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Unwitting redemption in Margaret Edson's Wit.

Winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize, Margaret Edson's medical drama Wit has garnered nearly unanimous acclaim. The play's honors include the Drama Desk, Dramatists Guild, New York Drama Critics Circle, Outer Critics Circle, Los Angeles Drama Critics, and Newsday Oppenheimer awards. Reviewers, too, have had high praise for the show. Lancet critic Bertie Bregman lauds Edson for having turned her work experience in a cancer research hospital into "a production of uncommon emotional force" that offers, "along with the chilling awareness of how bondage to pure intellect can desiccate a life.... a more redemptive vision of intelligence coexisting with tenderness and love." While Bregman situates the play's "redemptive vision" in its pairing of mind and heart, American Theatre reviewer Pamela Renner claims that Wit's "redemption ... takes an unexpected form." Renner asserts that in Wit an oncology nurse's willingness to speak the truth to Professor Vivian Bearing, a Donne scholar dying of ovarian cancer, gives the patient-protagonist "the courage to make a crucial decision about her treatment" (35-36). Renner thus situates redemption in honest communication.

That critics describe Wit as a play about redemption is readily apparent. The nature of that redemption, however, is difficult for many of them to describe. Journalist Adrienne Martini confesses in American Theatre to having felt put on the spot in a conversation about the subject with the dramatist:
 According to Edson, there is more to the play than most of the critical
 response has acknowledged. "The play is about redemption, and I'm surprised
 no one mentions it," she says, fixing her bright eyes on me. I feel as if
 I've been asked a question in school and have no idea what the answer
 should be. Suddenly, it is easy to picture her in a classroom. "Grace" she
 clarifies, "is the opportunity to experience God in spite of yourself,
 which is what Dr. Bearing ultimately achieves." As for herself, Edson
 professes to Christian faith, but declines to elaborate about it. (22)

Edson's caginess about Christianity is more than a promotional gimmick. In part, it reflects her appropriate reluctance to dictate Wit's meaning. "It's not my place to tell people what the play's about. If I have to explain it, I haven't done my job," she said in a telephone interview. Also at work, though, is Edson's deep ambivalence about orthodox Christian faith, despite her high regard for Christ, whom she described in the same interview as being in "a club of one." In a conversation with Betty Carter for Books and Culture, she asserted: "If you're completely united with God, you don't need religion" (26). Indeed, Wit's final scene depicts a redemptive moment devoid of any specific religious association.

In addition to its ambiguous treatment of religion, the play reveals Edson's related ambivalence about the life of the mind. Wit's protagonist, Vivian Bearing, ultimately eschews the poetry of her research subject, John Donne, for a children's book titled The Runaway Bunny. That choice mirrors Edson's own decision to abandon graduate studies to teach kindergarten. After studying Renaissance history at Smith College, she worked as a clerk for a hospital cancer and AIDS unit before writing Wit in 1991. While pursuing a master's degree in literature at Georgetown University in 1992, she began teaching English as a second language in the Washington, D.C., public schools. In 1998 she moved to Atlanta, where she teaches five-year-olds. Few kindergarten teachers are likely to write about the intricacies and implications of Donne scholarship, but Wit reflects its author's unusual personal struggle to come to terms with both academia and orthodoxy. In the play Donne serves to symbolize both the intellectual life and Christian faith. The play's apparent rejection of Donne has prompted First Things reviewer Carol Iannone to accuse the playwright of being both anti-intellectual and anti-religious. Iannone asks:
 Why must great art be diminished in order to affirm the contemporary cult
 of feelings? Why must a false dichotomy between mind and heart substitute
 for a fuller comprehension of the human soul and the poetry that expresses
 it? For that matter, why can't a contemporary playwright appreciate that
 something real actually goes on in religious thought? (14)

Any redemption Wit offers, Iannone suggests, is little more than cotton candy that Edson spins from sentiment, not the strong meat of the Christian intellectual tradition Donne represents. "In Ms. Edson's play," Iannone goes on to charge, "the excellences of the past get pared down to the sentiments of Oprah."

