Wit

Wit Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Margaret Edson's Wit. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Margaret Edson

Margaret Edson grew up in Washington D.C., the daughter of a newspaper columnist and a medical social worker. She received her undergraduate degree from Smith College in Renaissance history, worked odd jobs in Iowa, lived in a French convent in Rome, and then returned home to D.C. to work as a unit clerk on the cancer treatment floor of a research hospital. Her two years working there inspired her to begin working on Wit, which she wrote during the summer of 1991 while working at a bicycle shop in D.C. That fall, she enrolled in a graduate English program at Georgetown and began teaching in the D.C. public schools on the side, which she discovered she enjoyed more than academia. This led her to leave her graduate program with a master’s degree and begin a career as a teacher. In 1995, a theater in California produced Wit and the play won major Los Angeles drama awards before being produced on the east coast (in New York and in New Haven, CT) in the late 1990s. Although Wit was a major success, earning Edson the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, she never wrote another play. Instead, she pursued elementary education. As of late, she teaches sixth-grade in Atlanta, where she lives with her partner Linda and their two sons.
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Historical Context of Wit

Wit takes place almost entirely in a single hospital and deals with one woman’s battle with cancer, so it stands mostly disconnected from historical events in the outside world. Despite this, the play and Vivian’s character are heavily influenced by the 17th-century poet John Donne (Vivian is a famous scholar of Donne and teaches classes on his work). Donne was an English poet who lived from 1572 to 1631; he was famous for the intensity of his style and language, his intellect and wit, and his themes of both sensual eroticism and heavy religiosity. The play also deals with research in cancer treatment, which is a constantly shifting field in medicine. In Wit, Vivian becomes a model patient for a new, especially aggressive chemotherapy treatment. Chemotherapy was first developed from studies of the victims of mustard gas during World War II, and researchers began using nitrogen mustard and other chemical agents to kill rapidly dividing cells (like cancer). In the ensuing decades, chemotherapy has grown ever more effective and safer, but it is still an imperfect practice that can leave patients in devastated health, as Vivian experiences in the play.

Other Books Related to Wit

Echoing Wit’s themes of science, intellect, and humanity in the face of impending death, When Breath Becomes Air is an autobiographical work by neurologist Paul Kalanithi describing his battle with terminal lung cancer. Similarly, On the Move by Oliver Sacks is an intimate memoir from the famous neurologist written while he was dying of terminal cancer. Also like Wit in its study of scholarship, genius, and illness on the stage is the play Proof, written by David Auburn.
Key Facts about Wit
  • Full Title: Wit (often spelled “W;t”)
  • When Written: 1991
  • Where Written: Washington, D.C.
  • When Published: As a book, Wit was first published in 1999. However, it was first performed at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, California in 1995. It was staged again at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT in 1997, and then at the Union Square Theatre in New York City in 1999. The text of the published play is based on that third, NYC performance.
  • Literary Period: Contemporary American Theater
  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: The oncology unit at a university hospital
  • Climax: Vivian’s death
  • Antagonist: Vivian’s own arrogance and lack of empathy, and her doctors’ narrow focus on their research over the value of her life

Extra Credit for Wit

Awards and adaptations. In 2001, the play was adapted into an HBO television film starring Emma Thompson, which went on to win an Emmy. A 2012 Broadway production of the play was nominated for two Tony awards.

Edson’s perseverance. Edson has reported that she sent Wit to sixty theatres across the country in the hopes that one of them would produce it. Certainly, her dedication mirrors that of her protagonist.