Also in this issue by Joyce Wilson


Poetry Porch Feature

The State of American Poetry: Roundtable Discussion

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by Margaret Edson.

Faber and Faber, New York, 1999. ISBN 0571198775 (paper). Starring Judith Light in Boston, February 2000.

Reviewed by Joyce Wilson

***** Presenting the last days of a tenured English professor who is dying of ovarian cancer, Wit pleases and instructs but does little justice to the poetry incorporated so centrally in its dramatics. The play pleases as it posits the metaphysical language of John Donne's sonnets against the scientific language of the cancer research establishment. The plot instructs when it points to the inhumane nature of a research hospital that treats patients as guinea pigs. It instructs about the teaching of poetry. But the pleasure often depends upon clichés with an anti-intellectual bent, and the plot concludes by rejecting difficult poetry that cannot sustain the morale of the patient in a time of need, or during serious illness. This rejection of Donne's poems struck me as a low blow. I wondered what the playwright had in mind: a rejection of poetry that is inaccessible or of basic intellectual striving? To show how a woman could not turn to poetry once she was confronted with death struck me as odd, because it is just this confrontation that is Donne's subject.
***** The play opens with Vivian Bearing in the hospital for treatment of cancer. She is completely bald, very thin, and wears hospital gowns and a baseball hat. She is pushing an IV catheter with pump on a pole with wheels. She will appear in this costume throughout the play. The other characters––chief of medicine, intern, nurse, her father, her teacher––play minimal supporting roles. The lab technicians and students are walk-on parts with a few lines. Through flashback, we see Bearing's visit with the doctor who tells her she has cancer, a scene from her student days, a couple of scenes in which she is teaching, a scene from her childhood in which we see how she interacts with her father. We see her change from a confident, poised woman, a demanding professor, and a challenging patient to a very sick woman, frightened and in pain. Much of the play depends upon "witty" banter between Bearing and the other characters, and a great deal consists of comments directed to the audience. The fact that so much of the play's action is monologue gives the poetry a primary place as it is recited, discussed, and analyzed. But the end result is disappointing, because however much Bearing has made poetry the center of her career, with the onset of illness, her career is over. She says in the very beginning scene, after quoting Shakespeare: *****

    At the moment, however, I am disinclined to poetry. I've got less than two hours. Then: curtain. (6)
*****The drama covers the texts of two of Donne's holy sonnets thoroughly: Numbers 9 ("If poysonous mineralls….") and 10 ("Death be not proud…."). It quotes the first few lines from 6 ("This is my playes last scene….") and a line from 7 ("…blow/ Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise") at the end. Sonnet 10 becomes a battlefield over literary editions, raising ethical questions about contemporary publications of seventeenth century works that would replace a comma with a semicolon. Sonnet 9 is displayed in full text on a screen, very legibly, in order to show the professor in action, her teaching methods and military style of gesturing at the text with a pointer like a crop and speaking in clipped, do-or-die turns of phrase. Bearing interprets this sonnet as containing an argument that tells much about the state of mind of the author:
    Where is the hyperactive intellect of the first section? Where is the histrionic outpouring of the second? When the speaker considers his own sins, and the inevitability of God's judgment, he can conceive of but one resolution: to disappear. (50)

***** However much one agrees or disagrees with this dramatic speech as a valid interpretation of Donne's poem, it does map out what will happen to Bearing––soon she also ceases being clever, becomes melodramatic, considers piety, and then moves into a state of oblivion. And the poetry becomes little more than a discarded prop. With only minutes to live, Bearing gives up her championing of Donne:
    *****(Quickly) Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit.
    *****And nothing could be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis. Erudition. Interpretation. Complication.
    *****(Slowly) Now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness. (69)

***** To call for simplicity and kindness comes as a last resort for Bearing, whose life had always been her work. The play's strength is its presentation of her teaching, and these scenes have something to say about teaching techniques in general. The most realistic scene shows the dedicated professor leading discussion of a difficult poem to a group of very average students. To see an eager student become engaged enough in the material to articulate a plausible interpretation, then reach her limit, flounder, and still hold her own under the professor's eagle eye is to experience the excitement and frustration of a good undergraduate class.
***** The level of scholarship of the professor's mentor, E. M. Ashford, is disturbing: she spends so much time on the semicolon issue. Granted, punctuation and finding the "best" edition of a poet's work are important, but here these details dominate. Ashford is Bearing's only visitor at the hospital. She walks into Bearing's room when she can barely talk, sits on her bed, and as they both agree that the poetry of Donne would not be appropriate at such a time––because the intellect is the first to go, long before the body takes its last gasp?––she reads a children's story just purchased for her grandson. Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny soothes the soul and ferries the patient to morphine-induced peace. There is no place for Donne here, even though the women shared professional dedication to his work for most of their adult lives.
***** One wonders why the play must deal with Donne's poetry, or any poetical texts at all. It presents three devices that are guaranteed to keep the attention of the audience: us-against-them (patient against medical staff); a woman alone in a male-dominated system; a successful, competitive, type-A personality learning a lesson in mortality. It also presents a mythical journey of the soul's transformation. Bearing changes before our eyes from an overbearing, humorless teacher to a vulnerable woman in need of tenderness. We do not see her vow that if given a second chance, she would teach the poetry of Donne differently, with more mercy and understanding. Edson spares us that. Instead, the play pushes the intellect––even intellectual remorse––to the side and raises up a triumphant female nude.
***** It is in keeping with Christian thought that the body can triumph over death and enter another realm. But such a concrete or literal change, however incomprehensible, occurs in attendance with many written words, parables, miracle stories, prayers, enough that the unifying theology is synonymous with the Word. Once Christ is nailed to the cross, he suffers and doubts, but he does not reject his teachings. Even his last words, however fragmentary, are treasured. But Edson's purpose seems to be to show a woman who has no more use for intellectual engagement and the circumstances that have driven her to this point. In this modern age, one would think that the ordeal of chemotherapy, which is often harsher than the symptoms of the disease itself, would encourage the relinquishing of the body for the powers of mind. But here, the dialogues and illuminations, frustrations of communication and triumphs of insight, are replaced by a vision of irreducible power. Where Donne's poetry sustains meditations on the fragmentary nature of the world through unifying metaphor, rhetoric, and argument, Edson's play culminates with a single mythical vision: Eve as she was born, the life force.
***** In the end, what Donne imagines, the death of death, is not achieved or supported or translated or paralleled in Wit. Disappointingly, this play gives an intelligent woman the chance and the apparatus to declare war on death, then takes it away. Leaving the theatre, I could not dispel the dispiriting notion that death had won.