Michael Cristofer Cristofer, Michael - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Cristofer 1946–

(Pseudonym of Michael Procaccino) American dramatist and actor.

A highly regarded actor, Cristofer earned respect as a skillful and stimulating dramatist for his candid treatment of terminal illness in his first major work, The Shadow Box (1975). He has been praised for his use of techniques which are purely dramatic, rather than literary or novelistic. One way in which Cristofer effectively exploits the set's potential as a theatrical device in The Shadow Box is by placing onstage three cottages, which physically separate the dying characters and serve to individualize their common plight. Other important aspects of Cristofer's play are the overall complexity of language and the innovative use of cross-cut and chorally arranged dialogue. The Shadow Box won both the Pulitzer Prize in drama and a Tony Award in 1977.

After The Shadow Box Cristofer continued to explore provocative themes, but with less successful results. Ice (1976), an expressionistic play about basic human instincts, was criticized as both pointlessly obscene and symbolically trite, while Black Angel (1978), which concerns Nazism, vigilantism, and the degree to which evil actions are forgivable, received little critical attention.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 110 and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7.)

Stephen Farber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

During the last few years, Los Angeles theater audiences have come to know Michael Cristofer as one of the most gifted actors of his generation. As a dramatist Cristofer is not yet on the same level, but the intelligence and compassion that make him such a versatile actor are also visible in his new play "The Shadow Box."…

"The Shadow Box" covers one 24-hour period and concentrates on three terminally ill patients (all presumably dying of cancer, though this is not specified) living in private cottages on the grounds of a progressive hospital. Joe, a middle-aged working man, has to break the news to his wife and teen-age son. Brian, a failed writer who has completed four autobiographies since learning he is going to die, is living with his homosexual lover when his ex-wife stops in for a visit. In the third cottage a salty old woman named Felicity is being tended by her unmarried daughter, Agnes. The people in the three cottages never meet; their stories unfold simultaneously, and they are adroitly interwoven in Cristofer's text…. When the play begins, the dying patients have already resigned themselves to the inevitable. The drama in each case grows from the struggle of the patients' families to come to terms with death.

Cristofer has a weakness for rhetorical effects—for example, a long, flashy speech about the taste of "yellow, putrid death"—that are awkward and self-conscious. He is best at straight...

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Mel Gussow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In "The Shadow Box,"… Michael Cristofer has written a play about dying that also deals with living….

"The Shadow Box," treating a serious and important subject with great perspicacity and compassion, is a courageous drama. At times it is also funny, which makes it even more moving….

[Mr. Cristofer] has created characters throbbing with humanity and has placed them on the scalpel-edge of survival….

"The Shadow Box" is three separate stories, each taking place on the same set. Occasionally dialogue overlaps, but the stories never inter-act except in our minds. We are so caught up that it comes as something of a surprise at the curtain call to realize that most of the characters have not met in the course of the play—although they inhabit the same space, emotionally as well as physically. (p. 16)

The play is about [three] terminal cases, their anxieties, their changes of mind, their determination to avoid coming down with "a bad case of the hopes." It is also about those who will survive them. How do they react—with love or revulsion, or a mixture of both? Mr. Cristofer suggests that some of these lives, perhaps all of them, are less than living….

We can never really know these people until we change places with them, which in a sense is what we do while watching "The Shadow Box." (p. 17)

Mel Gussow, in a review of "The Shadow Box," in The New York Times (copyright © 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 25, 1977 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theater Reviews: 1977–1978, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1979, pp. 16-17).

Walter Kerr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I don't know that I have ever before found myself faulting a play for becoming more dramatic than it ought to have been, but that's the situation I was caught in by the time Michael Cristofer's "The Shadow Box" lowered its last lights on a collage of solo voices, all of them softly lamenting the oncoming cloak of death. Death is the exclusive subject of the intelligently written, lustrously performed work …, and during its entire first half I felt myself deeply committed to the restive but intensely realistic victims living out their limited lives in private cottages scattered about the grounds of a hospital.

"The Shadow Box" might easily seem a sociological tract, making the pitch it does for permitting terminal cases to spend their days as normally as possible, taking care of themselves in the company of relations and friends, if it weren't possessed of a psychological vigor that compels us to focus on its tart, talkative, undefeated people rather than its thesis….

[Brian] is not all last-ditch dynamism. He will stop for wryness, for reflection: when a probing doctor tells him there's no hurry about answering a question, he remarks swiftly but simply "Not for you maybe; some of us are on a tighter schedule." And we grow to understand that the fever pitch at which he thinks and speaks is not entirely born of desperation. He was always as he is now, he's just put his foot a bit more firmly on the accelerator….

[Felicity], nearly senile in a wheelchair, is still able to list with a rapid cackle all of the organs that have been snatched from her, one by one. Does her elder daughter—never her favorite—quietly sing hymns as she cares for her? On one lung, she can drown her out lustily with the bawdiest song she remembers. And you feel there are others in reserve.

Of the three who are simply waiting for the known, yet unpredictable, end, [Joe] is the least ebullient, though not the least sturdy. He's come to terms with himself, he flips back the peaked baseball cap he...

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Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Shadow Box"] is a bright, occasionally even funny, play about [a] dark subject. One wonders gently what the title means—"The Shadow Box." Perhaps the author is suggesting the final training before the ultimate bout—as one character says, "If you are told you are going to die, it means you are not yet dead!"—or perhaps he is merely thinking of a space, where shadows inexorably take over from former realities, until the shadows themselves are no longer cast, but exist in the vaguer outer penumbra of memory. Yet this is not a gloomy play—it merely faces a serious answer with serious questions….

