Women’s History Month: Margaret Edson and Wit

Today I want to celebrate the playwright Margaret Edson, the Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama in 1999. Last weekend I saw her play Wit starring Cynthia Nixon; and if it were not closing this weekend, I would urge you to grab a wad of tissues and get thyself to the theater. I do recommend you do the second best thing —read Witand the third or fourth—ponder the ideas about women and achievement it stirred up in me. Mind you, these are not the play’s primary concerns. The main character, renowned Donne professor Vivian Bearing, loves to point out that metaphysical poets like Donne contemplate the most rarefied matters of human existence: “Life, death, soul, God… past, present.” The biggies, I want to say. The play makes it impossible to ignore them, but with a little distancing trick (the cutesie of “biggie”) I’ve managed to put them in the (im)proper perspective this many days later.

That’s not to say I haven’t been thinking or feeling. I can very happily say that I can’t identify first-hand with the main character’s plight; but I have had a second-hand seat and no crystal ball to see into the future. All the same, watching the play was like watching a former version of myself. A smarter, more articulate, more imposing version, to be sure, but still: Vivian Bearing is a word-lover. I’m a word-lover. Vivian is a scholar. I was a scholar, and then I decided to leave the academy behind. I got out into the world in a way that Vivian did not, not when her mentor tells her to do exactly that, and not in the life she recounts during the course of the play. Or did I?

Vivian’s life seems to begin and end with her work. And much of the play is weighted towards her realizing that there is much more to life than the sum of one’s greatest deeds. But from where I was sitting in the not-facing-cancer-today seats, Vivian’s research and world-renowned scholarship brought on a serious case of the “What ifs,” even though I have a sneaking suspicion the answer is, “Not a chance, not in a million years.”

That’s Vivian. Then there’s Margaret Edson, her creator. There’s still enough of the academic in me to feel queasy about reading any text biographically, but part of the reason I write here is to recognize the queasy and plow ahead anyway. So…

It turns out that Wit is the only play Margaret Edson has written. (The New York Times called her the Harper Lee of playwrights. Get it?) Edson admits that her life might have taken a different turn had the play been produced soon after she had finished it; but the years of rejections, and well, life (that’s me being cutesie again, not her) brought her new passions. She’s a teacher now, and I think anyone who has taught will agree with the Times’ characterization of that work:

Ms. Edson hasn’t entirely abandoned the theater. Her current stage — where she is the dramatist, cast, stage manager, lighting director, prop master, usher and supply clerk — is a second-floor classroom at the Inman Middle School in the Virginia Highland neighborhood here, where she teaches sixth-grade social studies.

With full awareness of the stereotype I’m perpetuating (and perhaps embodying), I wonder if maybe Edson is simply too emotionally healthy to pursue a professional writing career. Unlike many of us—unlike Vivian Bearing—she is no stranger to self-reflection. Comparing herself to the character, Edson admits, “We both argue with ourselves all the time. The only difference is that I’ve figured myself out. I’m on to myself.” See what I mean? Healthy. She’s got her personal life figured out too. (Suffice to say Vivian Bearing doesn’t exactly have one.) Edson lives with her partner, Linda Merrill, an art historian at Emory, and their two sons; and her relationship with Merrill is such that she recently began teaching sixth grade after years of teaching kindergarten because Merrill said, “We’re not going to have 14 more years of the letter ‘M’ in our dinner table conversations.” I love that. Probably because it seems like the sort of compromise a self-recognizing yet mutually-attached relationship brings. To borrow an image from my beloved Elizabeth Barrett Browning, if Merrill is a branch and Edson is an encircling vine (or vice versa—I’m of too many minds as to what the ability to encircle or remain steady signify relationally) both retain their individual identity yet become an inseparable unit by growing together.

So why do I find myself agreeing with Lynne Meadows, the producer of the soon-to-close revival, and wishing that Edson would write more? I can admit the obvious and the selfish. I’m a writer who hasn’t come close to saying all I have to say on anything; and I’m a greedy theater-goer who would to love to see what Edson might create. More selfish still—or is it?—need I mention that there aren’t a hell of a lot female playwrights getting their work produced these days? It’s absolutely getting better—and yes, I should do my part and see if I can write anything worth watching—but we haven’t come nearly as far as we should have when a writer as talented as Theresa Rebeck can have her career threatened by one misogynistic review?

I envy Edson’s peace of mind and sense of self—but am I still stuck in that dreaded (gendered) binary? Does the (mostly still male) model of external achievement trump the personal internal measure? Edson wrote one Pulitzer prize-winning play—isn’t that enough? If she’s living a life that feels professionally and personally fulfilling to her, do I have even the teeniest, tiniest right to wish that she would do more?

I’m not sure I have an answer. And I have to add that the opt-out storyline on The Good Wife is only making me more conflicted. I know the questioning is important. It’s hard to weigh personal responsibility against the communal good under the best of circumstances (and when exactly are those, anyway?) Every time Women’s History Month comes around I’m as eager as the next gal to hail my long-lost underappreciated heroines. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wonder what it might feel like on the day when women are woven into the social fabric so tightly that our achievements are only of note in their singularity, as remarkable or unremarkable as men’s have been since the dawn of record-keeping.

So what do you think? How do you decide if you’re doing “enough?” How do you define achievement for yourself? Is it the same way you evaluate others? Has the measure changed as your life has? In addition to repeating my hope that only good can come out of the thinking about these things, I feel like I should add that it’d be equally good or better if the thinking inspired some doing.

About Jodi:
Jodi is a freelance writer and recovering academic with more enthusiasm for sports than athletic talent and a prodigious taste for the health food known as dark chocolate.


  1. I saw a community college production of “Wit” a few years ago and was blown away by it. I would most definitely LOVE to see more female plays written that explore the female psyche. No wonder men don’t know how we tick, we don’t even know ourselves, until something like “Wit” comes along and makes you think. Wonderful article, Jodi. You’ve done it again.

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