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Wit: A Play

Wit: A Play

4.4 8
by Margaret Edson

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Winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Lucille Lortel Award, and the Oppenheimer Award

Margaret Edson's powerfully imagined Pulitzer Prize–winning play examines what makes life worth living through her exploration of one of existence's


Winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Lucille Lortel Award, and the Oppenheimer Award

Margaret Edson's powerfully imagined Pulitzer Prize–winning play examines what makes life worth living through her exploration of one of existence's unifying experiences—mortality—while she also probes the vital importance of human relationships. What we as her audience take away from this remarkable drama is a keener sense that, while death is real and unavoidable, our lives are ours to cherish or throw away—a lesson that can be both uplifting and redemptive. As the playwright herself puts it, "The play is not about doctors or even about cancer. It's about kindness, but it shows arrogance. It's about compassion, but it shows insensitivity."

In Wit, Edson delves into timeless questions with no final answers: How should we live our lives knowing that we will die? Is the way we live our lives and interact with others more important than what we achieve materially, professionally, or intellectually? How does language figure into our lives? Can science and art help us conquer death, or our fear of it? What will seem most important to each of us about life as that life comes to an end?

The immediacy of the presentation, and the clarity and elegance of Edson's writing, make this sophisticated, multilayered play accessible to almost any interested reader.

As the play begins, Vivian Bearing, a renowned professor of English who has
spent years studying and teaching the intricate, difficult Holy Sonnets of the
seventeenth-century poet John Donne, is diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. Confident of her ability to stay in control of events, she brings to her illness the same intensely rational and painstakingly methodical approach that has guided her stellar academic career. But as her disease and its excruciatingly painful treatment inexorably progress, she begins to question the single-minded values and standards that have always directed her, finally coming to understand the aspects of life that make it truly worth living.

Editorial Reviews

Donald Lyons
An original and urgent work of art . . . among the finest plays of the decade. -- The Wall Street Journal
Peter Marks
[A] brutally human and beautifully layered new play . . . you feel both enlightened and, in a strange way, enormously comforted. -- The New York Times
John Simon
A dazzling and humane play you will remember till your dying day. -- New York Magazine
Journal of the American Medical Association
While the play's ferocious intensity may intimidate, its transformative power should be provocative and enlightening for those of us who must make life-and-death decisions for our patients.

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Read an Excerpt


A Play

By Margaret Edson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1999 Margaret Edson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7183-0


(VIVIAN BEARING walks on the empty stage pushing her IV pole. She is fifty, tall and very thin, barefoot, and completely bald. She wears two hospital gowns — one tied in the front and one tied in the back — a baseball cap, and a hospital ID bracelet. The house lights are at half strength. VIVIAN looks out at the audience, sizing them up.)

VIVIAN: (In false familiarity, waving and nodding to the audience) Hi. How are you feeling today? Great. That's just great. (In her own professorial tone) This is not my standard greeting, I assure you.

I tend toward something a little more formal, a little less inquisitive, such as, say, "Hello."

But it is the standard greeting here.

There is some debate as to the correct response to this salutation. Should one reply "I feel good," using "feel" as a copulative to link the subject, "I," to its subjective complement, "good"; or "I feel well," modifying with an adverb the subject's state of being?

I don't know. I am a professor of seventeenth-century poetry, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne.

So I just say, "Fine."

Of course it is not very often that I do feel fine.

I have been asked "How are you feeling today?" while I was throwing up into a plastic washbasin. I have been asked as I was emerging from a four-hour operation with a tube in every orifice, "How are you feeling today?"

I am waiting for the moment when someone asks me this question and I am dead.

I'm a little sorry I'll miss that.

It is unfortunate that this remarkable line of inquiry has come to me so late in my career. I could have exploited its feigned solicitude to great advantage: as I was distributing the final examination to the graduate course in seventeenth-century textual criticism — "Hi. How are you feeling today?"

Of course I would not be wearing this costume at the time, so the question's ironic significance would not be fully apparent.

As I trust it is now.

Irony is a literary device that will necessarily be deployed to great effect.

I ardently wish this were not so. I would prefer that a play about me be cast in the mythic-heroic-pastoral mode; but the facts, most notably stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer, conspire against that. The Faerie Queene this is not.

And I was dismayed to discover that the play would contain elements of ... humor.

I have been, at best, an unwitting accomplice. (She pauses.) It is not my intention to give away the plot; but I think I die at the end.

They've given me less than two hours.

If I were poetically inclined, I might employ a threadbare metaphor — the sands of time slipping through the hourglass, the two-hour glass.

Now our sands are almost run;

More a little, and then dumb.

Shakespeare. I trust the name is familiar.

At the moment, however, I am disinclined to poetry.

I've got less than two hours. Then: curtain.

(She disconnects herself from the IV pole and shoves it to a crossing TECHNICIAN. The house lights go out.)

