By Margaret Edson

Reviewed by Kenny Brechner

    Certain words shift easily between positive and negative connotations, particularly words dealing with intellection. Consider discrimination. No one can fail to sense the shift in connotation from the phrase, he easily discriminates good wine from bad, to the phrase, he regularly discriminates against people.

    The shift in connotation indicates an underlying ambivalence commonly felt toward the rational faculty, the sense that intellection is somehow an escape from humanity and feelings. Nothing makes this point clearer than the exceptionally diffuse sentiments and interpretation surrounding the word wit.

    Wit can easily attach itself to a myriad of connotations. It can be snide, sublime, cynical, penetrating, escapist, stark, cynical, delightful, and so forth. The nebulous nature of wit is also at the heart of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer prize winning play, Wit.

    Wit follows the life of the meaningfully named Professor of English, Vivian Bearing. Bearing has dedicated her life to wit, specifically in the form of studying the Holy Sonnets of John Dunne, some of the most abstruse poems ever penned. Bearing is a representation of a human capacity rather than an actual person. She has nothing but wit, no friends, no family, no personal attachments, no life beyond academia.

    Bearing is diagnosed with stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer, considered untreatable. She elects to submit to a radically aggressive chemotherapy treatment espoused by a Dr. Kelekian. At this point Edson sets up an exceptionally effective analogy between medical and literary academic practice. The clinicism of Bearing's approach to Dunne, and to her students, is mirrored in Kelekian, and in his students.

    Edson draws her extended metaphor with great skill. Bearing's description of her chemotherapy as "eight cycles. eight neat little strophes," draws a very elegant analogy between chemotherapy and a sonnet indeed.

    One definition of wit to be found in a dictionary is, "the ability to relate seemingly disparate things," a process that Edson excels at in her play. Yet, as Professor Bearing is shoved forcefully into humanity by her pain and impending mortality, her relationship to wit becomes increasingly defined as escapist, irrelevant, and inhuman.

    Edson makes this point largely through Bearing's students, one of whom suggests that Dunne is "hiding. I think he's really confused, I don't know maybe scared, so he hides behind all this complicated stuff, hides behind this wit."

    In the end Bearing rejects both wit and Dunne, longing for simple human contact. The inhumanity of Bearing's relationship with wit is only possible, however, because Edson has created Bearing's pre-cancer state as a non-human archetype of intellection devoid of humanity. The falseness of Bearings original state allows Edson to depict wit as being equally false and isolated from humanity.

    The human capacity, however, to perceive complex relationships, of exercising wit, is neither escapist nor irrelevant to the human condition. Edson's depiction of wit as escapism falsifies not only the genuine and potentially organic nature of intellection, but the very capacity and exercise of wit which made the structural core of her play so excellent.