Wit Film Project : SAQ Article

She’s written a hit play and won the Pulitzer Prize, but Margaret Edson ’83,
author of "Wit", is happiest when she’s teaching five-year-olds to read.

"Off Broadway"
By Gail Cameron ’54

This article originally appeared in the Fall 1999 Smith Alumnae Quarterly and is used here with permission.

Late on a warm Thursday afternoon last September, Margaret Edson ’83, photo of Margaret Edson who was in her first year of teaching kindergarten at a downtown Atlanta public school, tore into rush hour traffic and headed straight for the airport to board a flight to New York. She told no one, except for her principal at Centennial Place Elementary School, where she was going or why. "Maggie just wrote me a little note, explaining why she needed to take a personal day so early in the school year and also saying she didn’t want anyone else to know what she was doing, that she wanted to be known only for her teaching," remembers Principal Cynthia Kuhlman. "I respected that."

The following Monday, Edson, 38, a willowy, six-foot-tall woman with dark tousled hair and an exuberant smile, was back in her Atlanta classroom energetically explaining to her tiny charges that walking to the lunch room in a straight line is a truly big responsibility. "Just like any other Monday morning," noted Kuhlman. What Edson did not mention to anyone was that on that Thursday evening in Manhattan, the 1998-99 New York theater season had been irrevocably and improbably transformed by her play, "Wit", which she had written seven years earlier. The play takes audiences through the final hours of a professor of 17th-century literature who is dying of stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. It’s a gripping drama full of fiercely comic moments that has entranced audiences and critics alike and has garnered Edson a host of prestigious theater awards, including the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a virtually unheard-of feat for a first-time playwright.

Arriving at La Guardia that night in September, Edson went immediately to the 90-seat MCC (Manhattan Class Company) Theater on West 28th Street in the heart of Chelsea’s wholesale flower district. She got there just as the curtain was coming down on the opening-night performance of "Wit". Dashing into the restroom, where she shed her teacher clothes and re-emerged in navy blue silk, Edson could hear the woman in the next stall crying and blowing her nose. "So I knew that at least one person had been moved by the play," Edson says. After mingling anonymously with the first-night crowd—"I loved it that no one knew who I was"—the playwright and the cast moved to an apartment around the corner for the opening-night party. Edson was accompanied by the play’s director—and one of its earliest champions—Derek Anson Jones, her childhood friend and former classmate from The Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC. They had first met in the seventh grade in a school production of The Miracle Worker and had become lasting buddies. Now, years later in New York, munching on Mexican food, they waited nervously for the opening-night reviews of their first major production.

Around 11 p.m., Edson remembers, someone went into another room and downloaded The New York Times review from the Internet. Then producer Doug Hughes got up on a chair and read it out loud. As phrases like "wonderfully compelling . . . Margaret Edson’s brutally human and beautifully layered new play . . . directed with care and clarity by Derek Anson Jones," began to fill the room, the party exploded. "After almost every sentence there were cheers and whooping and clapping and screaming," remembers Edson. "It was just all, well, wonderful. And what was most wonderful was that everyone there was aware of the risk that they’d taken."

By the time Edson, who lives in Atlanta with her partner Linda Merrill ’81, returned to Manhattan with her family in January for the play’s reopening at the larger, 499-seat Union Square Theater on East 17th Street, "Wit" had been virtually engulfed in cascades of power adjectives —moving, enthralling, luminous, smashing, funny, thrilling, illuminating, unforgettable. Nancy Franklin ’78, theater critic for The New Yorker, declared that it was "far and away the most celebrated play of 1998." The New York Times dubbed it "the kind of theatrical experience of which legends are made." In the spring, "Wit" received the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Play, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Edson has managed to navigate all this heady terrain with almost casual grace. While appearing on the front page of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or in People magazine, or being interviewed by Charlie Rose on PBS, she has remained somehow removed from the bright lights and giddy acclaim, deeply immersed in what she considers her real life. In fact, her commitment to teaching has only intensified. Her Atlanta classroom, which is shared with two hamsters named Speedy and Slowpoke, brims with boisterous colors and buoyant Edson poems ("How I like to travel in my big hot air balloon/Now it is inflating and it will be ready soon"). A sign—HELLO LEARNERS—greets her class of 23, whom she always addresses as "students" —never "children"—as they enter each morning at 8. "I love everything about teaching," says Edson, who previously taught first grade and English as a Second Language in Washington, DC. "Something meaningful happens every day and I feel it’s important and useful and I believe in it."

