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Theatre / Wit

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A 1999 Pulitzer-Prize winning play by Margaret Edson that was later adapted to television by Mike Nichols and Emma Thompson, Wit is about Vivian Bearing, an English professor who specializes in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, who finds out she has an aggressive case of ovarian cancer. The story depicts her struggles with her illness and chemotherapy, as well as dealing with hospital bureaucracy. She spends much of the story discussing the situation with the audience, reflecting on her life and the choices she's made, as well as the poetry she's studied and how it relates to her current condition.


The film version of Wit includes examples of:

  • Arc Words: "And death, thou shalt die". Also "soporific."
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Averted. Vivian's appearance goes gradually downhill as she suffers more and more from her cancer. Notably, her hair is among the first of her features to go.
  • Book Worm: Deconstructed - Vivian prefers books and her research to social interaction, to the point where engaging with people who don't share her interests or have the same priorities as her can be problematic.
  • Break the Haughty: The play is a gradual one for Vivian, as she goes from a respected professor to a mere cancer patient that only lives for research.
  • The Cameo: In the film, Harold Pinter as Vivian's father.
  • Daddy's Girl: It seems that Vivian had this sort of relationship with her dad, as she cites him as the inspiration for her love of reading.
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  • Doomed Protagonist: No points for guessing that Vivian dies from her cancer.
  • Downer Ending: There are no prizes for guessing that Vivian dies at the end, but it's much bleaker than you think it will be at the start.
  • Dr. Jerk: Kelekian turns out to be one despite his pleasant exterior when it's revealed that he knew Vivian had no chance of survival and was only keeping her alive for research purposes. Jason's better, but he has his moments as well.
  • Dying Alone: It's implied this happened to Vivian, but we can't be sure.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    Kelekian: You have cancer...Ms. Bearing, you have advanced metastatic ovarian cancer.
    Vivian: Go on.
  • Foregone Conclusion: In the play, we start with Vivian in her death throes. The film skips over this to go straight to her diagnosis. This could be a case of Pragmatic Adaptation, since in the play she wears the paper gown for the entire show, even when looking back over earlier periods in her life. The film chops and changes a bit more with this.
  • Friendless Background: Vivian. When Professor Ashford suggests that she go out and enjoy herself with her friends, she seizes up inside:
    "I went outside. It was a warm day.There were students on the lawn talking about nothing, laughing. Simple human truth. Uncompromising scholarly standards. They're connected. I just couldn't...I went back to the library."
  • Good Night, Sweet Prince: Professor Ashford quotes the second half of this line when she says goodbye to Vivian, despite her not actually being dead at that point.
  • Humble Pie: At first, Vivian is able to take the poking and prodding in her stride, until being subjected to a particularly cack-handed and painful pelvic exam performed by Jason, her former student. Things start going downhill from there.
    "I wish I had given him an A."
  • Insufferable Genius: Vivian displays shades of this in her flashbacks to her teaching days.
  • The Intern: Jason.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Vivian has spent her life being more interested in her research than other people, and now she's dependent on doctors and hospital staff who are more interested in their own research than her emotional and physical well-being.
  • Magical Negro: In the film, Susie (played by Audra McDonald) comes close, both as a nurse who's almost too angelic, and as the one major character whose background isn't explored.
  • Missing Mum: While we at least meet Vivian's dad, any details about her mum are conspicuously absent, despite her living for twenty years longer than him and having died, at least in the film, in roughly the same manner as Vivian.
  • Meaningful Name: "Vivian" comes from the Latin word for alive.
  • Medium Awareness: Vivian knows that she's being watched. She also decides which scenes that the audience will see from her story, but acknowledges that she can't control what's happening to her.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Emma Thompson in the film sticks with her natural English accent. Justified since academics tend to develop odd accents from working and living abroad for long periods of time.
  • Not So Stoic: Vivian appears tough about her situation in the beginning, but as the play goes on; it's clear that she's suffering from not only her cancer, but the treatment as well.
  • Only Mostly Dead: Jason's attitude towards Vivian once her heart stops.
  • Shown Their Work: Towards the end of the film, Vivian displays what is colloquially known as the "O Sign", where morbidity is indicated by the patient being slack-jawed to the point of their mouth forming an "O" shape.
  • Simple Score of Sadness: Arvo Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel". (Again.)
  • Soap Opera Disease: Averted. Very, very much averted.
  • Too Clever by Half: Jason. A brilliant young man with a terrible ego and an abysmal bedside manner who forgets the entire point of his cancer research in the first place.
  • Too Dumb to Fool: Though probably the least educated character in a movie populated with geniuses, Susie is perhaps the one who understands life, death, and human dignity better than anyone else there (certainly her colleagues). Contrast with Jason's Too Clever by Half.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Vivian realizes that she shouldn't have been so tough on her students but, apart from being able to offer Susie half of her popsicle, she is too sick to act on her change of heart.
  • The Topic of Cancer: Perhaps one of the most brutal works on the subject.