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However much traditional standards are leveled in our late democratic society, American theater will persist in challenging putatively oppressive values and the figures who enforce them. 

So I concluded after seeing Wit, the play by Margaret Edson that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 and is currently running off-Broadway in New York City. It presents the story of the last days of Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., as she battles the advanced cancer that we know from the outset will take her life. Wit is often touching and even funny, despite its focus on sickness and death, and a good actress can make the character compelling. But the play is also rather maddening. Vivian is something of a stereotype, and an outdated stereotype at that; it is difficult to imagine a professor of this kind—the astringent and unfeeling academic—in the touchy-feely world of the contemporary university. Even more maddening is what the play does to Vivian’s subject matter. Not only must the professor/protagonist/authority figure be cut down to size; the great John Donne, to whose work Vivian has devoted her life, must be cut down as well.

Donne, seventeenth-century poet and Anglican divine, was perhaps the premier exponent of the “metaphysical” school of poetry that was characterized by “wit,” the clever deployment of language in grappling with large subjects pertaining to God and the soul. Donne scholars, we are given to understand, consider themselves superior to those who study other authors. To comprehend Donne takes exacting, meticulous, and often torturous mental effort, for he is, as the play reminds us repeatedly, an immensely difficult poet. Compared to Donne, we are told, “Shakespeare is a Hallmark card.”

As a teacher and Donne scholar, Vivian has been equally austere—strict, uncompromising, ungiving. Not surprisingly, she is a lonely figure with no real human attachments. In the course of her illness, however, she undergoes great suffering and humiliation. In a familiar pattern, she comes to see the inadequacies of her hyper-intellectualized view of life and begins to experience the emotions she never acknowledged in herself, as well as gaining sympathy for others. In sum, her ordeal softens her, and, in an almost childlike way, she begins to need and appreciate other people’s small acts of kindness.

The more human Vivian grows, however, the more the poet shrinks. Throughout the play, we are primed for the denigration of Donne. We hear repeatedly of his “ingenuity,” “virtuosity,” “vigorous intellect,” “mental agility,” “agile wit”; he writes poems that are “brilliantly convoluted,” in which “intractable mental puzzles” are pored over and “metaphysical quandaries are addressed, but never resolved.” We begin to see Donne as a version of the pre-cancer Vivian—bloodless, cerebral, someone who enjoys the exercise of mental faculties for its own sake.

At one point in the play, Vivian appears in flashback before her class, interpreting one of the Holy Sonnets—a sequence generally regarded as among the greatest works of religious poetry in the English language, with lines that can leave you wide-eyed as you read them (“Batter my heart, three“personed God”; “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so”). But for Vivian, the Donne of the sonnets revels only in unresolved complexities. Here is the poem Vivian presents to her class, Holy Sonnet 9, as printed in the text of the play:

If poysonous minerals, and if that tree,

Whose fruit threw death on else—immortal us,

If lecherous goats, if serpents envious

Cannot be damn’d; Alas! why should I bee?

Why should intent or reason, borne in mee,

Make sinnes, else equal, in mee, more heinous?

And mercy being easie, and glorious

To God, in his sterne wrath, why threatens hee?

But who am I, that dare dispute with thee?

O God, Oh! of thine onely worthy blood,

And my teares, make a heavenly Lethean flood,

And drown in it my sinnes blacke memorie.

That thou remember them, some claime as debt,

I thinke it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

The upshot of Vivian’s overwrought explication is that “in the end [the speaker] finds God’s forgiveness hard to believe, so he crawls under a rock to hide . . . to disappear .

If we take a closer look at the poem, it becomes clear that Vivian may well be misreading the conclusion. The speaker is not asking God to forget him, only his sins. The antecedent for “them” in the penultimate line is the “sinnes” of the preceding one; in the closing couplet, the speaker is saying that although some people want to remind him of his debt in the face of God’s justice, he is asking for God’s mercy, and the forgetting, the forgiveness, of his sins.

