December 10, 1998
Vol. 18 No. 6

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    [richard strier] by jason smith  Richard Strier, Professor of English Language & Literature at Chicago, took a particular interest in the works of John Donne. Nearly 10 years later, a playwright took an interest in Strier's writing and incorporated it into her award-winning playWit.

    His work on Donne is immortalized on stage

    By Theresa Carson
    News Office

    Imagine that one day a friend calls you to say that a piece of your life’s work has been immortalized. Richard Strier, Professor of English Language & Literature and a member of the Committee on Visual Arts, recently had such an experience.

    Strier had no idea (except for a letter he ignored) that his academic work and his name would become an integral part of the award-winning play Wit, which is being performed at Manhattan’s MCC Theater. He said he thought the idea was too off-the-wall.

    Before staging the play in New York, Atlanta playwright and elementary school teacher Margaret Edson wrote to Strier to tell him of his inclusion in the script. Being busy with other things, he quickly dismissed the letter and relegated it to a file, only to resurrect it after Deborah Nelson, an Assistant Professor in English Literature & Language, told him she saw the play and was startled to hear him mentioned in the dialogue.

    In 1989, Strier published “John Donne Awry and Squint: The ‘Holy Sonnets,’ 1608-1610” in Modern Philology. In that essay, he argues that Calvinism was intended to provide comfort rather than anxiety, and that Donne’s “Holy Sonnets,” which seek to be Calvinist, should be read and aesthetically evaluated in this light.

    Strier never expected an audience wider than a couple of hundred English professors and graduate students. Years later, however, Edson found his article at the library and incorporated it into Wit, the story of a middle-aged English professor who is dying of cancer.

    Strier does not believe fate played a role in Edson’s finding his work, but he was surprised and excited by the discovery. “She started reading and stumbled around. I had absolutely nothing to do with it. I never taught her. I never worked with her. I never met her,” Strier said.

    Several fictional professors are mentioned in the play, Strier said, but he and the deceased Oxford scholar Helen Gardner are the only actual academics whose theories figure into the drama.

    In a phone interview, Edson said she chose Donne’s poetry as her character’s expertise because of its level of difficulty, which intrigued her. Ironically, Strier’s article gave her the freedom to look at Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” as bad poetry, she said.

    “He sort of blows the whistle on John Donne,” Edson said. “Donne is not convinced of any doctrinal truth, but (because I did not have the expertise) I wasn’t free to think that until I read the article.”

    Donne’s poetry is challenging because he wanted to protect himself, she said. “A real strain in the play is if you are sure of something, then you don’t have to make it so complicated.” During the course of the play, the main character, an expert on metaphysical poetry, allows herself the luxury of letting go, Edson said.

    Strier himself has not yet had to face the topic of his own death in the way in which the play’s main character has, but he said, “When the time comes, I’m sure that poetry will be a source of comfort for me. Memorized lines and stanzas stay with you. You never know when they will pop into your head.”

    Strier’s own interest in poetry began when he was in high school. “I found poetry to be compelling––psychological and complex––in its use of language,” he said.

    “One of my professors was the intense, word-by-word kind of reader that I am. He really scrutinized poetry,” Strier said of his mentor, Arthur Waldhorn, who taught Strier at City College of New York.

    “I like the intensity of language, the challenge of putting a lot of meaning into a tight, small form. I like stories, but I’m more interested in moments and analysis,” Strier said.

    As for Wit, Strier said he hopes the play will inspire interest in Donne’s work and in poetry. “I’d love it if one person out of the audience every night went home and pulled out his or her college poetry anthology and read some Donne or any other poetry,” he said.

    “Academia is a small world. For a piece of scholarship to get out to an educated public and to be quoted in a New York theater every night is quite wonderful. For me, the great thing is that literary criticism and close reading of poetry can have humanizing significance,” Strier said.

    Although Strier has yet to meet Edson in person, they have spoken by phone.

    Strier said that Wit, which has received six 1995 Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Awards, including Best New Drama, and the 1997 Connecticut Drama Critics’ Circle Awards for Best Director, Outstanding Actor and Best Play, might be performed on Broadway.

    If the play goes to the big stage, then Strier and Edson will fulfill a pact: the two writers will meet on opening night. It will be a meeting of more than mere coincidence.