English Professor Vivian Bearing (Thompson) is an uncompromising authority on 17th Century English poetry, especially that of John Donne, whose Holy Sonnet X ("Death, be not proud...") figures heavily in the film, an obvious device that could be tiresome in the hands of lesser artists. At age 48, Vivian is diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer by prominent physician Harvey Kelekian (Christopher Lloyd), who gets her to agree to aggressive, debilitating chemotherapy that will serve his research agenda by appealing to their common commitment to rigorous scholarly discipline. The stoic Vivian bears this therapy and degrading study by Kelekian's team, including her own former student Jason Posner (Jonathan M. Woodward). Posner is now a bright research fellow who refers to clinicians as "troglodytes" and whose bludgeoning insensitivity seems to amuse Vivian more than it pains her, at least for a while. Vivian is asked "how are you feeling today?" so frequently and mechanically that it loses all meaning, and she remarks that she's a bit sorry she won't be able to hear herself being asked the question after she has just died. She engages in piercing monologue to the camera, applying the analytical skills she honed as a scholar to her life, her condition and the health care system she confronts. This system s ystem ironically sacrifices the w well-bein ell-being g of individua individuall patients, not necessarily with their full consent, for the research and professional interests of the physicians who appear to control it--a way of increasing knowledge at a considerable human cost which seems familiar to Vivian. But as her condition grows worse and her fear increases, Vivian starts to question her assumptions about what matters in life. Unlike much film and television work of recent decades, "Wit" has no interest i nterest in deifying physicians, and physicians who see it may object to the blatant disregard for patient well-being and smarty-pants self-indulgence displayed by the research physician characters. The one health care professional who actually caresand for Vivian any real sense isSusie, her primary nurse Susie Monahan, played Broadway actress singer in Audra McDonald. who iscare not an intellectual, simply wants to by provide Vivian with health care that is consistent with her professional obligations and with basic human decency, a goal which brings her into increasing conflict with the physicians pushing Vivian's chemotherapy. Despite their differences, the two women form a bond that has important consequences for the apparently friendless Vivian's emotional and physical health. McDonald's performance is steady and subtle, arguably a bit too subtle, but she conveys a fiery core when patient advocacy demands it. The script does not call for Susie to display a great deal of substantive knowledge, and a few other aspects of the film's portrayal of nursing could probably have been improved. Nevertheless, Susie is one of the most powerful feature film portrayals of what a good modern nurse actually does--an added incentive to see a movie that every health care professional should see anyway. he action of the play takes place pl ace during the final hours of Dr Vivian Bearing, university professor professor of of English English,, dying of ovarian of ovarian cancer . She recalls the initial diagnosis of Stage IV a university metastatic ovarian cancer from her oncologist her oncologist,, Dr Harvey Kelekian. Dr Kelekian then proposes an experimental chemotherapeutic treatmentregimen treatment regimen consisting of eight rounds at full dosage. Vivian agrees to the treatment. Over the course of the play, Vivian reflects on her life through the intricacies of theEnglish language, language, themetaphysical poetry of John of John Donne. Donne. Throughout the play, she recites especially the use of wit of wit in themetaphysical Donne's Holy Sonnet X X,, "Death Be Not Proud," while reflecting upon her condition. (In the revised edition of John Donne's Holy Sonnets, "If Poysonous Mineralls" and "Death Be Not Proud" are sonnets V and VI, respectively.) As a professor, she has a reputation for rigorous teaching methods. She has lived her life alone, is unmarried and without children, her parents are deceased, and she has no emergency contact. Vivian recalls undergoing tests by various medical technicians and being the subject of rounds. grand rounds. She remembers sharing a love of language and books with her father. She flashes back to her John Donne Donne.. Bearing later finds herself under experiences as a student of Dr E. M. Ashford, an expert on onJohn
the care of Dr Jason Posner, an oncology research fellow wh who o has taken her class on John Donne. At the hospital, she recognizes that doctors are interested in her for her research value and, like her, tend to ignore humanity in favor of knowledge. Gradually, she realizes that she would prefer kindness to intellectualism. Vivian reaches the end stage in extreme pain as Susie Monahan, a nurse at the medical centre, offers Vivian compassion and discusses with her the option of exercising her final option, d " o not resuscitate do resuscitate"" (DNR), in case of a severe decline in her condition. Vivian decides to mark the DNR option. Dr Ashford, in town for her great-grandson's birthday, visits the hospital after learning of Vivian's cancer. She comforts her and offers to read a Donne sonnet, but Vivian, scarcely conscious, declines. Instead, Ashford reads Brown's 's The Runaway Bunny , which she had bought for her great-grandson. great-grandson. from Margaret Wise Brown When Vivian flatlines, flatlines, Jason tries to resuscitate her, and calls in a medical medic al team to administer CPR. Susie tries to stop him, pointing out the DNR instruction. Jason eventually realizes his mistake and calls for the CPR team to stop. The play ends as Vivian, unclothed after her death, walks from her hospital bed "toward a little light". [edit edit]]Characters
