Wit, Pride and Resurrection: Margaret Edson's Play and John Donne's Poetry

In interviews, Margaret Edson has expressed mild surprise that critics have not paid more attention to the religious aspect of her play. “The play is about redemption, and I’m surprised no one mentions it. Grace is the opportunity to experience God in spite of yourself, which is what Dr. Bearing ultimately achieves” (Martini 24). Despite notable exceptions in essays by Betty Carter and especially Martha Greene Eads, most commentators have fastened upon the medical aspects of the play. Victims of ovarian cancer have used it as a rallying point. Medical professionals have employed it to discuss patient rights and research ethics. In several American cities, sold out performances have been followed by lengthy talk-back sessions that have focused on these issues. The play thus seems valuable to much of its audience for its realistic portrayal of courageous suffering and its attack on the indifference of doctors. At its moral center, the play is not about kindness, but redemption. —John D. Sykes, Jr.Wit, Pride and Resurrection: Margaret Edson’s Play and John Donne’s Poetry (Renascence 55.2 (2003))

I’ve taught Wit in several different classes. I used to show clips from the Emma Thompson video, but a few students cried, and since I typically teach this play at the end of the semester, I didn’t really want to send them away with that experience. Still, at a Catholic school, I think it’s completely appropriate to bring religion into the classroom, and as a class everyone knows each other well enough that I hope they’ll feel comfortable disagreeing (politely, with specific reference to the text).

Students have turned in their term paper already, but there’s a short final paper due on Wit on the last day of classes, because I want to see how the students’ ability to respond personally to a text has developed after a semester in which I introduced them to literary research.

I’ve also carefully prepared students to make the most of this play, by introducing them to Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud,” the punctuation of which plays an important role in the play; they’ve also read Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which asked students to look at punctuation more closely than they ever have.

Armstrong.edu has a bibliography (though the links only work if you have an Armstrong account) and links to some useful news articles.

I’m bummed that the blogs were down for half the day yesterday, which means that some students who might otherwise have blogged in advance of the class didn’t. But Valerie Masciarelli, who wrote a paper on the humor in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, touches on how wit can’t solve all our human problems; Vanessa Kolberg wishes she could see a production, and Chris Ulicne, in a reflective mood, compares his own love of literature to the motives Vivian Bearing offers.

Research papers, correct grammar, and deadlines are important. But it’s days like this that I remember why I did such a stupid thing as go to grad school in English. I love talking about literary works that mean something to me. Even more so, I love sharing those works with students who use them (or reject them) as part of their process of defining who they are and how they are going to live the rest of their lives.

As Sykes puts it,

This is why both Christian intellectuals such as Carol Iannone and secular interpreters such as the makers of the HBO film get the play wrong. It is neither about simple kindness, as Iannone believes, nor can a wishful (and fully clothed!) return to youth convey Bearing’s redemption,l as it is made to do in the film version of the play [where, instead of the actress emerging from her deathbed and reaching, naked, for light, the screen shows a black and white headshot of the scholarly Bearing, as she might have appeared on the back cover of a book –DGJ]