* * *

VIVIAN: I'll never forget the time I found out I had cancer.

(DR. HARVEY KELEKIAN enters at a big desk piled high with papers.)

KELEKIAN: You have cancer.

VIVIAN: (To audience) See? Unforgettable. It was something of a shock. I had to sit down. (She plops down.)

KELEKIAN: Please sit down. Miss Bearing, you have advanced metastatic ovarian cancer.

VIVIAN: Go on.

KELEKIAN: You are a professor, Miss Bearing.

VIVIAN: Like yourself, Dr. Kelekian.

KELEKIAN: Well, yes. Now then. You present with a growth that, unfortunately, went undetected in stages one, two, and three. Now it is an insidious adenocarcinoma, which has spread from the primary adnexal mass —

VIVIAN: "Insidious"?

KELEKIAN: "Insidious" means undetectable at an —

VIVIAN: "Insidious" means treacherous.

KELEKIAN: Shall I continue?

VIVIAN: By all means.

KELEKIAN: Good. In invasive epithelial carcinoma, the most effective treatment modality is a chemotherapeutic agent. We are developing an experimental combination of drugs designed for primary-site ovarian, with a target specificity of stage three-and-beyond administration.

VIVIAN: Insidious. Hmm. Curious word choice. Cancer. Cancel. "By cancer nature's changing course untrimmed." No — that's not it.

KELEKIAN: Am I going too fast?



KELEKIAN: You will be hospitalized as an in-patient for treatment each cycle. You will be on complete intake-and-output measurement for three days after each treatment to monitor kidney function. After the initial eight cycles, you will have another battery of tests.

VIVIAN: Must read something about cancer.

Must get some books, articles. Assemble a bibliography.

Is anyone doing research on cancer?


KELEKIAN: The antineoplastic will inevitably affect some healthy cells, including those lining the gastrointestinal tract from the lips to the anus, and the hair follicles. We will of course be relying on your resolve to withstand some of the more pernicious side effects.

VIVIAN: Antineoplastic. Anti: against. Neo: new. Plastic. To mold. Shaping. Antineoplastic. Against new shaping. Hair follicles. My resolve. "Pernicious" That doesn't seem —

KELEKIAN: Miss Bearing?

VIVIAN: I beg your pardon?

KELEKIAN: Do you have any questions so far?

VIVIAN: Please, go on.

KELEKIAN: Perhaps some of these terms are new. I realize —

VIVIAN: No, no. Ah. You're being very thorough.

KELEKIAN: I make a point of it. And I always emphasize it with my students —

VIVIAN: So do I. "Thoroughness" — I always tell my students, but they are constitutionally averse to painstaking work.

KELEKIAN: Yours, too.

VIVIAN: Oh, it's worse every year.

KELEKIAN: And this is not dermatology, it's medical oncology, for Chrissake.

VIVIAN: My students read through a text once — once! — and think it's time for a break.

KELEKIAN: Mine are blind.

VIVIAN: Well, mine are deaf.

KELEKIAN: (Resigned, but warmly) You just have to hope ...

VIVIAN: (Not so sure) I suppose.


KELEKIAN: Where were we, Dr. Bearing?

VIVIAN: I believe I was being thoroughly diagnosed.

KELEKIAN: Right. Now. The tumor is spreading very quickly, and this treatment is very aggressive. So far, so good?


KELEKIAN: Better not teach next semester.

VIVIAN: (Indignant) Out of the question.

KELEKIAN: The first week of each cycle you'll be hospitalized for chemotherapy; the next week you may feel a little tired; the next two weeks'll be fine, relatively. This cycle will repeat eight times, as I said before.

VIVIAN: Eight months like that?

KELEKIAN: This treatment is the strongest thing we have to offer you. And, as research, it will make a significant contribution to our knowledge.

VIVIAN: Knowledge, yes.

KELEKIAN: (Giving her a piece of paper) Here is the informed-consent form. Should you agree, you sign there, at the bottom. Is there a family member you want me to explain this to?

VIVIAN: (Signing) That won't be necessary.

KELEKIAN: (Taking back the paper) Good. The important thing is for you to take the full dose of chemotherapy. There may be times when you'll wish for a lesser dose, due to the side effects. But we've got to go full-force. The experimental phase has got to have the maximum dose to be of any use. Dr. Bearing —


KELEKIAN: You must be very tough. Do you think you can be very tough?

VIVIAN: You needn't worry.

KELEKIAN: Good. Excellent.

(KELEKIAN and the desk exit as VIVIAN stands and walks forward.)

VIVIAN: (Hesitantly) I should have asked more questions, because I know there's going to be a test.

I have cancer, insidious cancer, with pernicious side effects — no, the treatment has pernicious side effects.

