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
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
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
It's hard to ask more of a play.
Beth Israel Medical Center, New York, NY 10003, USA