Remption in Death

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1229

As a result of the play The Shadow Box, Michael Cristofer earned recognition for his honest, objective study of death, observed in the lives of three unrelated characters and their loved ones. The play, however, is more than just a playwright’s attempt to come to terms with the mysterious. The very idea of death is a means of redemption for several characters of the play. While dying is an ending point for some of Cristofer’s characters, it signifies the be ginning, or rebirth, of others entering a new level of consciousness.

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Maggie is perhaps the most resistant to change. It is clear at the outset of the play that she has been suppressing Joe’s death, making it all the harder on herself, as well as on Joe, to reunite on a conscious level. When Joe asks Maggie, ‘‘Aren’t you ever coming in?’’ the inference is not that he is literally anxious or impatient to enter the cottage, but is attempting instead to reach out to Maggie on a deeper level. When Maggie replies, a little too firmly, ‘‘I’ll go in when I’m good and ready,’’ Joe’s question takes on a different character. The cabin symbolically represents a world of sickness, of death, of finality for Maggie. By refusing to enter the cabin, she is, in effect, refusing to accept Joe’s condition. What Joe is really asking Maggie to do is to accept his terminal condition so that they can move on in the relationship.

The tension in the play heightens as Maggie continues to resist, insisting Joe return home so that things are ‘‘made normal.’’ Finally, Maggie is jolted into the present by her dying husband, who says, ‘‘Look at me. You want magic to happen? Is that what you want? Go ahead. Make it happen. I’m waiting. Make it happen!’’ In hearing her own words, ‘‘I can’t, I can’t,’’ Maggie suddenly surrenders, asking Joe to tell her that he is dying. Her admission that she doesn’t know what to do for Joe eases the tension between husband and wife, Joe no longer having to ‘‘do it alone.’’

Mark prides himself on his involvement with Brian and the support he gives to a terminally ill companion. He knows every aspect of Brian’s condition, and is painstaking in recounting the nature of his friend’s suffering to Beverly, Brian’s ex-wife. It is Beverly who is quick to comment on this quality. When Mark shares that Brian ‘‘falls down a lot and his face gets a little purple for a minute,’’ Beverly quips, ‘‘All the details. You’re very graphic,’’ as if she is responding to a horror film. Beverly and Mark continue to knock heads in a combative fashion, leading to Mark’s hasty exit on several occasions. Annoyed and flustered by Brian’s visitor, Mark excuses himself, but not before Beverly is again quick to note, ‘‘How are we ever going to get to know each other if you keep leaving the room?’’ When Beverly pushes Mark one last time, he fires back, ‘‘We are dying here, lady. That’s what it’s about. We are dropping like flies. Look around you, one word after another, one life after another. . . . Zap. Gone. Dead.’’

Mark is dying, symbolically, because his future—supporting Brian—will be denied to him with Brian’s death. Beverly exposes Mark’s selfish motives for taking care of Brian. She tells Mark that he doesn’t ‘‘need to dirty’’ his hands with ‘‘that kind of rotten, putrid, filth, unless of course you need the money.’’ The scene reaches its climax as Mark and Beverly exchange slaps. At this point, Mark breaks down, stating, ‘‘I don’t want him to die,’’ repeatedly. The tension eases at the end of the play when the audience discovers Mark has chosen to remain with Brian, and has undergone an emotional transformation. When Brian calls himself disgusting, Mark replies, ‘‘No you’re not. Just wet.’’

Finally, there is Agnes. She reveals in a conversation with the interviewer that she has actually been humoring her mother by writing letters to her. Agnes composes and signs the letters as if they are actually from Claire, who has, at this point, been dead for several years. She offers an explanation, claiming that ‘‘it means so much to [Felicity],’’ adding, ‘‘people need something to keep them going.’’ At first, it would seem Felicity was the person who needed to be humored. When asked if such letter writing makes her happy, Agnes hesitates before answering ‘‘yes.’’ Agnes reveals a need to write letters to maintain a relationship between herself and her mother.