What Iannone fails to recognize, however, is that Wit ultimately affirms both Christian faith and serious scholarship. The affirmation may be subtle, but it is there. Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny is not, as Iannone claims, a refutation of Donne's religious poetry but a complement to it. The children's book preaches the irresistible grace for which Donne's poetry expresses a deep longing. And, by having Vivian Bearing's retired poetry professor read the children's book aloud, Edson reveals her own hope that the life of the mind need not preclude that of the heart. Through the character of E. M. Ashford, Vivian's scholarly mentor, Edson shows that academic excellence (even attention to Donne minutiae) need not quench faith and compassion but may even enhance them. In tracing the path of Vivian's redemption through her encounter with Ashford, Edson unwittingly affirms both serious scholarship and a Christian understanding of God's persistent pursuit of His children.

First, however, Edson takes the measure of professional researchers, both in the humanities and in the hospital. Lancet reviewer Bregman revels in that equal-opportunity expose of professorial pomposity. Acknowledging that medical specialists have a reputation for being little more than cold academicians, Bregman applauds Edson for revealing that their scientific training is not necessarily to blame. Her protagonist, English professor Vivian Bearing, is initially as aloof and exacting as any of the play's doctors. Wit demonstrates, Bregman asserts, that "cold intellectuality that precludes empathy is a function of the scholar, not of the discipline." Vivian's approaches to Metaphysical poetry and to her own ovarian cancer are coldly intellectual, and her dealings with others show her limited capacity to empathize.

When the play opens, Vivian greets the audience with a dignity that belies her incongruous costume. Wearing two hospital gowns, one tied in front and the other in back, her bald head topped by a baseball cap, she informs viewers: "I am a professor of seventeenth-century poetry, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne" (5). Flashbacks take us to her classroom, where she berates a student for his inability to answer her questions and refuses to grant his classmate a paper extension. When the young woman explains that her grandmother has died, Vivian responds, "Do what you will, but the paper is due when it is due" (63). If pressed, Vivian would undoubtedly argue that she simply demands academic excellence and sees through that time-tested excuse for late work and absences--the fabricated funeral of a grandparent. Even so, Vivian is not merely savvy; she is downright cynical about her students.

Vivian's attitude toward teaching does enable her to connect to some degree with her senior physician, Dr. Kelekian. As a professor at the teaching hospital where Vivian undergoes cancer treatment, Dr. Kelekian supervises a gaggle of medical students. After his pupils fail to name the most obvious side effects of Vivian's treatment, Dr. Kelekian asks her, "Why do we waste our time, Dr. Bearing?" Delighted, Vivian commiserates: "I do not know, Dr. Kelekian." "Use your eyes" Kelekian orders his pupils. "Jesus God" he sputters, "Hair loss." While the students protest their supervisor's having posed a trick question, Vivian and Kelekian share a moment of amusement (40). This pairing of professors that so delights Lancet's Bregman almost certainly arises from Edson's experiences as a graduate student and hospital staff member.

Edson adds another layer of academic critique in her treatment of Jason Posner, Kelekian's right-hand clinical fellow and Vivian's former student. Although he is decades younger than she, having taken one of her classes as an undergraduate, Jason is no less driven and only a little less confident than Vivian when the play begins. He confesses that he had found Vivian an intimidating teacher but explains that her class had helped him achieve his goal of becoming a doctor. "You can't get into medical school unless you're well-rounded," he informs nurse Susie Monahan, "And I made a bet with myself that I could get an A in the three hardest courses on campus" (21). Having earned an A- in Vivian's class, Jason credits her approach to Donne's poetry with preparing him for his profession. He tells Susie, "The puzzle takes over. You're not even trying to solve it anymore. Fascinating, really. Great training for lab research. Looking at things in increasing levels of complexity" (76).