seventeenth-century century poetry at the university, Vivian Bearing, PhD ± 50 years old, a professor of seventeenth-
diagnosed with stage IV IV,, metastaticovarian cancer Harvey Kelekian, MD ± 50 years old, chief of medical oncology at the University Hospital Hospital
Jason Posner, MD ± 28 years old, a clinical fellow at the Medical Oncology branch; former student of Dr Bearing Susie Monahan, RN, RN, BSN - 28 years old, Dr Bearing's primary nurse Dr E M Ashford, DPhil ± 80 years old, professor emerita of English literature; Vivian's former college professor
Mr Bearing, Vivian's father
Assorted lab technicians and students
deas and Themes What the Teacher Learns: Head and Heart
If Wit is Vivian Bearing's spiritual journey to a fuller and more humane understanding of life than she has had in the past, her self-awareness comes at great expense: Vivian must take another journey, too: passing from life into death as her body deteriorates from the effects of cancer and the chemotherapy she receives. The playwright explains her purpose in creating a character, who, at first, seems to be unsympathetic. "I wanted to talk about a person's relationship with grace--meaning the flow of harmony in and out of her life, her relationship with God, and her growing awareness of her own self as a person with a soul and the capacity for love. And the best way to talk about that was to show a person who had none of these attributes and show her gradually coming into them." The hospital environment is so foreign to Vivian that she loses her bearing. As a patient, she loses the control she once had in her classroom and, in the presence of her doctors, she is no longer the authority in the field. Now, as one more sick
person on the doctors' grand rounds, Vivian quips, "Once I did the teaching, now I am taught." Being ill and in the hospital make her weak and vulnerable. The playwright shows her bearing up to the tough physical regimen of chemotherapy, but unable to express the emotional turmoil it causes. Intellect has been Vivian's strength and her limitation. Vivian has always lived a life of the mind. Trained to be a scholar and teacher, she values intellect and ideas. On being informed that she has advanced ovarian cancer and that the treatment will be difficult to endure, she replies cavalierly: "It appears to be a matter, as the saying goes, of life and death. I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne's Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality. . ." In truth, Vivian knows little about life or death and it is only when she confronts life at its most difficult does she come to understand that intellect is only one aspect of being human. Vivian possess wit: she is smart, wry, ironic, quick and probing with ideas, and capable of keen perception; however, her wisdom that is useful in her profession is insufficient when she must cope with her illness. Only when terminal cancer forces her to look at her own life, does she truly understand Donne's fears and spiritual struggle. As she grows weaker and closer to dying, Vivian comes to rely on her nurse, Susie, who sees Vivian's suffering and fear, and who responds with empathy and care and, literally, a human touch. Similarly, Vivian's imposing mentor, E.M. Ashford, rather than read Donne to Vivian, climbs into bed beside her and reads a simple child's story that brings soothing comfort. When Vivian sees that her death is near, she realizes the significance of these actions: "Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit. . . . Now is the time for simplicity. Now is the time for, dare I say it, kindness. I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see that I have been found out." Once Vivian comes to this understanding of compassion, she is, as Edson, says, redeemed, and is able to die peacefully. In the play's striking final image, Edson melds Donne's ideas with the sight of Vivian, as it were, baring her soul. Donne's Holy Sonnet entitled "This is my Playes Last Scene" describes the brief moment of death when the soul leaves the body: This is my playes last scene; here heavens appoint My pilgrimages last mile; and my race Idly, yet quickly runne, hath this last pace,
My spans last inch, my minutes last point And gluttonous death, will instantly unjoynt My body, and soule, and I shall sleepe a space, But my'ever-waking part shall see that face, Whose feare already shakes my every joynt: Then, as my soule, to'heaven her first seate, takes flight, And earth-borne body, in the earth shall dwell, So, fall my sinnes, that all may have their right, To where they'are bred, and would presse me, to hell. Impute me righteous, thus purg'd of evill, For thus I leave the world, the flesh and devill. John Donne: The Divi ne ne Poems
, edited by Helen Gardner, 1952)
Are You Feeling Today?" Asks the Doctor