Failing to make a connection with Felicity, Agnes tries to reach out to her by conjuring up images of her dead sister. In engaging in this activity, Agnes is avoiding the opportunity to resolve her relationship with Felicity. The interviewer gives her pause to think, stating that Felicity is ‘‘waiting for Claire.’’ Agnes responds, stunned, and the interviewer offers that ‘‘[Felicity’s] made up her mind that she’s not going to die until Claire arrives,’’ that ‘‘it might easily be the reason, now that [Agnes] has explained about the letters.’’ Agnes makes several feeble attempts to reconcile with her mother, by admitting the letters are forgeries, with no success. At the play’s conclusion, a strong and resolute Agnes tells her mother ‘‘it’s time to stop,’’ signifying the relationship is undergoing a transformation.

Other parallels can be drawn in consideration of the regenerative powers at work in the play. The play has been identified to be built, at least structurally, by threes—there are three cottages, housing three related characters, all of whom seem to form a trinity of sorts, identical in ways that the groups consist of one terminally ill patient and two other people who are close to them. The Biblical trinity is also composed of three divine figures: God, divine Wisdom, and the Spirit of God. None preceded each other or challenge one another in power or stature. They are understood, in theological terms, to be one in substance. All share an eternal quality, all are equal. In other words, God is one nature in three persons.

Native Americans have also realized value in the process of transformation. The life-death-life cycle in some Native American cultures implies that the death of one living organism contributes to or impacts the life of something else.

Three also gives expression to the play’s ultimate resolution. If the resolution of the play is death, then perhaps it is fitting that there are only two acts which comprise the play. The third, or missing act, is ‘‘death.’’

In The Shadow Box, the truth is ultimately realized through three groups of three characters, and their interactions with each other. Cristofer’s truth comes out in a multitude of voices representing all of the characters in the final lines of the play. The lesson they communicate is that life should be celebrated in the moment. Brian’s final realization is perhaps the most profound of all, one that captures the spirit of the work, ‘‘They tell you you’re dying, and you say all right. But if I am dying . . . I must still be alive.’’

Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on The Shadow Box, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Different Stages of Grief

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Death, it has been said, is the one sure thing in every life. But individuals deal with the possibility, and the reality, of death in myriad ways. Some welcome it as an escape from a painful world. Some fear it so deeply they have trouble living life. Some court death, dancing to the edge of mortality, then leaping back. Some, with an eye on the grave, live life with great abandon, against the day when they will cross the mysterious border into the unknown afterlife. Some, with an eye on the afterlife, live life with great care, in hopes of receiving reward, and avoiding punishment, after they die.

But, despite the varying ways in which humanity responds to the inevitability and tragedy of death, most people deal with grief in recognizable stages. Bad news is at first unbelievable, and victims and families may respond to it with denial: ‘‘This isn’t happening.’’ When reality sets in, a sense of anger often comes with it: ‘‘This isn’t fair!’’ As anger wanes, people may try to cut a deal with God, or death, or the world, in a stage termed bargaining: ‘‘If I can just do this, maybe they won’t die after all.’’ The final stage is termed acceptance— when victims and families finally understand the reality of their situation, and are able to face death with open eyes.

Michael Cristofer’s 1975 play, The Shadow Box, is set in a woodland hospice, where the families and friends of three terminally ill patients come to visit them in the last days or months before their inevitable deaths. In real life, the stages of grief over death are nowhere near as clean as they may appear in psychology textbooks: the human heart is a complicated organ, and stricken victims or relatives may move back and forth between emotions over the course of the grieving process. Nevertheless, each patient and visitor represents some point on the continuum of grief, and each makes some progress toward acceptance over the course of the play.

Steve, the son of Joe, a dying patient, is at the earliest end of the grief spectrum: when he arrives, he isn’t even aware of his father’s condition. This is an interesting, and tragic, consequence of the stage his mother, Maggie, is in: denial. Maggie, when she arrives, is so far in denial that she has forgotten not just the fact of Joe’s impending death but also everything else he has told her about the hospice. Despite the fact that Joe told her in advance that everything they needed would be available there, she has packed her suitcase with everything from a ham to canned pumpkin, in complete denial of both his death and even the substance of the place where he awaits it. Maggie’s actions may also reveal some aspects of the later stage of bargaining, a sense that if she can just do enough, she can hold back her husband’s death through her offerings. In any case, she has distinctly not reached acceptance. She refuses to enter Joe’s cottage, which somehow represents the reality of his death to her. And when he comes down to talk, she insists on hanging on to the fiction of his eventual recovery. ‘‘You’re fine,’’ she tells him. ‘‘I can see it’s all right.’’ And Joe, giving in, agrees.

