Academic journal article Comparative Drama

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

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

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

Article excerpt

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 diagnosis, 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.

Having cancer is a disorienting experience. All cancer patients expect to suffer physical pain. But few, I imagine, are ready for the social stigma that attaches itself to the disease. A personal anecdote will illustrate the point. Shortly after I returned from my six-month course of treatment, I encountered an acquaintance at the gym. She approached me reluctantly, as if my disease might be infectious. This reaction would become familiar to me; indeed, it is a common response to persons diagnosed with cancer. After nervous assurances about how good I looked, my acquaintance offered the opinion that I "must have learned so much about [my]self" as a result of having cancer. What, precisely, did she mean? Did she think that all diseases led to enlightenment, or did she imagine that cancer was especially efficacious from a pedagogical point of view? Would she have said the same thing to someone suffering, say, from a potentially fatal case of botulism? The comment, I told myself, might simply reflect this person's new-age tendencies. In any case, cancer had taught me little about what this person referred to as my "self." It had ravaged my body but had left my sense of "self" intact. Had I the capacity for pleasure while in treatment, I suppose I might have found it in this reassuring consistency of my personality in the face of trauma. So why had this person's response shocked me? What lesson was I supposed to have learned? Did she think that, prior to the diagnosis, I had not "known myself"? Was my cancer an indication of this failure, a sort of punishment exacted for the sin of self-delusion, a cure for ignorance about my own deepest impulses? What logic could have accounted for her perception of my disease?

Her comment was part of a series of troubling reactions that my cancer elicited in my community. When word of my diagnosis first circulated, for example, several people assumed that I had breast cancer (because I was a woman) or lung cancer (because I was a smoker). Interestingly, men assumed that I had breast cancer and nonsmokers assumed that I had lung cancer. People defined my disease in ways that helped them mark their own distance from it. Their assumptions about my cancer, in other words, were comforting to them. Like my acquaintance at the gym who protected herself from disease by imagining it as part of a program of self-improvement, these people could not tolerate the possibility that cancer strikes arbitrarily. My actual diagnosis gave little enough support to this view: I had parotid cancer--a very rare form, for which there are no known risk factors. Remarkably, however, when I tried to explain to various people that my personal habits had not contributed to my disease, they were disinclined to believe me. …

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