Love and Knowledge

April 14, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The second in our conversations with this year’s winners of the Pulitzer Prize. It’s with Margaret Edson, who won the drama award for her play “W;t,” which is about a poetry professor’s fight against cancer. This is her first play. And in the interest of full disclosure, I have known Margaret for many years, since she was a junior high school classmate of one of my daughters. She joins us tonight from Atlanta, where she works as an elementary school teacher.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret, congratulations.

MARGARET EDSON, Pulitzer Prize, Drama: Thank you, Mr. Lehrer. It’s nice to see you again.

JIM LEHRER: It’s good to see you. Tell us, how would you describe your play?

MARGARET EDSON: It’s a play about love and knowledge. And it’s about a person who has built up a lot of skills during her life who finds herself in a new situation where those skills and those great capacities don’t serve her very well. So she has to disarm, and then she has to become a student. She has to become someone who learns new things.

JIM LEHRER: And she was a very strong teacher of 17th century poetry, correct, a professor?


JIM LEHRER: And why that? Why did you choose your main character to be a poetry professor?

MARGARET EDSON: I wanted her to be someone very powerful and I thought she could be a senator or a judge or a doctor even. But then I wanted her to be someone who was skilled in the use of words and skilled in the acquisition of knowledge but very inept and very clumsy in her relations with people on a more simple level. So the play is about simplicity and complications.

JIM LEHRER: And of course wit comes from of course she’s an expert on the poetry of John Donne. Now, where did you get that? Where did that come from? Is that an interest you’ve had that you brought to the play, or something that you adapted for this play?

MARGARET EDSON: No, it’s something I learned about as I was writing the play. I remembered my college classmates saying that they thought John Donne was the most difficult poet that they had to study so I made a point of not taking any classes that involved John Donne in any way.


MARGARET EDSON: I slithered to the History Department at that point.


MARGARET EDSON: And I studied about John Donne for this play.

JIM LEHRER: And you did that because you wanted to make your point that this professor had taken on something very tough and she was very strong so when she got — she gets into this situation, obviously, where she has ovarian cancer. Now, where did that come from — based on an experience of yours, correct?

MARGARET EDSON: Mr. Lehrer, we haven’t spoken in about 20 years –

JIM LEHRER: Right. Exactly.

MARGARET EDSON: So I want to fill you in.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Tell me about your life and how it relates to this play.

MARGARET EDSON: I’m keeping up with you better than you’re keeping up with me.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. All right.

MARGARET EDSON: I worked on the cancer and AIDS inpatient unit of a research hospital. And so that’s where the medical part comes from.

JIM LEHRER: And what did do you there?

MARGARET EDSON: I was the unit clerk, which is a very low-level job in a hospital. But for anyone who spent time in the hospital, you know that that’s the center of the action. My job was like a stage manager. It was the most like Radar on “Mash” –


MARGARET EDSON: — to keep everything going and to keep things moving smoothly on the unit. But since it was such a low level job, I was able to really see a lot of things first hand. I was sort of unnoticed because I was so insignificant. And so I was able to witness a lot, both the actions of the care givers and reactions of the patients.

JIM LEHRER: Now, when did you start working on this play, Margaret?

MARGARET EDSON: In the summer of 1991.

JIM LEHRER: Why? How did it happen?

MARGARET EDSON: I really wanted to write this play. It sounds strange, I know, but I just felt like doing it.

JIM LEHRER: I remember from high school that you were always interested in drama. Did you study it in college?

MARGARET EDSON: No. I didn’t, and the director of the play, who’s also a classmate of ours, Derek Jones –

JIM LEHRER: Right. Derek Jones.

MARGARET EDSON: — continued in drama. But I didn’t.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Okay. You first wrote it in ’91. Now, when did you first hear people actually speak your words? When was that and how did that happen?

MARGARET EDSON: The first time I heard people speak my words was around my mother’s dining room table. I organized a reading of the play.

JIM LEHRER: It was in Washington?

MARGARET EDSON: Yes. So Derek was Vivian Bearing; he played Vivian Bearing for the first time – at that very first reading.

JIM LEHRER: And Dr. Bearing is the lead character?



MARGARET EDSON: And my mom played the older professor and my brother played the young doctor and his wife played the young nurse. And another friend of ours from high school, Calvin, you remember him.

