(May Contain Slight Spoilers)
Yesterday my Mom had a surgery to have a melanoma removed from her leg. I thank God that this was discovered at an early stage, but my year has also been profoundly punctuated by another person's battle with cancer. In September, after a heroic two-year battle, my family's friend and closest-neighbor, Karen, passed away. She left behind a husband, a 15 year-old daughter and a 12 year-old son. Watching this family's struggles has affected me as no other death ever has before.
Yesterday I also watched my favorite film: Wit, starring Emma Thompson. Based on the play by Margaret Edson, this film chronicles Professor Vivian Bearing's experience as a patient undergoing treatment for stage-four advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. (“There is no stage five.”) And, yes, true to it's name it's strangely witty. And I use the term deliberately to imply that the wit of this play is ferociously intelligent and just gets funnier with every rewatch/reread.
I dare anyone to watch this film through to its penultimate scene without tears. The last time I watched it with my mom she remarked, through her tears, on how sad it is. But I was smiling through my tears; to me the conclusion of Wit is an unequivocal victory. To explain why let me lead you back to the play. Because while the HBO film – from casting to music - is “excruciatingly spectacular”, the play's the thing. The play this coruscating adaptation is based on is sometimes known as W;t (with a semicolon replacing the 'i'). This refers to its serious dialog with the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, of which Miss Bearing is a “demanding professor”. The film and play both focus attention on one of Donne's most famous poems, Sonnet X , known as “Death Be Not Proud”. The attention is minute, down to - you guessed it - the punctuation. (Comparing her hospital experience to her literary method, Vivian says, “The attention was flattering. For the first five minutes. Now I know how poems feel.”)
The film retains the perspicacious explication of Sonnet X, but with the ending changed, it's easy to miss the play's foundational, victorious theme. Indeed, even in the play we are required to “read between the lines”, so many have only seen half of the two-part theme. Everyone sees the importance of human kindness and connection that Vivian has lacked and looked for in vain from most health-care professionals. Yet that theme, although a vital part of the play, is one never mentioned in the poems that periodically punctuate the play – The Holy Sonnets. (Although the human connection does play a part in Donne's Meditation XVII from which comes the quote, “No man is an island.”)
But the film's underlying theme, as Margaret Edson has herself stated, is about redemption and grace. But grace isn't something that either John Donne or Vivian Bearing have an easy time accepting.
Speaking of the “salvation anxiety” found in Sonnet IX, a character says, “You know you're a sinner. And there's this promise of salvation, the whole religious thing. But you just can't deal with it... It doesn't stand up to scrutiny. But you can't face life without it either...”
Like Donne, or Adam and Eve in the garden, Vivian Bearing has tried to hide from God by “being extremely smart”. The final scenes show Vivian reduced to a childish state, curled up a ball, hiding under the covers and letting out a wail at the suggestion of hearing Donne recited.
But those familiar with more of Donne's poetry will almost immediately connect the play with a poem which it never mentions: "Hymne to God my God in my Sicknesse". This poem contrasts with the doubt that Donne manifests throughout the Holy Sonnets. In it John Donne is victorious over his “salvation anxiety” and asserts that “death doth touch the resurrection.”
Like this poem, the message of the play is victorious over “seemingly insuperable barriers”. The play, which has seemed to question and reject Donne, ends with a striking visual-metaphor for death touching the resurrection.
The greatest lesson of W;t is an intensely Christian one; in fact, so intensely Christian that it probably makes non-Christians uncomfortable. God uses suffering; He batters, over-throws, and breaks us, bringing us to a state of childish dependency, in order to make us new. And this being made new is not an illusionary renewal of youth as in the end of the film version. It is when God's hand shall “bind up all our scattered leaves, for that Library where every book shall lie open to one another.” The message of Wit may be summarized thus: “Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.”
And to paraphrase E.M. Ashford, the presiding genius of the play, "That is not wit. It is truth."
A favorite scene from the film:
HYMN TO GOD, MY GOD, IN MY SICKNESS.
SINCE I am coming to that Holy room,
Where, with Thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made Thy music ; as I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before ;
Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
That this is my south-west discovery,
Per fretum febris, by these straits to die ;
I joy, that in these straits I see my west ;
For, though those currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me ? As west and east
In all flat maps—and I am one—are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.
Is the Pacific sea my home ? Or are
The eastern riches ? Is Jerusalem ?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar ?
All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.
We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ's cross and Adam's tree, stood in one place ;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me ;
As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.
So, in His purple wrapp'd, receive me, Lord ;
By these His thorns, give me His other crown ;
And as to others' souls I preach'd Thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own,
“Therefore that He may raise, the Lord throws down.”
(Sonnet XIV was the first Donne sonnet I ever fell in love with, before seeing Wit two years ago. After seeing it, I started reading more Donne and soon saw the connection to "Hymne to God my God in my Sicknesse". I highly recommend this essay that explores the connection of these poems to the play and its theme of Christian grace. It's an essay that would have done Donne proud, by John D. Sykes Jr. entitled “Wit, Pride and the Resurrection: Margaret Edson's Play and John Donne's Poetry”.)