Edson draws a connection between Vivian Bearing and the doctor, Jason Posner. Young Jason, prepped for research and scholarship by Vivian herself--he took her class on the metaphysical poets--possesses many of the same traits as Vivian. He is smart, ambitious, dedicated to the complexities of his medical research, and inept at human relations. He must be reminded of appropriate bedside manner, otherwise, he would see only a sick body and not the person lying in the bed. He's fascinated with cancer and its complex cellular mechanisms, but patients and their messy emotions are something of an annoyance, he finds. Even care-giving nurses are problematic: "The clinicians are such troglodytes. So smarmy. Like we have to hold hands to discuss creatinine clearance. Just cut the crap, I say." His automatic, inattentive salutation to patients, "How are you feeling today," is both humorous and distressing. Like Professor Bearing, who could be overbearing with her students, Jason prefers research to "the part with the human beings." Edson maintains that she did not intend for doctors to be targets in her play. In fact, she states that "the researchers are not guilty of any cruelty that Vivian is not guilty of. They are completely equal in my mind." The point is that both Vivian and Jason are arrogant and unfeeling, much to their own detriment. Vivian is forced to temper her arrogance when illness becomes agony. Jason's arrogance causes him to make a serious blunder when he tries to resuscitate Vivian despite her "do not resuscitate" orders. In her juxtaposition of characters, Edson makes her point. "I'm not saying that smart is bad," Edson stresses, "Smart is not bad--but Issues
d is k ii nd n
in Medical Research: "The Full Dose"
Having once worked in a research hospital, Edson was able to use some of the dilemmas of medical research to enhance her central theme. Her protagonist is part of a clinical trial for a new drug regimen to fight ovarian cancer. She is not merely a sick patient, but a subject of research for the doctors who attend her, which gives them an inherent conflict of interest. As physicians, they must attend to Vivian in a way that is beneficial to her; they must "do no harm," as their Hippocratic oath warns. As researchers, Jason and Dr. Kelekian seek to benefit medical progress, to gain new knowledge about how the drugs could be used to treat other women with ovarian cancer. They urge Vivian not to compromise their study, that is, to endure the "full dose" of chemotherapy. They walk the ethical line between taking risks with Vivian's well-being and acquiring knowledge that might benefit others. They cross the ethical line when Vivian becomes so weak that she can no longer tolerate the full dose, and, at her death, when Jason tries to resuscitate her. "She's Research!" he yells when Susie tries to stop the resuscitation Code Team. Susie once told Vivian that doctors "like to save lives," but implies that they are not always as attentive to issues of quality of life as they are to life-preserving measures. Ironically, Vivian is sympathetic to the researchers. As a researcher herself, she sees the value in attacking "an intractable mental puzzle" and gaining further knowledge about cancer, even if she is the subject of study. "What is the alternative?" she asks, "Ignorance? Ignorance may be . . . bliss; but it is not a very noble goal." By taking the full chemotherapy treatment, Vivian becomes more data for Jason's file, a topic for a paper in a medical journal. Terminally ill at the end of her treatment, Vivian has become more cynical: "What we have come to think of as me, is, in fact, just a the specimen jar . . ." By nature supportive of the goals of research, she thinks differently when she feels its dehumanizing effect on her. And, in the end, she derives no benefit, no extended quality of life from having undergone the full course of the new drugs.
Vivian also comes to see that the study of literature, which she so prized for itself, has little meaning when devoid of human connections. Rather than administering the "full dose" of Donne to her students, she might have taken time to nurture their minds and to attend to them as individuals and not vessels to be filled with knowledge.
newdson's play Wit begins with the main character, Vivian Bearing, entering an empty stage, pushing an IV (intravenous) pole. She is dressed in two hospital gowns (one with the opening to the front, the other to the back) and a baseball hat. She is thin, barefoot, and hairless. She turns to the audience and talks to them directly, first with a false sense of pleasantry, then in her more usual formal manner. Her first line is "Hi. How are you feeling today?" This line will be repeated throughout the play by various characters, most times exemplifying the undertone of the play, which is that even though these words are spoken, their speakers do not listen to or care about the answer. Within the next few minutes of the play, the entire drama is placed before the audience. They learn who Bearing is, what she has done with most of her life, and that in less than two hours (the length of the play) she will die of ovarian cancer. Bearing introduces the ironic tone that will run through the play, as well as the obvious theatrical trickery (as in the actress stepping out of character to address the audience) audience) that will prevail. Next enters Dr. Harvey Kelekian. This scene is done in flashback to the time that Bearing is first told that she has cancer. Kelekian delivers his news to Bearing in very technical terms and in a very dry tone. In response, Bearing challenges Kelekian's choice of words, exposing her trait of retreating into her intellect in order to avoid her emotions. Kelekian continues divulging all the medical terminology of her disease, while Bearing voices (out loud) her thought process. She must read up on cancer, she tells herself, and assemble a bibliography²much as she would do if she were researching a literary topic. Then Kelekian and Bearing talk directly to one another. Kelekian says, "The tumor is spreading very quickly, and this treatment is very aggressive. So far, so good?