I have stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. There is no stage five. Oh, and I have to be very tough. It appears to be a matter, as the saying goes, of life and death.

I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne's Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language.

And I know for a fact that I am tough. A demanding professor. Uncompromising. Never one to turn from a challenge. That is why I chose, while a student of the great E. M. Ashford, to study Donne.

(PROFESSOR E. M. ASHFORD, fifty-two, enters, seated at the same desk as KELEKIAN was. The scene is twenty-eight years ago. VIVIAN suddenly turns twenty-two, eager and intimidated.)

VIVIAN: Professor Ashford?

E.M.: Do it again.

VIVIAN: (To audience) It was something of a shock. I had to sit down. (She plops down.)

E.M.: Please sit down. Your essay on Holy Sonnet Six, Miss Bearing, is a melodrama, with a veneer of scholarship unworthy of you — to say nothing of Donne. Do it again.

VIVIAN: I, ah ...

E.M.: You must begin with a text, Miss Bearing, not with a feeling.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe.

You have entirely missed the point of the poem, because, I must tell you, you have used an edition of the text that is inauthentically punctuated. In the Gardner edition —

VIVIAN: That edition was checked out of the library — E.M.: Miss Bearing!

VIVIAN: Sorry.

E.M.: You take this too lightly, Miss Bearing. This is Metaphysical Poetry, not The Modern Novel. The standards of scholarship and critical reading which one would apply to any other text are simply insufficient. The effort must be total for the results to be meaningful. Do you think the punctuation of the last line of this sonnet is merely an insignificant detail?

The sonnet begins with a valiant struggle with death, calling on all the forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. But it is ultimately about overcoming the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life, death, and eternal life.

In the edition you chose, this profoundly simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation:

And Death — capital D — shall be no more — semicolon!

Death — capital D — comma — thou shalt die — exclamation point!

If you go in for this sort of thing, I suggest you take up Shakespeare.

Gardner's edition of the Holy Sonnets returns to the Westmoreland manuscript source of 1610 — not for sentimental reasons, I assure you, but because Helen Gardner is a scholar. It reads: And death shall be no more, comma, Death thou shalt die.

(As she recites this line, she makes a little gesture at the comma.)

Nothing but a breath — a comma — separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It's a comma, a pause.

This way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from this poem, wouldn't you say? Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.

VIVIAN: Life, death ... I see. (Standing) It's a metaphysical conceit. It's wit! I'll go back to the library and rewrite the paper — E.M.: (Standing, emphatically) It is not wit, Miss Bearing. It is truth. (Walking around the desk to her) The paper's not the point.

VIVIAN: It isn't?

E.M.: (Tenderly) Vivian. You're a bright young woman. Use your intelligence. Don't go back to the library. Go out. Enjoy yourself with your friends. Hmm?

(VIVIAN walks away. E.M.slides off.)

VIVIAN: (As she gradually returns to the hospital) I, ah, went outside. The sun was very bright. I, ah, walked around, past the ... There were students on the lawn, talking about nothing, laughing. The insuperable barrier between one thing and another is ... just a comma? Simple human truth, uncompromising scholarly standards? They're connected? I just couldn't ...

I went back to the library.


All right. Significant contribution to knowledge.

Eight cycles of chemotherapy. Give me the full dose, the full dose every time.

* * *

(In a burst of activity, the hospital scene is created.)

VIVIAN: The attention was flattering. For the first five minutes. Now I know how poems feel.

(SUSIE MONAHAN, VIVIAN's primary nurse, gives VIVIAN her chart, then puts her in a wheelchair and takes her to her first appointment: chest x-ray. This and all other diagnostic tests are suggested by light and sound.)


VIVIAN: My name? Vivian Bearing.


VIVIAN: Bearing. B-E-A-R-I-N-G. Vivian. V-I-V-I-A-N.


VIVIAN: Yes, I have a Ph.D.

TECHNICIAN 1: Your doctor.

VIVIAN: Oh. Dr. Harvey Kelekian.

(TECHNICIAN 1 positions her so that she is leaning forward and embracing the metal plate, then steps offstage.)

VIVIAN: I am a doctor of philosophy —

TECHNICIAN 1: (From offstage) Take a deep breath, and hold it. (Pause, with light and sound) Okay.

VIVIAN: — a scholar of seventeenth-century poetry.

TECHNICIAN 1: (From offstage) Turn sideways, arms behind your head, and hold it. (Pause) Okay.

VIVIAN: I have made an immeasurable contribution to the discipline of English literature. (TECHNICIAN 1 returns and puts her in the wheelchair.) I am, in short, a force.

(TECHNICIAN 1 rolls her to upper GI series, where TECHNICIAN 2 picks up.)


VIVIAN: Lucy, Countess of Bedford.

TECHNICIAN 2: (Checking a printout) I don't see it here.

