Last Updated 11 Feb 2020

“Wit”: One Life for the Lives of Many

Category Cancer, Disease, Medicine
Words 1742 (6 pages)
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In the play Wit written by Margaret Edson, the main character, Vivian Bearing, decides to donate her body to medicine to help better understand the ruthless disease of cancer and death itself. While many seem to believe that the theme of the play deals with the relationship between the doctor and patient, I felt the sole purpose of Wit was purely educational and depicted the beginnings of technological and medicinal feat. Dr. Bearing undergoes full dosage of painstaking treatments in chemotherapy against her stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer and is ultimately used as a specimen for the greater good of humanity. When Dr. Bearing had been notified that her cancer had become in an advanced stage, this event in itself, justifies that a person’s life can change drastically in a matter of seconds. Dr. Bearing’s infatuation with John Donne also supported the theme of Wit in which both had a deep urge to comprehend death and cancer to a whole greater level. According to, “The Amazing Grace of Margaret Edson’s Wit” by John Heilpern, while Vivian Bearing was enraptured with John Donne’s poems, Donne’s infatuation dealt with “the fatal mystery of replicating cancer cells.” In which John Donne explains, “immortality in culture.” The desire of wanting to know more about the development of cancer is evident in both characters. The reputation and facade Dr. Bearing had gotten was an arrogant and uptight professor who had nothing to give, but in reality her agreement to undergo the treatments and staying “tough” throughout the entire process gave science and medicine a huge leeway.

Katherine Margaret Rossiter, the author of “Undoing Wit: A Critical Exploration of Performance and Medical Education in the Knowledge Economy” states that Margaret Edson’s play has been widely used in medical education. (Paragraph 3) The advancements made in the medical field are still fairly new and young and are still currently continuing to advance at a very rapid rate. Dr. Bearing is held accountable to be a heroic character in Wit because she had led a life in which she wanted to and then undoubtedly is sacrificing her deteriorating body to science. According to the article, there has been a movement in the applied health research where the medical field is starting to use performance and stories as a tool for knowledge translation. Rossiter goes on to say, “researchers have struggled to find new and engaging ways to communicate complex research findings regarding the human condition.” (Paragraph 1) Essentially, the act of performing out these medical related problems helps viewers to understand and comprehend the realistically portrayal of everyday hospital life. Pamela Renner, the author of “Science and Sensibility” also states, “Wit sticks closer to realism, and closer to home. The performance is a landmine: explosive, unsentimental and wise to the core.” (Paragraph 4) The reaction retrieved from viewers depicts how a real life performance done by actors has a greater effect on people’s emotions and thought process.

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After agreeing to Dr. Kelekian’s offer of undergoing full dosage of chemotherapy Vivian Bearing admits that there is going to be a “test.” (Edson, 13). The “test” refers to a gamble with life and death, in which Dr. Bearing is now in limbo of either surviving the tiring effects chemotherapy has on a human body or falling into the cold hands of death. Dr. Bearing goes on to state John Donne, the poet in which she deeply holds a passion for in analyzing his work, and how Donne explored the mortality in greater depth than any other works in the English language. The poem that is analyzed thoroughly in this play is “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne. The line, “And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.,” becomes notable once Vivian Bearing realizes that, “death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points. It’s a comma, a pause.” (14). The idea of death and that the only thing separating every living creature a step away from death is the fact that, it is merely nothing but a breath, this in turn heightens the sentimental atmosphere.

The realization of how fragile the human body can be is the main foundation and reason that drives scientists to get a better understanding about the diseases that can harm us. The studies and research scientists have and are still accomplishing are results from experiments and observations made on test subjects. Elizabeth Klaver, the writer of the article, “A Mind-Body-Flesh Problem: The Case of Margaret Edson’s Wit” claims, “For medical science, that object is, not surprisingly, the human body, which offers itself as the field of research, the specimen under observation, the flesh subjected to ‘wit.’” (559) The role of Vivian Bearing was ultimately a role in which it helped the medical field a great step towards improvement and greater research. It is seen throughout the entire play that humanity is still by her side every minute of the way. Dr. Bearing’s nurse, Susie, is the face of humanity whereas Jason, Vivian’s Oncologist, and Dr. Kelekian are the faces of medical science and the greater future. There are breakthroughs every day in science and in the medical field. Although Margaret Edson based her play from her own personal experiences, such as working as an inpatient floor captain in the AIDS and cancer wards at the National Institute of Health’s research hospital located in Washington, D.C., the happenings in a hospital room is something one can always find themselves relating to it.

