VIVIAN: (Hesitantly) I should have asked more questions, because I know there’s going to be a test.
I have cancer, insidious cancer, with pernicious side effects—no, the treatment has pernicious side effects.
I have stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. There is no stage five. Oh, and I have to be very tough. 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 greater depth than any other body of work in the English language.
And I know for a fact that I am tough. A demanding professor. Uncompromising. Never one to turn from a challenge. That is why I chose, while a student of the great E. M. Ashford, to study Donne.
[E. M.]: Nothing but a breath—a comma—separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really. With the original punctuation restored, death is no longer something to act out on a stage, with exclamation points… Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma.
VIVIAN: Life, death…I see. (Standing) It’s a metaphysical conceit. It’s wit! I’ll go back to the library and rewrite the paper—
E. M.: (Standing emphatically) It is not wit, Miss Bearing. It is truth. (Walking around the desk to her) The paper’s not the point.
VIVIAN: It isn’t?
E. M.: (Tenderly) Vivian. You’re a bright young woman. Use your intelligence. Don’t go back to the library. Go out. Enjoy yourself with your friends. Hmm?
To the scholar, to the mind comprehensively trained in the subtleties of seventeenth-century vocabulary, versification, and theological, historical, geographical, political, and mythological allusions, Donne’s wit is…a way to see how good you really are.
After twenty years, I can say with confidence, no one is quite as good as I.
You may remark that my vocabulary has taken a turn for the Anglo-Saxon.
God, I’m going to barf my brains out.
(She begins to relax.) If I actually did barf my brains out, it would be a great loss to my discipline. Of course, not a few of my colleagues would be relieved. To say nothing of my students.
It’s not that I’m controversial. Just uncompromising. Ooh— (She lunges for the basin. Nothing) Oh. (Silence) False alarm. If the word went round that Vivian Bearing had barfed her brains out…
Well, first my colleagues, most of whom are my former students, would scramble madly for my position. Then their consciences would flare up, so to honor my memory they would put together a collection of their essays about John Donne.
VIVIAN: It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is soporific.
The little bunnies in the picture are asleep! They’re sleeping! Like you said, because of soporific!
(She stands up, and MR. BEARING exits.)
The illustration bore out the meaning of the word, just as he had explained it. At the time, it seemed like magic.
So imagine the effect that the words of John Donne first had on me: ratiocination, concatenation, coruscation, tergiversation.
Medical terms are less evocative. Still, I want to know what the doctors mean when they…anatomize me. And I will grant that in this particular field of endeavor they possess a more potent arsenal of terminology than I. My only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary.
I am not in isolation because I have cancer, because I have a tumor the size of a grapefruit. No. I am in isolation because I am being treated for cancer. My treatment imperils my health.
Herein lies the paradox. John Donne would revel in it. I would revel in it, if he wrote a poem about it. My students would flounder in it, because paradox is too difficult to understand. Think of it as a puzzle, I would tell them, an intellectual game.
(She is trapped.) Or, I would have told them. Were it a game. Which it is not.
(Escaping) If they were here, if I were lecturing: How I would perplex them! I could work my students into a frenzy. Every ambiguity, every shifting awareness. I could draw so much from the poems.
I could be so powerful.
In everything I have done, I have been steadfast, resolute—some would say in the extreme. Now, as you can see, I am distinguishing myself in illness.
I have survived eight treatments of Hexamethophosphacil and Vinplatin at the full dose, ladies and gentlemen. I have broken the record. I have become something of a celebrity. Kelekian and Jason are simply delighted. I think they foresee celebrity status for themselves upon the appearance of the journal article they will no doubt write about me.
But I flatter myself. The article will not be about me, it will be about my ovaries. It will be about my periotoneal cavity, which, despite their best intentions, is now crawling with cancer.
What we have come to think of as me is, in fact, just the specimen jar, just the dust jacket, just the white piece of paper that bears the little black marks.
VIVIAN: (Getting out of bed, without her IV) So. The young doctor, like the senior scholar, prefers research to humanity. At the same time the senior scholar, in her pathetic state as a simpering victim, wishes the young doctor would take more interest in personal contact.
Now I suppose we shall see, through a series of flashbacks, how the senior scholar ruthlessly denied her simpering students the touch of human kindness she now seeks.
Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit.
And nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis. Erudition. Interpretation. Complication.
(Slowly) Now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness.
(Searchingly) I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see that I have been found out. Ooohh.
I’m scared. Oh, God. I want…I want…No. I want to hide. I just want to curl up in a little ball. (She dives under the covers.)
(VIVIAN concentrates with all her might, and she attempts a grand summation, as if trying to conjure her own ending.)
And Death—capital D—shall be no more—semicolon.
Death—capital D—thou shalt die—ex-cla-mation point!
(She looks down at herself, looks out at the audience, and sees that the line doesn’t work. She shakes her head and exhales with resignation.)
SUSIE: (Pushing them away from the bed) Patient is no code. Get away from her!
(SUSIE lifts the blanket. VIVIAN steps out of the bed.
CODE TEAM HEAD: (Reading) Do Not Resuscitate. Kelekian. Shit.
She walks away from the scene, toward a little light.
(The CODE TEAM stops working.)
She is now attentive and eager, moving slowly toward the light.
JASON: (Whispering) Oh, God.
She takes off her cap and lets it drop.
CODE TEAM HEAD: Order was put in yesterday.
She slips off her bracelet.
CODE TEAM: —It’s a doctor fuck-up.
—What is he, a resident?
—Got us up here on a DNR.
—Called a code on a no-code.
She loosens the ties and the top gown slides to the floor. She lets the second gown fall.
The instant she is naked, and beautiful, reaching for the light—
JASON: Oh, God.
(The bedside scene fades.)