The short, one act play Wit by Margaret Edson follows the life of English professor Vivian Bearing as she undergoes experimental treatment for stage four metastatic ovarian cancer. Throughout the play, Vivian ponders her life while receiving treatment and what her life was before she became sick. Because she is undergoing such aggressive treatment for a fatal disease, Vivian is mostly seen in the research hospital during the different stages of her cancer. This allows the reader to also see the staff that is involved in Vivian’s case, from the medical students to her doctor, Harvey. Kelekian. The hospital staff’s treatment of Vivian in the play shows the imbalance the medical field has when it comes to dealing with patients who are likely to die; they are told not to get attached, but at the same time complete indifference can become detrimental to the patients’ health and comfort.
One of the only people to have positive interactions with Vivian in the play is Susie Monahan. Susie is Vivian’s primary nurse, and she is often seen caring for Vivian’s health as well as ensuring her comfort in any way she can. This is the main difference between Susie and the other medical staff in charge of Vivian. Susie often goes out of her way to ask Vivian what she needs to be more comfortable in the hospital and sits at her bedside as friendly company rather than a nurse. It’s clear that she pities Vivian though, becoming almost simpering in how nice she tries to be to her. In some ways, Susie does end up getting overly attached to Vivian, forming a mothering type of friendship with her that can easily present itself as a problem if Vivian dies. On the other hand, being completely detached can be an issue as well in regards to a patient’s quality of life.
Jason is a clinical fellow for the Medical Oncology Branch of the hospital, as well as Dr. Kelekian’s protégé. Because of this, Jason acts as Vivian’s primary doctor rather than Dr. Kelekian, who is Vivian’s actual appointed doctor. Jason acts completely opposite to the way Susie acts in respect to being attentive to his patient’s comfort and needs. In spite of him having taken one of Vivian’s classes in university and knowing her personally, Jason rarely treats Vivian as a person and instead treats her simply as an uncaring and unfeeling research subject. Vivian repeatedly tells and shows the audience that, despite her cold demeanor, this is far from the truth of what she feels. After receiving a physical examination from Jason, she says, “having a former student give me a pelvic exam was thoroughly degrading− and I use that term deliberately” (1465). This is one of the first moments in the play where Vivian plainly shows that she is discomfited by her situation and the way she is treated by the hospital staff. After all, Vivian is still alive and isn’t actually confined to the hospital at this point in the play. She still goes about her daily life as much as possible, so to be treated in this manner is not only insulting to her, it makes her feel less like a human and more like a test subject.
Although Jason spends most of his screen time in the play acting uncaring toward Vivian, he does eventually realize that he was wrongful and negligent in his actions and attitude toward Vivian. At the end of the play, once Vivian is very nearly dead, Jason comes into her room and asks, “How are you feeling today?” (1485). He doesn’t realize that Vivian is dying because he doesn’t actually look at her when he walks in. His stage directions for entering this scene are, “JASON strides in and goes directly to the [intake and output] sheet without looking at VIVIAN” (1485). It takes him a while to realize that Vivian is not only unresponsive, but her bodily functions have ceased altogether. It is in this scene that Jason makes one of his biggest mistakes during his time treating Vivian. He begins to attempt to resuscitate Vivian and calls in a code team, not caring that Vivian asked not to be revived. When Susie attempts to stop him and remind him of Vivian’s wish, Jason pushes her away, stating, “She’s Research!” (1486). It is in this moment that both Susie and the audience realize just how little Jason cares about Vivian as a human. To him, she really was just a research subject the entire time he was working with her. Yet, as easy as it would be to see Jason in a villainous light and condemn him for lacking morals, it can be difficult to distinguish what is ethically correct in medical situations. Jason is focused on medical advancement that could lead to curing cancer, saving thousands of lives. This is at the expense of Vivian though, who is a human as equally important as anyone else despite having a terminal disease. This is the nature of an ethical dilemma; an answer can never be universally agreed on.
Throughout Wit, there are several characters who are in the medical field that take different approaches to dealing with a cancer patient who is likely to die. While other characters in the play interact with Vivian during her illness, the three characters that interact the most with Vivian show the difficulty of dealing with patients with terminal cancer and other diseases, and they bring up the issue of morality in the actions or inaction in health professions.