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Capsule Comparison Donne – W;t

Wit:   “Apt association of thought and expression, calculated to surprise and delight by its unexpectedness.” OED


Edson heard that John Donne was one of the difficult poets to read, so he seemed to be a perfect subject for her hard-edged protagonist’s research. Not ever having studied Donne, Edson spent countless hours sifting through centuries of criticism and commentary. She even found a model for her character E.M. Ashford in the real-life, Oxford University professor, Helen Gardner, whose meticulous work on Donne’s Holy Sonnets made her a well-known authority among scholars. ‘Scholarly quibbles are very meaningful,” notes Edson, “A poem with a comma and a poem with a semi-colon are two different poems.” She found that to “anatomize” a poem down to its punctuation was similar in some respects to the way a medical researcher studies the anatomy of a human being.

“To say it popped into my mind is the most accurate way of describing it. It just came to me.”


When comparing her play to Donne’s poetry we need to establish the similarities and differences in a number of areas.

Context and Background

Poetry of John Donne

Drama of Margaret Edson: W;t




Born in 1572, Donne's Father died when John was 3 years old. His brother Henry died of gaol fever for harbouring a Catholic priest. As other Catholic families they were grievously persecuted.


It may be the deaths of two people close to him at a young age left an indelible impression on a young man.


“Jack” Donne trained as lawyer — led a dissolute rakish student life,

A great visitor of ladies and a great frequenter of Playes”

Donne left the Catholic Church likely due to lack of any chance of advancement.


In his middle years, he writes mainly of love, but in his mature years, Dr. Donne composed The Holy Sonnets  shortly after his wife died when he decided:“wholly on heavenly things my mind is set”.


It shows us Donne in his mature years, no longer overtly concerned with the relationship between the sexes but with his relationship with God.


Some have argued that as a result of leaving the Catholic Church to become Dean of St Paul’s Anglican Church caused him to become neurotic and guilt-ridden.


Donne used a great deal of specialized knowledge in his poetry. He, like Hamlet was an eclectic Renaissance scholar and makes references to Astronomy, astrology, world exploration, geometry, medicine, metallurgy, and numerous other scientific discoveries.


While Donne writes passionately and intensively on love and death, he is adopts a detached objective approach, rather than a maudlin or sentimental one.


We cannot assume that the persona of his poems necessarily reflect his situations or life.

Born in 1961, in Washington, D.C. where she grew up, her mother, a medical social worker and her father, a newspaper columnist, encouraged her early theatrical leanings: Edson and her girlhood friend, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, of Seinfeld fame, performed plays in their basements and Edson was an active member of the theatre program in high school.

She graduated magna cum laude in 1983 with a degree in Renaissance history. Edson spent a couple years doing odd jobs.

In 1985 she took a job as a clerk on an oncology/AIDS unit at a research hospital in Washington. The unit was doing clinical trials of the drug AZT for AIDS patients and developing new protocols for the treatment of ovarian cancer. In her unobtrusive clerical position, Edson was able to watch the interactions of very sick patients with their caregivers, and to observe how patients coped with their illnesses and the often dehumanising environment of a bustling hospital. She left the hospital after a year, but the experience stayed with her.

In 1991, just prior to her thirtieth birthday, she decided to write a play about her year at the hospital. She was struck by the low survival rate of women with ovarian cancer and awed by their dignity and bravery in the face of death: “One was a science writer with three children, going through very aggressive treatment for ovarian cancer.  I tried to tell her, in my 22-year-old way, that I admired her courage, and she said very calmly, ‘I don’t have much choice, do I?

Edson knew she wanted her main character to be someone who moved from a position of authority and power to a position of dependency. She considered protagonists in medicine and law, but liked the idea of a highly of articulate academic who discovers that her expertise in literary interpretation has little to do with the real-life trauma of cancer, which cannot be addressed through scholarly research or school intellectual argument.


Poetry of John Donne

Drama of Margaret Edson: W;t

Prevalence of Death:

Sheltered from Death:

Death had a more immediate presence in the past than in today’s sanitised sheltered times. With public executions - decapitation of traitors, heads spiked on London Bridge, burnings at the stakes, dismemberment of bodies, people were more exposed to the grim gruesome realities of prevalent death. Fifteen thousand people died in London during the plague while Donne lived there and each morning a mortuary cart would pass down the streets calling for people to bring out your dead to be flung and piled upon each other for mass immolations. No wonder they were inured and brutalised but also pre-occupied by death.

