At the end of our lives, it is kindness, not wit, who is king.
What matters will not be triumphs of success, cleverness or wittiness, but the decency and respect with which we treat others—with which we ourselves will want to be treated.
This simple but convincing conclusion of Margaret Edson’s play Wit embodies its own sly irony. The winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, now on Broadway, reaches this endgame, dazzling its audience with clever humor, literary references, and powerful ideas, constructed into a multi-layered tour de force that can only be described as, well, sheer wit.
Edson, who worked in the oncology unit of a hospital, currently teaches elementary school in Atlanta, Georgia.
Professor Vivian Bearing (Cynthia Nixon) is the leading scholar in 17th century metaphysical poetry, with expertise in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1572 – 1631). She battles stage-four, metastatic, ovarian cancer. With metadramatic awareness, Vivian addresses the audience throughout the play, as the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre serves as the classroom of thought-provoking ideas.
Opening the play, bald, wearing a baseball cap and hospital gown, pushing an IV pole, Vivian says it’s not her intention to give away the plot, “but I think I die in the end”. She quotes a poem which references the sands of time, slipping through an hourglass and remarks with clipped sarcasm, “Shakespeare. I trust the name is familiar”. She notes, “I have less than two hours. Then: curtain”.
The audience knows the plot. But that does not spoil the play’s surprises. With a driving intensity, the story never drags or drifts toward sentimentality. Although about death, the play intellectually conveys a poetic understanding of life. The story traces Vivian’s confrontation with not only her death, but also her life. The audience accompanies Vivian in a quickly paced emotional and psychological arc. Vivian does not overcome cancer, but she transforms in a way that feels hard fought, authentic and well earned.
Vivian took pride in her impeccably demanding nature, teaching the most challenging course at her university. She valued perfection over compassion. With her unrelenting standards, Vivian isolated herself into a life of loneliness. Nixon initially comes off as a bragging, dislikeable know-it-all. However, as the play progresses she skillfully reveals an increasing vulnerability, drawing in the audience to share in her regrets, doubts and fear.
Dr. Kelekian (Michael Countryman), the chief oncologist of the university research hospital, and Dr. Posner (Greg Keller), also called “Jason”, Vivian’s former student and now her treating physician, administer the strongest chemotherapy that her body can take, more for the furtherance of science than in hopes of her cure. Keller artfully balances youthful naivety, professional ambition, intellectual curiosity and insensitivity, with a clueless boy-next-door charm. Vivian’s nurse, Susie (Carra Patterson), ably does her job, with a likeable, easy-going manner. As Vivian approaches death, she worries her mind is dulling and refers to Susie as someone whose mind “was never too sharp to begin with”.
Vivian relishes the complexity of Donne’s vocabulary: “ratiocination, concatenation, coruscation, tergiversation”. The doctors’ love of words appears in their own verbal dexterity: “In invasive epithelial carcinoma, the most effective treatment modality is a chemotherapeutic agent”. “Hexamethophosphacil with Vinplatin to potentiate…”
Yet Vivian recalls one of her brightest students asking why Donne made his poetry so difficult and complicated, if all he wanted to say was a simple truth. The student wondered if Donne was scared, so he hid behind complicated thoughts, behind all of his wit?
In one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, the subject cannot reconcile the belief of God’s overwhelming grace and forgiveness, so he hides. Vivian’s former teacher, Professor Ashford (Suzanne Bertish) visits Vivian in the hospital. In a poignant and dryly humorous scene, she explains in the simplicity of a children’s story lies an allegory of the human soul, which no matter where it hides, God will find.
The play captures the attraction of intelligence, the appeal of achievement, and the highly prized status of wit—sentiments that will appeal to many theatre-goers. In describing metaphysical poetry, Vivian notes that with academic abilities and training, “Donne’s wit is… a way to see how good you are”.
In one example, she explains even the erudite grammar of Donne’s poem, Death Be Not Proud. Death is but a breath, a comma, a pause, separating life from life everlasting.
Yet in her final moments, Vivian cries to Susie that she is scared and wants to hide. It is Susie who provides kind comfort before Vivian’s poetic breath, her last transition. Susie understands life is more than our bodies, our hearts, and even our intelligence and wit.
Wit, for all its brilliance and sparkling complexity, is ultimately outwitted.
Wit by Margaret Edson, The Manhattan Theatre Company - Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York City. Playing through March 11, tickets http://witonbroadway.com/tickets.html; (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250.