Religion, Sexuality, and Gender in W;t
In W;t, by Margaret Edson, Vivian is a highly dedicated, intelligent woman who devoted her life to the poetry of John Donne. The play focuses on Vivian’s slowly deteriorating health. In turn, both the character and the audience’s attention become fixed on the idea of death. In the end the audience has followed the main character on a spiritual journey in which she adapts a gentler outlook on the human experience. Her journey towards self actualization is mirrored by the physical change from life to death. In many ways John Donne’s poetry works to compliment this effect. In the Holy Sonnets, particularly Holy Sonnet X, the idea of death is analyzed to a great extent. “And soonest our best men with thee doe goe… Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men…” John Donne explains how he accepts death as an inedibility of life much as Vivian is forced to accept it as it comes barreling towards her in the form of a crippling disease.
There are several poems in the Holy Sonnet collection, however, that deal with themes that are conspicuously missing from W;t. Religion is a major component in the poetry of John Donne. He writes often about his reverence for God, his hope for a spiritual salvation, and ultimately his ascension into heaven. He speaks about these things in metaphorical terms and seems to suggest doubt for the dogmatic principles of Christianity. One wonders whether he is a devote Christian as much of his imagery seems to be the opposite of typical religious rhetoric. In fact, much of it suggests a struggle to accept God. In Holy Sonnet XIV Donne states that he knows he must revere God yet he finds it difficult. He calls upon God to force himself upon him. He wishes God to “ravish” him. It is safe to say that John Donne feels strongly about religious beliefs and has quarreled with it sufficiently. Vivian, however, is a character completely devoid of religion. There are several references to religion throughout the play, such as The Tale of the Runaway Bunny, but we are led to believe that her biggest regret is that she “prefer[ed] research to humanity, (Edson 58).” While in the Holy Sonnet XIV Donne longs for a spiritual relationship with God, Vivian, in her death, realizes the need for relationships with other people. This is her “salvation” at the end of the play.
This conclusion is particularly secular. A Christian reader could easily see this play as a story of religious redemption. One might say that at the end of the play Vivian realizes that her intellectual pursuits must not interfere with her ability to allow god into her life. Vivian’s friend E. M. Ashford arrives at the hospital and reads to her from The Runaway Bunny and concludes her visit by stating, “It’s time to go. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” This could easily be interpreted as Vivian’s acceptance of God.
My problem with this interpretation, however, is that before this point in the play God is noticeably absent in Vivian’s life. It is not her struggle with her spirituality, but rather her struggle to experience life on earth with other people that has her conflicted. She is someone who has lived her whole life in books. Donne’s struggle in Sonnet X, and to a smaller extent the other Holy Sonnets, is rooted in religious belief and the fear of the unknown. Later in his life Donne wrote:
“…I know not what it is that I fear now; I feare not the hastening of my death, and yet I do fear the increase of the disease; I should belie Nature, if I should deny that I feared this, and if I should say that I feared death, I should belye God…” (Smith 392)
Vivian had a similar struggle. Hers was one between her intellectual pursuits and living a normal life with normal emotional ties. She was equally incapable of doing so.
As a result Vivian has no parents, no lovers, and no children. As her body deteriorates and death looms nearer she begins to seek out these relationships with those around her. She begins to open up to Susie as she never has to another person. Her stoic façade begins to break down and we begin to see Vivian as a person. If Sonnet XIV (a sonnet steeped in uncertainty) were included in this text it would obscure Vivian’s ‘salvation’ at the end of the play.
Another aspect of Donne’s poetry that is absent in W;t is his blatant sexuality. I believe this was intentionally left out of the play because it shows the degree to which Vivian has shut herself off to experiencing the world and forming relationships with other people. In the beginning of the play her body is treated as if it’s a scientific model from which to learn. This in many ways reflects how Vivian sees the world; something to study from afar. By being treated like an object of study she learns the importance of her own existence as an individual. Her salvation at the end of the play, her “reaching for the light,” is merely a representation of her becoming aware of this fact (Edson 85). It is not a traditional religious salvation, but in fact a secular take on the idea of salvation in which the emphasis is not on experiencing God, but rather on experiencing life itself.
Sexuality and gender in Donne’s poetry (particularly his songs and sonnets) are closely tied to death and religion. “The Flea” in particular uses sexual puns to discuss the topic of death. In dealing with death Donne often emphasizes the importance of lovers and “feminine figures in a defense against the finality and isolation of death.” In Donne’s “Song (I)” he writes: “they who one another keepe / Alive ne’r parted bee” (Hogson 147). Vivian has no lovers, but she does have a prominent motherly figure. At the end of the play her old colleague E. M. Ashford assumes the role of Vivian’s forgotten mother. She takes care of Vivian and treats her like a child by reading to her from The Runaway Bunny.
In The Holy Sonnets mothers and daughters symbolize the community of saints and their followers respectively. Donne’s voice in these sonnets reveals that he has a deep fear of being alone in the face of death and therefore seeks the company of women. Sex becomes a metaphor for seeking comfort; his search for comfort, in this case, is the church. Holy Sonnets I, VI, VIII, and of course X all emphasize the importance of finding identity in death. In Holy Sonnet XVII John Donne discusses the loss of a lover. The poem centers not on the death of the woman, but rather his actions after her death. In the absence of a female figure Donne turns to God to help him cope. God, however, is not enough for Donne: “But though I have found thee, and thou my thirst has fed / A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.” In this sonnet Donne’s expired lover and God fight for his affections and position as distractions from the fear of death.
W;t focuses mainly on the theme from Sonnet X; to conquer death. The other sonnets do not ignore the theme of death, in fact in many it is pivotal, but these sonnets also discuss things which may help one to find this meaning in life. Donne mentions both religion and the company of women. Both of these things are absent from W;t. Vivian has no religion or love. The ideas are alluded to: It becomes apparent that Jason and Susie have a relationship, and the Runaway Bunny has a religious motif. Vivian, however, goes to her grave without these things. She realizes she should, but she, like Donne, still struggles with the inevitability of death and the meaning in life. Her entire life was spent critiquing a man who spent his life critiquing the distractions from death. In the end Vivian realizes the mistake she makes and embraces these distractions.
The exclusion of the other sonnets was helpful in portraying Vivian’s struggle. If Margaret Edson did include these sonnets the audience’s attention may have been diverted from the struggle for salvation. The Holy Sonnets battle with this idea. As Jason puts it: “There’s this promise of salvation, the whole religious thing… It just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But you can’t face life without it either. So you write these screwed-up sonnets. Everything is brilliantly convoluted” (Edson 76). W;t focuses more on the theme of salvation and less on the struggle to accept it. Including the other sonnets would have confused this message in the play.
Donne, John, and A. J. Smith. John Donne, Essays in Celebration;. London: Methuen, 1972. Print.
Edson, Margaret. Wit. London: N. Hern, 2007. Print.
Hodgson, Elizabeth M. Gender and the Sacred Self in John Donne. Newark: University of Delaware, 1999. Print.