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W;T  - Margaret Edson

  Margaret Edson’s play, Wit  (W;t - the semi-colon is a significant punctuation device) is a creative response to the Divine Poems of John Donne  , Vivian Bearing, a demanding, hardnosed and uncompromising English professor has been diagnosed with terminal  advanced (stage 4) metastatic ovarian cancer.  As an academic, she attempts to treat the news with the detachment much like she would her own research. 

Her medical team - the renowned Dr. Harvey Kelekian and his fellow, Dr. Jason Posner, who happens to be an ex-student of hers - do treat her solely like a research experiment, with a "live at all cost" mentality. The doctors recommend an experimental treatment of aggressive chemotherapy, to which she agrees.  During the treatment, she reflects on her reactions to the cycle the cancer takes, the treatments, and reassesses her career and significant events in her life.

Susie Monahan, a nurse with a human side, is the only one in the hospital who empathises and cares for Vivian's condition and causes her to reflect unfavourably on her own inflexible insensitivity and uncompromising standards towards student’s personal needs.

Professor Harvey Chochinov , from the department of psychiatry at the University Of Manitoba, is known as the founder of Dignity Therapy.  Over the years there's been much research into how people feel and react when death is near. But Professor Harvey Chochinov has put right at the centre of this complex equation another element: medical professionals, Palliative Care. More at:


In many ways W;t mirrors and parodies the poetry of John Donne. `  Donne too plays with language, analyses death from a detached perspective but finally confronts his own death in a personal dignified manner.  Donne also deals with the subjective and the objective or the emotional and intellectual exploring their differences and similarities.Dramatic Technique: 

Watch scenes on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eucAdWW-4HM&feature=related

 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. They include: her visit to Dr Kelekian where he coldly and clinically informs her that she has cancer,  her student days with Dr Ashford introducing the theme of death, her formidable reputation as a rigorous lecturer – she was as cold hearted to students as her doctors are to her.  

The effect of these alienating devices are that we do not experience emotional identification, fear or pity (Pathos) or Catharsis; rather we are intellectually engaged as in Donne’s poetry and mentally fascinated in a detached consideration of the issues of life and death. 


Both Donne and Edson are keen students of language and how it can lead to communication and miscommunication.  As scholars both rely on the precision of language to convey disciplined rigorous intellectual analysis of predicaments.  Vivian comes to realise that much of the discipline of Scientific medicine – as of elite intellectualism, is devoid of human emotion so disconnected from reality.

At the age of five, reading The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrice Potter, Vivian comes across the word Soporific.  Her father takes time to explain the word and illustrates its usage.  Vivian then realises “words would be my life’s work”. 

The little bunnies in the picture are asleep! They’re sleeping! Like you said, because of soporific!

She stands up, and MR BEARING exits.

“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: ratiocination, concatenation,(linking) coruscation, (virtuosity)  tergiversation (change sides – apostasy).

Medical terms are less evocative. Still, I want to know what the doctors mean when they. . . anatomise me. And I will grant that in this particular field of endeavour they possess a more potent arsenal of terminology than I. My only defence is the acquisition of vocabulary. ( Page 27).

Later, Susie becomes the butt of humour over the word Soporific.

VIVIAN: “I trust this will have a soporific effect.

SUSIE:  “Well, I don’t know about that, but it sure makes you sleepy”

When it becomes a source of merriment Susie feels humiliated until reassured by Vivian:

SUSIE:  Well, that was pretty dumb-

VIVIAN: “No! No, no!  It was funny!”  and they both giggle   (Page 48) 

Vivian has finally come to realise that there are more important things in life than mere proficiency in words.   Susie’s care and compassion far outweighs all the rigorous professional discipline of the Medical Specialists or elite literary scholars.

Empty platitudes and rituals:

A platitude is a husk of a word with just the pretence of truth; little different from a fiction or a lie.

Formal perfunctory greetings become meaningless through routine habits.

“I have been asked ‘How are you feeling today?’ while I was throwing up into a plastic washbasin.”

Vivian:  I am waiting for the moment when someone asks me this question and I am dead.    ........I could have exploited this feigned solicitude ....as I was distributing the final examinations....

