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Book Review of the Play W;t by Margaret Edson

Updated on September 11, 2013

The Story: English Professor Dying of Cancer

This play is as beautiful as it is tragic. In it, the main character Vivian Bearing has spent her entire life devoted to studying and teaching the Holy Sonnets of the metaphysical poet John Donne. Her prognosis of terminal ovarian cancer forces her into an unfamiliar position; she is vulnerable, dependent upon others to show kindness and provide care.

Though her disease is tragic, she brings a profound level of humor and vitality to the experience. We as the audience join Vivian as she comes to terms with her situation.

I highly recommend this play to anyone who is looking for a poignant, profound, very touching look at the bigger questions of life and death. I also think someone would enjoy this play if they've taken English or Creative Writing courses during their schooling. Lastly, I recommend this book for anyone who has been touched by cancer in one way or another [see below for more of my story on this].

Why this Play has Changed my Life

Though I discovered this play around a decade ago, it took on new significance for me two years ago when my mother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She was a strong and brave woman, much like the protagonist in the play, and though she often chose to keep her emotions private (to "put on a strong face"), this play helped me understand, in some small way, the pain that my mother-in-law was going through.

If you've ever had a love one battle cancer then you know there is nothing beautiful about the disease. It's ugly. It's destructive. But in the pages of this play I found a beautiful expression of what it means to search for (and receive) love in the midst of such illness.

And in my opinion that's one of the attributes of great art; it helps us confront parts of ourselves, and aspects of the human experience, that are scary and uncomfortable.

Without this play would I have shown the same level of compassion to my mother-in-law? Of course. But what this play gave me was wisdom to let someone else make their own decisions; and this play gave me a yearning not to diminish someone's dignity (even in those times I would have had the best intentions to do so). Simply put, the play was a safe place to feel the kind of heartache that years later would become real.

A Sample of the Play

I love this passage so much that I have actually forced friends to sit for a moment while I read it out loud to them. It's the first page of the play:

(VIVIAN BEARING walks on the empty stage pushing her IV pole. She is fifty, tall and very thin, barefoot, and completely bald. She wears two hospital gowns -- one tied in the front and one tied in the back -- a baseball cap, and a hospital ID bracelet. The house lights are at half strength. VIVIAN looks out at the audience, sizing them up.)

VIVIAN: (In false familiarity, waving and nodding to the audience) Hi. How are you feeling today? Great. That's just great. (In her own professorial tone) This is not my standard greeting, I assure you.

I tend toward something a little more formal, a little less inquisitive, such as, say, "Hello."

But it is the standard greeting here.

There is some debate as to the correct response to this salutation. Should one reply "I feel good," using "feel" as a copulative, "good"; or "I feel well," modifying with an adverb the subject's state of being?

I don't know. I am a professor of seventeenth-century poetry, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne.

So I just say, "Fine."

Of course it is not very often that I do not feel fine.

I have been asked "How are you feeling today?" while I was throwing up into a plastic washbasin. I have been asked as I was emerging from a four-hour operation with a tube in every orifice, "How are you feeling today?"

I am waiting for the moment when someone asks me this question and I am dead.

Made Into a Movie

In 2001 the play was made into a movie starring Emma Thompson. It's excellent, I highly recommend you buy a copy. I have added the youtube link to the movie below [just message me if they take the movie off youtube, I'll post a different video]

The movie adaptation of Wit, starring Emma Thompson

Check it Out for Yourself

I have purchased multiple copies of this play myself. Why? Because over the years I have lent out copy after copy, always forgetting which friend had it. I guess they weren't in a rush to return it to me, either. So I have a no-lending policy with my latest copy, sorry!

Wit: A Play
Wit: A Play
One of the most powerful plays I have ever read. It's well worth every penny.
Wit - Acting Edition (Acting Edition for Theater Productions)
Wit - Acting Edition (Acting Edition for Theater Productions)
This acting edition lacks the movie-image cover but is right for anyone comfortable on the stage.
Wit (DVD)
Wit (DVD)
Starring Emma Thompson, this film adaptation is a great thing to watch after reading the book (in my personal opinion).
The End of Your Life Book Club
The End of Your Life Book Club
I read this book shortly after my mother-in-law passed away and it provided a lot of healing. Regardless of your connection to cancer, you'll find this book entertaining, powerful, a great read. Check it out for yourself.

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