63 pages 2 hours read

Margaret Edson


Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide


Wit—sometimes spelled as W;t—is a Pulitzer-Prize winning play by Margaret Edson first published in 1995. The play follows the story of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a 50-year-old professor of 17th-century poetry who has recently been diagnosed with stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. The plot itself is nonlinear; for example, the opening scene of the play takes place two hours before Vivian dies, but the play switches between Vivian’s childhood, career, and treatment milestones to tell her whole story. The final scenes of the play are the only ones that occur in chronological order because Vivian—who has been telling the story to the audience—becomes unconscious as she passes away.

It is worth noting that Wit also has an unusual structure that helps shape its themes. Instead of breaking the play into acts, Edson structures her play as one continuous performance. The scenes change around Vivian’s monologues, and there is never a break in the action, not even for intermission. Instead, the text of the play is broken up into unnumbered scenes separated by a section break. Additionally, Edson has Vivian speak directly to the audience throughout the play. This technique is called breaking the fourth wall, and Edson uses it to create a connection between Vivian and the audience. Vivian shares her thoughts, feelings, and experiences with the audience to help the audience walk in her shoes.

The plot follows Vivian’s life from her diagnosis to her final moments in the hospital. Despite being healthy her whole life, Vivian has recently begun experiencing a combination of exhaustion and abdominal cramps. She decides to go to her gynecologist for a check-up, who suspects Vivian has a tumor. Vivian is referred to Dr. Harvey Kelekian, the chief of medical oncology at her university’s hospital. He tells Vivian that she has an aggressive form of cancer and that her best hope of survival comes from an experimental, eight-month treatment. He warns her that the side effects will be severe, but Vivian tells him that he “needn’t worry” about her being able to handle it (12). She decides that at the very least, agreeing to the treatment will help make a “significant contribution” to cancer research (11).

As Vivian begins her treatment, she takes the audience back to a pivotal encounter she had with her college professor, Dr. E. M. Ashford. Ashford pushes Vivian to think more critically about Donne’s poetry, but she also encourages Vivian to live outside of her studies. Vivian takes Ashford’s advice about the former, but not the latter. She tells the audience that after graduate school, she became one of the foremost scholars of Donne’s poetry. She chose Donne to prove herself and to recapture the “magic” of language that she first experienced as a young girl (43). She goes on to become a hard, exacting professor.

In between flashbacks, Vivian walks the audience through her treatment. Her daily care is overseen by her nurse, Susie Monahan, and a young medical oncology fellow, Dr. Jason Posner. On their first meeting, Jason tells Vivian that he took her course as an undergraduate to prove to himself that he could make an A in one of the hardest courses on campus. Like Vivian, Jason loves a challenge; he craves intellectual rigor, which is why he has decided to pursue a career in cancer research. But what Jason has in intelligence, he lacks in compassion. He does not treat Vivian like a sick and possibly dying person; instead, he is more interested in what he can learn about her cancer. Despite interacting with her regularly, he offers her little in the way of comfort. Jason’s main concern is that Vivian completes all eight rounds of her chemotherapy drugs, so he can have a complete data set.

Susie, on the other hand, treats Vivian with kindness and compassion. Even though Vivian prides herself on her toughness, her treatment wears down her immune system. When she lands in the ER, Susie swoops in to take care of her. She gets Vivian settled and fetches Jason, who diagnoses her with a secondary infection. Susie pleads with Jason to consult with Dr. Kelekian; Susie thinks they should lower Vivian’s dose next cycle. Jason refuses, and he transfers Vivian into isolation instead. Vivian continues to take her chemotherapy at its full dose, but her condition continues to deteriorate.

Vivian begins to realize that she is dying. She often quotes Donne’s poetry to help her come to terms with her situation, since Donne’s work wrestles with ideas like death, eternity, and salvation. But poetry alone is not enough. Vivian begins reaching out to those around her for comfort. Jason brushes Vivian and her concerns off, but Susie responds with compassion and kindness. Vivian tells Susie she is scared, so Susie helps Vivian make important decisions about her end-of-life care. Susie asks Vivian what she would like to have happen when her heart stops, and Vivian chooses a “Do Not Resuscitate” order—also known as a DNR. Soon thereafter, Vivian’s pain becomes too much to bear, and Dr. Kelekian puts her on a morphine drip.

Vivian receives one last visitor in the hospital: Dr. Ashford, her old mentor. Ashford, now 80 years old, had come to visit Vivian at the university only to find she was in the hospital. Seeing her professor moves Vivian to tears, and Ashford climbs into her hospital bed to comfort her. She holds Vivian as she reads her a children’s book, The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown. Vivian drifts off to sleep, and Ashford kisses her on the forehead before telling Vivian, “It’s time to go. ‘And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’” (80). Ashford leaves, and in the next scene, Jason comes to check on Vivian. He realizes she has no pulse, so he starts CPR and calls in a “Code Blue” to have her resuscitated. Susie rushes in and tries to pull Jason away from Vivian, telling him she has a DNR. Susie tries to call off the code team, but she is too late. As Jason, Susie, and the resuscitation team struggle in the background, Vivian gets out of bed. She unplugs herself from the medical machines and takes off her hat, her medical bracelets, and her dressing gown. She begins walking toward a light shining from offstage. As she reaches for it, the stage lights go dark and the play ends.