"Looking at things in increasing levels of complexity" is Jason's specialty, but only things he can quantify. Like Vivian, whose interest in teaching lies in the material rather than in her students, Jason wants to know about cancer, not about cancer patients. He acknowledges to Vivian that his hospital fellowship is a means to an end:
 Everybody's got to go through it. All the great researchers. They want us
 to be able to converse intelligently with the clinicians. As though
 researchers were the impediments. The clinicians are such troglodytes. So
 smarmy. Like we have to hold hands to discuss creatinine clearance. Just
 cut the crap, I say. (57)

Instead of recognizing that Vivian is trying to initiate a conversation with him about dying, Jason thinks that she is suffering from dementia. After their talk about researchers and clinicians, Vivian muses: "So. The young doctor, like the senior scholar, prefers research to humanity. At the same time the senior scholar, in her pathetic state as simpering victim, wishes the young doctor would take more interest in personal contact" (58). As her interactions with Jason help her recognize her own preference for research at the expense of human connection, Vivian continues a process of reflection that suggests repentance.

Vivian's reflection begins even earlier, when treatment strips her of her professional identity. Aside from rare instances of collegiality with Dr. Kelekian, she suffers countless assaults to her sense of self-worth in the hospital. Near the beginning of the play, a medical technician asks, "Doctor?" She replies, "Yes, I have a Ph.D." "Your doctor," the technician prompts her. She names Dr. Kelekian and continues, "I am a doctor of philosophy ... a scholar of seventeenth-century poetry" (16-17). The technician takes no interest in her commentary, interrupting frequently to conduct the medical procedure. Eventually Vivian gives up, simply telling new technicians her name and her doctor's name.

As she loses her professional status, Vivian also adjusts her use of her professional tools--words. At first she faces her cancer treatment as a good researcher should, assembling a medical bibliography and acquiring a new vocabulary. She holds her own in early conversations with Kelekian and Jason, but her ability to keep up flags as her condition deteriorates. She notes her changing use of language after an especially bad treatment cycle. Having vomited violently, she says to the audience:
 Oh, God. What's left? I haven't eaten in two days. What's left to puke? You
 may remark that my vocabulary has taken a turn for the Anglo-Saxon. God.
 I'm going to barf my brains out.... If I did barf my brains out, it would
 be a great loss to my discipline. Of course, not a few of my colleagues
 would be relieved. To say nothing of my students. (32)

While she retains her biting sense of humor, Vivian's use of language changes as her illness strips her of physical and emotional strength. Words that had formerly fascinated her--"ratiocination", "concatenation," "coruscation," "tergiversation"--give way to terms that reflect her new focus on the earthy realities of digestion, excretion, and pain.

Vivian's sensitivity to language serves as a focus for her changing understanding of herself and others as her condition worsens. In explaining her initial drive to learn the medical terms that describe the processes she faces, Vivian thinks back to childhood, when words first became meaningful for her. In a flashback the actress who plays Vivian adopts a childlike manner to talk with Vivian's father about one of Beatrix Potter's books. Sounding out the word "soporific," which Potter uses to describe the effect of lettuce on rabbits, the five-year-old Vivian asks her father what the word means. He tells her that anything with a soporific effect will make her sleepy. Noticing that the book's illustration shows sleeping bunnies, young Vivian has an epiphany: "The little bunnies in the picture are asleep! They're sleeping! Like you said, because of soporific? (43). An adult again, Vivian tells the audience, "The illustration bore out the meaning of the word, just as he had explained it. At the time, it seemed like magic. So imagine the effect that the words of John Donne first had on me.... Medical terms are less evocative. Still, I want to know what the doctors mean when they ... anatomize me.... My only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary" (43-44). Vivian's acquisition of medical vocabulary reveals her desperate attempt to arm herself against the assaults of cancer and cancer treatment. Elsewhere Edson has explained the empowering effect of language. Discussing her work with five-year-olds in an interview with People magazine, she said: "Reading and writing is power. I like handing that power over to students" ("Play Right").

