I teach a college-transfer class called English 112: Researching and Writing in the Disciplines, whose objective is to present a crash course in academic writing across the university curriculum. To that end, and drawing on my experience as a disability examiner for Social Security, I require that my students select one physical or mental impairment as a semester topic and write papers on this topic from the unique perspectives of three distinct scholarly disciplines. They must write a popular science article, compile a social science literature review, and finally, analyze a novel, a short story, or a film. My personal objective, in addition to the state-mandated one, is epistemological. I want my community-college students to understand that there are many ways of knowing and that their lives will be richer if they employ several of them. I want them to know that there are many paths to Truth and that they are not mutually exclusive, but complementary.
To guide my students in their enactment of this lofty experiment, I chose the topic of ovarian cancer and wrote a sample paper for each essay project. What follows is my paper for the humanities assignment, in which I discuss the depiction of ovarian cancer in the stage play “Wit” by Margaret Edson. This paper is also a direct response to a conversation with John Boggess, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UNC, who told me while my own feet were in the stirrups that he hated the play (emphasis his). Finally, watching and writing about “Wit” has enabled me to come as close as I have ever come to understanding what is inside the head of my husband, who has had one type of cancer or another since the age of 29 and who understands that despite his so-far successful stem cell transplant, he will always be a cancer survivor.
Meditations All Too Human:
Cancer, Life, Death, and Margaret Edson’s “Wit”
“Wit,” a one-act play by Margaret Edson, chronicles the last few hours in the life of Vivian Bearing, a professor of seventeenth-century British poetry specializing in the Holy Sonnets–the Divine Meditations–of John Donne. The play begins with Bearing’s diagnosis with terminal cancer, follows her through eight courses of chemotherapy at the full dose, and ends with the quiet comma marking her passage from life to death. Professor Bearing often speaks directly to the audience, using words—her best, indeed, her only weapon—in the attempt to understand her rich but circumscribed life and to explain her brutally clinical and not-at-all poetic manner of leaving it. The play can be seen as a somewhat heavy-handed indictment of medical researchers–and humanities professors–who shed their humanity at the door of the laboratory or the classroom. It can be analyzed as a meditation on learning to accept healing grace in the face of brokenness. At its deepest level, however, it can be read as a primer—for students, for clinicians, and for caregivers—on the experience of having cancer. Specifically, side by side with the better known demons of pain and fear, the play demonstrates with exacting clarity the indignity, the tedium and banality, and the loss of mental acuity that accompany a diagnosis of terminal cancer.
Roger Ebert suggests that the film version of this play was “merciless in showing how hospital routine robs [Bearing] of her dignity.” Indeed, that process begins immediately as a prim, middle-aged woman walks across the stage. Within the first three minutes of this production, someone takes away the book she is carrying, then her shoes, and then her clothes, leaving her barefooted and in a hospital gown. Finally, another character snatches the hair from her head, and she is bald and vulnerable. Sadly, though, not even this final indignity is final. After her diagnosis with Stage IV ovarian cancer, she must give her history to the post-graduate fellow—coincidentally, a former student—working on her case. Although it has “always been [her] custom to treat words with great respect” (“Wit” 41:33), Professor Bearing finds even her word choice subtly undermined when she describes her pain as “like a cramp, but not the same,” but Dr. Posner asks, “Well, how did it feel?” She is forced to acknowledge, “I can’t describe it” (25:25). The doctor then places her on the examining table and abandons her, feet up and knees spread wide, to go find the nurse before proceeding with the physical examination. With the off-hand wit that informs her interactions with the audience, the professor describes undergoing a pelvic examination by a former student as “thoroughly degrading” (pun intended) and “the depths of humiliation” (32:00). The patient experiences further indignity as the wordsmith whose vocabulary turns to the Anglo-Saxon when she must report her emesis to the nurse, as the senior scholar who is quizzed for cognitive impairment (who is the President of the United States?), and as the object of stares and prodding and third-person discussion during grand rounds. Vivian Bearing articulates clearly her belief that she has lost not only her dignity, but ultimately her humanity, when she realizes, “What we have come to think of as me is, in fact, just the specimen jar, just the dust jacket, just the piece of white paper that bears the little black marks” (1:00:37).
