Friday, July 15, 2016

A Scholarly Battle

by Margaret Edson

"Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit."
And nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis.  Erudition.  Interpretation.  Complication.
Now is a time for simplicity.  Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness." (Wit, p. 69)

"Nothing but a breath--a comma--separates life from life everlasting." This remark about the last line of Donne's most famous Holy Sonnet is made by E. M. Ashford, D. Phil. to her student, a young Vivian Bearing, and is an early indication in this remarkable play that the story of Vivian's battle with cancer is going to be more than just one of doctors, medicine, sickness, and emotion. It will be a battle of wits and wit, mind and matter, the body and soul of Vivian against the destiny that nature has given her. Like all great plays, the reader is presented with questions, conundrums, and perhaps paradoxes if you will; presented in this case as they involve life and, ultimately, death. But does not all living, whether displayed on stage or lived as one's own life, ultimately involve the question of death?

This play is almost a one woman show as Vivian Bearing, Ph. D., professor of literature specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, is on stage for the whole play. She is surrounded (I hesitate to say supported) by her oncologist and his chief clinician; but she is supported by the primary nurse who develops a bond with her that is unique in the play, for Vivian is alone in this world and must depend on her mind as she experiences "aggressive" cancer treatment. She eventually receives support from her nurse and a touching visit from her former professor and mentor.

Among the questions raised by the play is one that contrasts the medical doctors with Vivian herself as they treat the cancer in a way that mirrors the methods used by Vivian to analyze and dissect the poetry of John Donne. Is it appropriate to treat the patient as a science project, a body that will provide evidence for some future paper? Is she no different than a work of literature? "What a piece of work is a man!" as Hamlet says, but in Wit we see the wonder, but not the humanity. The clinician, who has a vast knowledge of medicine, must refer to his notes to remind himself that his patient is a human being who deserves at least a minimal amount of polite concern. Vivian bears his lack of feeling with her own brittle stoicism.  She consoles herself with the thought that "they always . . . want to know more things."  But at the same time she buries her true emotions until she is too ill to respond in a way that is able to demonstrate any strength or depth.   

She has an epiphany when, upon completion of chemotherapy, she reflects: "I have broken the record. I have become something of a celebrity. Kelekian and Jason are simply delighted. I think they foresee celebrity status for themselves upon the appearance of the journal article they will no doubt write about me." But she immediately realizes that, "The article will not be about me, it will be about my ovaries." She goes on to relish the relief that returning to her hospital room will be, even as the play proceeds and her room slowly begins to resemble the inside of a coffin.

This is a play filled with literary wit. It plays on the difference and the similarity of words and life. At one point Vivian thinks, "my only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary". She is learning and reflecting even as she is slowly losing the battle with cancer. Should we live our lives like Vivian, continually learning and thinking and growing, even as humans we all move closer to our own personal appointments with mortality? This reader says yes! Even so, this play reminds us that the road will be difficult, but that there are ways to face one's destiny that may not be known today. It is the ability to deal with this unknown and the possibilities of tomorrow that make the battle worth engaging and our lives worth living.

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1 comment:

Brian Joseph said...

I like that quote about the comma separating life and death.

I think that having a Literature professor grapple with such profound personal issues concerning death is a superb vehicle for a play.