1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Lamb’s Players is currently staging Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit. A major character never comes on stage. But he hovers over it like a severe, yet benevolent angel.
Before Vivian Bearing was diagnosed with stage-four cancer, she was a professor of 17th century poetry, she says, “specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne.”
Donne (1572-1631) was nine years younger than Shakespeare (he probably didn’t know the Bard, but most biographers agree Donne would have recognized him on the street). Though “a great frequenter of plays,” Donne considered theater people beneath him, even the legendary tragedian Edward Alleyn, who married his oldest daughter.
Donne grew up in a divided home. His father, an ironmonger, died when Donne was four; his mother, Elizabeth, was an ardent Roman Catholic in a country that persecuted “Papists,” among them Donne’s brother Henry, who was tortured and racked and died of the plague in Newgate prison.
Donne also had the example of his great-great grandfather, Sir Thomas More, the “man for all seasons” martyred for defending his faith against King Henry VIII.
Throughout his life, Donne’s family was forever on “a sea, under a continual tempest, where one wave hath ever overtaken another.” Death took his father and brother, his wife Ann (whom he married without her father’s consent and suffered ignominy for a decade), five of their children, beloved friends. Each “storm” almost swept him away.
Poetry, he said, had “a cherishing fire which dries in me/Grief which did not drown me.”
As a youth, he wrote some of the wildest, wittiest poems in any language. They were so far ranging they prompted scholar J.B. Leishman to write, “Donne has often appealed to me a character whom Shakespeare might have invented.”
The key to the poems, their “wit,” is ever-present. Various definitions include: “intellectual quickness,” “a talent for uttering brilliant things,” and “a desire to startle readers.”
In the play, Vivian Bearing calls it “the flash of comprehension.”
Think lightning bolt.
Definitions are fine. Here’s his wit in action (Elegie 15: “On His Mistress Going to Bed”). As she slowly disrobes, the panting speaker goes giddy. She’s “a heaven,” he blurts, “like Mahomet’s Paradise.”
Finally, he just loses it: “License my roving hands, and let them go,/ Behind, before, above, between, below.”
No English poet goes faster, deeper, or funnier in so few words, than John Donne. In other words, no English poet has his “wit.”
He never published his early poems. And later rued them, since they were so salacious, and he had become one of England’s foremost spiritual leaders.
He later wrote of lust:
“Who ever loves, if he do not propose
The right true end of love, he’s one that goes
To sea for nothing but to make him sick.”
Like St. Thomas Becket, Donne backed into religion (in his case, the Reformed Church) and found his true calling.
Though born a Catholic, Donne studied religion in general. He refused to choose one until he had, “to the measure of my poor wit and judgment, surveyed and digested the whole body of divinity.”
His biographer, John Stubbs, says “Donne’s private life consisted of nothing less than a search for the right eternity” for him.
He received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from Oxford and later became Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. He went, he joked, from “Jack Donne [the rake] to Dr. Donne.”
His majestic sermons demonstrate the same wit as the early poems, only this time directed at salvation.
Donne in his shroud
“A conscience is not clean, by having recollected all her sins in the Memory, for they may fester there, and Gangreen even to Desperation.”
Donne’s final sermon would make for a harrowing one-act play. Draping himself in a white shroud, only days before he died, Donne spoke, in effect, at his own funeral.
“We have a winding sheet in our Mother’s womb, which grows with us from our conception, and we come into the world, wound up in that winding sheet, for we come to seek a grave.”
He then proceeds to decimate Shakespeare’s famous “Seven Ages of Man,” showing how each is worse than the last.
In Wit, Vivian Bearing swears she knows all there is to know about Donne. What the play reveals, however, is that she begins to understand him for the first time.