Article Title

Cancer and the Common Woman in Margaret Edson's W;t


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

This essay is an exercise in the bringing together of apparently disparate roles. I am an assistant professor of Renaissance Literature, and I am a cancer patient. These two identities rarely overlap, since cancer has not proved a popular literary subject. As Susan Sontag notes, although nineteenth-century writers glamorized tubercular patients, “nobody conceives of cancer … as a decorative, often lyrical death”; she adds that “cancer is a rare and still scandalous subject for poetry; and it seems unimaginable to aestheticize the disease.”1 Cancer’s resistance to aesthetic rendering poses an additional difficulty for patients like myself, accustomed to turn to imaginative literature in times of need. Hence my attraction to Margaret Edson’s highly acclaimed W;t, a play that dramatizes the diagnoses, treatment, and death of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a professor of seventeenth-century literature suffering from advanced ovarian cancer. W;t has achieved to general acclaim what Sontag had deemed “unimaginable.” I had initially hoped that the play would help me make sense of what had happened to me. The fact that I now approach it in a scholarly mode is itself an indication that the play was a disappointment to me on a more fundamental level.


1Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphore, in “Illness as Metaphor” and “AIDS and Its Metaphors” (London and New York: Doubleday, 1989), 20.

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