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Plays About Cancer

By December 8, 2012

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For obvious reasons, the fight against cancer is highly dramatic subject material. So it is no surprise that many playwrights over the years have created characters faced with this illness. Among the many dramas exploring this issue, my favorite is Margaret Edson's Wit. The play focuses on an English professor, Vivian Bearing, who learns that she has a terminal case of ovarian cancer. Despite her coldness towards others, there is a sort of heroism at the heart of the protagonist. She decides to pursue an experimental treatment, one that won't save her life, but one that will further scientific knowledge. Propelled by her innate love of knowledge, she is determined to accept a painfully large dosage of chemotherapy.

In contrast, August: Osage County by Tracy Letts focuses on a cruel, bitter matriarch who is addicted to pain-killers. She has been diagnosed with cancer of the mouth. Also, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof features Big Daddy, the patriarch of the family who is undergoing the last stages of terminal cancer. However, the doctors have lied to him, falsely giving him a clean bill of health. Both of the above examples are family dramas in which the powerful parental figure (and the one who happens to be dying of cancer) still attempt to control and intimidate others, much unlike Vivian Bearing from Wit, who is a solitary woman who has distanced herself from ties of family and friends, focusing on independence and self-determination rather than the domination of others. Perhaps even more important to note, the characters mentioned in the above examples are both in denial regarding their mortality (at least in the beginning of each play), whereas the protagonist from Edson's drama bravely faces the undeniable truth of her condition.


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