Interestingly, although his wife and son are among the characters who stand farthest from acceptance of the fact of death, Joe himself seems to have a simple, but profound grasp of his own passing. He’s already been through several familiar grieving stages, he reveals in a conversation with the interviewer, telling him, ‘‘You get scared at first . . . and then you get pissed off.’’ But by the time his wife and son arrive, Joe has accepted his fate, saying, ‘‘I mean, it happens to everybody, right? I ain’t special.’’

Brian, the patient in the cottage next door, echoes Joe’s accepting sentiment. ‘‘It’s the one thing in this world you can be sure of!’’ he announces to the interviewer. ‘‘Sooner or later, it’s going to happen. You’re going to die.’’ But as Brian continues to speak, his bravado becomes less convincing. Instead, the audience begins to see an intellectual who has always attempted to control life through knowledge, and who is now attempting to work the same trick on death, by claiming that he can know and control it, as well. So although the interviewer tells Brian his analysis of death is ‘‘very helpful,’’ Brian corrects him, saying ‘‘too much thinking and talking,’’ adding that his former wife, Beverly, left him because of his tendency to intellectualize everything. In reality, his ‘‘acceptance’’ is a smoke screen. If it doesn’t hide outright denial, Brian’s ‘‘thinking and talking’’ is at least a form of bargaining: if he knows enough, he thinks, maybe his death won’t really happen. His bursts of creative activity are transparent, attempts to achieve some measure of immortality.

Brian’s true stage is hidden below the surface, and so are the positions of his two visitors: Beverly, his former wife, and Mark, his current lover. At first glance, Mark seems to be squarely in acceptance. After all, he’s the one who has been taking care of Brian for the duration of his illness, wiping up ‘‘the mucous and the blood and the piss and the excrement,’’ burning the sheets and boiling the clothes, becoming acquainted with the sights and smells of impending death. And Beverly, who arrives already drunk, in a blouse hung with pins and jewelry from her former lovers, and dances in her sick ex-husband’s cottage, appears to be solidly in denial.

But as the day progresses, it becomes clear that Beverly, in fact, is the one who has accepted the fact of her former husband’s death. The acceptance causes her pain, but the alcohol she uses to deaden it doesn’t change her essential grasp on the facts. Beverly has come to say the things she didn’t want left unsaid, and to have the dance she and Brian never danced in their life together. And it is Beverly who insists to Mark that he has not really accepted the fact of Brian’s death, and points out how essentially angry Mark’s position is—and that his anger has made him self-pitying, hindering his ability to offer Brian the help he needs.

Agnes and her ailing mother, Felicity, residents of the final cottage, are coping with two deaths—the death of Agnes’s sister, Claire, decades earlier, and Felicity’s own imminent passing. Felicity, who has gone senile but retains her salty tongue, fades into and out of reality, and may not ever be able to fully comprehend the fact of her own death. But even when lucid, she never accepted the death of her favorite daughter, to the extent that she has now completely forgotten it, and believes that the fictional letters that Agnes reads to her are really from Claire, who Felicity believes will one day be a second visitor to her hospice cottage. Agnes, who has never had an easy relationship with her mother, claims to have accepted the fact of her mother’s death, and even asks the doctors why she hasn’t died yet—but her actual position is somewhat more complicated. Although she says she writes the fictional letters from Claire simply to spare her mother grief, her extended fiction may actually reveal her own denial of the loss of her sister. And the death of her mother, to whom she has devoted her life up to this point, will leave her alone, and aimless.

The missing sister, Claire, is an interesting final case, the only character in The Shadow Box who exists beyond the farthest reaches of the grief spectrum. Although she lives in the play in the minds of both her mother and sister and still affects their daily lives, she has moved irretrievably beyond them, and the human grief spectrum. Claire is the only character who has passed over into death, the only character who really knows the truth of what everyone else is talking about—and the only character who can’t speak for herself.

As the day progresses, the residents of each of the cottages make progress toward acceptance of the death they must deal with. Joe and Maggie near acceptance by navigating together the grieving process he’s accomplished and she’s missed. Interestingly, Maggie, who has forgotten so many details concerning her husband’s illness, complains about the comfort of the hospice, saying, ‘‘They make everything so nice. Why? So you forget? I can’t.’’ Nevertheless, together, they think back on the way things used to be. During the conversation, they admit that it’s difficult to believe how things have changed, express their anger over what they’ve lost, then move into acceptance. Their process complete, Maggie finally agrees to enter the cottage, to break the news to Steve, so that he can begin his own grieving.