The play is far from perfect. The author permits a mild undercurrent of unreality to wash over the proceedings. Indeed he does not just permit it—he bathes in it. This is not a play about death in the way Edward Albee's magnificent "All Over" is a play about death. Despite its moments of savagery, this play takes a more amenable view of the process, and also a more sentimental view. It is still an important, touching and courageous play. You do not write about death for either fun or money. And Mr. Cristofer writes with the compassion of the undamned….

[Are the dying characters common] folks on the brink? Not really. An O'Neill or a Tennessee Williams would have given their bleeding hearts a touch more blood and a touch less heart, and the surgery would have been beneficial. But there is enough of the palatable truth here to make an extraordinarily good Broadway play, decently crafted—the antiphonal ending is outstanding—and with meaty roles for actors, and a fine vehicle for directing.

Clive Barnes, "Final Taxi Ride," in The New York Times (copyright © 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 1, 1977 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theater Reviews: 1977–1978, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1979, p. 62).

Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the plotting of ["The Shadow Box"], Mr. Cristofer has skillfully threaded together what amount to three variations on a single theme. His patients have it in common that they are about to die and that neither they nor anyone around them is able to behave "naturally," their emotion is that of the ancient Latin refrain "Timor mortis conturbat me," which the intellectual would no doubt translate to his unlettered lover as "Fear of death gives me the willies." Hard as it may be to credit, "The Shadow Box" is by no means a gloomy affair; again and again it astonishes us by being hilarious. Moreover, something like joy enters into the final moments of the play, when Mr. Cristofer abandons the realistic mode in favor of a chorus of chanted lyrical affirmations by the entire company. Seize this moment, the company adjures us, and then, if you are lucky, you may be able to seize the next as well; whatever death may be, life is a fine thing and well worth the living.

Brendan Gill, "Timor Mortis," in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIII, No. 8, April 11, 1977, p. 85.∗

Jules Aaron

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

While [Michael Cristofer's] first play, The Shadow Box, was concerned with a group of people faced literally with death, Ice deals with the equally terrifying living death of contemporary man's "frozen" existence. Murph, an impotent, talkative male model, leaves the pressures of city living for Alaska, where he buys a cabin surrounded by acres of barren land. He desperately befriends an alcoholic ex-teacher, Ray, and a sexy "free soul," Sunshine; the three live together and create a shifting network of relationships that end with Sunshine's violent death and Murph's and Ray's reversal of personalities.

Cristofer has an actor's feel for the visceral poetic rhythms of good theatre. Although influences of Beckett, Pinter, and Shepard are evident, he is an original talent. The play suffers from some overt symbolism—the metaphoric story of "winterkill" and Murph confronting himself dead in a cake of ice—and from some easy one-liner laughs. However, the majority of the play is a rich barrage of tragicomic repartée and self-realization by people submerged in "a hole filled with water," desperately trying to gasp for air through interpersonal "connections."…

Ice is the "love story" that Cristofer labels it; however, its love is as ironic, haunting, evasive, and frightening as twentieth-century life. The play, like its title, is crystal-sharp, resonating theatre: intellectual yet visceral, continually comic yet ultimately moving. (p. 264)

Jules Aaron, in a review of "Ice," in Educational Theatre Journal (© 1977 University College Theatre Association of the American Theatre Association), Vol. 29, No. 2, May, 1977, pp. 264-65.

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] pathetic state of Broadway theater—and, for that matter, regional theater,… is epitomized by the case of The Shadow Box. This alleged drama by the actor-playwright Michael Cristofer won both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award, and made a more than respectable showing in the voting for the third major award, given by the New York drama critics. It takes place in three cottages for the terminally ill on the grounds of a large hospital, in each of which an allegedly archetypal patient is dying in his or her own quirky way. To make things jazzier, one cottage represents all three cottages, the characters from one being largely confined to the porch; from the second, to the living room; from the third, to...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Leonard Gross

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Michael Cristofer's play] "Black Angel" concerns the efforts of a former German officer to receive judgment—either death or forgiveness—for his crimes during World War II. Part of the controversy, in the press and public alike, stems from Cristofer's sympathetic portrayal of the leading character. The remainder arises from Cristofer's suggestion that the very tendencies toward obedience and conformity that destroyed this man exist in all of us, and that our judgment of him must be tempered by the knowledge.

Martin Engel, once a hero in his own country, was tried, convicted and sentenced to death for ordering the extermination of 247 inhabitants of a French village. Released after 13 years...

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Mel Gussow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Clearly [in "Ice"] Mr. Cristofer has intended to write an archetypical drama about vagrant people, who, through force of circumstance, have become more animal than human. However, the result is unfocused and unsavory—a self-parody whose best feature is its brevity.

The owner of the cabin … begins as a clean-cut outdoorsman. Inexplicably, he invites a scrofulous derelict to share his quarters, and talks to him as if he might be an old buddy from high school, instead of a filthy, crab-infested stranger. By the end of the play, the derelict … is sober, shaven and even articulate—with cleanliness comes good speech. On the other hand, [the owner] is chattering to himself like a deranged parrot....

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Ice] enjoys the one distinction of managing, in a much shorter compass, to be about as offensive as [Losing Time]. In fact, Ice recalls Losing Time with a similar wallowing in obscenity and scatology, a like reveling in human vileness, violence, and abjection equally unconvincingly portrayed, and in an almost identical inconsistence of characterization. But Cristofer adds his own brand of insufferable pseudo-poetry and obfuscatory symbolism that symbolizes nothing, as well as a highly developed pretentiousness to which the author of Losing Time can as yet only aspire.

Ice concerns Murph, a young man who has bought a shack and some land in Alaska, where he...

(The entire section is 512 words.)