Vivian finds that her learning as a five-year-old is more meaningful than her adult studies of literature and cancer treatment. The word "soporific," acquired in childhood, has a new kind of transformative power for her as she moves toward death. As Susie, whom Vivian describes as "never very sharp to begin with" (69), sets up her dying patient's morphine drip near the end of the play, Vivian says wryly, "I trust this will have a soporific effect." Susie replies, "Well, I don't know about that, but it sure makes you sleepy." Instead of rolling her eyes at the audience or even openly ridiculing Susie, Vivian laughs with her nurse in utter delight. Vivian explains the word's meaning to Susie, who says, "Well, that was pretty dumb." The exchange that follows is perhaps the play's most moving:

VIVIAN: No! No, no! It was funny!

SUSIE: (Starting to catch on) Yeah, I guess so. (Laughing) In a dumb sort of way. (This sets them both off laughing again) I never would have gotten it. I'm glad you explained it.

VIVIAN: (Simply) I'm a teacher. (They laugh a little together. Slowly the morphine kicks in, and VIVIAN's laughs become long sighs. Finally she falls asleep. SUSIE checks everything out, then leaves. Long silence) (74)

Because she has so recently reflected on her own childhood acquisition of the word "soporific," Vivian is able to explain its meaning to Susie in a companionable, compassionate manner. At long last, she uses language as a point of human connection rather than as the subject of her own intellectual reflection.

While Vivian is only beginning to recognize her vocation as a ground for meeting others, Susie Monahan clearly makes medicine a ministry to patients. Unlike Kelekian and Jason, who prioritize research over patient care, Susie exemplifies empathy. Kelekian and Jason quiz Vivian about her symptoms without really listening to her responses, but Susie anticipates her needs and serves as her advocate. She rebukes Jason for abandoning a gowned Vivian in examination-table stirrups before a pelvic exam, urges him to lower Vivian's experimental treatment dosage, and asks Kelekian to give her a patient-controlled analgesic pump so that she can maintain some sense of control as death approaches.

Susie's kindness to Vivian throughout the play helps the dying professor lower her defenses; indeed, Vivian comes to rely on Susie as if the nurse were her mother. Like a frightened child who summons a parent for a late-night drink of water, Vivian pinches her IV tube so that an alarm will bring Susie to her room during the graveyard shift. "I wanted her to come and see me" Vivian explains to the audience. "So I had to create a little emergency. Nothing dramatic" "What's the trouble, sweetheart?" Susie asks. Vivian addresses the audience again: "Do not think for a minute that anyone calls me `Sweetheart.' But then ... I allowed it" (64). Susie quickly recognizes that Vivian is afraid of dying. She acknowledges the difficulty of Vivian's situation, stroking the older woman as she weeps. She comforts her: "Vivian. It's all right. I know. It hurts. I know. It's all right. Do you want a tissue? It's all right. (Silence) Vivian, would you like a Popsicle?" Edson's stage note indicates that Vivian, "like a child," says, "Yes, please" (65). Although she tries to regain her dignity by telling the audience that the "cold Popsicle feels good, it's something I can digest, and it helps keep me hydrated," Vivian is more comforted by Susie's mothering than by the prospect of the snack (66).

This exchange enables Susie to talk with Vivian about her final wishes. The nurse explains that Dr. Kelekian and Jason will likely resuscitate Vivian when her heart stops unless she requests a "do not resuscitate" order. When Vivian asks Susie for her opinion, the nurse tactfully hints at her objections to their approach:
 Well, they like to save lives. So anything's okay, as long as life
 continues. It doesn't matter if you're hooked up to a million machines.
 Kelekian is a great researcher and everything. And the fellows, like Jason,
 they're really smart. It's really an honor for them to work with him. But
 they always ... want to know more things. (68)

Although Vivian the professor understands the doctors' desire to continue their research on her, Vivian the patient is worn out. She tells Susie that she wants her heart to stop. After a pause she asks, "You're still going to take care of me, aren't you?" (69). Of course, Susie assures her, and she does--to the very end. She later speaks soothingly to the sleeping Vivian as she inserts a catheter, even though Jason scoffs, "Like she can hear you" (75). Susie lingers after he leaves to rub baby oil on her patient's hands, demonstrating the empathy that an outstanding medical professional ought to exhibit but that Jason clearly lacks.