According to the article, “Trends in United States Ovarian Cancer Mortality, 1979-1995” by Kathleen A. Oriel, Ellen M. Hartenbach, and Patrick L. Remington, studies show that, “Better understanding of how modifiable risk factors and treatment methods affect ovarian cancer mortality trends is needed.” (Paragraph 3) Essentially, research on the treatment towards ovarian cancer and the understanding of the cancer were still being tested and needed to be experimented upon even more. The playwright Wit was publicly published around the year 1995, and the article displays the trends that were obtained during the periods of 1980-1995 and the impact on the deaths caused by ovarian cancer. The article also claims, “Ovarian cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death among women, with one in 70 women developing this disease during her lifetime.” (Paragraph 4) Ovarian cancer, like AIDS, was a new strain of disease that was discovered and a range of experiments on how to cure or decrease the cancer cells had to be performed. As technology and studies on ovarian cancer increased, the survival rate had also improved greatly over time. The treatments dealt with more aggressive surgical management and effective chemotherapy. This technique of treatment is seen in the play itself and is performed on Dr. Bearing.

Many people feel sympathetic for Dr. Bearing due to the fact that the audience intakes the feeling that Dr. Bearing’s doctors are indifferent and apathetic towards her as she starts to show the side effects of chemotherapy, but I tend to disagree. Once Dr. Bearing had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she inevitably fell into the category of research and science. The play in fact depicts a nice balance between humanity and medicine, and the beginnings of human research on cancer and other harmful diseases. As Elizabeth Klever states, “The play demonstrates a contradictory moment in the history of Western culture: two humanist fields dedicated to a tradition of social and individual improvement – medicine and literature.” Jason and Dr. Kelekian are set examples of medicine and science. They are driven to know more about the human body and how it functions. It is evident that once Jason Posner and Dr. Bearing meet, he is overall fascinated about Dr. Bearing’s situation and status. “(He feels the mass and does a double take.) Jesus! (Tense silence. He is amazed and fascinated.)” (Edson, 27) Once he is aware of how large Vivian Bearing’s cancer has gotten to, he is shocked and taken aback. These are the exact situations that scientists and doctors thrive on about the human form and wanting to discover the cures against the harmful diseases that result in a frail and weak body. Klever also claims, “Still today, the collective brainpower of researchers like Dr. Kelekian and Jason focuses all its resources on vanquishing the mysteries of a completely separable and empirical “specimen,” the body – all for a cure” (667). If it had not been for Vivian Bearing to be experimented on, it may have been the next person who developed ovarian cancer to be tested on.

Sayantani DasGupta, the writer of “Reading Bodies, Writing Bodies: Self-Reflection and Cultural Criticism in a Narrative Medicine Curriculum” states, “As reading women’s illness narratives allowed students to hear the voices of patients, writing and sharing their personal illness narratives allowed them to hear their own voices.” (Paragraph 26) This technique is seen in the play Wit, for the narrator, Vivian Bearing, expresses her thoughts and opinions through text and literature, as well as acting. The play is told in the perspective of a dying patient, rather than the doctor or nurse; this puts a more dramatic effect on the audience, displaying how strong Dr. Bearing is mentally.


Rossiter, Katherine Margaret. Undoing Wit: A Critical Exploration of Performance and Medical

Education in the Knowledge Economy.PsycINFO. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.

DasGupta, Sayantani. Reading Bodies, Writing Bodies: Self-Reflection and Cultural Criticism in

a Narrative Medicine Curriculum. 22 Vol. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

ProQuest Central. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.

Edson, Margaret. Wit. Harper & Row, Inc. 1942. Playwright. 20 Apr. 2011. Text.

Jones, Therese, and Delese Wear. THE MEDICAL HUMANITIES: Introduction. 50 Vol. Johns

Hopkins University Press, 2007. ProQuest Central. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.

Klaver, Elizabeth. “A Mind-Body-Flesh Problem: The Case of Margaret Edson’s Wit.”

Contemporary Literature. University of Wisconsin Press. (559-683). ENWR-106-04. Blackboard. 21

Apr 2011. PDF File.

Oriel, Kathleen A., Ellen M. Hartenbach, and Patrick L. Remington. “Trends in United States

Ovarian Cancer Mortality, 1979-1995 : Obstetrics & Gynecology.” Obstetrics &

Gynecology. © 1999 The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Jan.

1999. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.

Renner, Pamela. Science and Sensibility. 16 Vol. Theatre Communications Group, Inc, 1999.

ProQuest Central. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.

Heilpern, John. “The Amazing Grace of Margaret Edson’s Wit.” – New York

Politics, Media News, Real Estate, Fashion, Gossip, Movies, Books, Theater, and the Arts

The New York Observer. 31 Jan. 1999. ENWR-106-04. Blackboard. 26 Apr. 2011.

Microsoft Word File.

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