Wit: A Play by Margaret Edson
(Faber & Faber, 1999, 85 pages)
This play follows Vivian Bearing, a university professor and expert on the poetry of John Donne, through the physically and emotionally draining experience of intense treatment for stage four ovarian cancer. Dr. Bearing’s commitment to poetry is not the kind that offers her emotional support or comfort. She is an exacting scholar, ruthless and comprehensive in her pursuit of every nuance that a word can contain. She approaches her cancer treatment in the same way that she comes to her scholarly pursuits – assured, objective, and seeking complete control of her situation. However, as the cancer does its work and as the harsh treatment breaks her down, the pain and isolation of her experience brings into question everything of which she was previously so sure.
In part, this play is a meditation on the nature and purpose of language. It explores the ability of words to comfort, to confuse, and to draw us close to the mysteries of life, death, and divinity. It is also a play about death, considering both the practical and the metaphysical aspects of the dying process and the attempts to halt its progress. Edson draws connections and makes parallels between poetry and modern medicine that manage to reveal something about the depth of human experiences and the limits of bare rationality.
This is a hard play to read, but it is immensely rewarding. There are even some humorous moments in the midst of the suffering. I’m looking forward to watching the 2001 film adaptation which stars Emma Thompson.