It is Susie who challenges Jason's decision to resuscitate Vivian when he finds that her heart has stopped. In the play's dramatic final scene, Jason calls a code blue and begins CPR. Susie defies the young doctor, jerking him away from the dying Vivian and shouting, "Kelekian put the order in--you saw it! You were right there, Jason! Oh, God, the code!" (82). When the code team enters, pushing her out of the way, Susie calls the central office: "Cancel code, room 707. Sue Monahan, primary nurse. Cancel code. Dr. Posner is here" (82). Recognizing that he has acted inappropriately, Jason struggles to stay on his feet. He joins Susie in trying to stop the team, finally howling, "I MADE A MISTAKE!" (84). Crushed by the awareness of his fallibility and the disapproval of his colleagues on the code team, Jason collapses on the floor as the team questions his competence:
 CODE TEAM: --It's a doctor fucking up. --What is he, a resident? --Got us
 up here on a DNR. --Called a code on a no-code. (85)

All the young doctor can do is to repeat the phrase, "Oh, God."

Jason's howling and subsequent collapse are not unlike a two-year-old's tantrum. Facing his own mistake and contemplating its consequences leave him a helpless mess. His breakdown is embarrassing, not only for him but also for the audience. Even so, the play does not end on a note of despair. As Jason's catastrophe takes place on part of the stage, Vivian's triumph emerges on another. After Susie lifts her blanket, Vivian rises from the bed and sheds her cap, hospital bracelet, and those hateful gowns. In a column in the script parallel to that in which she describes Jason's agony, Edson's stage notes indicate, "The instant she is naked, and beautiful, reaching for the light--Lights out" (85).

Presenting Vivian's and Jason's situations side by side, on the page and on the stage, links them powerfully. Earlier Vivian has recognized that she and her former student Jason, now her doctor, are two of a kind and wished that he were less like she is--more humane. Vivian does become more humane, though. As she approaches death, she gives up her authority and her independence to trust as a child would--in Susie and, perhaps, in God. Her move toward the light at the play's end signifies her salvation. Edson explains, "Her redemption is delayed through her own efforts. It could have happened a lot sooner, but she keeps putting it off and putting it off and putting it off, and finally there's a breakthrough, and it happens in the last ten seconds of her life, which is plenty of time" ("John Donne" 26). Clearly Edson sees Vivian's redemption as the product of her having relinquished her autonomy, her authority, and, ultimately, life itself.

With regard to Jason, the play's ending is more ambiguous. Even so, Edson's depiction of the doctor's despair next to the patient's "good death" suggests that Jason might emerge out of darkness as well. His tantrum is as much the stuff of childhood as were Vivian's Popsicle, storybook, and baby oil. The play suggests that becoming like a little child--and abandoning the certainty that intellect affords--has set both Vivian and Jason on the road to redemption.

Certainly many Christian viewers will find here only a vague and secular salvation. The play makes no mention of Christ's atoning work, and not only does Edson appear to dismiss Vivian's and Jason's intellectual gifts, but she also seems to be suggesting that simple humility and kindness have salvific power. Iannone argues that Edson's elevation of Susie is especially problematic in this regard: "The most exemplary woman on the medical team that cares for Vivian is a nurse who never reads poetry and is not at all a thinker, but she is good and kind and compassionate to Vivian in her illness; these are the values of the heart that the play puts into counterpoint with the excessive intellectualism of John Donne" (14). Obviously Iannone regards the registered nurse as no match for the Metaphysical poet.