Brian, after discussing his attempts at immortality through writing with Beverly, finally attempts to dance with her the dance he never danced before. The effort proves too much for him, and he’s overcome, falling to the ground. But even as he rises, he tries to insulate himself with intellectual chatter, announcing, as if describing a carnival attraction: ‘‘He walks, he talks, he falls down, he gets up.’’ But his punch line, ‘‘Life goes on,’’ doesn’t ring true, and he stumbles off to the bedroom. In Brian’s absence, Beverly reveals to Mark the truth of his attitude, and Mark sobs out the truth behind his feigned acceptance of Brian’s death: ‘‘I don’t want him to die.’’ Gently, Beverly encourages Mark to move into a true acceptance, so that Brian can. ‘‘Just one favor you owe him,’’ she says. ‘‘Don’t hurt him with your hope.’’ When Mark reenters Brian’s sickroom, some of his concern for himself seems to have faded, and he’s able to help Brian negotiate his own way. When Brian, in a flash of lucidity about his condition, declares that he’s ‘‘truly disgusting,’’ Mark corrects him with reality, responding, ‘‘No, you’re not. Just wet.’’ In the closing scenes, Agnes, like Mark, also discovers the dangers of lack of acceptance of death.

In response to her question about why her own mother has not yet passed away, the doctors inform her that, perhaps, her mother is holding out for a visit from Agnes’s missing sister—a visit that can never happen because Claire is already dead. Felicity’s lack of acceptance of that death, and Agnes’s complicity in the self-deception, has led to a situation in which Felicity is delayed indefinitely from letting go of a life she is only barely living, and in which Agnes’s own life is also on hold. Ironically, if there is an afterlife in which Felicity might be reunited with Claire, Felicity’s lack of acceptance of death delays Felicity from meeting her daughter again. People don’t move into acceptance of a death, especially one as troubling and complicated as Claire’s, over the course of one short day, and although Agnes grasps the reality of her mother’s situation quickly, she doesn’t bring herself to break the truth to her during the course of the play. In fact, Agnes wonders if Felicity, in her advanced senility, will even believe the truth if it is told to her. But Agnes herself moves a step forward into real acceptance of both of the deaths in her family, telling her mother near the end of the play, ‘‘It’s time to stop.’’

In some ways, Agnes’s statement is a very simple definition of death. And at the close of Cristofer’s The Shadow Box, each patient and each visitor, in their own unique way, has grappled with and grown closer to accepting it.

Source: Carey Wallace, Critical Essay on The Shadow Box, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Life near Death: Art of Dying in Recent American Drama

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1228

During the late 1970’s, a spate of plays with main characters who are dying appeared. The shift of focus in these works—from death to dying by terminal illness—substantiates one character’s claim in The Shadow Box that ‘‘there’s a huge market for dying people right now.’’ This market is not only ‘‘huge,’’ but also fairly new, since progressive, long-term diseases are a comparatively recent development, ironically linked with scientific advances.

This rise of science has altered not only the way we die but also the way we approach death. Although science has replaced religion as a dominant force in Western society, it does not meet the emotional and psychological needs of either the dying person or the survivors. It does not provide a new ars moriendi to replace those that religions offered. Perhaps in response to this perceived lack, Bernard Pomerance, Ronald Ribman, Michael Cristofer, and several others all suggest new arts, and do so by focussing on terminal illness. By pairing the dying protagonists with at least one physically fit character in each work, the playwrights offer a newly defined art of dying, and more importantly, an art of living until the final moment, and an art of living as the survivor. These arts, as presented in The Elephant Man, Cold Storage, and The Shadow Box, are primarily individualized, secularized, and interactive processes; and they are valuable replacements for the ars moriendi lost when faith became subordinate to technology—the very change which heightened the need for such skills. Quite clearly these plays offer new ‘‘mythologies of dying’’ which incorporate the current fascination with death and dying, while also beginning to overcome the concurrent reluctance to discuss death with those who are imminently approaching it. . . .

