Keep This <i>Wit</i> About You

Emma Thompson in 1995 AP

This week, CBS News Sunday Morning's John Leonard has hearty praise for the HBO production of a play that is as difficult as it is rewarding.
On HBO next Saturday night (March 24), 17th-century poetry meets modern medical science.

Though neither team wins, everybody on both sides of the camera has a right to
be proud of Wit.

And pride is crucial to Wit. In the Mike Nichols film version of Margaret Edson's Pultizer Prize-winning play, we hear a lot of John Donne, including all of his magnificent sonnet, Death be not proud.

Nor should death be proud, certainly not of ovarian cancer. But Emma Thompson earns that right. The professor of irony and paradox learns to read the suffering text of her own body.

The Leonard File
Read past reviews by John Leonard.
Thompson plays Vivian Bearing, a 48-year-old scholar of John Donne and other metaphysical poets. She gets the awful news from Christopher Lloyd (amiably remote, a tourist among these rioting cells, the smiling face of patriarchy ) who ordains an extreme experimental treatment.

She must then submit to Jonathon Woodward (equal parts anxiety and arrogance, complacency and thumbs), a callow young doctor for whom other people's cancer is a research opportunity.

Thompson's remarkable Vivian will proceed from austere courage to animal pain, losing her hair and almost her mind. In hospital, she is attended by Audra McDonald, a nurse but also an accomplice who gives her baby oil and orange Popsicles and listens to her bitter jokes.

In flashbacks, Thompson revisits Eileen Atkins, her mentor in all things 17th century, a high-strung harp or bow, a bundle of octaves and arrows. And Harold Pinter, the father who encouraged her to read Beatrix Potter. And, of course, John Donne, seeking salvation in literary conceits.

But it sometimes seems that the only grace for Vivian, alone with her fierce intelligence, is an IV morphine drip. Until...well, language is full of miracles even if medicine isn't.

About this superb Wit, I feel a baffled gratitude. How can it be that dying is, at once, a comma, an anguish, and an exultation?


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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