Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

With the rise of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) and the popularity of television talk shows in the late twentieth century, frank discussion about intimate issues such as terminal illness became commonplace. Plays from this period, such as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Parts One and Two (pr. 1991, pb. 1992; pr. 1992, pb. 1993), deal honestly and openly with death and dying in a way that overshadows this sometimes sentimental play by Michael Cristofer. However, when Cristofer first wrote The Shadow Box in 1975, the idea of a hospice was still experimental and no prior play had dealt with this topic in such an unapologetic manner. Perhaps that is why it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1977 and became an unexpected success for its author.

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The play also experienced a great deal of controversy, primarily as a result of some of the language and the openly homosexual couple. The play continues to be banned from production in some high school and community theaters. Many educators and theater artists recognize the power of the life-affirming message of the play and the challenging roles it offers to actors, but pressure from parents and community members has forced many productions to close and teachers to be dismissed from their jobs.

Although most would call The Shadow Box a critical success since it garnered the Pulitzer Prize in drama and the Tony Award for best play in 1977, many critics originally found the play sentimental and condescending. A stellar 1994 cast revival at Circle in the Square Theatre in New York received a similar mix of reviews. Some critics contend the play is just as moving and affecting as it was originally, while others call it dated and contrived by twenty-first century standards. In his 1978 review of the play in The Hudson Review, John Simon likened it to playwriting by numbers with stereotypical characters and garish dialogue. On the other hand, noted critics such as Clive Barnes and Walter Kerr of The New York Times recognized the sentimentality of the play but praised Cristofer for its intensely realistic characters and identified it as a moving and courageous play.

Cristofer subsequently did not enjoy the same level of theatrical success that he received for The Shadow Box. His later plays, such as Ice (pr. 1976) and Black Angel (pr. 1978, pb. 1984), suffered from mostly negative reviews calling them, at best, unfocused and at worst, obscene. His The Lady and the Clarinet (pr. 1980, pb. 1985) received better reviews, but none equaled the success of The Shadow Box.

Cristofer also received praise for his acting and especially for his screenwriting. He played several leading roles in original productions of plays such as The Tooth of Crime (1974) and Ashes (1976) and won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award for Acting in 1973 and the Theatre World Award for Performance in 1977. Cristofer has also written the screenplays for many films, including The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), and Breaking Up (1997). He wrote and directed a Home Box Office (HBO) movie titled Gia (1998) and a feature film, Original Sin (2001), both of which received mixed reviews.

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