Since I didn’t see Wit on the stage, we can skip comparisons and save some time. From the Margaret Edson play that deserved its Pulitzer Prize, Mike Nichols has made a television movie that deserves not only an Emmy but our baffled gratitude as well. How can it be that dying is, at once, a comma, an anguish, and an exultation?
As Vivian Bearing, a professor of seventeenth-century poetry and a scholar of John Donne who must undergo eight months of “full-dose” chemotherapy for advanced metastatic ovarian cancer, Emma Thompson is perfect, from austere pride to raveled sleeve to animal pain to dead meat. As E. M. Ashford, the professor emerita of English literature who first explained the Holy Sonnets to Vivian and turned her “Metaphysical,” Eileen Atkins is somehow more than perfect – a high-strung harp or bow, a bundle of arrows and octaves. As Susie Monahan, the nurse in the hospital who gives Vivian hand lotion and a Popsicle, Audra McDonald is the sister we would wish for on the long, confounding good-bye – an accomplice. As Dr. Harvey Kelekian, who ordains the experimental treatment, Christopher Lloyd is amiably remote, a tourist of suffering – patriarchy’s smiling face. And as young Dr. Jason Posner, who actually took Vivian’s poetry course at college to see if he could get an A, for whom other people’s dying is a research opportunity, for whom forever-replicating cancer cells are “immortality in culture,” Jonathan M. Woodward is equal parts of arrogance and anxiety, all complacency and thumbs – for which he will be punished.
Not to neglect Harold Pinter, who has a cameo as Vivian’s father and the agency of her first awareness of word-magic, dating back to Beatrix Potter and The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. I see by Edson’s script in a Faber paperback that in every previous staging of Wit, one actor has played both Dr. Pelekian and Vivian’s father. Maybe there is an Oedipal subtext Mike Nichols has chosen to omit. But he’s otherwise scrupulous. He has even added, to our advantage, the full text of Donne’s magnificent sonnet “Death, be not proud.” And, of course, another bunny will come back to comfort Vivian at the end of her ordeal, when she is done with Donne.
Such language! We go to so many movies and watch so much television that we forget what it sounds like. The wit of Wit goes far beyond its subsidiary definition as liveliness of fancy, of saying brilliant things in amusing ways, all the way back to a century where the word meant not only the seat of consciousness, memory, and attention but also ingenuity, irony, paradox, and “conceit” – the juxtaposition of apparently unrelated elements to startle us out of torpid repose into dangerous argument. It was Samuel Johnson who first called Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw, and Marvell “metaphysical poets”; he had his doubts about how in their work “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” But they were heroes of consciousness to T. S. Eliot – “transmuting ideas into sensations … transforming an observation into a state of mind” – as they are to Ashford and Vivian. Donne sought nothing less than his own salvation. There was nothing easy about it. Ask the dying patient.
So seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry meets modern medical science. Film allows Vivian to leave her bed, to juxtapose her dying self – with a bald head, in a hospital gown – with flashbacks from her past, a naked stranger to her father, her mentor, and her students. The paradoxical text is pain. Rather than resolve the issues this pain raises, she is instead asked, like Donne, to revel in their complexity. She is “very, very sick. Ultimately sick, as it were.” It is “highly educational,” she tells the camera; “I am learning to suffer.” Moreover, by destroying her immune system, “my treatment imperils my health.” Finally, bald, degraded, howling, her only remaining grace an IV morphine drip, she ends up “published and perished.” The last words of the play belong to wretched Jason: “Oh, God.” And the transcendent beauty of Emma Thompson persuades us that Vivian, if not death, has a right to be proud.
After the Storm (March 20; 9 to 11 p.m.; USA), from a teleplay by A. E. Hotchner based on a story by Hemingway, lets Benjamin Bratt and Armand Assante play macho games on the deep blue sea between dives to recover treasure from a gangster’s sunken yacht, while Mili Avital and Simone-Élise Girard pursue more devious agendas. Since this is set in the thirties, lovers are permitted to smoke in bed.
The Carpet Slaves: Stolen Children of India (March 26; 7 to 8 p.m.; Cinemax) goes north from Delhi to Varanasi, where tens of thousands of kidnapped child-slaves weave the carpets we buy at upscale Western stores. A police raid will return two of these children to their families. But documentarians Kate Blewett and Brian Woods strongly suggest that there are more slaves today in our global economy than there ever were in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
South Pacific (March 26; 8 to 11 p.m.; ABC) is a marginal improvement on the 1958 film of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, with Glenn Close instead of Mitzi Gaynor, Rade Sherbedgia instead of Rossano Brazzi, Harry Connick Jr. instead of John Kerr, and Robert Pastorelli instead of Ray Walston. Game Glenn, creepy Connick. But quite as if musicals haven’t been rethinking themselves at least since Sondheim, it bursts into unlikely song at the drop of a heavy cue, and the end is so rushed that it’s empty of feeling and affect.
Trade Secrets: A Moyers Report (March 26; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13), still in production at press time, is based on documents till now buried in the archives of the Chemical Manufacturers Association. It details not only a conspiracy to keep the public from learning what the industry itself has known for more than half a century about the carcinogenic properties of vinyl chloride (used in aerosol propellants), as well as the health hazards of asbestos, benzene, and phthalate ester, but also the industry’s successful lobbying effort to keep the government off its back. You may have noticed the March 8 ExxonMobil ad on the Times Op-Ed page, a preemptive attack on “scare stories about chemical products.” So Bill Moyers, bless him, is mixing it up with a major donor to public television.
Saturday, March 24; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; HBO. Directed by Mike Nichols; starring Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, and Audra McDonald.