantly difficult Holy Sonnets of the metaphysical poet John Donne, has been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. Her approach to her illness is not unlike her approach to the study of Donne: aggressively probing and intensely rational. But during the course of her illness–and her stint as a prize patient in an experimental chemotherapy program at a major teaching hospital–Vivian comes to reassess her life and her work with a profundity and humour that are transformative both for her and the audience.

Wit Author Blurb

Margaret Edson lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she is an elementary school teacher. Between earning degrees in history and literature, she worked in the cancer and AIDS unit of a research hospital. Wit is her first play.

Cover Art

Cover Art Wit

Cover Art Wit

W;t Review

Well, the other day (actually a year ago!), English professor TS was chatting about modern works. He specializes in 18th century gothic novel, but the conversation turned to present day drama. Was there anything that caught his eye that had been written/performed lately? By ‘lately’ the last thirty or so years was meant. He said that yes, there was a play by Edson that he had read called Wit or W;t. It was powerful and left a lasting impression on him. That day, I put it on the reading list. The local library didn’t have a copy, but luckily they do interlibrary loans. It turns out the Vancouver Island Regional Library had a copy they were willing to lend to the rival Greater Victoria Public Library.

Warning spoilers ahead!

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

I like how the play is set in one act without intermissions. I like that the play is short, under two hours. As Vivian says: ‘I’ve got less than two hours’. Yes, the play is metatheatrical with lots of lines spoken directly to the audience. Lots can be said in two hours.

Here’s the synopsis: Vivian suffers terminal ovarian cancer. She volunteers to try out an experimental chemotherapy regime, more for the benefit to the research than herself. Because she is an academic specializing in Donne’s Holy Sonnets, she examines her situation through the lens of literature. Ultimately, she finds it hard to swallow Donne’s ‘And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die’. In an ironic twist, one of her doctors was one of her students. As she dies, her life becomes intertwined with Donne, who was also grappling with ‘salvation anxiety’ in the Holy Sonnets. For her, though, part of the answer lies in kindness, human kindness. The ending is surprising. You’ll have to read (or see it) to find out. It’s worth it.

I like the dialogues. And the monologues. They are rich because Edson draws from her own experiences. How exactly the Holy Sonnets ties into Vivian’s death is not clear to me. But that’s what makes the play art: the uncertainty. I hope Edson (maybe she has already) comes up with a sophomore effort after Wit.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work.

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