A patient is generally interrupted by her doctor 18 seconds after she starts speaking. Such is the common failing of good physicians: medical care that loses sight of the patient as human. The bedside manner. The Hippocratic Oath. In Margaret Edson’s play Wit, the human touch of doctors is betrayed by the question asked in rote monotone to sick patients: “How are you feeling today?” Our narrator Vivian Bearing, poetry scholar and cancer patient, opens the play with this inquiry, and explains that for a cancer patient, such a question is at best a formality and at worst an insult. She flips this seemingly innocuous question on its head and gives it a new meaning as though she were interpreting a poem. Margaret Edson, a sixth-grade teacher, has one play to her name. And it is, as Cynthia Nixon put it, “a near perfect play.” Nixon currently stars in Wit’s first Broadway production, playing Vivian, our guide through cancer with a key to the poets. Diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer, with numerous accolades and scholarly publications under her belt but nary a friend or close colleague, Vivian is sick and entirely alone. She doesn’t resent her physicians’ cold cerebral approach; in fact, it mirrors her own. The doctors’ dogged pursuit of knowledge and discovery in medicine – portrayed by their administering inhumane levels of chemo – is juxtaposed with Vivian’s inexhaustible study of poetry, particularly the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Her tension as a patient comes in her need to tell us – the audience, her only confidants – that she is someone to be recognized, that she still has much purpose. Between bouts of chemotherapy, she teaches us poetry, elucidating John Donne’s struggle with life, death, and afterlife.
As a result, Wit – a play that seems to pull at the heartstrings of viewers – was also one of the most intellectually engaging works I’ve even seen. Dressed in a hospital gown throughout the play, Vivian leads us theatrically through her life and her life’s work. For former English majors like myself, there is so much pleasure in hearing poetry out loud. We hear Vivian recite the words of John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud”, first with the austere, intellectual remove of a scholar and later with the gut-wrenching urgency of a terminal patient. Cynthia Nixon is wholeheartedly committed to Vivian. She breathes life into this role.
One of the most poignant motifs in Wit is the frequent interplay of teacher and student: Vivian with her college students, oncology physicians with their residents, a doctor and his patient. Edson shows how often great scholars can fail as teachers, perhaps because their love of the material overshadows their ability to empathize and listen. In this beautiful play, Edson demonstrates that what we continually need, through sickness and health, is to be heard.