It’s vaguely terrifying speaking the words of a Pulitzer winning playwright as she sits inches away from you in an opening night auditorium. Almost impossible to inhabit any semblance of a character when you find yourself imagining her ears to be pricked by your mis-delivery or mis-interpretation of her precious prize- winning words.
Margret Edson, celebrated American Playwright of Wit, was recently flown out by the American Embassy to attend the opening night of Kickstart’s version of the production, directed by Steven Stead and featuring Clare Mortimer in the role of Professor Vivian Bearing.
My role in Wit is playing the indifferent and detached young intern Jason Posner- an uncaring presence used to illuminate the small but treasured acts of kindness that glimmer in the darkest recesses of the play. Wit was featured as part of the main festival programme this year in Grahamastown Arts Festival and having the indomitable Mrs Ed present, while humbling and certainly an honour, was not entirely conducive to soothing ones opening night nerves.
Edson is a lanky, willowy woman, with quiet voice and large unblinking eyes. She engages with an intensity that is quite disarming, so committed is her focus and sincere her cocked ear which cranes in intently to grasp ones every uttered word.
Chatting to her at the dinner table (post show) I flail spectacularly for words– the best most eloquent way to phrase my ideas and thoughts.
One is of course aware that this is probably the seven hundredth version of her play she has seen (the play has been in circulation for the past fifteen years and been translated into several languages). That while the actors may change from production to production the post mortem–performance questions seldom do. What did you mean by this line? What in your mind is the motivation for the character at this or that moment? Despite this reality, Edson never once looks weary or inconvenienced by my questions, rather considerately answers each one as if broaching them for the first time.
She talks as some length of her time at the Grahamstown festival where she has been attending an array of community theatre projects– productions in which she has mostly found herself to be the only white person sitting in the audience.
When I offer up my own insights she listens with the graciousness of a primary school teacher, observing an eager young student grappling with the complexities of language for the first time. This analogy—that of the primary school teacher–is an apt one. Edson despite her ineffable playwriting accomplishments (and Wit truly is work of staggering restraint and genius) to this day still works in Atlanta, Georgia as a primary school teacher teaching six- year olds.
My immediate reaction to discovering this was one of confusion and perhaps even pity. Surely bagging a Pulitzer Prize enables one to write for the rest of their lives? Why after such an accomplishment return to the routine of the classroom, the trying (and often thankless task) of moulding the stubborn clay of adolescent minds? Where then, dear Mag’s did it all go wrong?
Attending one her lectures later in the week (at the schools fest) with an auditorium packed with seventeen year old high school kids, I hear Edson talk on the nature of writing and her profession as teacher. It’s a profound morning to say the least where to quote my character (who refers to attending a lecture by Professor Bearing) “She gave one hell of a lecture, with not a note or word out of place.”
Edson holds a notoriously fidgety crowd enthralled, never dumbing down her content or coming across as aloof or patronising. She launches her ideas from alternate pedestals, allowing them to swing like airborne acrobats through the air before grasping onto one another in the middle. When the room obediently takes up note pad and pen to begin scrawling down notes she encourages them to abandon the act of writing and recording altogether.
“Don’t worry about writing notes” she says, “The text is dead, your memories will retain what’s important to you and throw the irrelevant stuff away.”
Edson uses her time centre stage to speak of simplicity, engagement, communication and community– the very notions that Professor Bearing, in the final stages of her illness, comes to realise her life has been devoid of.
To quote the humbled Prof in one of my favourite speeches from the play…
“Now is not the time for verbal sword play, for unlikely flights of imagination, and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit. And nothing could be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis. Erudition. Interpretation. Complication. Now is the time for simplicity, now is the time for dare I say it, Kindness.”
When Edson talks about her work with school children, she speaks of the awe that comes with enabling young minds to form their first letters on a page. How an r for example with minor adjustment may be miraculously transformed into an n. She talks too of the limitation of text while celebrating the ephemeral, transient nature of the stage. The simple act of coming together and breathing the same air being the reason Edson employed the medium of theatre (as opposed to novel) to write her masterpiece.
This could not be further from Bearings scholarly excavations and lecturing of Donne’s sonnets . “Purpose” for Edson ( unlike that of protagonist Bearing) is not validated by prizes, the need to set about conceiving ones next masterpiece or scholarly article (Edson claims she has no interest in ever writing another play) but rather in enabling a future of possibility and potential amongst young people.
“The text you see” Edson explains with a wry smile before closing , “ is and will always be unequal to the task of being alive.”