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Volume 353, Number 9155     06 March 1999

Blame the scholar, not the discipline


A play written by Margaret Edson, now showing at the Union Square Theatre, New York City, USA; directed by Derek Anson Jones; produced by MCC Theater, Longwharf Theatre, and

Daryl Roth.

According to the playnotes to Wit, the playwright, Margaret Edson, used to work in the cancer ward of a research hospital. She has transformed the experience into a production of uncommon emotional force.

Vivian Bearing, beautifully acted by Kathleen Chalfant, is an English professor specialising in the poetry of John Donne. Fiftyish, bald, dressed only in a hospital gown, she addresses the audience in the authoritative voice of someone used to lecturing to large audiences. She has advanced, metastatic, ovarian cancer and, through a mixture of narrative, present action, and flashback she relates the story of her illness and treatment with experimental high-dose chemotherapy.

The characters we meet along the way, as might perhaps be expected, do no honour to the medical profession. The attending physician, Dr Harvey Kelekian, treats Vivian with respect, but beyond collegiality he has little comfort to offer.

Dr Jason Posner is the oncology fellow in charge of her daily management; he is one of her former students and took her course, he tells her earnestly during the initial interview, to seem well-rounded for medical school. Always rushed, he is oblivious to irony or nuance, enraptured by biochemistry yet lacking the very rudiments of bedside manner. Only Vivian's nurse Susie, sweet but dim-witted, is able to provide the compassionate attention that is so central to the needs of a dying person.

Vivian's dilemma is that of a superior intelligence trapped in a powerless role. Brilliantly articulate, she uses to full advantage her formidable analytical skills in a desperate attempt to regain control of her life. Dissecting medical jargon--"neoplasm", "insidious", "grand rounds"--down to its etymological roots, parsing the petty degradations at the hands of the hospital staff, she continually reminds us of who she was before she became a patient. The sheer power of her subjectivity turns the rest of the cast into supporting characters in the truest sense: we are interested in them only to the extent that they reflect her experience, not necessarily objective reality.

But there is deeper reason why the authenticity of the hospital characters seems an almost incidental concern. Wit turns out to be a classic tragedy, with its hero, by the rules of the genre, complicit in her own suffering. Vivian's doctors, in their zeal to battle the disease even at the expense of the patient, are portrayed as the mere executors of a fate for which she shares responsibility.

According to conventional wisdom, if doctors today are cold and heartless, more concerned with laboratory values than with people, then the emphasis on science and technology in medical training is to blame. Proponents of this view often turn to the liberal arts as a potential corrective. Thinking, perhaps too literally, they see the humanities as humanising, expecting the study of poetry, say, to smooth the rough edges of the biochemist.

Wit undermines this false dichotomy of arts and science, revealing to us what anyone who has spent enough time in academia knows: the cold intellectuality that precludes empathy is a function of the scholar, not the discipline.

We see Kelekian and Posner quizzing the medical students around Bearing's hospital bed, barely acknowledging her existence, prodding her like an object, and we feel the disgrace. But then we see Vivian with her own students, mocking the stupid ones, allowing the smarter ones to talk until they "self-destruct", and it becomes clear that the rigid perfectionism that propelled her to the top of her field is accompanied by a contempt for anything less. Vivian, no less than her doctors, despises weakness and elevates the intellect above all other human qualities. By the end of her life, those other qualities are understood to matter most.

In a deeply moving and evocative scene, Vivian's mentor, now a grandmother, climbs into her former student's deathbed, takes her in her arms, and reads to her from a children's book (noting of course, the use of allegory in the text). Vivian is in a morphine-induced stupor by then, so the meaning of the scene is ambiguous. Is it a real visit, or is it just a dream? No matter. To Vivian, and by extension to us, her beloved mentor is as real as any other aspect of her illness. And we are left, along with the chilling awareness of how bondage to pure intellect can desiccate a life, with a more redemptive vision of intelligence coexisting with tenderness and love.

It's hard to ask more of a play.

Bertie Bregman

Beth Israel Medical Center, New York, NY 10003, USA

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