The Power of W;t

“Hi. How are you feeling today?”

It’s a question often asked, from within and outside the medical sphere, whose answer is rarely sought. Margaret Edson’s play W;t acts out the life of Vivian Bearing, a 50-year-old English Professor who enters into this space with Stage IV Ovarian Cancer. Vivian tells the story of her last few months in the face of death. She reflects on significant moments of her life thus far, remembering her development as an English scholar and teacher. Simultaneously, she observes her new surroundings in medicine, sharply but calmly noting the inadequacies in her care. As alluded to from the beginning of the play, the curtain closes with Vivian’s death.

Edson’s text is clever and precise, and the play comes to life when peopled in the movie. The intertextuality of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets and medical terminology was skillfully done. Edson draws a resonating parallelism between Vivian’s life as a scholar/professor and Jason’s life as a researcher/doctor, both who have strived for academic success at the expense of a simple sense of humanity.

Within her 8 cycles of chemotherapy that the doctors monitor to keep track of time, Vivian instead constructs a timeline based on the accumulation of losses. The vomiting side effects of chemo lead her to realize that “You may remark that my vocabulary has taken a turn for the Anglo-Saxon” (32). When she is trapped under isolation precautions, she recognizes the paradox: “I am not in isolation because I have cancer…No, I am in isolation  because I am being treated for cancer” (47). As her condition worsens, Vivian becomes aware of her inevitable fate and the true purposes of her involvement in research.  She feels objectified, having become “just the specimen jar, just the dust jacket, just the white piece of paper that bears the little black marks” (53). Her identity as a scholar, which she reiterates proudly throughout the play, disintegrates along with the fast-growing cells that are killed by chemotherapy: “I’m a scholar. Or I was when I had shoes, when I had eyebrows” (68).

Perhaps my favorite textual moments were the simultaneous dialogues, located side-by-side on the page. These surprised me, and I was unsure how to read them because it was impossible to read and follow both at the same time.While the movie did not create these scenes as I had imagined them, it created a sense of coherence between scenes. Vivian’s memories were integrated into the present, as she would enter into her past wearing nothing but a hospital gown and then bring her past encounters straight into her hospital room. This maintained the dynamic nature of these memories as not merely remembered but relived in the now. 

Although I often imagine what I read, nothing could have prepared me for what it felt like to have Vivian look straight at me from behind the screen in the movie version. She held a hard, steady gaze with the camera, and these close up shots of her face highlighted her humanity and the harsh effects of cancer treatment. And the sounds- Vivian’s emotional breakdown as she nears her end is hard to enact mentally without the sounds of her crying, her fear, her pain.

While the movie seemed to be pretty true to the script, I was surprised by how differently the movie ended as compared to the play. Both end pretty compelling with a young doctor’s mistake, but the movie leaves Vivian trapped inside her hospital bed. In the play, Vivian is able to step out of her bed and embark towards the light. She attains a sense of liberation from 8 months of chemotherapy bondage, slowly shedding the material elements of her identity as a cancer patient. Her cap. Her hospital ID bracelet. Her hospital gowns. The play allows her to die powerful, while the movie strips her of that opportunity.

Cancer has successfully taught her to suffer. Her entire life’s work loses its worth as she recognizes “Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit.. now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness” (69).


Filed under Film, Literary Narratives, Theatre, Voice

5 responses to “The Power of W;t

  1. As an English Ph.D. I have taught W;t several times, although it has been several years now since I taught it last. Love this play!

    On a personal note, I love the way Vivian’s first instinct following diagnosis is to compile a bibliography. The scholar’s approach to life :) My best friend in grad school got pregnant shortly after I did, and we had to laugh one day when we were both in the library ostensibly doing research for our dissertations but wound up running into each other in the section of the stacks with books on pregnancy and childbirth.

    A friend saw this play performed by Judith Light on (off?) Broadway and told me that she thought what made the ending so especially powerful was that after Vivian left her bed to stand naked, bathed in light, suddenly the lights went out. The play was over. The audience was plunged into darkness. And all around were the sounds of people sobbing, caught unawares and completely unprepared to be left so naked themselves. Even the saddest movie will usually contain some sort of extended denouement that allows you collect yourself and return to emotional equilibrium before the house lights come up and “expose” you to other patrons.

    And, finally, I find it ironic and wonderfully humanizing that in the end Vivian’s greatest legacy possibly may not be the intellectual acrobatics of her academic career but rather the fact that she makes it through eight rounds of chemo at full dosage. No matter who we are in our jobs, at the end of the day we’re all just ordinary people sailing through life in essentially the same boat. During our bleakest moments, if we’re lucky, there will be someone like Susie to bring popsicles and hold our hands.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences with this great play, Katherine Wikoff! Beautifully said. The play’s ending is certainly jarring and emotionally overpowering. The strength of Vivian’s character and personality is incredible, and it’s fascinating to follow her development throughout the novel.

      Just out of curiosity, did you use both the text and the film in teaching about W;t? If so, how did students respond to these different mediums?

      • We used only the play in its printed/book form.

        The course I taught it in was Contemporary Literature. When I teach that course, I try to use a novel, a play, a Pushcart Prize collection (poetry, short stories, and essays), and a film that are all less than five years old.

        I used W;t the first time right after Edson had won the Pulitzer for it, and the Emma Thompson movie hadn’t shown on television yet. Then I taught it a few more years before replacing it with a newer play.

        I do wish I’d seen this play in the theater. Although I would have hated to be caught sobbing at the end :) Teaching it without tears was hard enough!

  2. bookofang

    I enjoyed the intensity of your review, and really like the quote you ended with. Sounds a tale that bares open the soul for all to explore. I’m intrigued.

    • Thanks, bookofang! I hope that you have a chance to explore the narrative first-hand; it really is a powerful and rewarding work to explore.


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