Background and education
Edson was the second child of Peter Edson, a newspaper columnist, and Joyce Winnifred Edson, a medical social worker. Like the protagonist in Wit, Edson is well acquainted with academia. A graduate of Sidwell Friends School, a Quaker-run private school in Washington, where she had been active in the drama program, Edson enrolled at Smith College in Massachusetts in 1979, earning a degree in Renaissance history in 1983. After graduation, Edson moved to Iowa City, Iowa, where her sister lived, and took a job selling hot dogs during the day and tending bar at night. Edson had developed an interest in monastic asceticism in college, and she spent the following year at a French Dominican convent in Rome.
After a year among nuns, she returned to her hometown of Washington, D.C., and acquired a job as unit clerk in the AIDS and cancer treatment wing of a research hospital. Subsequently she moved to the St. Francis Center (now the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing), where she worked on producing grant proposals. At this point, Edson decided to pursue a doctorate in literature, but first wished to write a story she formulated during her time at the hospital. Encouraged by friends, Edson worked at a bicycle store in Washington and spent the summer writing the first draft of Wit. Her stated objective with Wit was to tell a single story and move on to other career goals.
Drawing upon her diverse background in religious education, history, medicine and the academic world, Edson felt that her story fit best within the genre of a play, and she completed an initial version before enrolling in the graduate program of Georgetown University in the fall of 1991. While in graduate school, Edson volunteered as part of a St. John's Episcopal Church outreach program, teaching English as a second language. She left school after earning her master's degree and was admitted to a program seeking to bring professionals from other fields into public education, bypassing the standard teacher certification process.
Production of Wit remained a prominent goal, and Edson sought a venue to stage her play. After she submitted the work to theater companies across the country, it was finally accepted in 1995 by the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California. Condensing her two-act play into one long, emotionally draining act, the revised Wit enjoyed a successful run and won several Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards. Edson initially disliked the editorial cuts, but has since come to accept that the revisions strengthen the pace of the play by underscoring the emotional shifts and highlighting the ongoing stress that the protagonist experiences.
Despite her success in Los Angeles, Edson discovered there was little interest from other companies, who deemed the play overly intellectual and difficult to produce. A close friend, Derek Anson Jones, was eventually able to convince the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, to produce the play, with Jones as director. Wit opened on the East Coast in October 1997, earning strong word-of-mouth reviews before winning three Connecticut Critics Circle Awards, including best play. Championed by its lead actress, Kathleen Chalfant, the play secured a spot with the Manhattan Class Company in New York City before premiering to a flurry of positive reviews at the Union Square Theatre in January 1999. Still under Jones's direction, the play won awards from the New York Drama Critics' Circle, Drama Desk, Drama League, Dramatists Guild of America and Outer Critics Circle. Edson was presented with the John Gassner and George Oppenheimer playwriting awards, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Despite critical acclaim for her writing, Edson maintains that she has no desire to write professionally again. She works as a kindergarten teacher in a school in Atlanta, Georgia, although she continues to campaign on behalf of Wit, occasionally attending readings, participating in after-show discussions with audiences, and promoting the causes for which Wit was intended to help advocate. For example, she donated her Pulitzer Prize money to create a foundation to teach medical students how to interact more humanely with their patients. Edson maintains a quiet life with her partner, Emory University art history professor Linda Merrill, and their child, Timothy Edson Merrill.
Edson's first play was Wit, first produced in 1995 at South Coast Repertory in California, about a John Donne scholar who is hospitalized for and dying of ovarian cancer. Edson did use her work experience in a hospital as part of the background in writing the play. At the time of its first New York production in late 1998, Edson was a kindergarten teacher at Centennial Place Elementary School (Atlanta, Georgia). The play won her the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The award brought her a large amount of publicity, including an interview on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. Edson has written a second play, Satisfied, whose subject is "country-gospel radio in Kentucky" and Martha Carson's 1951 hit, also called Satisfied. — still unproduced.
Edson gave the address during the 2008 commencement ceremony at Smith College.
- Peter Marks (18 September 1998). "Science and Poetry Face Death in a Hospital Room". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-29.
- Kevin Sack (10 November 1998). "At Lunch With Margaret Edson; Colors, Numbers, Letters and John Donne". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-04-06.
- Alex Kuczynski (13 April 1999). "Teacher Turned Playwright Is Among the Winners of 22 Pulitzer Prizes". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-04-06.
- Carolyn Clay, Donne deal: Margaret Edson is the soul of Wit, 20–27 January, The Boston Phoenix. Accessed 9 January 2013.
- McGrath, Charles (16 February 2012). "Changing Gears but Retaining Dramatic Effect". New York Times. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
- Margaret Edson at the Internet Broadway Database
- Margaret Edson at the Internet Movie Database
- Margaret Edson at the Internet Off-Broadway Database
- Transcript from Edson's April 14, 1999 appearance on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
- New Georgia Encyclopedia