See No Evil: The Bedside Spectatorship of Vivian Bearing

Elizabeth McElroy


In this thoughtful essay, its author Elizabeth McElroy explores Margaret Edson’s celebrated play “Wit” with a focus on biomedical ethics, namely, the attitudes toward the dying that the play’s hospital setting might encourage or, indeed, discourage. McElroy’s opening gambit is to set Edson’s play alongside Freud’s claims regarding the potential for theatre to expose its spectators to the experience of death. Pace Freud, we are all hardwired to avoid any sense of our own death for the deceptively simple reason that consciousness literally cannot grasp it; try as we might to imagine our own deaths, we are always there as spectators in that very act of imagining. Despite Freud’s own ambivalence to the powers of actual theatrical spectatorship—a spectatorship that both brings death closer and holds us at a safe distance from it— McElroy resolves to deepen and complicate Freud’s idea of spectatorship by exploring the various modes of looking that are played out in “Wit”: the observational power of the attending physician-researchers, for whom the protagonist Vivian Bearing is ‘research’; the compassionate regard of the duty nurse; and finally, the play’s breaking of the fourth wall, which allows for a more fundamental experience of looking at the dying, one that is rendered all the more complex because it is accompanied by the experience of being looked at by the dying. In a skillful treatment, McElroy ties the play’s different modes of looking to recent bioethical considerations of best practice in terms of patientphysician relationships. —Sarah Clift

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