Dead members of the family were laid out at home so there was a lot more immediacy, awareness and acceptance of death.

We are cushioned and protected from seeing dead bodies to preserve their dignity. Most people have rarely see a dead body as it is usually covered by a sheet or body bag, coffins draped with shrouds are seldom opened for viewings.


George W Bush’s administration even banned the televising of coffins of returning dead from the Iraq war.


Social, Cultural and Historical:

Social, Cultural and Historical:

Elizabethans were highly conscious of Heaven and Hell.  There is a strong certitude of an afterlife.


Here is an interesting comment about the times taken from an essay called ‘Shakespeare’s Tragic Justice’ by C J Sisson

For the Elizabethan, and for Shakespeare, the unseen other world of eternity was not only more certain in men’s belief, but it was closer to the world of human reality, ...... . A man prepared his baggage for his passage through death to that other world as he would prepare for a journey from Stratford to London, not booted and spurred, but shriven, anointed, having made his peace with God as well as his last will and testament, indeed as part of that peace. For so the Order for the Visitation of the Sick admonishes a man ‘to make his will for the better discharging of his conscience.’


Donne was fascinated by the mystery of Christ’s death with its possibility for Salvation.

Anti-Catholicism represents a division in religious belief.


Edson is writing in the time of  Post Modernism, with its lack of certainty on most issues including the afterlife.

Absurdity (that which has no purpose, meaning goal or objective) is the result of disillusionment with the rationalism, which attempted to justify the exploitation of the working class and poor, the affluence of the rich, the wanton yet condoned destructiveness of two world wars, and the unquestioned belief in evolution and progress.  No longer can we accept a unanimous consensus of moral and social order.

The decline of religious faith, the destruction of the belief in automatic social and biological progress, the discovery of vast areas of irrational and unconscious forces within the human psyche, the loss of a sense of control over human development  in an age of totalitarianism, and weapons of mass destruction and mass persuasion, have all eroded a sense of confidence in the future of the world. 

  Individualism ranks supreme.

Values and Ideas


Poetry of John Donne

Drama of Margaret Edson: W;t

Purpose and Audience

Purpose and Audience


Donne flaunts his cleverness- his wit

To demonstrate his wit was all his art”. 

“I did best when I had least truth for my subjects”.

Donne’s poems range from a passionate, intense and personal declaration of love to a philosophic celebration of the dualism of: soul and body, emotion and intellect.  His later poems deal with a pre-occupation with death.

Donne is writing and reading his work in the court of the King. He didn’t want to be known as a writer.



The play is a play about death and dying, but what seems to have impressed audiences is the lesson the play presents for the living.


Edson is driven by a need to expose the posturing, arrogance and callousness of the scholarly academic elite of both the Sciences and the Arts.  

Edson was writing for a wider general audience as she sent her script to as many theatres as possible.


The definition of self

The definition of self


Donne is writing in a period of transition from medieval concepts of a uniform, unanimous or monolithic world with one ruler – a monarch, one church – Anglo-Catholic/, one economic system – feudalism, and a conformist outlook in life to a more tolerant diverse society.


Individuals were expected to submerge their identity with the larger community.

“No man is an island entire of itself”


Donne defines himself as a scholar, lover and finally as Dean of St Paul’s, but always as a penitent sinner unworthy, yet pleading for God’s mercy and grace.


Individualism runs rampant. People are obsessed with self serving aspirations and damn everyone else.


Narcissism rules: We are subtly encouraged by movies, marketing, advertising and pop culture, not to regard each other as “selves” deserving respect and trust but as objects for consumption.

Greed is sexier than gratitude, competitiveness is better than cooperation. Power and money are what matter.

Mostly we live in a heightened state of insatiability, wanting what we can’t have, forgetting and discarding what we already have.

Brittle fragile relationships are normal, with each person watching their backs rather than the faces of the person they most want to love and be loved by.

Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love by Stephanie Dowrick


Modern celebrity is based on idolising transient superficial plastic people.