Overall, the poem is clever, but not at the expense of the heart, and it is not nearly so God-awful complicated as the play would have it. The speaker tries a couple of rationalizations to help him get out from under the burden of sin. Fallen nature is full of creatures that do bad things, so why should man alone be damned? If God is merciful, why does He threaten punishment? These questions, and the “taking thought” that is behind them, cannot relieve the weight of guilt that is obviously prompting them. In that sense, the questions do present unresolvable quandaries. So the speaker drops the attempt at rationalization and turns imploringly to his God. He asks that in the blood of Christ and in his own tearful repentance his sins be “drown[ed],” drowned in “a heavenly Lethean flood” of forgetfulness, a forgiveness that would obliterate even the “blacke memorie” of sin.

Contrary to Vivian’s reading, the speaker’s quandaries now are resolved. The evil that men do is worse because, in effect, they can do better; man’s intellect and reason are reflections of divinity, signs of his higher nature, and they can lead him to the brink of grasping it. As to why God, being merciful, also “threatens” with His wrath, the answer is that God is merciful, but we access His mercy only through the sacrifice of Christ, who in the Christian view “takes away the sins of the world.” This is the gift of grace; the Christian can only accept it. The poem is no cry of despair, as Vivian would have it, but rather an illustration of the path to redemption.

At first the play seems to be suggesting that Vivian’s interpretations of Donne, in which he is seen to be playing mind-games and nothing more, are a reflection of her own cold, brilliant, over-intellectualized habit of thought. But as the play progresses, the idea takes root that Donne is a wordsmith, a puzzlemaster, a man with nothing to say to a heart in pain. The poet is seen as confused, scared, overcomplicated, hidden behind his “wit,” and, finally, a nihilist altogether—a man who knows his religious faith “doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” and so writes “these screwed-up sonnets.” The most exemplary person on the medical team that cares for Vivian is a nurse who never reads poetry and is not at all a thinker, but she is good and kind and compassionate to Vivian in her illness; these are the values of the heart that the play puts into counterpoint with the excessive intellectualism of John Donne.

In the last stages of her cancer, greatly weakened and discomforted, Vivian is visited by her old mentor, Professor Ashford. Ashford offers to recite something from Donne, but Vivian, the great Donne scholar, moans in protest, effectively repudiating all that she has done in her life. Instead, Prof. Ashford reads from a children’s book about a runaway bunny whose mother promises to find him wherever he goes, and manages to elicit from it the comforting message that God will seek out the soul no matter where it hides. When she takes leave of her old student, now rapidly slipping away from life, Prof. Ashford quotes a line of . . . Shakespeare. Vivian seems soothed. She soon dies, but then ascends—she walks away from the hospital bed, removes her gown, and, naked as the day she entered the world, raises her arms toward a bright light.

Does Vivian achieve beatitude solely by learning, through her pain, about the emotional life? By accepting her need for people? By repudiating the intellect and the poetry of Donne? By hearing the story of the bunny? All these experiences seem to be involved. But the real question is this: why must great art be diminished in order to affirm the contemporary cult of feelings? Why must a false dichotomy between mind and heart substitute for a fuller comprehension of the human soul and the poetry that expresses it? For that matter, why can’t a contemporary playwright appreciate that something real actually goes on in religious thought? Vivian’s travail is, in fact, somewhat like that of the poet of Holy Sonnet 9—both of them recognize that although reason and intellect are essential to our humanity and our ability to apprehend truth (God wants man to serve Him “wittily, in the tangle of his mind,” says Robert Bolt’s Thomas More), they are not enough. We need to surrender to the grace of something higher. Donne could accompany Vivian through her painful journey and her final transformation. But in Ms. Edson’s play the excellences of the past get pared down to the sentiments of Oprah. 

And is it true that Donne the brainy gamester has nothing to say to a dying person? Diana Benet, former president of the Donne Society, recommends this: 

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume. When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice. But God’s hand is in every translation, and His hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. 

Now doesn’t that beat the runaway bunny? 

Carol Iannone writes on literary and cultural topics.