This perceived loss of dignity and even selfhood at the hands of medical professionals is familiar not only to all women who have had their feet in the gynecologist’s stirrups, but also to all men who have undergone the traditional first-line test for prostate cancer—palpatio per anum as Professor Bearing might prefer that it be designated. However, “Wit” also provides creative and even surprising insight into the tedium that characterizes long-term medical care. Early in the play, Bearing says she will tell the audience “what it is like most of the time” and then lies flat on her back, silent, arms crossed, eyes closed (36:35). She momentarily reflects that if she were writing the play, this scene would last for fifteen minutes in the effort to reveal the way in which time “goes so slowly and yet . . . is so scarce” (37:00). She has no visitors. Nor does she do what so many hospital patients do so endlessly, watch television—a detail revealed powerfully in the HBO version of the play.
The tedium of being hospitalized finally becomes dreary banality in this stark production. Roger Ebert recognized that progression when he described his inability to watch the film a second time because he had had cancer in the interval: “Although people in my situation are always praised for their courage, actually courage has nothing to do with it. There is no choice.” Similarly, after having another in the endless series of tests that reveal only the insidious progression of her cancer, Professor Bearing tells the audience that her next line will be one of relief at getting back to her own room. However, that line will be a mistake, she says, because getting back to her room is “just the next thing that happens” (1:01:17). Her life becomes a series of numbers in a chart, intake and output in cubic centimeters. She eats a popsicle because it feels good to her esophagus without its epithelial cells, she can digest it, and it keeps her hydrated. She gets called “sweetheart” by her nurse and muses, “I can’t believe my life has become so corny” (1:20:05).
What might seem the most tragic loss as Professor Bearing succumbs to cancer—the loss of her intellectual acuity—becomes just another thing that happens. Several times early in the play, Bearing seems to “wrest control” from the playwright and explain the inexplicable by resorting to flashbacks of a time when she was in control and could “regain her power by situating the unknowable present in the knowable past” (Larson 3). Much later, though, fumbling for words, she realizes that the topic now is not metaphysical conceits, but her own life and her own death. Her “brain is dulling”; the time has passed for “verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination, and for wildly shifting perspectives” (1:20:20). She declares with diminishing confidence, “I want to tell you how it feels” but cannot: “It’s as if . . . I can’t . . . there aren’t” (1:22:25). And she is finally forced to acknowledge, “These are my last coherent lines” (1:26:30). Significantly, these lines conclude with a reading of Donne that disavows her former professor’s insistence that a mere comma, not a semicolon, separates life and death in Holy Sonnet X. She primly straightens the bow and adjusts the bodice of her hospital gown and recites: “And Death—capital D—shall be no more—semicolon; and Death—capital D—thou shalt die—ex-cla-ma-tion point!” (1:27:00).
Margaret Edson describes her intent in this play as a portrayal of the “tension between love and knowledge” in a vulnerable woman who finally risks shedding her encumbrances and accepting grace. Ruth Pennebaker reports precisely that intended catharsis after seeing the play on Broadway with a fellow cancer survivor. People who have cancer, people who have cared for someone with cancer, and even people with a modicum of imagination know something of the physical pain endured by those whose bodies have been invaded by cells growing out of control, pain that the metastases in her bones finally cause Vivian Bearing to suffer. Anyone who has ever faced the death of a loved one, to say nothing of his or her own death, can appreciate the fear Bearing ultimately expressed—of the unknown, of the semicolon, of the end. The stunning success of “Wit” lies not merely in its accurate depiction of the humiliating compromises and the dreary dailyness that inhere in a diagnosis of terminal cancer, but also in its portrait of a brilliant but flawed scholar who must ultimately—in its literal sense—accept all that it means to be human.
Ebert, Roger. “When a Movie Hurts Too Much.” Rev. of Wit. RogerEbert.com. EbertDigital LLC, 3 July 2008. Web. 24 July 2016.
Edson, Margaret. Question-and-answer session. 21 Sept. 2015. YouTube. Web. 24 July 2016.
Larson, S.A. “Wit—A Film Review, Analysis, and Interview with Playwright Margaret Edson.” Journal of Humanities in Rehabilitation. Emory University, 8 July 2015. PDF file.
Pennebaker, Ruth. “Survivors Bond over a Grueling Play.” New York Times 17 Feb. 2012. Infotrac Newsstand. Web. 25 July 2016.
“Wit.” By Margaret Edson. Dir. Richard H. Hibbert. Perf. Vivian Jordan. University of Vermont Medical Center, Burlington. 21 Sept. 2015. YouTube. Web. 24 July 2016.