Style and Language

Poetry of John Donne

Drama of Margaret Edson: W;t

Direct – short - punchy

Recognition of need for simplicity

Donne is an iconoclastic – he innovatively breaks the rules and attacks sacred cows.

Donne is recognised for his verbal ability to arrest our attention.

His language is simple, colloquial, direct and forceful

His is the language of argument; the language of logic and reasoning.

He uses of short monosyllabic words to create a punchy argumentative voice.

He uses natural rhythms and “strong lines often too harsh for our ears.”

He uses original creative images - his unique poetic vision.

Donne’s concrete images evoke abstract ideas.  

Irony comes through in Posner’s statement: “Cancer is the only thing I’ve ever wanted.” He is referring to his passion in medical research, but this statement vividly demonstrates the quirk of fate that has inverted the positions of authority between Posner and Bearing. Cancer, of course, is the last thing that Bearing wanted.

Play on Words:  Double meaning: 

“I’ve got less than two hours.  Then Curtain.”   (page 2)

Having a former student give me a pelvic examination was... degrading. (Page 19)

Ejaculations in Seventeenth Century Manuscripts and Printed Editions of the Holy Sonnets.  (Expressions in ....)

Issues, Concerns, Themes, Values


Poetry of John Donne

Drama of Margaret Edson: W;t



Love and Death


Life and Death


As in most literature his is a search for meaning and direction in life. In the Canonization he reveals his disillusionment with society and finds meaning only in his love.

In an age of change, doubt and uncertainty, we require something stable to believe in. Personal experience is one of the few certainties left.

All experience is personal, emotional and subjective - but Donne and the other Metaphysicals used their poetic talents to define emotional experiences by a series of intellectual parallels. They tried to objectify subjective emotions.

In his divine poetry there is the struggle of faith, the conflict between what Donne was and what he would be, between will and conscience; an attempt to bring harmony out of conflict.

Donne’s greatest struggle was to master his temperament and his greatest hope was not for forgiveness of his early excesses but for a consistent piety which would save him from despair. The sensuous immediacy of the love lyrics is replaced by moral intensity and agony of the Holy Sonnets.


Academic elitism is taken to task in one of her classes Vivian makes this statement:

“Doctrine assures us that no sinner is denied forgiveness, not even one whose sins are overweening intellect or overwrought dramatics.”


Cerebral people often neglect the emotional aspect of their lives and Edson attempts to illustrate how sterile life can become if we don’t live a full holistic life.





Poetry of John Donne

Drama of Margaret Edson: W;t




Donne appears to have a cocky attitude to authority – Kings, God, The Sun and even Death.

Wit: Dr Samuel Johnson, writing 150 years after Donne’s death. criticised him for:

“the most heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together.”


He also describes this quality as:

“a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult remembrances in things apparently unlike”.


Donne’s creates a distinctive dramatic voice that appears authentic and real.  He had a tremendous influence on other poets who specialised in the dramatic monologues such as Robert Browning and T.S. Eliot.




Edson adopts an objective approach rather than the Aristotelian empathetic one.  The initial alienating device of Vivian Bearing addressing the audience directly destroys any illusions of empathetic theatre. 

“It is not my intention to give away the plot; but I think I die at the end.”

Immediately we become detached and become engaged objectively, rather than emotionally. The direct narration to the audience helps to economically speed up the transfer of information.


Other alienating devices include the rapid change of scenes, flash backs, and the use of irony.

The various flashbacks fill us in on what came before and give us insights into Vivian’s past.





We  should not assume the speaker is necessarily Donne or that he is serious. Like all his poetry, Donne is playing to the gallery and more interested in demonstrating his flair for language and the playful use of outlandish comparisons called Conceits than proving a point.







Edson’s Wit

Donne was revived in the 1930’s by T.S. Eliot and has enjoyed a long period of idolisation by literary scholars.  It is the sharpness and clarity of the written word that gives him the adulation he enjoys.


He has influenced many poets and is well read today.

Wit was first performed in California in 1995 to critical acclaim and won the Pulitzer Prize in New York in 1999.  It has also been adapted for television in 2001 where it was nominated for two Golden Globe awards.

The London Times sums up the play as being “moving, funny and wise about the limitations of the intellect and the value of the heart.” Wit has been produced all over America as well as in international theatres.


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