Despite Iannone's dismissal of Susie as an intellectual lightweight, Edson does present the younger woman as an excellent nurse. She is both bright and insightful, unlike Kelekian and Jason, whose extensive medical training seems to have destroyed their capacity for empathy. Susie's superiority to her overeducated supervising physicians seems to bear out Ianonne's accusation that Edson is anti-intellectual. Susie is not, however, the only person who shows concern for Vivian. Professor E. M. Ashford, Vivian's academic mentor, comes to see her in her final hours, and their encounter is a critical component of the play. If Vivian parallels Jason, then Ashford is Kelekian's counterpart, and Edson's depiction of her reveals at least a glimmer of hope for the serious scholar.

The eighty-year-old Ashford, the dying woman's only visitor, enters after Jason and Susie insert Vivian's catheter and leave the hospital room. Ashford explains that she has come to town to celebrate her great-grandson's fifth birthday. When Vivian begins to weep in agony, Ashford offers to recite some of Donne's poetry. No, Vivian moans, so Professor Ashford reads instead from The Runaway Bunny, the book she has brought for her grandson. Cradling Vivian on the bed, Ashford reads to her about the little rabbit whose mother assures him that she will pursue him wherever he goes. "Look at that" she explains. "A little allegory of the soul. No matter where it hides, God will find it. See, Vivian?" Vivian can only mumble in response, and she is soon asleep. Ashford kisses her before she leaves, saying: "It's time to go. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest" (80). The elderly academic has demonstrated remarkable compassion, a striking ability to draw literary connections, and spiritual insight in one brief appearance.

In making Ashford the mouthpiece for Brown's "little allegory of the soul," Edson provides her play with an additional level of complexity (80). Vivian's visitor is no candy-striper; she is "the great E. M. Ashford," author of the "monumental critical edition of Donne's Devotions upon Emergent Occasions" (12, 18). In a flashback scene Ashford rebukes the college-age Vivian for having relied on a second-rate edition of Holy Sonnet VI to write an essay. Ashford takes Vivian to task for producing a paper "unworthy of you--to say nothing of Donne" (13). The older professor explains:
 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? (14)

Such precision will later serve as a model when Vivian undertakes her own exacting scholarship.

In this scene, however, the hapless Vivian listens intently as her academic idol explains that the presence of a comma, rather than a semicolon in the incorrect edition, suggests that only a breath separates life from eternity. Eager to please, Vivian responds: "Life, death ... I see.... It's a metaphysical conceit. It's wit! I'll go back to the library and write the paper." Ashford corrects her, "It is not wit, Miss Bearing. It is truth.... The paper's not the point" (15). Softening, Ashford urges Vivian to continue thinking about the poem but not to go back to the library right away. Instead, she should go outside with her friends. Vivian, however, has no friends and thus makes her way back to the library.

This glimpse of E. M. Ashford offers us hints about what Vivian Bearing could be: a woman whose keen scholarship enables her to see in Donne's complex poetry lessons about life and eternity, God and the human soul. Ashford is exacting enough to have set the standard for Vivian, yet she recognizes the value of enjoying the company of friends on a sunny day. When we see her twenty-eight years later at Vivian's bedside, she is still quoting Donne and William Shakespeare, but she also kicks off her shoes and nestles on the hospital bed with her dying former student. Unlike Vivian, who has no family, Ashford now has a fourth generation of offspring to love and teach. Because she is a great-grandmother, she has with her The Runaway Bunny to read to Vivian. Because she is a scholar trained to recognize the theological implications of the texts she studies, she looks even to a children's book for an "allegory of the soul."

