W;t: A Play, by Margaret Edson
This particular play won the Pulitzer Prize, and though I seldom read much in terms of contemporary drama , it is pretty easy to see why this play won that prize despite being (somehow) the author’s first published play. Indeed, looking at this play is instructive in viewing what serves as Pulitzer-bait for other potential playwrights. There is obvious human interest in this story, as it shows a single middle-aged literature professor dying of cancer and reflecting in her solitude on her life. The play is intensely layered, featuring reflections on death in the contemporary world, where one’s treatment is the subject of medical research, while also reflecting on the fear of salvation in John Donne’s highly witty metaphysical poetry. Indeed, it is pretty clear to see that the play simultaneously seeks to pull on the heartstrings in portraying a lonely and isolated scholar unable to let anyone else while simultaneously appealing to the mind through its intellectual study of the language of doctors, the language of literary scholars, and the language of everyday life. As a result, this play serves as a meaningful and deeply enjoyable reflection on existence and the way in which our passion for words may separate us from others just as surely as communication can bring us together.
This play consists of one more or less continuous scene that runs for about two hours without intermission, although there are clearly segments and flashbacks and the passage of time within the scene as we look at literature professor Vivian Bearing moving from a newly admitted patient with stage four metastatic ovary cancer and a family history of breast cancer to her dramatic death at the end of the play. In between we see Vivian dealing with the language of her doctors and nurses and communicating with them in the absence of loved ones who want to visit her, and coming to terms with her own passion for words and how they worked and the poetry of John Donne, which is ranked as particularly difficult to understand. As Vivian reflects on the way that her love of words has given her a good reputation as an academic but has cut her off from intimacy with other people, the audience is invited to reflect upon themselves and upon their own possible mortality as well, if they are so inclined.
While I have been critical of many of the contemporary writings I have read in terms of their politics and worldview, this play is a firm example of a play that I can relate to on multiple levels. For one, like the playwright and Vivian, I am deeply interested in complex and layered communication and the use of writing for the playing of communication games. For another, like Vivian and possibly John Donne (it is hard to know), I have often used my obvious facility with words and my ferocious wit as a way of making it difficult to get to know me, by making me somewhat unapproachable, a problem we definitely see with regards to Vivian as she endures eight courses of an aggressive monthly chemotherapy regimen only to put herself on no code to the eventual distress and embarrassment of the research doctor who wants to explore knowledge and insight into cancer and its treatment without a particular deal of human interest himself. Full of wit and irony but also deeply poignant in a way that avoids mawkish sentimentality, this play is definitely a winner, and it is easy to see why it has won awards and hopefully delighted many audiences since it was first performed in 1999.
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