Book Review: Wit by Margaret Edson

“In truth it is like this: You cannot imagine how time can be so still. It hangs. It weighs. And yet there is so little of it. It goes so slowly. And yet it is so scarce.” – Vivian Bearing

In all my 20 or so years in this world I have never paid much attention to punctuation marks. I just know that I use them to end sentences, separate thoughts in a paragraph, and enumerate a number of things in a single sentence. I have never considered the elegant beauty of each punctuation when used in a beautiful and appropriate manner.

However, when I read Wit and came across a certain passage, I realized how poetic and significant a punctuation can be. The passage that I came across reads like this:

E.M. Ashford: Do you think that the punctuation of the last line of this sonnet is merely an insignificant detail? The sonnet begins with a valiant struggle with Death calling on all the forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. But it is ultimately about overcoming the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life death and eternal life. In the edition you choose, this profoundly simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation.

E.M. Ashford: And Death, Capital D, shall be no more, semi-colon. Death, Capital D comma, thou shalt die, exclamation mark!

E.M. Ashford: If you go in for this sort of thing I suggest you take up Shakespeare.

E.M. Ashford: Gardner’s edition of the Holy Sonnets returns to the Westmoreland manuscript of 1610, not for sentimental reasons I assure you, but because Helen Gardner is a scholar.

E.M. Ashford: It reads, “And death shall be no more” comma “death, thou shalt die.” Nothing but a breath, a comma separates life from life everlasting.

E.M. Ashford: Very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause.

E.M. Ashford: In this way, the uncompromising way one learns something from the poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death, soul, God, past present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma.

In the passage, an exclamation point and a comma is very different that it literally changed the meaning of the poem by John Donne. I loved how it is presented in the play as if death is not something to waste exclamation points upon but just a momentary pause towards eternal life.

Anyway, I am getting too far ahead in my introduction. Wit tells the story of Dr. Vivian Bearing, an English professor in an unnamed university, who specializes in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. She is suffering from Stage IV Ovarian cancer and, at the start of the play, she breaks the fourth wall and directly talks to the audience as she tries to tell the story of her life and the diagnosis of her cancer that led to her present condition. And, because Wit is a short play, Vivian’s story is cut down to its most significant moments which is her childhood as she discovers her love for words; her years as a student; and her tenure as a professor.

Wit is driven not by the story or by the conversation by its characters since its length limits the scope of the whole play. Therefore, Wit is driven by the lengthy monologues of Vivian as she struggles to come to terms with her sickness and as she evaluates her life. You see, Vivian is a cold and calculating person that shuns human contact and affection. During her tenure as a professor, we see her scold students with complete disregard of their feelings. Now, on her deathbed, Vivian reconsiders the way that she has lead her life. She now seeks affection in the shadow of death and the only one that can give it to her is her nurse. The doctors consider her as research; the technicians consider her as nuisance; and she has no family or friends to visit her except her former professor who visited her at the end of the play.

Vivian’s story is one that is filled with irony (I hope I am not misusing the term) as she once consider such thoughts on the intricacies of death as a puzzle to be solved by a scholarly study on the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, one of which reads like this:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so ;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture[s] be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke ;  why swell’st thou then ?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more ;  Death, thou shalt die.

All of her life, she studied poems just like the one above which dissects the relationship between man, Death, God, and the afterlife. Now, she is the poetic persona of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets as she seeks to solve the mystery of death. She tries to solve it not as a scholarly pursuit but as a shield against her fear of death and as a way to prolong the feeling of hopelessness that a dying person feels. She is using her intelligence to anchor her to the life that she had before she knew that she was dying as a respite from the inevitable.

However, despite the heavy subject matter, Wit has a sense of humor that gives its reader a sense of ease despite the expected death of its protagonists. However, it also removes from the reader the sense of urgency that should be felt in times of death and it becomes too late when you realize that Vivian’s pain and suffering cannot support the humor anymore. It became heartbreaking in a flash and the reader is caught off-guard and is forced to face the grim realities of death.

The self-examination that Vivian undergoes tells the audience not about the frightening realities of death but about the immense beauty of life. Her dying is a lesson to everyone how short life is and how we often waste it on shallow things. But it also touches upon how death should not be feared for it is the “comma” or the pause that goes between death and eternal life. No matter what your religious belief is, one cannot miss the beauty of Margaret Edson’s imagery about life and death.

At the end of the play, Vivian, who is now almost rendered paralyzed by the pain and the painkillers, is visited by her former graduate professor, E.M. Ashford. Ashford sees Vivian to be in so much pain that she offered to recite something by John Donne. But Vivian, who has been studying John Donne her whole adult life, declines. So, as a substitute, Ashford reads a children’s book (which she will give to her grandson) titled The Runaway Bunny. This, I think, is the most beautiful and profound part of the play. Vivian, who is dying, finally accept her fate as she realizes that death is not a something to be solved by a John Donne sonnet but something to be accepted because, like the children’s book, death is a simple fact of life.

Indeed, brevity is the soul of wit as this play numbers at less than a hundred pages but despite its length, the play still delivers a profound and beautiful message about life and death. I will gladly recommend this to anyone that is interested about a minimalistic portrayal of a dying woman. Without all the exclamation points and capital letters and, instead, delivers the message through period, commas, and wit.

Rating: 4/5

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