The medical team have an Orwellian term for it – Clinical (procedures):

Jason:  (Remembering.) Oh Jeez. Clinical.  Professor Bearing. How are you feeling today?     Page 29


Kelekian: Clinical

Jason:  Oh right (To Vivian) Thank-you Professor Bearing. You’ve been very cooperative...      Page 25 

Clinical generally has multiple objective meanings; cold, detached, disinterested, dispassionate – scientific, yet the medical staff use the term ironically in a contradictory sense to trigger a feigned personal interest.

Though they have been trained to appear empathetic, the doctor’s reveal that this is a nuisance - merely tokenism.  The medical specialists merely pretend to be interested in the welfare of the patient when really all they really care about is their research results.  Ultimately Vivian is forced to examine the harshness and lack of empathy in her own approach to the students she taught.  

Jason Posner reveals his true feelings:

“The clinicians are such troglodytes. So smarmy. Like we have to hold hands to discuss creatinine clearance. Just cut the crap, I say.”

Juxtaposition of technical with imaginative language:

Edson demonstrates the adaptability of language and how different fields of study can use the same word to mean different things which causes confusion and lack of communication: 


Medical  Research

Literary Study





Physical probing

Look at closely –Questions for grading


samples for lab analysis

measure what has been learned


Medical Title

PHD Doctor of Philosophy




 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 ....)

Irony::         “Cancer is the only thing I’ve ever wanted.”

Posner 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. 

Though she has spent her entire career dealing with erudite concepts of “death” in Donne’s poetry, Vivian Bearing is ill prepared to face her own personal death.

Slang:    Even highly erudite scholars revert to casual expressive language in times of crisis or stress.  As her pain, suffering and humiliation increase, she begins to lose her intellectual ability to articulate her condition and drops her defence mechanisms and mask of dignity. 

“Oh — Oh, no!”  (She throws up again, moans, and retches in agony.) “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.” 

Paradox:   “My treatment imperils my health.”    (Page 30)

Vivian’s treatment is not so much a cure, rather her body becomes an experimental “rat” for the Medical researchers to test their treatments for future patients.


Pedantic scholars can make much of subtle nuances and are prone to “scrupulously detailed examination”  of poetry and so Professor Ashford’s words: 

“You have entirely missed the point of the poem, because, I must tell you, you have used an edition of the text that is inauthentically punctuated. In the Gardner edition “

In the edition you chose, this profoundly simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation:

And Death — capital D — shall be no more — semi-colon!

Death — capital D — comma — thou shalt die —

exclamation point!

If you go in for this sort of thing, I suggest you take up Shakespeare.

Gardner’s edition of the Holy Sonnets returns to the Westmoreland manuscript source of 1610 — not for sentimental reasons, I assure you, but because Helen

Gardner is a scholar. It reads: 

And death shall be no more, comma, Death thou shalt die.

As she recites this line, she makes a little gesture at the comma.

Nothing but a breath — a comma — separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause.

This way, the uncompromising way, one learns something from this poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.

It is important to understand the differing punctuation and the way it changes the meaning of the verse. Vivian, as she believes Donne had, sees death as an event that needs to be conquered, unrelated to life. Her professor, however, explains that with the proper punctuation it becomes clear that death and life are very closely related and are only separated by a mere breath. Vivian cannot see this truth through her academic studies and is unwilling to look into her own world and life experiences for the answer. Indeed all things in life are closely related and cannot be compartmentalized, as Vivian would like.

Watch a You Tube video of this scene @:


But at the end of the Play Vivian comes to realise that in her case, her punctuation was appropriate: 

These are my last coherent lines. I’ll have to leave the action to the professionals.

It came so quickly, after taking so long. Not even time for a proper conclusion.

VIVIAN concentrates with all her might, and she attempts a grand summation, as if trying to conjure her own ending.

And Death — capital D — shall be no more — semi-colon. Death — capital D — thou shalt die — exclamation point! 

Themes, Concerns, Issues, Values 

The main issues are matters of life and death.  How do we live a full life and die peacefully? 

 Vivian Bearing learns too late that her values were wrong and it takes the simplicity of Susie’s personal care and compassion to teach her the priorities of life. 

Professor Bearing confuses uncompromising standards and hardline approaches to life as strength when a more human approach would be more fulfilling. 

