Interview with Margaret Edson
August 14, 2017
Margaret Edson came to speak to the Asheville School community for the Founders’ Day convocation. Edson, who won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for her play “Wit,” talked to the community about her play, her passion, and, most importantly, being your authentic self. Her play, which toys with ideas of mortality and what is valuable in life, tells the story of Professor Barry, a woman confronted by a growing cancer and going through a highly experimental treatment. Barry, at the end of her life, is forced to reflect on the life she had been living and if it was all worth it. Many found Edson’s talk extremely inspirational and meaningful. Edson told our community that we needed to make sure we are our authentic selfves and that, at the end, it isn’t if we were smart but if we were kind. Luckily, the Ashnoca got to sit down and talk to Edson about her life, “Wit,” and the meaning of it all.
What or who got you into writing?
I didn’t want to become a writer but I did want to write this one play. I organized my life and thought about it for a couple years and I thought that a play would be the best way to organize my thoughts.
What was your main inspiration for this play?
I wanted to write a play about grace and a character coming into her true self.
How do you feel that breaking conventional norms in drama (fourth wall breaks) helped tell your story?
What drives the play is the audiences’ relationship to Prof. Barry. The more she insists that she doesn’t need anyone the more the audience is convinced to stay with her on her journey.
You merge your story with other stories (John Donne’s Sonnets) what drew you to that particular piece and why do you feel it was vital in the play?
One way to think about it is to say that Professor Barry understands him intellectually then comes to know him spiritually, but that is not what happens. She begins in full professor mode explaining the poetry but as she grows as a person she outgrows him and comes more into her own truth.
I know that in the end Vivian asks not to be resuscitated in case of a problem. Does this decision symbolize a change in the character or the scene-something more than it seems?
For most of the play she is in a very aggressive research for very advanced cancer. At the end to say enough is a courageous decision and it shows her growing as a person.
Why do you feel this story was best told as a play?
As a teacher and as a writer for theater I am interested in times that we are together as a group and what I love about live theater is that we are all there in the room experiencing it together. That is becoming more unusual but it is still compelling.
There are many themes of life and death and mind over body throughout the play. What did you intend for the readers or watchers to take away?
Someone wrote to me and said each person felt closer to the person they came with at the end of the play and that is very beautiful.
Wit is a very emotional story. Was it hard for you to write?
The challenge of course is to put the words together in a way that will create the reaction of the audience.
After winning your Pulitzer, you stayed in education why?
I’m a public school teacher and this is my 25th year. It still fascinates me. It is the contribution I want to make.
I am so pleased to be here and I have loved sharing in classes today.