Also in this issue by Joyce Wilson
by Margaret Edson.
Faber and Faber, New York, 1999. ISBN 0571198775 (paper). Starring Judith Light in Boston, February 2000.
Presenting the last days of a tenured English professor who is dying of ovarian cancer, Wit pleases and instructs but does little justice to the poetry incorporated so centrally in its dramatics. The play pleases as it posits the metaphysical language of John Donne's sonnets against the scientific language of the cancer research establishment. The plot instructs when it points to the inhumane nature of a research hospital that treats patients as guinea pigs. It instructs about the teaching of poetry. But the pleasure often depends upon clichés with an anti-intellectual bent, and the plot concludes by rejecting difficult poetry that cannot sustain the morale of the patient in a time of need, or during serious illness. This rejection of Donne's poems struck me as a low blow. I wondered what the playwright had in mind: a rejection of poetry that is inaccessible or of basic intellectual striving? To show how a woman could not turn to poetry once she was confronted with death struck me as odd, because it is just this confrontation that is Donne's subject.
***** However much one agrees or disagrees with this dramatic speech as a valid interpretation of Donne's poem, it does map out what will happen to Bearing––soon she also ceases being clever, becomes melodramatic, considers piety, and then moves into a state of oblivion. And the poetry becomes little more than a discarded prop. With only minutes to live, Bearing gives up her championing of Donne:
*****And nothing could be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis. Erudition. Interpretation. Complication.
*****(Slowly) Now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness. (69)
***** To call for simplicity and kindness comes as a last resort for Bearing, whose life had always been her work. The play's strength is its presentation of her teaching, and these scenes have something to say about teaching techniques in general. The most realistic scene shows the dedicated professor leading discussion of a difficult poem to a group of very average students. To see an eager student become engaged enough in the material to articulate a plausible interpretation, then reach her limit, flounder, and still hold her own under the professor's eagle eye is to experience the excitement and frustration of a good undergraduate class.
***** The level of scholarship of the professor's mentor, E. M. Ashford, is disturbing: she spends so much time on the semicolon issue. Granted, punctuation and finding the "best" edition of a poet's work are important, but here these details dominate. Ashford is Bearing's only visitor at the hospital. She walks into Bearing's room when she can barely talk, sits on her bed, and as they both agree that the poetry of Donne would not be appropriate at such a time––because the intellect is the first to go, long before the body takes its last gasp?––she reads a children's story just purchased for her grandson. Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny soothes the soul and ferries the patient to morphine-induced peace. There is no place for Donne here, even though the women shared professional dedication to his work for most of their adult lives.
***** One wonders why the play must deal with Donne's poetry, or any poetical texts at all. It presents three devices that are guaranteed to keep the attention of the audience: us-against-them (patient against medical staff); a woman alone in a male-dominated system; a successful, competitive, type-A personality learning a lesson in mortality. It also presents a mythical journey of the soul's transformation. Bearing changes before our eyes from an overbearing, humorless teacher to a vulnerable woman in need of tenderness. We do not see her vow that if given a second chance, she would teach the poetry of Donne differently, with more mercy and understanding. Edson spares us that. Instead, the play pushes the intellect––even intellectual remorse––to the side and raises up a triumphant female nude.
***** It is in keeping with Christian thought that the body can triumph over death and enter another realm. But such a concrete or literal change, however incomprehensible, occurs in attendance with many written words, parables, miracle stories, prayers, enough that the unifying theology is synonymous with the Word. Once Christ is nailed to the cross, he suffers and doubts, but he does not reject his teachings. Even his last words, however fragmentary, are treasured. But Edson's purpose seems to be to show a woman who has no more use for intellectual engagement and the circumstances that have driven her to this point. In this modern age, one would think that the ordeal of chemotherapy, which is often harsher than the symptoms of the disease itself, would encourage the relinquishing of the body for the powers of mind. But here, the dialogues and illuminations, frustrations of communication and triumphs of insight, are replaced by a vision of irreducible power. Where Donne's poetry sustains meditations on the fragmentary nature of the world through unifying metaphor, rhetoric, and argument, Edson's play culminates with a single mythical vision: Eve as she was born, the life force.
***** In the end, what Donne imagines, the death of death, is not achieved or supported or translated or paralleled in Wit. Disappointingly, this play gives an intelligent woman the chance and the apparatus to declare war on death, then takes it away. Leaving the theatre, I could not dispel the dispiriting notion that death had won.