Writers Talk About Writing
While the semicolon has long been a favorite topic of discussion at grammarian cocktail parties, the fact that this intermediate piece of punctuation has leapt from its place in linguistics to make a cameo appearance in not one, but two Broadway shows, is surely a sign that things are currently very right, and very write, on the Great White Way.
The dissection of written works is the lifeblood of both the biting comedy Seminar, by Theresa Rebeck, and Margaret Edson's devastating drama Wit. The protagonist in each is a teacher who simultaneously exploits and relies upon a complex relationship with print-on-paper. In Seminar, Alan Rickman plays Leonard, a workshop instructor and literary lion hired to critique the writing of four young adults. When he encounters a semicolon in the first sentence of one of the eager student's stories, he laments, "I understand that that means there's only a partial stop and that more is coming but I'm not sure I want to continue." It's the kind of acid-tongued remark that Rebeck continually assigns to Leonard as a means of underscoring her major concerns for the evening: tough love in this case, but also sexual attraction in the face of cerebral pursuits, the differences between talent and success, and the consequences of getting what one wants.
In Wit, Cynthia Nixon plays Vivian Bearing, a college professor and scholar of the works of John Donne who is dying of cancer. This Pulitzer-winning work, first staged in 1995, is a brilliant fever dream about how poetry, hospital jargon and academic gibberish can provide both sanctuary and emotional distance. And it's a memory play about the language of loss. In a flashback to her student days, Bearing struggles over a translator's punctuation of Donne's line, "And Death shall be no more; Death thou shalt die," until realizing, "Life, death. Soul, God. Past, present. Not insuperable barriers, not semicolons, just a comma."
Seminar is about the fear of not finding approval; Wit is about finding approval for being afraid.
Before the curtain goes up on Seminar, the curtain itself hints at the play's demeanor. It is an icy blue screen marred with a streak of white running horizontally across like a knife wound. The streak is formed from of a squall of letters so tightly overlapping that one can make out only a few of the words they form: power, fame, money, success. As the play progresses, it becomes apparent that these goals are mere stand-ins for the human acceptance that each of the five characters truly crave. There is Douglas, whose writing has already led to some minor success, and publication in an admired literary journal. But Leonard sees that he is not truly gifted and cuts him to the quick, "You'll get to go to exclusive events at the Public Library. But you will never be on a panel." The two female students, Kate and Izzy, operate at different ends of a feminist spectrum. Izzy, true to her aggressive self, employs her sexuality at every chance, while the reserved Kate does not find inner strength until she submits a work that she claims was written by a male friend.
The fourth student, Martin, is also at the far end of a spectrum, the one he shares with Leonard. They are both gifted novelists who consider writing to be a sacred act but who keep their work under a bushel. Martin dreads losing his literary religion. "Constructing a universe out of language is a timeless and reverential act," he tells Kate. Leonard, his religion long lost, can no longer bare the criticism of the outside world, even if it's positive. He warns Martin, "Everyone will keep telling you how good the writing is! It's too good to be mistaken and that will become the bane of your existence."
For all the thoughtful banter though, the most consuming passages of Seminar are actually its small, sporadic moments of silence, when Leonard or one of the students read someone else's work to themselves. It is the quiet that comes just prior to bestowing either acceptance or rejection, a tension both purely theatrical and universally recognizable.
There are very few silent moments in Wit, but the theatrical tension and pathos of the piece are felt before the houselights are fully down, as the sickly yet arch Vivian welcomes the audience ("How are you feeling today?"), and do not subside until the final seconds of the final scene.
Edson continually blurs the line between physical life and the life of the mind. The arc of Vivian's illness follows the curve of one of Donne's Holy Sonnets on mortality. At first there is clever and calm observation, then confusion, pain, a mordant plea to God, and finally, resignation and perhaps transcendence. Meanwhile, as a patient in a research hospital, Vivian realizes that not only do her doctors exhibit the same emotional frigidity and pursuit of fame that she once commanded on campus, but also that her body has become their text. Cancer and poetry both take death as their underpinning. The physical exam and the written can both be failed, the probing of every orifice is equivalent to the parsing of a sentence. As a bevy of medical students contemplate her condition, she exclaims, "They read me like a book. Once I did the teaching; now I am taught."
Indeed, just where the body ends and the word begins is of concern to both playwrights. Their lead characters share a similar epiphany. Leonard bemoans his existence in the face of what he's written, "I have no skin anymore. After I write, I want to evaporate…your body is just—, it takes up so much space." And Vivian mourns the loss of her very substance, "What we have come to think of as me is...just the dust jacket, just the white piece of paper that bears the little black marks."
The written word in Seminar is a defense or a seduction. It is a manuscript thrown to the floor, or the means to a recommendation, or proof of being wanted. It is something that is given to another person, to an editor or a reader. It is a product. The written word in Wit is something that is given to one's self. It is salve and salvation. It is applied to the skin, literally, in a scene where Donne's words are projected onto Vivian's body like a protective coating, the exact opposite of that knife wound of words splayed across the Seminar opening curtain.
Finally, it should be noted that Leonard and Vivian are both very much alone in their worlds. In the absence of friends, they get by with the limited touch of their students. In the absence of family, writing becomes their surrogate source of comfort and protection. This may well be a warning from the two authors to take heed of our priorities, that there is something to be said for the human comfort of socializing at grammarian cocktail parties. Like a semicolon, it should give us pause.