LawLitMed Home Page
November 12, 1998
Leisure & Arts
With Author of 'Wit'
By AMY GAMERMAN
Maggie Edson -- the celebrated playwright who is so far off-Broadway, she's
below the Mason-Dixon line -- is performing a daily ritual known as Wiggle Down.
"Tapping my toe, just tapping my toe" she sings, to the tune of "Singin'
in the Rain," before a crowd of kindergarteners at Centennial Place, a downtown
elementary school here. "What a glorious feeling, I'm -- nodding my head!" The
kids gleefully tap their toes and nod themselves silly as they sing along.
"Give yourselves a standing O!" Ms. Edson cries, when the song ends. Her
charges scramble to their feet and clap their hands, sending their arms arcing overhead in
a giant "O."
This willowy 37-year-old woman with tousled brown hair and a big grin couldn't seem
more different from Dr. Vivian Bearing, the brilliant, emotionally remote English
professor who is the heroine of her play "Wit" -- which has won such unanimous
critical acclaim in its small off-Broadway production that plans are brewing right now to
move it to Broadway.
Vivian (beautifully played by Kathleen
Chalfant) is a 50-year-old scholar who has
devoted her life to the study of John Donne's "Holy Sonnets." When we meet her,
she is dying of ovarian cancer. Bald from chemotherapy, she makes her entrance clad in a
hospital gown, dragging an IV pole. "It is not my intention to give away the
plot," Vivian tells the audience, "but I think I die at the end."
In this fierce, funny and unforgettable play, the uncompromising scholar becomes
herself an object of study, as her doctors put her through a grueling course of
experimental treatments. In scenes in the hospital and flashbacks to her past, we watch
wry, caustic Vivian struggle with her ultimate lesson: how to face her own death. "I
know all about life and death," she tells us. "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." It is one of "Wit's" triumphs that Vivian
makes us see exactly what she means. Caught in this play's powerful searchlight, poems
such as "Death be not proud" spring to life -- with the very placement of a
comma crystallizing mysteries of life and death for Vivian and her audience. For this
feat, one critic demanded that Ms. Edson be handed the Harvard English department.
But she'd never take it. Kindergarten is where the action is.
"Learning to read -- that's the biggest thing you learn in your whole life,"
she says over dinner after a long day of teaching and lesson-planning. "Alphabet
letters represent sound, text maps speech -- once you learn that, that's the hardest
thing. It's the thing that opens your mind the most, that gives you the most power."
Ms. Edson -- Miss Edson, to her students -- grew up in Washington, D.C., and studied
history at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. After graduation, she worked in an Iowa bar
pouring drinks for hog farmers, then spent a year living in a Dominican convent in Rome.
Back home in Washington, she got a job in the oncology/AIDS unit of a research hospital in
1985. "I was a unit clerk, which is a very low level job -- scheduling appointments,
keeping supplies going," she says. "Because it was very low level, I got to see
She left after a year, but the experience haunted her. So in January 1991, Ms. Edson
quit her job at a mental health organization to write a play inspired by her time in the
cancer unit. Why? "Because I wanted to go see it," she says simply, "and I
thought someone has to write it."
She had less than a year. The following fall, Ms. Edson was to begin a master's degree
in literature at Georgetown University -- the kick-off, presumably, to an academic career.
As she began work on her play, she started thinking that maybe her heroine would be an
academic, too. "I wanted to write about someone who would lose their power. I saw
that in the hospital. You build up a certain set of tools. What happens to you if those
tools don't serve you anymore?"
Ms. Edson decided to make Vivian a specialist in the poems of John
Donne, for the
simple reason that she'd always heard that they were the most demanding in English
literature. Not that she had read any of them: Her own formal studies of poetry were
limited to one college course -- "a very good class, but I don't think I read any
John Donne." So she hit the library. "If you know how to study something, you
can study anything," she explains.
But her first reading of Donne baffled her. "The harder I worked, I didn't get an
answer," she says. "Some of these poems are too complicated. What's the point if
they don't flow as poems?" She began "a pretty comprehensive study," which
eventually led her to an understanding that "Donne is being suspicious of
simplicity" -- much like Vivian herself.
At the same time, she delved into medical texts on cancer, both at the public library
and at the National Library of Medicine. The more she read, the more she was struck by the
unlikely correspondences between poetry and medicine -- correspondences that are used to
great effect in "Wit." "When you really study a poem, you anatomize
it," Ms. Edson says. "You can't make that up."
Ms. Edson finished "Wit" on schedule and sent it out to two theaters -- both
of which promptly rejected it. She put her play away and began her master's program.
"The idea was, I would fall in love with it and do a Ph.D.," she says.
"That didn't happen." Instead, she discovered her life's work off-campus, when
she began tutoring a young boy from the Dominican Republic in English through a volunteer
program at her church. After she finished her degree, she took a job at a Washington
That year, she sent "Wit" out to a new batch of theaters. In 1995,
"Wit" was produced by California's South Coast Repertory theater, then in 1997,
at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater -- under the direction of her childhood pal, Derek Anson
Jones (he played Vivian at the very first reading of "Wit" around Ms. Edson's
mom's kitchen table). By the time the play made it to New York's tiny MCC Theater this
fall, Ms. Edson had moved to Atlanta, where her partner Linda Merrill had accepted a
curatorial post at the High Museum.
On opening night, she caught a flight to New York after a long day of teaching and
administrative meetings and reached the theater just before the play ended. "I was
there changing in the restroom as everyone was coming out," she recalls. "This
woman was in the next stall crying and blowing her nose." The following Monday, she
was back in kindergarten.
Her day begins at 7:00 a.m., when she and her co-teacher, Sandra Reid, prepare for
their class of 24 children, most from the inner city and many from what are termed
"print-poor" homes. "The best hope these kids have is if they learn to read
by the third grade," says Ms. Edson. Her classroom is bright and cheerful, with
alphabet letters on the walls, a terrarium, a clutch of computers and low-to-the-ground
work tables with tiny chairs.
From the moment the five-year-olds come in at 8 until they break for lunch at 11:30,
the classroom's primary colors blur with activity. Ms. Edson and Ms. Reid lead their
charges through math exercises (they count up to today's date), a reading lesson, a
science project (planting seeds in plastic cups of dirt), and lots and lots of songs --
many of them penned by Ms. Edson herself. "We sing a lot in our class," she
explained. "Singing is really good for language awareness." The children also
work on their journals, drawing pictures of themselves and their families and copying out
simple phrases about them.
Nothing escapes Ms. Edson's eye. Troublemakers -- "I have six boys ready to get in
a fist fight at any time" -- are taken aside and spoken to quietly. Another little
boy is singled out for praise. "He needed a purple crayon to do his drawing, and so
he said, 'May I please get a purple crayon?' What do you think class, thumbs up or thumbs
down?" The class gives him a unanimous thumbs up. The contrast between Ms. Edson and
the implacable Vivian -- who in one scene, stonily refuses to grant an extension to a
student whose grandmother has died -- couldn't be more dramatic.
But then, Ms. Edson isn't quite sure that she likes Vivian. "I'm not saying smart
is bad," she says slowly. "Smart is not bad -- but kind is good."
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28 January 2011