In Wit, her single, brilliant play, Margaret Edson presents a sort of allegory on contemporary life and death. Professor Vivian Bearing, “a force” in scholarly circles, finds herself reduced in force, in expectation, and eventually in intellect as her advanced ovarian cancer survives chemotherapy and draws down the curtain on her life. What separates this tragic tale of a dying woman from the flow of Lifetime-movie fare is how effectively it transcends mere sentiment to actually evoke thought. The fictional Professor Bearing would have appreciated thought, since, as a leading scholar of John Donne, she struggles to bring her students to a higher level of thought.
The parallel in this play between the scholarly interests of Bearing and her equally brilliant doctors, one of whom has struggled through her 17th-century poetry course, lies in their sacrifice of relationship for the brass ring of increased knowledge. Both parties seem constrained by their “texts”–for Bearing, Donne; for the doctors, her cancer–and fail to see or appreciate the humanity behind that text. It is no surprise that the most sympathetic character in the play is the least educated, the nurse, Susie Monahan, who rubs baby oil–lotion in the Mike Nichols film adaptation–into the dying patient’s hands near the end.
Immediately after that poignant–and medically pointless–moment, the “great E.M. Ashford,” Vivian’s mentor, appears in the hospital room not as a forbidding intellectual presence, but as “Evelyn,” a sort of mother figure who reads a children’s book to her former student. Of course, Dr. Ashford cannot cease to be “the great E.M. Ashford,” at least not completely. She interprets The Runaway Bunny as she reads: “Look at that. A little allegory of the soul. God will find it. See, Vivian?”
It was the “great E.M. Ashford” who, in their flashback encounter, with Vivian as an undergraduate, advises her soon-to-be force of a student, “Don’t go back to the library. Go out. Enjoy yourself with your friends.” Ashford, it seems, understood Vivian’s need not for more time with texts but for more time with others.
Does Professor Ashford reflect a different set of values in her later visit from that first? I would argue against that reading. In the first scene, Ashford attempts to bring Vivian fully into life, challenging her to read the text with an attention rarely achieved. She says, “the effort must be total for the results to be meaningful,” yet on the next page she advises Vivian to avoid the library.
Only as Vivian Bearing transforms from the scholar to the object of scholarship does she seem to recognize the significance of Ashford’s advice, given some thirty years earlier. The puzzles that John Donne presents to us in his verse are not isolated mental exercises, little textual Sudokus intended to showcase the reader’s cleverness. They are instead the attempts of a formidable mind to work out age-old questions.
Any human endeavor that loses track of the human scale has become a failure, whether one edits Donne or studies ovarian cancer. A nurse who cannot see the value of treating a patient as a person or a code team that objectifies their patient, reducing her to an acronym on the chart, commits the same failing at a different intellectual level. Although it would have been less intriguing, Edson might have invoked the Apostle Paul as a more accessible text than Donne:
If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. –I Corinthians 13:2