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WitReview - Wit
A Play
by Margaret Edson
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999
Review by Leonore Gerstein
Dec 31st 1999 (Volume 4, Issue 52)

Consider the semicolon you see in the title of this Pulitzer-winning play as something like a logo. Aside from being eye-catching, the typographic liberty is meant to tell us something about the protagonist, Professor Vivian Bearing, whose ordeal with terminal cancer is the subject of this moving play. This chamber drama has had a long and successful run in New York City. Composed with a delicate touch, it also reads well, and deserves to be reviewed as a written text.

Right from the opening line it is clear that Edson will not heed the conventions of old-fashioned realism. Cancer patient Vivian Bearing addresses the audience directly with the question, "How are you feeling?", mocking what she later calls the "feigned solicitude" of the medical profession. She continues to address the audience from time to time, and even shouts out a cue to the other actors at one point. Modern playwrights, most notably Brecht, use this somewhat unsettling technique in order to shatter the audience's complacency and cause viewers to feel some responsibility toward the issues presented onstage. Like Brecht, Edson has a didactic purpose, though she conveys it with less political fire than he usually did. She wants us to think critically about the way we face death, and the role we assign to medicine in the final stage of life. She is also, less blatantly, inviting us to think about the glories and limitations of language and the life of the mind.

The play's small scale is the result of an uncomplicated plot, with only one character presented in depth, and the clever choice of a protagonist who has the verbal skill to convincingly reflect the author's point of view. The terminally ill patient, whom we encounter midway through her chemotherapy, faces death after having spent her life contemplating mortality from afar, through the eyes of someone else. Brilliant and brittle, Vivian Bearing has devoted her scholarly career to John Donne's Holy Sonnets, religious poetry that wrestles with the large themes of life, death, the soul and God. The two sonnets which Vivian recites and explains (one also displayed on a screen in the theatre, according to the stage directions) become characters of sorts in their own right in this drama, which Edson shapes to reflect the mind of its intellectual heroine. The question of how to punctuate the famous line from one of these sonnets, "And death shall be no more, Death, thou shall die", is presented early in the play as the object of scholarly contention. Near the play's end the issue resurfaces as an emblem of the dying woman's transformation from cocky pedant to suffering mortal. I doubt whether the audience sitting in the theatre is as likely as the reader to catch this point, however.

The irony of Vivian's situation, the once detached researcher now become the object of another's research, is the major literary trope of the play, and the source of countless wisecracks. The scholar muses, after being subjected to a flurry of medical activity, "The attention was flattering. For the first five minutes. Now I know how poems feel". A series of flashbacks and introspective monologues serve as foils to the medical procedures we witness, from diagnosis to misguided resuscitation efforts. For the audience, these retrospective and reflective moments create Vivian as a dramatis persona. For Vivian, they eventually function as a weapon against the depersonalizing effect of her medical care, perhaps even against death. Central to all of these scenes is language itself, as experienced by Vivian at different stages in her development, not least the present, and as abused by the lesser mortals she encounters.

Vivian's lines contain flashes of, what else, wit, and dry humor, often aimed at herself. My favorite is her observation that she "published and perished". (But I do wish Edson had resisted the temptation to quote "brevity is the soul of wit"). She regales us with marvelous glosses on medical terminology, such as 'grand rounds', and 'insidious', criticizing a whole realm of discourse in the process. Naturally, the doctors are too dense to catch any of the humor, or the criticism it conceals.Through Vivan's words and the flatly portrayed male doctors, Edson directs less than subtle barbs at the medical establishment whose aggressive and self-serving efforts to stave off the inevitable cause patients more pain than the illness itself.

With the exception of a few moments of overstatement, the play's themes unfold with elegance and economy. The dialogue is credible and the brevity of the scenes suits the limited attention of most contemporary viewers. Attacking the shortcomings of contemporary medicine, especially as it pertains to terminal illness, is well within Edson's capabilities. However, the deeper theme of mortality, as intellectual riddle and physical fact, is not as successfully conveyed, in my view, even though I appreciate its being presented without sentimentality. As a beginning playwright, Edson seems to have overreached in choosing to tackle this demanding subject. I hope she does not give up, however, and that she continues to write for the theatre.

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