Margaret Edson’s W;t was a tiny little book that jumped out at me from the classics shelf at my local library. I always find it interesting to see what works the library categorises as Classic. I tend to think that fourteen years isn't quite long enough to earn that distinction but reading this play has me re-evaluating my criteria!
This Pulitzer Prize-winning play begins with Vivian Bearing, an English professor, as she is diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. A scholar, she is used to relying on her rational mind to guide her as she untangles the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. As her disease progresses she has a revelation about alternative ways of viewing the world and how to live.
How Margaret Edson manages to work so many layers of meaning, so many themes and perspectives into less than 85 pages, and how she manages to tackle such subject without ever straying into the maudlin or sentimental is a marvel. As Vivian examines her own thoughts about mortality, we glimpse her relationship to her father, her students, her medical team and her colleagues. It becomes clear that the real message is not how much cancer sucks (it does), and how hospitals could be more humane (they could), but about how we will choose to live our one precious life. We are all moving inexorably closer to death: advanced ovarian cancer has accelerated the process for Vivian but the cancer itself is not the story. The cancer is not the villan of the play, or of Vivian's life. She comes to understand that the real villan is the lack of compassion with which we treat each other.
In 2001, Emma Thompson wrote and starred in an award-winning television adaptation of W;t which is entitled Wit. This link should take you to the entire 99 minute film which is well worth watching.
I was nervous of how I would feel watching this film as the subject matter might hit a little close to home. I am very sensitive about the whole hospital thing. It was definitely more emotional to watch than it was to read the play, but it was not difficult. Emma Thompson is at her very finest in this role. I would highly recommend both the play and the film, and if you are ever lucky enough to see it live, do it!
According to Wikipedia, Margaret Edson "donated her Pulitzer Prize money to create a foundation to teach medical students how to interact more humanely with their patients" and continues to work as a kindergarten teacher with no intention of writing any more plays.