The Spirituality of Wit

Wit_Early“I know all about life and death.”

Prof. Vivian Bearing, in Wit by Margaret Edson

If you think contemplating death is depressing, be prepared to be surprised by AstonRep Theater Company’s production of the acclaimed Pulitzer prize-winning drama, Wit, by Margaret Edson. AstonRep’s forte is taking successful main stage plays and giving them a small stage treatment. It’s a simple idea with a profound impact on the audience experience. Take this current production, for example. From the opening scene we know that the main character, Prof. Vivian Bearing, is dying from an incurable cancer. In the fittingly intimate space at the Raven Theater (no relation to the Raven Foundation), audiences quite literally accompany Vivian in the last stage of her life and oddly enough, the experience is anything but a downer.

In the Raven Theater, the space between Vivian’s hospital room and our seats is pitifully small. We have nowhere to hide from Vivian and her pointless, painful dying. But the opposite is also true –she has nowhere to hide from us. Vivian, an expert in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, who tells us with uncommon pride at the beginning of the play, “I know all about life and death,” discovers under our silent, steady gaze a truth she has been avoiding all her personal and professional life: when it comes to life and death, she knows nothing at all.

Vivian narrates her own story in direct address to us, weaving memories of her academic career into the present drama of her experimental treatment for cancer. As if we are old friends, she takes us into her confidence and we listen with a forgiving ear. We all understand that there is little hope of success, only the sure promise of suffering and pain. Indeed, Vivian tells us directly, “I am learning to suffer.” Which seems a strange thing for a fifty year old to say. How could it be that she has lived fifty years without suffering? No tearful teenage romance or other broken heart? No betrayal by a friend or colleague? No death of a loved one? No professional failure or shattered dream?

The absence of such experiences over a fifty year life is hard to believe, but as we come to know Vivian we understand how she did it. It seems she has discovered how to avoid the suffering caused by human relationships by convincing herself that she is not in need of them. She has never been married, she has no children and during her course of treatment covering eight months, more and more of that time spent in the hospital, no one comes to visit her. No one. No friends because she doesn’t seem to have any. Only colleagues who are more rivals than friends, and students past and present who seem to have forgotten her or remember her with a wince.

Vivian is utterly alone. But it seems until now she has not been lonely. Her success has kept her company, her constant companion has been her treasured identity as the foremost John Donne expert. She tells us “I have made an immeasurable contribution to the discipline of English literature. I am, in short, a force”. And a bit later, “My second article, a classic explication of Donne’s sonnet ‘Death be not proud,’ was published in Critical Discourse… After twenty years (as a Donne scholar), I can say with confidence, no one is quite as good as I.” She may be an expert on Donne’s poetic admonition to death, but she herself is proud to a fault.

Pride is a strange affliction, and Vivian’s pride lays bare its deepest irony. To all appearances, Vivian seems not to need anyone. She has even convinced herself that she is self-sufficient. The superior intellect among intellectuals, her own dazzling displays of wit in analyzing Donne’s poetry best even Donne himself, the renowned exemplar of wit. What she does not admit to herself is that all this success depends on the admiration of others. If she could not win coveted placement in academic journals, prized faculty positions or the envy of her colleagues, where would she be? Indeed, who would she be? Vivian’s sense of self sits atop a pyramid of the upturned gazes of others, many resentful, but in her pride she denies completely that the pyramid is even there. She soars on the strength of her wit alone, so she thinks, unaware of the depth of her dependence on those whom she looks down on with disdain as lesser creatures, as failures.

As we accompany Vivian through the play, as she speaks directly to us, all we can do is respond with our collective gaze. We are silent but we are there, a comforting presence. We hear her confessions of mistreatment of students, of over-weaning pride, but we don’t run away. Through it all, though no one visits Vivian, we remain in the dark of that small theater, close enough to hold her hand, and we rejoice when Vivian feels the warmth of a tender touch.

There is healing and gentle wisdom at the end of this play that comes not from the wit of John Donne or the halls of academia but from, of all places, a children’s story. You will enjoy this moment very much and so I will not spoil it for you.* But I will share a scene that seems to capture the heart of Vivian’s discovery. My granddaughter is 10 months old and takes delight in a childish game. She pulls a blanket over her head so that her eyes are covered and she cannot see me looking at her. Her little body trembles with delight as I coo, “Where’s Gracie? Where’s my Gracie?” pretending with her that I cannot see her because she cannot see me. When the excitement is almost more than she can bear, little Grace pulls the blanket away to reveal what she knew all along – Grandma had been there the whole time.

Like my granddaughter, Prof. Vivian Bearing has lived with a blanket over her eyes but hers is the blanket of pride. Hiding there she could not see how important the admiring gazes of others were to her. She does not tremble with delight in the sure knowledge of a loving presence being just there, but instead stands heroically steadfast in her self-sufficiency. But unlike my granddaughter, Vivian believes in her own deception – because she cannot see us, she thinks we aren’t there. Or rather, she is convinced that whether we are there or not doesn’t matter to her in the least bit. Vivian had begun her battle against cancer with nothing but her wit to protect her. It is only when wit fails her that her spiritual journey begins. I heartily recommend that you take this spiritual journey with Vivian and discover with her the truth about life and death.

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*Wit is playing at the Raven Theater in Chicago, May 8 through June 7, 2014. Tickets and theater information are available here. Wit is also available here on DVD as an HBO Studios movie starring Emma Thompson.

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