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Wit



Awards: Pulitzer Prize - Winner, Drama

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About The Author

Margaret Edson

Margaret Edson was born in Washington, D.C. in 1961. She has degrees in history and literature. She wrote Wit in 1991, after a period spent working as a clerk in the oncology/AIDS department of a Washington hospital in 1985. Edson now lives in Atlanta, where she teaches... More

Awards

Pulitzer Prize - Winner, Drama

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Reading Group Gold

Margaret Edson’s powerfully imagined Pulitzer Prize–winning play examines what

makes life worth living through her exploration of one of existence’s unifying experiences—

mortality—while she also probes the vital importance of human relationships.

What we as her audience take away from this remarkable drama is a keener

sense that, while death is real and unavoidable, our lives are ours to cherish or throw

away—a lesson that can be both uplifting and redemptive. As the playwright herself

puts it, “The play is not about doctors or even about cancer. It’s about kindness,

but it shows arrogance. It’s about compassion, but it shows insensitivity.” In Wit,

Edson delves into timeless questions with no final answers: How should we live our

lives knowing that we will die? Is the way we live our lives and interact with others

more important than what we achieve materially, professionally, or intellectually?

How does language figure into our lives? Can science and art help us conquer death,

or our fear of it? What will seem most important to each of us about life as that life

comes to an end?

The immediacy of the presentation, and the clarity and elegance of Edson’s writing,

make this sophisticated, multilayered play accessible to almost any interested

reader. While the vocabulary and concepts are not simple, this guide should help

you in your presentation of the material. It also points out and explores a number

of themes, angles, and issues in the play of particular interest to young readers.WINNER

As the play begins, Vivian Bearing, a renowned professor of English who has spent

years studying and teaching the intricate, difficult Holy Sonnets of the seventeenthcentury

poet John Donne, is diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. Confident of

her ability to stay in control of events, she brings to her illness the same intensely rational

and painstakingly methodical approach that has guided her stellar academic

career. But as her disease and its excruciatingly painful treatment inexorably

progress, she begins to question the single-minded values and standards that have always

directed her, finally coming to understand the aspects of life that make it truly

worth living.

Since the play deals largely with questions of death and dying, it might be a good
idea to begin your study of it with a general discussion on these themes. Get your
students to express their own feelings on these difficult topics: coming to terms with
a fatal illness; choosing whether or not to undergo painful treatment that might not
be effective; euthanasia; “pulling the plug”; denial; despair or hope; and the ways
that various religions help people to come to terms with death. Students could write
essays on any of these topics, and sharing these essays with one another could prepare
them for the frank yet crucial concerns at the heart of Wit.

Language is important to Vivian, but she has become so caught up in its semantics
that she has overlooked its real purposes. The abstract poems of John Donne, her
academic specialty, eventually prove almost useless in helping her come to terms
with her own life and mortality. But is that the fault of the poet, or of Vivian herself?
You might want to read a few of Donne’s sonnets, particularly “Death be not
proud” and “If poysonous mineralls,” as a way of preparing students to understand
how they relate to the play. Do they find them dry, or consolatory? Ask your students
to bring up other works of art—books, poems, plays, films, whatever they
choose—that have helped them to understand mortality.