JIM LEHRER: I remember Calvin.

MARGARET EDSON: Played the role of the doctor.


MARGARET EDSON: That was the first time I heard it. Then I sent it to every theater in the country and they all rejected it, except one theater, and that was South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California. And they did the world premiere in ’95 and then it was performed at Longworth Theater in ’97, and now –

JIM LEHRER: That’s up in Connecticut, right?


JIM LEHRER: Now it’s off Broadway in New York.


JIM LEHRER: All right. For those who don’t understand about play writing, the play that you first read around your mother’s table, how similar is that to the one that people can go see now off Broadway in New York? What changed?

MARGARET EDSON: That play cost 50 cents more to mail than the final play. I had to cut it a lot. And that was the most difficult part but that was mainly my work over the next couple of years was just to agree to cut syllable by syllable until it got down to about 90 minutes. At the very first reading it was two and a half hours.

JIM LEHRER: Wow! Now, it’s 90 minutes?


JIM LEHRER: And it’s produced without an intermission, correct?

MARGARET EDSON: That’s right, because we feel if there were an intermission, people would leave and we want them to stay till the end.

JIM LEHRER: Why did you think they would leave?

MARGARET EDSON: Well, in the middle it’s very hard to take. It’s — it has a lot of talk about language and punctuation and complicated words, and then the medical parts are very graphic also, very realistically presented.

JIM LEHRER: I have not seen it but I read it today. I would agree with you. Margaret, you’re teaching school there in Atlanta. What grade do you teach and where do you teach?

MARGARET EDSON: I’m teaching kindergarten this year at Centennial Place Elementary School.

JIM LEHRER: Why are you teaching?

MARGARET EDSON: I love teaching. I love teaching. This is my seventh year at teaching. I taught first grade last year and then English as a second language for five years before that. And I like everything about teaching. So, if my students are watching, turn off the TV and go read a book.

JIM LEHRER: Did you tell them you’re going to be on TV tonight?

MARGARET EDSON: Yes. I said, I’m going to be on the news part of the same channel that has “Sesame Street”.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Now, what are you going to do now? You’ve won the Pulitzer Prize. Are you working on another play? Are you going to write another play?

MARGARET EDSON: No. No. I wanted to write this play. And this is the play that I wanted to write and I’m committed to teaching now. This is what I’m doing. And if there’s something else I want to say in ten years, then I’ll think about it, but I’m not interested in leaving teaching for anything.

JIM LEHRER: And has this — you know how few people win the Pulitzer Prize, it’s a really big deal Margaret, if you didn’t know that, let me tell.

MARGARET EDSON: I appreciate that insight. I count on you for this.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. This is not going to change your life at all?

MARGARET EDSON: Once the day starts in the classroom, the affairs of the outside world really do not come into it at all. The day in the class has its own momentum. And New Yorkers find this very hard to believe, but the intricacies of New York theater are not part of what we’re doing down in kindergarten.

JIM LEHRER: Describe a day. Tell me about a day. What did you do today, for instance, in your kindergarten class?

MARGARET EDSON: Well, today we had a great time counting by twos to the tune of “I Feel Good,” a James Brown song. Then I’ve been receiving several bouquets of flowers, and we’re studying about insects; we’re doing a big project on insects called Six Legs over Georgia.

JIM LEHRER: Six Legs over Georgia.

MARGARET EDSON: There are bouquets of flowers all around the room. So, I took that opportunity to teach about the bee dance and how bees communicate with each other about the source of different types of nectar by flying around and then doing the dance to communicate to the other bees about where the good nectar is. So we had a very experiential lesson thanks to all the flowers that people have been sending.

JIM LEHRER: Do your student know you won the Pulitzer Prize?


JIM LEHRER: Do they care?

MARGARET EDSON: Well, we talk a lot about manners and feelings and courtesy and thoughtful gestures. So, they all came up to me and said congratulations. And I said thank you. They said you’re welcome.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, Margaret, let me say congratulations to you again. And as somebody who has known you for a long time, I think I speak for everybody who has known you for a long time, nobody is surprised you’d do something like this. We might not have predicted this prize for this particular play, but nobody is surprised. And, congratulations to you, my friend.

MARGARET EDSON: Well, thank you very much and give my regards to your daughter.

JIM LEHRER: I’ll do it.