Born on the 4th of July in 1961 in Washington, DC, Maggie Edson was raised in a rambling, low brick house filled with books and surrounded by big trees directly across the street from the athletic track of American University. Derek Anson Jones still remembers going over to the Edson home for cool drinks after track practice. Maggie’s father, Peter Edson, was a syndicated political columnist and her mother, Joyce, had been a medical social worker before her children were born and later returned to the field when they were grown. When Maggie, who has an older sister and a younger brother, was about 4 years old, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, later of Seinfeld fame, moved in next door. "The kids put on a lot of plays," remembers Joyce Edson, "and Julia was usually the instigator, and Julia usually played the lead." Mostly the plays were "just stuff we made up," says Maggie, "except for one real play—Sorry, Wrong Number—that we rehearsed avidly when we were about 10 or 11. Julia played the lead and we performed it for our parents in Julia’s basement. Everyone still remembers it."

At Sidwell Friends, Edson was active in the drama program and in her senior year played Rosalind, the banished duke’s daughter, in the school’s production of As You Like It. But at Smith Edson had very little to do with the theater department. She participated in the Smith Scholars Program, which allows students to develop their own course of independent study. For her project, Edson decided to study Renaissance Italy and translate a 15th-century play by the writer Antonia Pulci. In her junior year, Edson connected with Ruth Mortimer ’53, the late curator of The Rare Book Room, which is now named for her. In addition to being a mentor and the main adviser on her Smith Scholars project, Mortimer became a trusted friend who ultimately would have a profound impact on the writing of "Wit".

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude, Edson helped a friend drive a UHaul to Bloomington, Indiana, and ended up spending a summer with her sister in Iowa, where Edson sold hot dogs by day and worked at a hog farmer’s bar by night. She then journeyed back to Italy, where she’d spent the summer after her junior year working on her Pulci translation. She lived for a year in a French Dominican convent in Rome. "I did painting and manual labor and learned plain chant," she says. "It was just something I felt like doing, so I did." Returning to Washington, Edson got a job as a unit clerk on the AIDS and Oncology unit of a renowned research hospital. "The unit clerk," she explains, "is sort of the stage manager, the person who keeps things flowing —like Radar on M*A*S*H. You know, all knowledge and no power. I had such a low-level job that I saw a lot of things first hand and I was too insignificant for other people to notice." Day to day, she observed how the nurses interacted with their patients and watched as patients relinquished much of the control they once had over their lives to hospital staff. Edson left after a year, but the experience would continue to haunt her and would eventually become the basis for "Wit".

As she approached her 30th birthday in 1991, Edson decided to, as she puts it, "get serious" about her future. An academic career seemed the obvious path, so she dutifully enrolled in the graduate program in English literature at Georgetown University. First, however, she wanted to write the play about dying that she had been thinking about ever since leaving the cancer unit. The spring before graduate school, Edson took a job in a bike shop and wrote in her spare time. "It was the perfect mix," she says, "working on the play in the mornings and hanging with the high school boys in the afternoons and evenings." "Wit", says Edson, emerged as a play about kindness. It is about a person of great accomplishment who suddenly finds herself in a situation where all the skills she’s built up in her life no longer serve her, and this forces her to disarm. "I wanted the main character to be someone very powerful who was also very skilled with words," Edson said. She came up with Dr. Vivian Bearing, a celebrated professor of 17th-century literature who knows everything there is to know about metaphysical poetry and specializes in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Edson based the professor’s personality on tales Ruth Mortimer had told her about "the great three-named, square-rigged professors of her day"—Esther Cloudman Dunn and Mary Ellen Chase. To understand Donne’s poetry, Edson spent hours in the library, poring over his work and trying to decipher the meaning behind his words. It wasn’t an easy task, but she found that "if you know how to study something, you can study anything."

When Edson wrote Ruth Mortimer about the play that year, she casually inquired at the bottom of the letter "What’s new with you?" expecting to hear about some new scholarly adventure. Instead, Mortimer replied that she had breast cancer. "I thought, ‘Well, she’s not going to be very interested in this play,’" Edson says. "As it turned out, she was very interested in it. We spoke about it all the time. I came up in August with what I thought was the perfect, complete, finished draft for her to take me out to lunch over. She blocked out the whole day and went over every word—partly as a person going through cancer treatment, partly as a person who knows everything there is to know about metaphysical poetry, and partly as a person with an incredible sense of plays and theater and what happens. Every suggestion she made was based on her vision of the play as something that was going to be produced on stage with an audience, which is something there was no guarantee of, even in my heart."

