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“Wit” (thoughts)

August 21, 2009

WitI don’t often read plays. It’s not a conscious decision, more that I’m quite comfortable in my novels/nonfiction/short stories genres, and there aren’t many plays being reviewed on blogs I read, so I just don’t come across them frequently.

But when I saw Rebecca’s review of Margaret Edson’s “Wit”, which she reread as a favourite, I knew I wanted to read it right away! (I think that’s my favourite of the Summer Lovin’ Challenge-finding out what bloggers’ favourite books are.) Rebecca’s review is wonderful and intelligent (as always), so I recommend you go read it.

As for me, I loved “Wit” from the beginning when the main character, Vivian Bearing, addresses the audience. While I think that’s a risky technique in novels, it really worked for the play, drawing me in immediately. Vivian is such a wonderful character; she’s one of those old school professors, the kind you take classes with despite knowing it’ll be a ton of work and probably mess up your GPA, because she gives you a glimpse of a academia at its best.

In the opening, she’s in the final stages of a deadly cancer, and while there are a few flashbacks in the play, most of it takes place in a hospital. Vivian’s struggle to remain herself in the most times dehumanising hospital environment affected me deeply. When I first became sick in high school, it took over a year for them to diagnose me, and I met with countless doctors and had almost every test performed on me known to man. While there were exceptions, most of the doctors and nurses I met with treated me less like a human with feelings and thoughts than like an automaton doll presented as an interesting study. I was at a teaching hospital, so they often brought other random people in to learn, making me feel like even more of a lap specimen. I hated it so much. Vivian has a rare form of cancer, and she’s on an experimental treatment, so her doctors are not only treating her but writing up her case for a medical journal; you can imagine what that feels like.

Vivian’s academic career has been the center of her life (she doesn’t have a family), so her memories center about it. She was a literature professor, specialising in John Donne’s poetry, and an ardent reader, which I think will make her appeal to all of us book bloggers. :) That being said, this isn’t a feel-good play. After all, Vivian’s dying, and she’s quite lonely (she doesn’t have many visitors), in tremendous pain, etc. Edson’s ability to evoke emotions, to have Vivian talk about so many big things without ever falling into cliche, is quite frankly stunning. I cried at quite a few places, so you should be prepared.

That being said, there’s nothing gratuitous about the emotions. Edson’s play made me think about my own life and priorities, imagining how I would feel in Vivian’s shoes. I don’t think there’s higher praise I can give to an author than that, and I will definitely be revisiting this play in the future. It apparently won the Pulitzer, and for good reason. While I’m sure it would be incredible performed, it stands on its own. Edson’s writing is so strong it leaps off the page, with Vivian immediately coming to life. This is a short read, and one I highly recommend. And isn’t that cover gorgeous?

Do you have any plays to recommend?

24 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2009 2:18 pm

    I’m so glad you liked it too! It sounds like the medical aspects of it were a bit close to home, which must have made all the more endearing. I also cry every time I read it, and yet, like you say, it not gratuitous and I think I too imagine my own life as I read, and those that I love.

  2. August 21, 2009 2:25 pm

    I don’t read a lot of plays because I prefer to see them live, but I do like some. I reread Players in a Game this year because it had been too long since I’d read it.

  3. historyofshe permalink
    August 21, 2009 3:13 pm

    : (

    Definitely on my tbr list now, thanks!

  4. August 21, 2009 3:25 pm

    I have an award for you at

  5. August 21, 2009 4:30 pm

    This sounds like a wonderful play from your review. I love when books cause one to reexamine one’s own life and priorities.

  6. August 21, 2009 5:39 pm

    There’s a movie done of this with Emma Thompson who is, as always, amazing in this role.

  7. August 21, 2009 6:10 pm

    I read this play several years ago and totally forgot about it until my husband came home from med school one day this month talking about the movie he watched in small group. After we compared notes, I realized it was the same one I had read! :)

    As for other plays to recommend (outside of Shakespeare, of course), I really liked: Art by Yasmina Reza and Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello.

  8. August 21, 2009 8:33 pm

    I can’t remember the last time I read a play…probably in college. But this one definitely sounds worthwhile.

    I have several friends in theater who would probably like it also.

    Thanks for the recommendation!

  9. August 21, 2009 9:09 pm

    Wonderful review, Eva! I really need to read this. I love the play “You Can’t Take it With YOu”, which I saw performed on TV on PBS one year, and then went out and bought the play to read. And of course there’s all the Shakespeare I’ve read over the years. But I don’t read enough plays and thank you so much for writing about this one!