This is the exchange after she hands in her first essay on John Donne: 

VIVIAN. Life, death. . . I see. (Standing.) It’s a metaphysical conceit. It’s wit! I’ll go back to the library and rewrite the paper —

PROFESSOR E.M. ASHFORD (standing, emphatically). It is not wit, Miss Bearing. It is truth. (Walking around the desk to her) The paper’s not the point.

VlVIAN . It isn’t?

E.M. (tenderly). Vivian. You’re a bright young woman. Use your intelligence. Don’t go back to the library. Go out. Enjoy yourself with your friends. Hmm?

VIVIAN walks away. E.M. slides off

VIVIAN (as she gradually returns to the hospital). I, ah, went outside. The sun was very bright. I, ah, walked around, past the. . . There were students on the lawn, talking about nothing, laughing. The insuperable barrier between one thing and another is. . . just a comma? Simple human truth, uncompromising scholarly standards? They’re connected?

Vivian fails to enjoy herself with friends, becomes a renown scholar but ends up with very little to show for it.  While in hospital no one visits her until the very end when an eighty year old PROFESSOR E.M. ASHFORD comes in and offers to recite something of Donne, which VIVIAN rejects and so PROFESSOR E.M. ASHFORD reads to her THE RUNAWAY BUNNY By Margaret Wise Brown.  PROFESSOR E.M. ASHFORD too has discovered that grandchildren are as important as intellectual scholarship. 

Vivian finally comes to realise that there are more important things in life than mere professional standards.  

VIVIAN (getting out of bed, without her IV). So. The young / doctor, like the senior scholar, prefers research to humanity. At the same time the senior scholar, in her pathetic state as a simpering victim, wishes the young doctor would take more interest in personal contact.

Vivian also comes to see that the study of literature, which she so prized for itself, has little meaning when devoid of human connections. Rather than administering the “full dose” of Donne to her students, she might have taken time to nurture their minds and to attend to them as individuals and not vessels to be filled with knowledge. 

Susie’s care,  compassion and humanity far outweigh all the rigorous professional discipline of the Medical Specialists or her academic colleagues.  Susie calls her “sweetheart”  and offers her a Popsicle. 

VIVIAN. That certainly was a maudlin display. Popsicles? ‘Sweetheart?’ I can’t believe my life has become so... corny.

But it can’t be helped. I don’t see any other way. We are discussing life and death, and not in the abstract, either; we are discussing my life and my death, and my brain is dulling, and poor Susie’s was never very sharp to begin with, and I can’t conceive of any other.. . tone.

(Quickly.) Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit.

And nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis. Erudition. Interpretation. Complication.

(Slowly.) Now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness.

No wonder Nurses are top of the trusted list with 89% of those surveyed rating nursing as the most ethical and honest profession in the country. (2009)  The most noble professions are those who care selflessly for others; nursing, teaching, charity volunteers.....


Edson’s having used the word wit for the title of the play allows us to conclude that wit is a prominent theme.  Edson even offers some of her definitions of wit within the play itself. Bearing at one point states, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” This definition of wit describes most of the witty lines that Bearing delivers, most of which are extremely short. One example is Bearing’s statement, “Publish and perish.” This makes reference to a common phrase that is often used among college professors “publish or perish” referring to the fact that most professors must publish if they want to attain tenure, or permanent status. Bearing is, of course, referring to the fact that she has published, but because of her disease she will perish anyway - a witty proclamation.

Later, Bearing offers the following information about wit- “Ingenuity, virtuosity, and a vigorous intellect that jousts with the most exalted concepts: these are the tools of wit.” In other words, cleverness, creativity, and intelligence are required (according to Bearing/Edson) in order to be witty. And the greatest of all wits, Bearing says, was John Donne. These qualities of wit are the very ones behind which Bearing hides. These qualities also are the ones that Susie, the nurse, seems to lack. And yet it is Susie that the play eventually concludes is the hero. “Poor Susie’s mind was never very sharp to begin with,” says Bearing, making fun of the nurse who is the only one in the play with a sense of humanity. And it is that sense of humanity, not wit, that Bearing, in her last days, needs the most. 

Despite numerous rejections from 1991, Wit was finally performed in California in 1995 and eventually received critical praise and the Pulitzer Prize in New York in 1999.  It was also adapted for television in 2001 where it was nominated for two Golden Globe awards.

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