VIVIAN: My name is Vivian Bearing. B-E-A-R-I-N-G. Dr. Kelekian is my doctor.

TECHNICIAN 2: Okay. Lie down. (TECHNICIAN 2 positions her on a stretcher and leaves. Light and sound suggest the filming.)

VIVIAN: After an outstanding undergraduate career, I studied with Professor E. M. Ashford for three years, during which time I learned by instruction and example what it means to be a scholar of distinction.

As her research fellow, my principal task was the alphabetizing of index cards for Ashford's monumental critical edition of Donne's Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.

(During the procedure, another TECHNICIAN takes the wheelchair away.)

I am thanked in the preface: "Miss Vivian Bearing for her able assistance."

My dissertation, "Ejaculations in Seventeenth-Century Manuscript and Printed Editions of the Holy Sonnets: A Comparison," was revised for publication in the Journal of English Texts, a very prestigious venue for a first appearance.

TECHNICIAN 2: Where's your wheelchair?

VIVIAN: I do not know. I was busy just now.

TECHNICIAN 2: Well, how are you going to get out of here?

VIVIAN: Well, I do not know. Perhaps you would like me to stay.

TECHNICIAN 2: I guess I got to go find you a chair.

VIVIAN: (Sarcastically) Don't inconvenience yourself on my behalf. (TECHNICIAN 2 leaves to get a wheelchair.)

My second article, a classic explication of Donne's sonnet "Death be not proud," was published in Critical Discourse.

The success of the essay prompted the University Press to solicit a volume on the twelve Holy Sonnets in the 1633 edition, which I produced in the remarkably short span of three years. My book, entitled Made Cunningly, remains an immense success, in paper as well as cloth.

In it, I devote one chapter to a thorough examination of each sonnet, discussing every word in extensive detail.

(TECHNICIAN 2 returns with a wheelchair.)


VIVIAN: I summarize previous critical interpretations of the text and offer my own analysis. It is exhaustive.

(TECHNICIAN 2 deposits her at CT scan.)

Bearing. B-E-A-R-I-N-G. Kelekian.

(TECHNICIAN 3 has VIVIAN lie down on a metal stretcher. Light and sound suggest the procedure.)

TECHNICIAN 3: Here. Hold still.

VIVIAN: For how long?

TECHNICIAN 3: Just a little while. (TECHNICIAN 3 leaves. Silence) VIVIAN: The scholarly study of poetic texts requires a capacity for scrupulously detailed examination, particularly the poetry of John Donne.

The salient characteristic of the poems is wit: "Itchy outbreaks of far-fetched wit," as Donne himself said.

To the common reader — that is to say, the undergraduate with a B-plus or better average — wit provides an invaluable exercise for sharpening the mental faculties, for stimulating the flash of comprehension that can only follow hours of exacting and seemingly pointless scrutiny.

(TECHNICIAN 3 puts VIVIAN back in the wheelchair and wheels her toward the unit. Partway, TECHNICIAN 3 gives the chair a shove and SUSIE MONAHAN, VIVIAN's primary nurse, takes over. SUSIE rolls VIVIAN to the exam room.)

To the scholar, to the mind comprehensively trained in the subtleties of seventeenth-century vocabulary, versification, and theological, historical, geographical, political, and mythological allusions, Donne's wit is ... a way to see how good you really are.

After twenty years, I can say with confidence, no one is quite as good as I.

(By now, SUSIE has helped VIVIAN sit on the exam table. DR. JASON POSNER, clinical fellow, stands in the doorway.)


Excerpted from W;T by Margaret Edson. Copyright © 1999 Margaret Edson. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Margaret Edson was born in Washington, D.C. in 1961. She has degrees in history and literature. She wrote Wit in 1991, after a period spent working as a clerk in the oncology/AIDS department of a Washington hospital in 1985. Edson now lives in Atlanta, where she teaches kindergarten.

Margaret Edson was born in Washington, D.C. in 1961. She has degrees in history and literature. She wrote her play Wit in 1991, after a period spent working as a clerk in the oncology/AIDS department of a Washington hospital in 1985. Edson now lives in Atlanta, where she teaches kindergarten.

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Wit 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous 5 months ago
This play is a gorgeous journey and explofation of cancer, cancer treatment, death, and poetry. The play is simple and compelling and makes me cry every time. Emma Thompson's HBO version is also gorgeous and true to the original play.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I saw Wit performed at the Pittsburgh Public Theater and it was fabulous! The acting, the jokes, the story line, the set, the lighting, everything was great!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The play is amazing considering this is her first. The author's one very talented wordsmith. I read it in one go since I couldn't get myself to put it down. The conversations are warm, intelligent and sad by turns - all I can really say is that I'm glad some people have the talent to pen such amazing works of art. (I read the play in the store, but couldn't get myself to leave it behind: I ended up buying a copy.)