Michael Cristofer Essay - Critical Essays


One of the most fascinating aspects of reading the theatrical works of Michael Cristofer is how often one encounters psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of dying: denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance, and, finally, transcendence. The Shadow Box, presenting the stories and opinions of Steven, Brian, and Felicity, three terminally ill patients, and Amazing Grace, describing the final days of a female serial killer on death row, deal directly (and obviously) with the issue of death, but Breaking Up also seems to rely thematically on Kübler-Ross’s five stages for its overarching plot. In a metaphorical sense, the emotions and thought processes inherent in the ending of a relationship echo the same concerns, negotiations, and pain inherent in the termination of life. Given the parallel nature of love and life, Cristofer seems most interested in finding out how his characters handle endings—the end of love, life, and happiness.

The Shadow Box

The Shadow Box depicts poignantly the struggle that the three terminally ill people and their most valued loved ones face as they try to cope with impending death in different ways: intellectualization, fantasy, and direct confrontation. The three families explore the complexity of their separate relationships as death approaches, but through clever staging the audience sees how their issues and struggles overlap. Even the conversations within each of the three “cottages” blend audibly together: one conversation, between the cancer-ridden Steven and his timid wife, Maggie, leads directly into another conversation between the intellectual Brian and his sexually daring former wife Beverly. That conversation, in turn, takes the bitterness of Brian’s gay lover, Mark (who feels unappreciated), and thematically compares it to the bitterness that a mother, Felicity, feels as she waits, interminably, for the arrival of an absent daughter. The families are radically different in their methods: Steven has not been able to break through Maggie’s steadfast denial of his terminal illness, Felicity remains alive (in spite of severe pain) through sheer force of will, and Brian, Mark, and Beverly (who all accept Brian’s death with varying levels of grace) are haunted by their inability to connect emotionally with one another. Nevertheless, they remain identical in their purposes: They all seek to come to terms with their respective imminent separations.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Shadow Box, however, is its use of an unseen Interviewer to pry open the internal thoughts of the dying. Instead of leaving the task of revealing...

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