  10. Pierre Lourens permalink
    August 21, 2009 9:36 pm

    I saw Wit a while ago and it caught my interest. Thanks for shedding more light on it… I am definitely going to check it out :).

  11. August 21, 2009 9:43 pm

    This is the ultimate litgeek play. I loved it! And though I never got to see the stage version with the great Kathleen Chalfant as Vivian, as Claire pointed out, Emma Thompson was awesome on television.

  12. August 21, 2009 9:53 pm

    I don’t read plays since I left uni, you never read about them and i don’t venture to that part of the book shop.
    Inspector Calls by JB Priestly is a great play that I teach every year. Or anything by Henrik Ibsen, esp The Dolls House.
    I might have to go and rummage through the bookshelves I have a few plays lurking

  13. August 21, 2009 10:46 pm

    I’d love to see this play performed or read it myself. I seem to remember that Margaret Edson hung up her playwriting shoes after winning the Pulitzer and decided to focus on teaching..I think it was kindergarten. She may have changed her mind since then for all I know.,

  14. August 22, 2009 7:55 am

    Bybee is right. I thin this was Edson’s first and only play.

    I recommend Angels in America by Tony Kushner. It’s a wonderful read and great to see live if you get a chance. I read Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor this year and found it very funny, too.

  15. August 22, 2009 9:49 am

    Really great review, Eva. Wonderfully written. :-D

  16. knittermn permalink
    August 22, 2009 9:55 am

    I just found your blog not too long ago and have really enjoyed it so far. As far as plays to read …. I’d reccomend reading Doubt or Our Town. I enjoyed both when I read them for a class at my university.

  17. August 22, 2009 10:30 am

    Do I have any plays…. too many! Horton Footes “The Habitation of Dragons” is incredible – hearbreaking. Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” (get a good translation) and “Shadowlands” by William Nicholson – all terrific.

  18. August 22, 2009 11:24 am

    Tom Stoppard is just generally wonderful! My three favorites of his are Arcadia, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, and The Invention of Love (which is sad). But all his plays have excellent bits in them (“You’re going to run up against what we call poetic justice, which means we get you in line if we have to cut one of your feet off”). I second “A Doll’s House” also, and if you haven’t read Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, it is magnificent and sweeping and crazy. The Laramie Project is good of course but very upsetting.

  19. August 22, 2009 1:13 pm

    Rebecca, they definitely hit close to home! Thanks for reviewing it-otherwise I never would have found it.

    Amanda, most plays I prefer to see acted as well. :)

    History of She, I hope you enjoy it!

    Shamrock Rose, thank you!

    Rhapsody, it’s definitely wonderful. :)

    Claire, thanks for letting me know! Emma Thompson is an amazing actress.

    Brittany, that’s so awesome that the show it in med school!! And thanks for the recs. :)

    Becca, I hope you and your friends enjoy it!

    Susan, thank you! Isn’t PBS a great source?

    Pierre, I think I need to see the movie.

    DS, hehe-geeky plays are the best!

    Katrina, I’ve been meaning to read some Ibsen for years!

    Bybee, I thought of you with your Pulitzer project. :) I read that about her being an elementary teacher too; it makes me happy since that’s what I want to do!

    CB, thanks for the recs.

    Ceri, thank you!

    Knitter, thank you for commenting and I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. I saw the movie Doubt, which was awesome!

    Ted, I saw “Arcadia” performed my freshman year of college, and it ruined me for all the other plays they put on, because it was just so incredible.

    Jenny, thanks for the recs! :)

  20. August 22, 2009 4:50 pm

    I saw the film and bawled my eyes out (the casting was great as well).

    As with most people, I haven’t read that many plays. Ones that stand out are the ones that I think most have read: The Dollhouse by Isben, Streetcar…etc.

    But there is one that I highly recommend if you can find it: Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello. I read it in undergrad and it really turned me onto literature that questioned reality (in more of a philosophical sense).

  21. August 23, 2009 9:16 am

    I’ll have to second what Jenny said about Tom Stoppard. I absolutely adore Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead, but then I am a big Shakespeare fan!

  22. August 24, 2009 9:06 am

    Another great play is Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project. There’s a movie version of it that isn’t bad, although the sections are all rearranged so you can’t follow it from the script at all.

  23. August 25, 2009 7:05 pm

    Christina, I’m sure I’d cry through the whole movie!

    Mariel, thanks for the recs!

    Jeanne, what a weird thing for a movie to do!


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