The contrast between Ashford and Vivian is stark, but Vivian's is not a hopeless case. Her final exit into the light suggests her salvation, as does her mentor's visit. That visit is almost certainly a product of Vivian's morphine induced dreams, coming sometime after 4:00 a.m. but before Jason's early-morning rounds. During his previous check on Vivian, Jason tells Susie, "She's out of it. Shouldn't be too long" (78). Vivian's failure to respond to the insertion of a catheter during this scene suggests that she is completely unconscious. Her subsequent waking to talk with Dr. Ashford, then, seems highly unlikely, as does Ashford's account of having already been to Vivian's university office, where she says she learned about Vivian's hospitalization. Almost certainly, then, Vivian is dreaming of Ashford's visit, recounting the story of The Runaway Bunny and recognizing the book's spiritual significance. (1) Although Vivian cannot respond articulately to Professor Ashford's analysis of the children's book, her acceptance of its message is implicit. Having lost her independence, her voice, and even consciousness itself, Vivian has finally learned to see more than wit in a literary work. Death and The Runaway Bunny are helping her grasp what lay in Donne all along--the promise of irresistible grace.

Wit is never didactic enough to suggest outright that The Runaway Bunny and Donne's Holy Sonnets are equally profound works; if anything, Edson probably prefers the straightforward children's book to Metaphysical poetry. When Books and Culture interviewer Carter asked the playwright whether she liked Donne's poetry, Edson replied:
 It's very fun to get yourself educated to a level where you can get it. But
 it takes a lot of hard work, and the fun of catching it is greater than the
 benefit of the insight to be gained. So the points that are made about it
 in the play are that it's complex and difficult, but the complexity doesn't
 necessarily lead you to a higher level of insight. The poems are complex
 for their own sake. They were written not to be published, but to be passed
 around in manuscript among a group of friends.... [Donne] wasn't trying to
 reveal any truth or even pursue any truth. He was just trying to be witty
 and clever. ("John Donne" 25)

Certainly Edson's remarks suggest that she regards Donne as more of a decoy than a role model. "I don't myself see Donne as a perfectly realized spiritual being," she said wryly in a telephone interview.

As skeptical as she may be about Donne's work, Edson does not undermine his poetry's power in the play. It shines through. During her interview with the playwright, Carter challenged Edson's view of Donne:
 I don't approach Donne the same way [you do]. Maybe that's because I like
 cerebral poetry. To me Donne's poetry is very passionate.... I guess I
 sympathize most in the play with Vivian's old professor Dr. Ashford, a
 person of deep feelings who also takes a great interest in punctuation. So
 it's not that you're getting on Donne himself, right? There can be
 intellect and passion at the same time? ("John Donne" 25-26)

To that question Edson responded, "Yeah. I don't see them as distinct" ("John Donne" 26). Another critic who recognizes the play's underlying affirmation of Donne's passionate poetry is Rosette C. Lamont, who praises Wit's final scene for its "amalgam of mortality and sensuality." Lamont compares Vivian's disrobing to Donne's "Elegy 19, To his mistress going to bed" because both present a "paradoxical union of death and sensuality" (570). Pointing out that such links are "endemic to the conceit, and more broadly to literary irony," Lamont concludes that Wit itself is "a celebration of a life dedicated to the art of literature" (575). While Lamont's conclusion may be in part the product of wishful thinking, her article demonstrates that Edson has revealed an affinity rather than an antipathy for Donne.

Unwilling or unable to recognize the degree to which her play celebrates Donne's work and literary scholarship, Edson also seems not to notice that a distinctively Christian understanding of irresistible grace informs Wit. Although she does declare the play to be about "grace and redemption," Edson insists that it is "not doctrinal." In a telephone interview she mused, "People are surprised by how jazzed up they feel when it's over. The audience feels the relief of having laid down a heavy burden." When Carter asked her whether she had intended a religious message, Edson praised her for being the first interviewer to recognize the play's spiritual dimension:
 People always want to talk about the medicine, want to talk about the
 punctuation [in the Donne poetry], and so I compliment you and thank you
 for that. It's not doctrinal, and that's a very important distinction. And
 it's about a point that a lot of people who call themselves religious would
 not necessarily commend, which is the point where you leave off even
 religion. Vivian has to let go of knowledge, of scholarship, of pride, of
 everything, including religion. ("John Donne" 26)

