812: Wit by Margaret Edson

by Gerard


812.54: Edson, Margaret. Wit: A Play. New York: Faber & Faber, 1999. 85 pp. ISBN 0-5711-9877-5.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 800: Literature
  • 810: American literature in English
  • 812: American drama in English
  • 812.5: 20th Century
  • 812.54: 1945-1999

Margaret Edson’s Wit is an earnest look at how terminal illness affects one’s perspective. Dr. Vivian Bearing, a respected professor and scholar of the works of John Donne, is diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer and has to undergo intense chemotherapy if there is to be any recovery. Her doctor is of course very clinical in his treatment of her, and his protégé is a former student (making for very awkward encounters). During the course of her treatment, Bearing gets sicker and more introspective. The play focuses on Bearing’s assessment of her life and learning as she deals with her imminent death.

Edson’s integration of Donne’s metaphysical poetics is interesting as it transforms the audience from simple spectators to students in Bearing’s classroom. We get a lesson in literature as she receives a lesson in life. Bearing’s life has been in the pursuit of learning, truth, and wisdom, but not companionship, so the only people left to guide her through the treatment are the staff of the hospital. At the risk of engaging in too much wordplay, Bearing’s life has too much bearing and not enough distraction. The vignettes we get of her past show that she was offered the choice to expand her horizons beyond literature but stuck with her studies. In the end, the good professor lets a bit of the outside world in as the cancer takes over.

Edson’s writing is interesting in that it breaks a lot of supposed rules about play-writing. Bearing is constantly breaking the fourth wall, there is overlapping dialogue, and there are no real scene or act breaks. That being said, it is a engaging piece of modern literature and a heck of a debut play. Wit still remains Edson’s only written work and she seems content in keeping it that way. I don’t have a lot of other plays sitting around the house to compare it to, but I liked it. It probably works a bit better on stage, but it wasn’t heavy-handed or hokey. All in all, a decent read.