There are many routes to self-discovery. A lot of them are painful. In Wit (or W;t), a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Margaret Edson, the reader (or the audience) witnesses one woman’s such journey, forced upon her by a lonely and hopeless battle with ovarian cancer. Because of the callousness and lack of emotional support or sympathy exhibited by the researchers and doctors, at times the play seems like an indictment of the medical community and the inadequacies of our hospice and palliative care system, but Edson never intended it that way. Wit is a character study, and an exploration of the lessons that can be learned even in the most trying of circumstances. The play is short and to the point. Vivian, the main character, was a scholar in her healthy life, an English professor who taught the 17th Century poet John Donne. She was socially inept, brusque, and lacking in the ability to express compassion. Yet during her eight horrific months of experimental chemotherapy treatment, if only because she is now at the mercy of the most extreme version of that callousness, she comes to see and regret that she was ever like that at all.
An interesting parallel develops between Vivian and her primary physician, Jason Posner, a technically talented yet emotionally unwelcoming fellow and a former student of Vivian’s. At one point Vivian attempts to elicit Jason’s sympathy, to earn some of the compassion he doesn’t seem able to readily offer. She fails miserably, and to humorous affect. “Are you going to be sorry when I— Do you ever miss people?” she asks. “Everybody asks that. Especially the girls.” “What do you tell them?” “I tell them yes,” (apparently unaware that the woman speaking to him is one of those very people). “And what do you say when a patient is . . . apprehensive . . . frightened?” Says Vivian, trying again. “Of who?” he replies. How true and ironic these characters are realized: people who are at their least comfortable when in unwanted company, yet who are members of time-honored, honorable professions where that would seem to be one of the most primary prerequisites.
By the time her end arrives, Vivian has come to regret the way she lived her life, the self-imposed lack of “human touch” which she now craves so desperately. “Now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness.” Sadly, at this point, she has only very little of that time left. Wit is a story of a woman coming to know herself and to learn what is truly important. And how poignant, human, and honest that these lessons are sometimes only going to be learned when there is little time left with which to make use of them.
[This piece originally appeared on SevenPonds, and may not be reproduced without permission. Thank you.]