That description of "letting go" is in keeping with what Christ advocates in Matthew 18:2--namely, becoming "as little children" to enter the kingdom of heaven. Wit shows Vivian Bearing doing just that: exchanging her professorial wardrobe for hospital gowns; covering her baby-bald head with a baseball cap; finding herself addressed by her first name or "Sweetheart" instead of "Dr." (and learning to like it); trading her Latinate diction for a simpler Anglo-Saxon vocabulary; accepting caresses and a Popsicle from a motherly nurse; preferring The Runaway Bunny to Donne's sonnets.

Granted, Edson's powerful depiction of Vivian Bearing's physical and mental decline does not make Wit an overtly Christian play. While she does become increasingly childlike, the protagonist repents only of "prefer[ring] research to humanity"--and even that is debatable (58). She makes no mention of Christ, much less any profession of religious faith. Even so, Wit's account of Vivian Bearing's death is life-bearing. Vivian's scholarly vocation ultimately finds affirmation in the example E. M. Ashford provides, and her apparent acceptance of The Runaway' Bunny's message and subsequent reaching for the light at the play's conclusion are echoes, at least, of Christian salvation. The medium--Margaret Wise Brown's book for children--may be humble, but what Professor Ashford finds there is profound: "No matter where it hides, God will find it. See, Vivian?"

Whether or not she realizes it, Edson has depicted in her play the same desire that Donne expresses in Holy Sonnet XIV:
 Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You As yet but knock, breathe,
 shine, and seek to mend, That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
 Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new. (1-4)

No, Vivian Bearing's Deliverer is not overtly Trinitarian. And, no, Vivian cannot articulate the specific spiritual longings that Donne's speaker voices so eloquently. Edson's own ambivalence prompts her to write in more ambiguous terms. Even so, Wit does offer an unabashed celebration of "the opportunity to experience God in spite of yourself" (Martini 25)--the same possibility that Donne celebrates, the possibility offered to humankind in Jesus Christ.


(1) The play's setting is vaguely contemporary, and Vivian is fifty years old. If the play takes place as early as 1991, the year in which Edson wrote it, Vivian would have been born around 1940 and could have read The Runaway Bunny at about the same time as she read Beatrix Potter's books. Ashford reveals The Runaway Bunny's copyright date to have been 1942 (79).


Bregman, Bertie. "Blame the Scholar, Not the Discipline." Lancet 6 Mar. 1999:851.

Donne, John. Holy Sonnet XIV. John Donne's Poetry. Sel. and ed. A. L. Clements. New York: Norton, 1966. 86.

Edson, Margaret. "John Donne Meets The Runaway Bunny." Interview with Betty

Carter. Books and Culture Sept.-Oct. 1999: 24-26.

--. "Play Right: Wit Author Margaret Edson Loves Teaching Kindergarten." Interview. People 5 Apr. 1999: 179.

--. Telephone interview with Martha Greene Eads. 8 Feb. 2000.

--. Wit. New York: Faber, 1999.

Iannone, Carol. "Donne Undone." Rev. of Wit, by Margaret Edson. First Things 100 (2000): 12-14.

Lamont, Rosette C. "Coma Versus Comma: John Donne's Holy Sonnets in Edson's Wit." Massachusetts Review 40 (1999-2000): 569-75.

Martini, Adrienne. "The Playwright in Spite of Herself." American Theatre 16.8 (1999): 22-25.

Renner, Pamela. "Science and Sensibility." American Theatre 16.4 (1999): 34-36.

Martha Greene Eads completed her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 2001. She is a Lilly Fellow in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University, where she teaches in the English and theatre departments. Her essay on Dorothy L. Sayers' romantic comedies is forthcoming in Modern Drama, and she has published on H.D. in Theology and on Doris Betts in The Carolina Quarterly.
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Author:Eads, Martha Greene
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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