Of the many themes explored in Margaret Edson’s play Wit, one of the most satisfying is the revelation by play’s end that regardless of how universal applicable all the other themes at play may be, the real engine driving all emotional and intellectual connections between almost inevitably results from distressing personal issues, often a particularly idiosyncratic dimension.
These distressing personal issues are typically presented within the context of a play whose central theme radiates outward from the long, lingering death of its main character through interaction with a complex web of family members. One of the most fascinating ways that Wit stands apart from the many other stage dramas in which the main character’s long, slow death provides the foundation for all narrative twists and turns to follow is that such family dynamics do not play a major role in the narrative. The dynamics of how personal distress conveys such larger universal truths through the complexity of interaction are, in fact, located far away from daily goings-on within hearth and home. The relationships that pass through the hospital room and through the mind of Vivian Bearing sometimes reaches an almost surreal level; certainly an argument can be made that something of the Expressionist concept of drama sometimes seems to be playing out around that hospital bed.
Even the agency of Vivian’s encroaching meeting with mortality is as much metaphorical as it is a concrete reality. The cancer eating away inside her body is most assuredly palpable and personal, but the disease is also symbolic and universal. Vivian’s cancer is, one might even go so far to suggest, is the play’s most idiosyncratic character. This metaphorical dimension has the oddly unexpected and rather unique consequence of making the external interaction becoming subordinate to Vivian’s interior conflict while at the very same time accentuating the internal. The ability to lock onto and connect with Vivian’s point of view is absolutely essential to putting the play’s themes across—witness how often she directly addresses the audience as their guide through her own past and deeper into her own consciousness—because it becomes increasingly imperative that audiences members fill in the missing role of family that would normally be such an essential factor in the narrative.
The looming presence of another of the play’s idiosyncratic characters—Death or the Reaper if you will—is quite help in facilitating that association with Vivian in at least a tangentially familial way. Perhaps few connections are quite so universally shared as that immediately empathetic relationship that almost always develops—however briefly—upon one party telling another that they or someone close to them is dying. As a result of how Vivian’s personal anguish transforms viewers into emotional participants, a weird thing slowly begins to happen. Vivian’s interactions with the medical staff begins t0 extend into interactions with audience members as her direct addresses evolve from monologues into one-sided dialogues. With each new revelation of information about herself, another universally recognized phenomenon takes shape. Helen is attempting to make sense of her own life and we join in that process, trying to help her make some sense even though we have no actual access by which to proffer such help.
Were Wit simply a one-woman show featuring a non-stop monologue, that connection with the audience would feel forced. Paradoxically, perhaps, by introducing characters with whom Vivian can interact as well as by making the audience into a silent confidante, her strength is not just more subtly but more intensely revealed. Revealing Vivian’s strength is, of course, necessitated by circumstances so as to avoid her merely becoming a victim worthy of pity more than true empathy. When Vivian haughtily apprises one of the hospital’s technical staff charged with recording information that she is a force to be reckoned on account of her significant contribution to the study of literature, such a proudly proclaimed self-assessment becomes itself an expression of strength rather than a demonstration of validity in the face of quickly approaching obsolescence.
The past and the present merge and converge throughout the play in a way that helps to identify the distinctly personal conflict at play within Vivian while that specter of death always lurking about and ready to strike without a moment’s notice solidifies the universality of her personal struggled with cancer. Vivian’s recollections of her own deep-rooted ambition and success journey toward being recognized as a scholar of distinguished achievement also served to become obstructions to enjoying many of the gratifications of live more universally enjoyed. As a result, something remarkably begins to take shape almost without notice of its narrative manufacture.
What is really haunting Vivian as she faces an early exist head on is the struggle with recognition that in some very universal ways, her life can be categorized to a point as a failure. For solace and, perhaps, to help herself either avoid or overcome this perspective, Vivian turns to the poetry of John Donne and adopts a stance of dismissing death. But is this dismissal merely a consequence of having to admit she must also dismiss her life as not being quite worthy of the effort put into it? Ultimately, Donne is of little use; Vivian cannot succeed in dismissing death like he beloved poet precisely because she cannot face up to the dismissal of her life that such a position would require. Her inability to affect such a stoic philosophy toward the inevitable is emphasized when Dr. Ashford offers to read Donne’s poetry to the succumbing Vivian and she proves incapable of handling it to the point that a children’s story replaces the poetry. That substitution ultimately becomes enormously symbolic of Vivian’s irreconcilable personal conflict over the value of her pursuit of scholarship and her inability to integrate into her life the more universal pleasures afforded by a life not so driven by single-minded pursuit. All children love to hear bedtime stories; far fewer become adults who would want to have poetry about death read to them while they lay dying.