Wit takes place in a University Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Center. The main character, Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., is a John Donne scholar who has stage IV ovarian cancer. Much of the action takes place in the last few days/hours of her life, although flashback scenes to weeks, months, even years before are interspersed effectively throughout the performance.

Bearing has lived an isolated life. Her love is her teaching and research. She is a stern taskmaster, perhaps "non-humanistic" in her approach. Similarly, she faces doctors and a medical system that emphasize technique over caring. She does find, in the end, compassion from a nurse who prevents the medical team from carrying out a CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) attempt that she did not want.


There's a lot more than medical action occurring in "Wit." Kathleen Chalfant, in the off-Broadway production (she played the Mormon mother in Angels in America--see this database) very ably gives two performances in one. She portrays wonderfully the bravado of a brilliant scholar who simultaneously is a nearly helpless patient; someone who has no idea of what to expect as she experiences her dying.

The playwright also allows us to feel playful with the work of John Donne, especially his Holy Sonnet X, "Death, Be Not Proud." One flaw is that the medical personnel are too unidimensional, although their flatness leads to some much needed humor in the production. The playwright, in this her first play, also has the main character call attention to the play's devices. This technique, along with the humor, allows for some relief from the more excruciating and existentially troubling aspects of the play.


This play won the Pulitzer Prize. Information about obtaining the play may also be available from Dramatists Play Service at 212-683-8960. An outstanding adaptation was shown on HBO on March 24, 2001 (starring Emma Thompson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mike Nichols) and is available on videotape and DVD.


Faber & Faber: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York