Margaret Edson, a playwright and kindergarten teacher in Atlanta, is best known for Wit, a play about a literary scholar diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. Although Edson considers herself first an educator and then a playwright, her play has won many prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999.
Early Life and Education
Edson was born in Washington, D.C., on July 4, 1961. Her father, Peter Edson, was a newspaper columnist, and her mother, Joyce Edson, was a medical social worker. Edson briefly pursued her interest in drama during high school at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.
After majoring in Renaissance history and graduating magna cum laude in 1983 from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, Edson worked in a series of odd jobs. She returned to graduate school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1991. Between degrees, Edson spent two years working as a unit clerk at an AIDS-oncology research hospital in the D.C. area. Drawing on her experiences there, she began to write Wit in the summer of 1991, a year before receiving her master’s degree in English literature from Georgetown.
Wit’s main character, Vivian Bearing, is a fifty-year-old renowned literary scholar of John Donne’s seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry. The play concerns Bearing’s attempts to put her life together as it comes to an end.
By combining concepts of metaphysical poetry and human mortality within the complex mind of a dying scholar, Edson creates an extraordinary character of fortitude and wit. Edson’s use of wit, referring to intelligence and wisdom, develops this multilayered work into a play about grace and redemption. An uncompromising look at cancer, the play shows how language has the power both to complicate and to ameliorate understanding. “The play is not about doctors or even cancer. It’s about kindness, but it shows arrogance. It’s about compassion, but it shows insensitivity,” Edson explains. By showing the opposite of kindness, Edson’s play effectively leaves the audience “yearning for kindness.”
Producing an “unfriendly” play proved to be a considerable challenge. Edson searched for four years before finding a theater company that would produce it. The play finally premiered at the South Coast Repertory in 1995 in Costa Mesa, California. In 1997 it continued its run at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, under the direction of Edson’s childhood friend Derek Anson Jones. In 1998 the play made its off-Broadway debut in the M.C.C. Theatre, where Kathleen Chalfont played Vivian Bearing. Chalfont remained in the role when the play moved to Union Square Theatre in 1999. Judith Light replaced Chalfont in the fall of 1999.
Edson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999. The play has since received numerous other awards, including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Lucille Lortel Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Oppenheimer Award, and the Drama Desk Award. Hundreds of productions have been staged, in national and international theaters, in dozens of languages. An HBO production of the play, directed by Mike Nichols and featuring Emma Thompson as the main character, won an Emmy Award in 2001 for Outstanding Made for Television Movie of the year. Nichols also received an Emmy for directing, and in 2002 the television production of Wit won a prestigious Peabody Award.
Edson’s teaching career progressed along with the success of her play. Despite her newfound fame as a playwright, she continued teaching elementary school in Washington, D.C.–English as a second language for five years and first grade for one year—until she moved to Atlanta in 1998 and began teaching kindergarten.
Fully dedicated to teaching elementary school in her adopted town of Atlanta, Edson does not intend to write another play. She lives with her partner, Linda Merrill, and their two sons, Timmy and Pete.