1. What does Vivian’s opening monologue (pp. 5–7) tell us about her as a person
and as a teacher? Is she a professor you would like to have yourself? Do you think
you would find her inspiring? Intimidating? Irritating? Why?
2. At the beginning of the play, Dr. Kelekian informs Vivian that she suffers from
an advanced form of cancer—“stage four” (p. 7). Do the doctors believe that the
treatment they propose to give her might possibly save her life? Does she believe it?
If not, why does she decide to go along with it?
3. What is the scene with Vivian as a child with her father intended to tell you
(pp. 41– 43)? Did you feel you understood the adult Vivian better after reading this
scene?
4. In her first monologue, Vivian says that, in the play to come, irony “is a literary
device that will necessarily be deployed to great effect” (p. 6). What is irony? Can
you think of any examples of irony in your world? How, in fact, does the playwright
use irony? What aspects of the play would you call ironic? At what point, and why,
does the play (and Vivian, as a character) eventually turn away from irony? What
limitations does an ironic stance impose on us, as human beings?
5. Vivian is passionate about language: “It has always been my custom,” she remarks
pointedly, “to treat words with respect” (p. 41). How do her experiences in the hospital
change her ideas about language—and about what language is and is not capable
of expressing? When Vivian says, “My only defense is the acquisition of
vocabulary” (p. 44), is she being straightforward or ironic?
6. In the scene in which the medical students undertake Grand Rounds with Dr.
Kelekian, Vivian says, “Once I did the teaching, now I am taught” (p. 37). What
does it mean to Vivian to lose her power?
7. Vivian has no visitors in the hospital, at least not until Professor Ashford arrives.
What has caused her isolation? What aspects of her personality have kept her at a
distance from other people?
8. After her initial discussion with Dr. Kelekian, Vivian says, “I know all about life
and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality
in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language”(p. 12).
What has she learned about life and death from Donne? How do her experiences as
a cancer patient change her ideas about mortality? How useful do her studies prove
to be when it comes to confronting her own end?
9. Vivian has lived her life according to a set of principles she has never questioned
and with a set of skills that she has fine-tuned as she has gotten older. Do these
prove to be insufficient at the end of her life? How do these skills serve her in the
new situation in which she finds herself trapped?
10. Professor Ashford, in her scene with Vivian as a young woman, stresses the difference—
an important one to her—between being sentimental and being a scholar
(pp. 13–14). Is she saying that scholars cannot be sentimental? Does she differentiate
between sentimentality and emotion? What message does she try to get across
to Vivian during this meeting, and how successfully does she in fact communicate
it? What does the scene tell us about the kind of scholar, and the kind of person,
Vivian will become, and about the differences between her and her mentor? Does
Professor Ashford strike you as emotionally limited in the same way that Vivian is,
or do you see her as a fuller and more “human” person?
11. In what important ways are Jason and Vivian alike? Do they ever recognize their
basic similarities? What does Vivian learn about herself from watching and talking
to Jason? What sort of influence do you think Vivian had on Jason when he was her
student? Has his professional attitude to some degree been formed by hers?
12. Vivian is “uncomfortable with kindness” (p. 34). What other instances of this
discomfort can you find? Why might she have become this sort of person?
13. How would you describe Jason’s relationship to Vivian? Does he see her purely
as “research,” or as a vulnerable human being? How does he show his very genuine
respect for her?
14. What does the playwright mean when she says, “The play is not about doctors
or even about cancer. It’s about kindness . . . ” How is Wit about kindness?
15. After the classroom scene, Vivian tries to express her emotions: “I feel so
much—what is the word? I look back, I see these scenes, and I . . . ” (p. 63). How
might Vivian complete the sentence, if she were being perfectly honest with herself?
16. What is your opinion of the nurse, Susie? Does your view of her change as the
play progresses? Do you agree with her own unspoken assessment of herself as not
as intelligent as the doctors, or as Vivian? If so, what does this tell us about our definition
of intelligence?
17. Do you think Susie’s approach to medical care is different from that of the doctors?
What impact does Susie have on Vivian? Does Vivian’s opinion of Susie
change by the end of the play?
18. Does Professor Ashford really visit Vivian as she is dying, or is this a dream?
What is the purpose of this scene?
19. Toward the end of the play, Susie admits that the doctors had never expected
their treatment to actually cure Vivian, that they were implicitly dishonest with her
in raising hopes that it might have done so. How do you feel about the ethics of
using a patient like this? Does the fact that it is being done in a good cause, that future
patients might live, make it excusable? Is Vivian herself angry about her treatment?
How would you explain her feelings?
20. A play is meant to be spoken and heard, not read silently. In your reading group,
try reading portions of the play aloud. Possibilities are the scene where Professor
Ashford discusses Donne’s punctuation (pp. 12–15), Vivian’s classroom lecture on
Donne (pp. 48–50), the students’ discussion of Donne’s poetry (pp. 59–62), the
scene where Susie offers Vivian the Popsicle, or the scene where Vivian and Jason
speak overlapping dialogue (pp. 36–37).