The first reading of "Wit" took place around the dining room table in the house where Edson had grown up. "Derek [Anson Jones] played Vivian because he had the most theatrical experience, even though he was then working at Blue Cross/Blue Shield," recalls Edson. "And my brother played the doctor and my sister-in-law played the nurse and my mother played E.M. Ashford. I then went into another room while Linda [Merrill] moderated a discussion and took notes. While they talked, I watched the Tour de France to keep up with my bet at the bike shop." The main problem, everyone agreed, was the length, which, at that point, was about three hours. "Some scenes were added," says Edson, "like the Beatrix Potter scene about the character when she was young—but mostly it was just back to the computer and cutting, cutting, cutting."

In the fall, Edson began work on her master’s at Georgetown. Selected for a special fellowship as a writing center associate, she was assigned to Norma Tilden, a professor who later directed her thesis. "It was a really unusual thesis about the use of poetry to teach reading," says Tilden. "There is no way to describe how totally odd and totally wonderful it was. Maggie performed a long rap number by Queen Latifah for her oral exam before three English professors. This was a great moment. The thesis also made perfect sense because of her fascination with the difference between oral language and written language." Edson received her degree but decided not to pursue a Ph.D. "During that year," she explains, "I tutored a student through our church in English as a Second Language, and I discovered that the thing I love most is teaching reading." Meanwhile, "Wit" was being rejected by theaters all over the country. "The general drift was thanks but no thanks," says Edson. "Too much talk, too academic, too medical, too much illness. The first rejection was very painful, but by the third or fifth, less so. Then it became routine. I just got out a file and labeled it REJECTION—and that file got very full."

Then, in 1993, the South Coast Repertory Company in Costa Mesa, California, expressed interest in doing a reading. In the end, they decided to produce it. In January 1994, Edson returned to Northampton to consult Ruth Mortimer. "The theater company had a series of five questions. She was waiting for me on the couch by the fire to answer those questions. On the first, she said, ‘Just leave it the way it is.’ On the second, she moved one character over to the other side of the stage and had him exchange one line and had the other character give another line. That fixed every problem the other three questions addressed. Then we had dinner—rack of lamb—and it went on for hours. Ten days later, Ruth died."

"Wit" was a huge success in California. It ran six weeks and was then held over for another. It subsequently swept the Los Angeles Drama Critics Awards for Best World Premiere, Best Writing, and Best Direction. It then lapsed back into seeming oblivion. However, Edson’s old school friend, Derek Anson Jones, who, since the original dining table reading, had graduated from the Yale Drama School, continued to carry it everywhere in his backpack. While working as an assistant director for Henry V in Central Park, he showed the play to Doug Hughes, who was directing, and actress Kathleen Chalfant, who now plays Vivian Bearing. When Hughes was named artistic director of the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, he selected "Wit" as the first production of the Second Stage with Derek directing. It opened in New Haven in September 1997 and in New York almost exactly a year later.

On the day the Pulitzer Prize was announced, Edson was busy leading her students in counting by two’s to James Brown’s "I Feel Good." When bouquets began arriving in the classroom, she connected it to the class’ insect project called "Six Legs Over Georgia." "I took the opportunity to teach about the bee dance and how bees communicate with each other," she told Jim Lehrer on PBS. The Pulitzer lunch in May was, she admits, pretty spectacular. Held in the dome of the library at Columbia University, "it was a celebration of the working person. No glamour, no polish," Edson says. "The seriousness of it made it somehow even more exciting." The award, which came in a Tiffany box, resembles a glass hockey puck with an inscription. "It’s really beautiful," she says.

Perhaps to the dismay of her legion of new fans, Edson says she has no plans to write another play. "If there is something I want to say, then I’ll do it." Meanwhile, she is busy moving into a newly-purchased house and is consulting on the translation of "Wit" into, so far, German, French, Portuguese, and Finnish. In the fall, Edson will move to the John Hope Elementary School, near the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta. While New York magazine critic John Simon declared in his review of "Wit" that Edson "should be handed the Harvard English department," her commitment to five-year-olds has only deepened. "I’ve learned that kindergarten is where it happens," she says. "Reading and writing is power—the thing that gives you the most power in your whole life. I like being part of students acquiring that power. I like handing that power over."

Gail Cameron ’54 is Atlanta correspondent for People magazine. She has worked for Life magazine and has written for McCalls, New York magazine, and Ladies Home Journal, among other publications. She is the author of Rose, A Biography of Rose Kennedy (G.P. Putnam).

This information is provided by the Wit Film Project. For more information please contact Jennifer Spooner at [email protected] or 310-478-3711 ext. 48353. Wit Film Project