Susan Sontag once wrote that “nobody conceives of cancer as a decorative, lyrical death.” While the nineteenth century often glamorized tuberculosis, cancer is still considered “a scandalous subject for poetry, and it seems almost unimaginable to aestheticize the disease.” It is the marvel of Margaret Edson’s play Wit that it unites cancer and poetry without romanticizing suffering. Wit is remarkable in another respect—it was written by a young woman whose primary ambition was not to achieve literary fame but to teach kindergarten. The daughter of a medical social worker and a newspaper columnist, Edson finished a degree in Renaissance history at Smith College, where she avoided classes on the poet John Donne because they were too hard. She then spent years waiting tables and cooking hotdogs in Iowa, painting a convent in Rome, and selling ice cream in Washington, D.C., her hometown. In 1985 she clerked on a cancer and AIDS ward at the National Cancer Institute. That experience inspired her play, which explores a professor’s lonely battle with metastatic ovarian cancer and experimental drugs. First performed at the South Coast Repertory Theater in California in 1995, Wit soon won a place on the New York stage and Edson stunned the theatre world by earning the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. But the acclaim did not lure her away from the elementary school in Atlanta where she teaches. Asked for an interview by PBS, she simply told her students that she was going to appear on the Sesame Street channel. Given flowers by her students’ parents in honor of her Pulitzer, she prepared a lesson for their kids on pollen and bees.
Stage, Film and Poetry
The film, made specifically for HBO in 2001, is dominated by Emma Thompson, who plays Vivian Bearing, a terminally ill 48-year-old. Director Mike Nichols, best known for The Graduate, had worked with Thompson on Primary Colors, a satire on Bill and Hillary Clinton. Although he adapts parts of Edson’s script to the conventions of film, Nichols mainly delivers Wit as a “filmed play,” allowing the lead character to speak to the audience as if she is giving stage soliloquies. For some viewers, that technique violates the film’s unity. It seems strange to hear someone who is facing death step away from the reality of her trauma to comment on matters as if she were the detached chorus of a Greek tragedy. For others, though, this technique effectively reveals Bearing’s troubled internal state. Her ironic asides on the doctor’s jargon peel away the veneer that a sterile medical bureaucracy uses to describe her dying condition. Bearing’s commentary also serves to remind the viewer that the cancer ward is a kind of theatre, where the doctors recite their predictable lines and conduct their own dramatic quests for scholarly breakthroughs. As Edson recalls, in her clerk’s job at the cancer ward she “was like a stage manager.” Bearing is as much a subject on the doctors’ stage as the human protagonist with her own emotions and memory.
Although the play has one of the shortest titles in theatre history, that title has numerous connotations. Vivian Bearing can be witty—often savagely so. A no-nonsense professor, she has a history of hitting students with razor-sharp barbs and unwavering demands. But at the brink of death she battles the admission that her life has been lived with frequent joylessness—or lack of wit. With few friends, she has been, according to Edson, “very inept and clumsy in relations with people,” and she finds herself in a world where she is not well served by her lifelong skills and must “disarm” and “become a student” once again. The love of her life has been the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, the English Renaissance poet. Donne, a notable Protestant preacher, parliamentarian and lawyer, was one of the Metaphysical Poets, a small group known for their use of “wit” and “conceits”—clever analogies and extended metaphors, full of paradox and shock. As she faces her own demise, Bearing is eager to recount her scholarly work to the audience. Her explications of Donne’s “Holy Sonnet #10” (“Death be not proud . . .”) provide a haunting, multi-layered refrain.
In the play, Bearing’s obsession with the Metaphysics appears in her snide remarks on Shakespeare, whose career ended just a few years before Donne’s Holy Sonnets were completed in 1618. Shakespeare is known for his boundless inventiveness—his bold, experimental, even undisciplined use of language, with unrivaled heights of poetic innovation laced throughout scripts that do have their share of clunky passages and unpolished lines. The Metaphysical Poets, by contrast, were far less prolific, producing a smaller body of precise, taut poetry, with several strata of symbols, connotations and irony densely packed into their well-chiseled lines. Even at the close of her life, Professor Bearing clings to her bias in favor of Donne’s complexity and precision, but that conviction battles the fear—which is transparent, though unstated—that the focus of her life has been too precise, perhaps deprived of some of the less-harnessed variety and creative freedom that Shakespeare represents. In an ironic turn, Edson has Bearing quote one of the most famous lines from Hamlet during one of the “grand rounds” of cancer treatment. “Brevity is the soul of wit,” Bearing recalls, citing Shakespeare in order to take a jab at medical verbosity. However, Bearing herself is anything but brief: she talks endlessly to the audience, as if the outburst of words is her last and only recourse for sustaining life.
The Syntax of Life and Death
Wit sets the grammar of Donne’s poetry against the language and structure of modern medicine. Focused on the textual controversies about the Holy Sonnets, Bearing insists that correct editing is essential for understanding Donne’s metaphysics. A misplaced semi-colon, she claims, distorts Donne’s views on death and God (actually, the play was published under the title W;t). In some respects, Bearing’s determination to explicate Donne’s lines in order to discern his religious views seems tragically irrelevant at the moment. The syntax of life and death now depends not on semi-colons, but on white cell counts, chemotherapy, and hexamethophasphacil. The professor faces the fear that poetry is beside the point, that life depends on economics and chemistry. One of the most poignant scenes occurs when Bearing, now full of drugs, discourages her old professor from reading Donne’s poems aloud to her and opts instead to hear The Runaway Bunny. Conversely, though, the play implies that poetry is exactly what is needed to redeem a soulless medical world, where at the end of life human beings become specimens in experimental research. Edson underscores these themes by having one of Bearing’s former students, Jason Posner, serve as a clinical fellow on her case. It is certainly hard for Bearing, who once tore Posner’s papers apart, to entrust her body and life now to his care, and she can only hope that the rigor that she encouraged in literary interpretation translates into medical exactness. And it is disconcerting for Posner to see such a grand and intimidating force in the classroom reduced to a drugged and failing body on a hospital bed. With genuine emotion but not sentimentality, Wit confronts us with the fear that all of human love, diligence and ambition will succumb to the cold reality of disease. But it also holds out the possibility that some “conceit”—some concept or gesture of care and respect—will visit the last hours of life with gentleness, grace and—just maybe—a glimmer of metaphysical hope.