1. Why does the author choose to have Vivian read and discuss the sonnet “If
poysonous mineralls” at one particular point in the play (p. 49)? What does Donne
mean by “mercy”? What might Vivian mean by the same word?
2. Vivian is the narrator of her own demise. Is she a reliable narrator? Can you find
instances in the play in which her explanations about people are not accurate? Is she
approaching the end of her life as if it were a test to be taught, distancing herself
from her experience?
3. In the classroom scene (pp. 59-63) Vivian describes “Donne’s agile wit at work:
not so much resolving the issues of life and God as reveling in their complexity” (p.
60). Student 2 rejects the idea that Donne revels in the complexity and suggests, on
the contrary, that he is “scared, so he hides behind all this complicated stuff, hides
behind this wit,” and describes him as “running away” from the big questions. Do
you think this is a fair assessment of Donne? Is it a fair assessment of Vivian’s own
behavior? What is Vivian most afraid of? What form does her “running away” take?
4. Why do you think the play is called Wit? What different meanings does the word
“wit” have for you? What else might this play be called?
5. Jason describes John Donne as suffering from “Salvation Anxiety” (pp. 75–76).
What does he mean by this? Would you say that Vivian suffers from her own form
of Salvation Anxiety? If so, in what does it consist? Does God or heaven enter into
it? “Doctrine assures us,” she pronounces, explaining Donne’s theology, “that no
sinner is denied forgiveness, not even one whose sins are overweening intellect or
overwrought dramatics” (p. 50). It is easy to recognize overweening intellect as one
of Vivian’s faults; is she also guilty of overwrought dramatics? If so, how are these
dramatics manifested?
6. One of the principal themes of metaphysical poetry is the link, and the division,
between the body and the soul. Does Wit present the body and the soul as different,
or as inextricable? Talking of the doctors’ interest in her, Vivian says, “What we
have come to think of as me is, in fact, just the specimen jar, just the dust jacket,
just the white piece of paper that bears the little black marks” (p. 53). How does she,
and how do we, see the “me” in her?
7. After a funny exchange between the two students, Vivian admits that it “showed
the mental acuity I would praise in a poetic text. But,” she says, “I admired only the
studied application of wit, not its spontaneous eruption” (p. 62). Does her humor
change and broaden as the play progresses? How so, or how not?
8. As a teacher, Vivian liked to attack Donne’s poetry as though it were “a puzzle,”
“an intellectual game” (p. 48); it is a one-sided and limited approach, as she comes
to realize. Her former student Jason, who adopts it, admits that “the puzzle takes
over. You’re not even trying to solve it any more” (p. 76). What implications does
this technique have when it is applied to medical research and clinical work? What
about when it is applied to an academic course of study and the students being
trained in it?
9. Just before Vivian finally accepts morphine, she recites, as her last coherent
words, some lines from Donne’s “Death be not proud” (pp. 72–73). Why, in this
recitation, does she revert to the punctuation—semicolon and exclamation point—
that Professor Ashford deemed “hysterical” (p. 14)? Why does she say “I’m sorry”
after her recitation?
10. Professor Ashford calls The Runaway Bunny “a little allegory of the soul” (p.
80). What does she mean by this? How does the children’s book, in this light, relate
to Donne and Vivian, with their cases of Salvation Anxiety? What sort of comfort
does the story give Vivian, assuming she is capable of taking it in? Why does Professor
Ashford say “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (p. 80) as she leaves?
What does Professor Ashford perceive in The Runaway Bunny that is important?
Why did the playwright select this book for Professor Ashford to read to Vivian?
11. What does the play’s ending have to say about death and salvation, the body
and the soul? Does its note of optimism, even of joy, surprise you?

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