Changing Gears but Retaining Dramatic Effec
Margaret Edson astounded the media when, as a kindergarten teacher, she won the Pulitzer for drama. And she gets more than ten minutes of fame. More than ten years later, the media stays fascinated. The media is amazed that a teacher is an intelligent person.
Margaret Edson now teaches sixth grade. She remains passionate about her calling. Her teacher calling. And we can all be grateful that the media is still interested enough to talk to her about her teaching.
Here is the transcript of Margaret Edson's 1999 appearance on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Here is video of her commencement address at Smith College, delivered without a written text.
by Charles McGrath
MARGARET EDSON is the Harper Lee of playwrights. She has had just one play produced -- "Wit," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 and has been revived on Broadway in a Manhattan Theater Club production starring Cynthia Nixon -- and having said what she had to say, she doesn’t feel any need to try playwriting again. She occupies herself these days with projects like learning the piano and setting the multiplication table to opera choruses. She reads Dante in Italian, a canto or so every day, and once made a scale model of Paradise with the Sun-Maid raisin lady holding a basket of souls.
But Ms. Edson hasn't entirely abandoned the theater. Her current stage -- where she is the dramatist, cast, stage manager, lighting director, prop master, usher and supply clerk -- is a second-floor classroom at the Inman Middle School in the Virginia Highland neighborhood here, where she teaches sixth-grade social studies.
Except for the eyes in the back of her head, which miss nothing -- not even secret fiddling with a broken zipper -- Ms. Edson is the kind of teacher who makes you wish you could go back and repeat middle school. In a commencement address she gave at Smith College in 2008 she called teaching a "physical, breath-based event, eye to eye," which is another way of saying it's a performance. She is a very tall, slender, loose-limbed woman with a wide expressive mouth, and she works the classroom like a tummler. She mugs, does voices, makes big arm gestures and frequently pauses for dramatic effect.
Recently the class was studying the history of Canada, and over the course of 80 minutes she spoke with both French and British accents, stood at attention like a grenadier and demonstrated that when Queen Elizabeth is seated at public occasions she keeps both ankles absolutely together. Explaining the 1867 act that made Canada a self-governing entity within the British Empire, she encouraged the students to turn to a partner across the aisle and engage in the following dialogue, spoken in the snootiest possible tones:
"Here's a dollop of independence."
"Thank you so much"
"Not at all."
A little later she showed a video clip of Prince William’s recent visit to Canada and deplored his French pronunciation. "That was horrible," she said. "But we should give him credit for trying," she added, and led the class in a chorus of finger snaps.
Ms. Edson is 50 and lives with her partner, Linda Merrill, an art historian at Emory. They have two sons, 9 and 11. Sitting after class recently at one of the students' desks, whose metal legs she has outfitted with feet made from sliced-open tennis balls to keep them from skidding around, Ms. Edson said that until two years ago she taught kindergarten. Then Ms. Merrill turned to her one evening and said, "We're not going to have 14 more years of the letter 'M' in our dinner table conversations." Middle school social studies meant a lot of homework and catching up, she went on, explaining, "I don't know when I was ever so avid for learning, but it was for an ignoble motive: I didn't want to embarrass myself." She chose social studies, she said, because it fits so neatly with the students' experience. "Who's on top and who's on the bottom, who gets what and who decides -- the 12-year-old mind thinks of nothing else."
It can't be a coincidence that "Wit" is about a teacher -- Vivian Bearing, a renowned expert in 17th-century poetry, the work of John Donne especially, who is in a hospital dying of ovarian cancer -- and that one of its most memorable scenes is a classroom lecture. Ms. Edson believes that she and Professor Bearing have a lot in common. "We both argue with ourselves all the time," she said. "The only difference is that I've figured myself out. I'm on to myself."
Yet Ms. Edson herself had never taught before writing "Wit." After graduating from Smith in 1983 with a degree in history, and doing various menial jobs, she began writing the play in 1991 while working in a bike shop in Washington, where she grew up.
Much of "Wit" was based on her experience as a unit clerk on a cancer floor in a Washington research hospital. "It was the lowest job in the entire hospital," she recalled. "It was like being a stage manager in a play, keeping track of the supply cabinet, the patients' schedules." She paused and added: "That was a very weighty time. I don't mean heavy. It was just very meaningful to me. I loved that job. I felt so useful."
The Donne expertise in "Wit" is second hand, the product of hours in the library. Ms. Edson said she had not read much Donne herself but recalled a college dorm mate saying he was the hardest poet on the syllabus, and only the hardest seemed right for Professor Bearing (whose middle name, if she had one, would be Over). Ms. Edson did so much research that she got carried away and the original version of "Wit" was an hour longer than it is now. "It was so long that its sophistications were less visible," she said, laughing, and added that she initially resisted suggested cuts. "I found so much stuff that was so interesting that I couldn’t imagine living without it, or the audience either."
Ms. Edson had never written a play before, and wrote "Wit" with no particular expectation that it would ever get staged. "That was why I felt free to write my play, not a play like the plays we already had," she said. And when for years "Wit" didn't get produced -- rejected almost everywhere before the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., took it on in 1995 -- Ms. Edson studied English literature in graduate school and, while volunteering as a tutor, fell in love with the idea of teaching not college students but young children.
"Wit" was revived at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven in 1997, and the following year moved to New York, first to the tiny MCC Theater and then to the Union Square Theater, where it won a slew of awards, including the Pulitzer. In 2001 Mike Nichols adapted it into an Emmy-winning HBO movie.
Lynne Meadow, the artistic director of the Manhattan Theater Club and the director of the current production, was one of those who passed on "Wit" in the '90s. "It was for personal reasons," she said the other day, explaining that at the time she had just undergone cancer treatment herself. A year ago her colleagues asked her to reread it, and this time around, she said, "I felt the play chose me."
She began talking with Ms. Edson on the phone and then met her for the first time in December, when Ms. Edson came to New York to see a rehearsal. "Maggie is one of the most extraordinary people I've ever met," she said. "She's enormously intelligent and articulate, but intelligence alone doesn't write a play like this, which is so emotionally accessible as well as intellectually fulfilling." She added that she wished Ms. Edson would write another, and quoting a line from "Wit," spoken by a young doctor who is a bit of a know-it-all, she said, "'I have a few ideas.' There are some thoughts I'd like to share with her. But it will only happen when she's ready."
Explaining why she had no urge to repeat her success, Ms. Edson said, "If it had happened right away -- if I'd written the play in '91 and then won the Pulitzer in '92 -- that might have created a different trajectory."
"There was just something I wanted to say," she continued, "and the play seemed like the best way to say it. But the contribution I want to make now I want to make in the classroom. The difference between teaching and play-writing is not incomprehensible to me, they're not so different. They both create a public event that leads to understanding. They both --"
She laughed and put on a professorial voice. "I could go on, but I won't."
Teaching -- for Ms. Edson at least -- is a full-time occupation. She needs the summers, she said, to do nothing, because that makes you a more interesting person in the classroom, and writing on the side is too distracting. "The presence of fictional characters in your head, especially ones who talk, is extremely preoccupying," she said. "And the nonfictional characters in my life are abundant."
Writing itself, on the other hand, is something to which she is deeply committed, and she usually ends each class quietly, with a writing assignment. "Sitting by yourself, forcing the swirl of thoughts into a linear, systematic journey forward -- it makes you smarter," she said. "It’s like a pastry bag, literacy is. It presses you into one clear line."
New York Times
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