The characters in The Shadow Box dramatize the five stages of dying that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross outlined in On Death and Dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While the stages can overlap, the prevailing emotion must be acceptance in order for the individual to live fully at the end, and for the survivors to retain emotional equilibrium. Of the three characters who are dying, Joe and Brian have accepted death; the third, Felicity, is angry and still bargaining for time. Consequently, she is not able to live as the others do.

Joe is a simple, open character who explains that ‘‘you get scared at first. Plenty. And then you get pissed off.’’ But he then concludes that ‘‘it happens to everybody, right?’’ Because he has reached this point, he regards the stay in the hospice almost as a vacation, which his wife Maggie will love. The early part of their time together is marred, though, by her inability to accept his approaching death. She refuses to discuss his condition with Joe or their son, and will not even enter the cottage—as if staying outside will insure that Joe will not die. She feels abandoned and frightened, and she begs Joe to come home. When he refuses, saying that he is going inside to tell Stephen that he is dying, she makes him tell her first. Hearing it enables her to finally accept it, and she agrees to go inside, so that Joe does not have to struggle alone. Maggie is the least independent of the survivors, and needs the most guidance from the dying person. The rolereversal is carried to an extreme to show that coping is an interactive process—both parties need help, and both must be able to offer some strength.

Agnes and Felicity show a similar reluctance to confront and thereby cope with imminent death. Although Felicity realizes she is dying, she remains angry—telling the interviewer that she’s a ‘‘corpse [with] one lung, one plastic bag for a stomach, and two springs and a battery where [her] heart use to be.’’ She fluctuates between this aggressive hostility and a pathetic docility, waiting for letters from her daughter Claire. Trying to give meaning to the remainder of Felicity’s life, Agnes began writing letters ostensibly from Claire, who had run away as a teenager, and died shortly thereafter. However, the Interviewer attributes Felicity’s unanticipated longevity to a bargain that she has probably made with herself to live until Claire comes to visit.

The result of this kind deception is an inability for either Felicity or Agnes to live. Since Felicity will not accept her death in a meaningful way, she cannot come to terms with it. Further, Agnes endures the difficult task of caring for her mother, and loses her own energy and vitality in the process. The failure to cope underscores the sadness of a death without new life.

Brian, by contrast, lives more fully in the time shortly before his death than he had up until that point. In his opening interview, he expresses not only acceptance of his approaching death, but also goes on to say that it is ‘‘a relief—if you think about it . . . if you think clearly about it.’’ His resignation allows him to live in his last few weeks. He explains to Beverly that he is writing again because ‘‘when they told me I was on my way out . . . I realized that there was a lot to do that I hadn’t done yet. So I figured I better get off my ass and start working.’’ Approaching death intellectually, he reasons that ‘‘the only way to beat this thing is to leave absolutely nothing behind’’ because if it is ‘‘all used up’’ he can ‘‘happily leap into [his] coffin and call it a day.’’

While Brian explains his preparations and upcoming death sometimes calmly, and sometimes almost exuberantly, neither his lover, Mark, or his former wife, Beverly, can entirely cope with Brian’s disease. Mark is horrified and disgusted by the illness itself, and frightened at the thought of Brian actually dying. He clings to ‘‘a bad case of the hopes,’’ and Beverly is afraid that this hope will hurt Brian, realizing as Brian does that living now begins with acceptance of death. Both Mark and Beverly are frightened; and while they believe in Brian’s ability to cope, they can not completely share his acceptance of the inevitable.

Even though Maggie, Beverly, and Mark have not reached the same degree of resolution about their fate that Joe and Brian have, they share in the final affirmation of life and death in the closing line of the play. These characters enumerate all that they have, and Brian observes that ‘‘they tell you you’re dying, and you say all right. But if I am dying . . . I must still be alive.’’ Given that, each of them affirms that what remains are ‘‘this smell, this touch,’’ ‘‘this taste,’’ ‘‘this breath,’’ and lastly ‘‘this moment.’’ The moving affirmation of the need to embrace ‘‘this moment’’ epitomizes the art of living that this play advocates. Only Felicity and Agnes do not participate in the affirmation; instead, Felicity repeatedly asks ‘‘what time is it?’’ to which Agnes replies ‘‘I don’t know.’’ because they have not reached any resolution about their fates, they remain locked in a temporal framework, unable to transcend the fear of finitude that the others are beginning to escape.

Source: Margot A. Kelley, ‘‘Life near Death: Art of Dying in Recent American Drama,’’ in Text and Presentation, edited by Karelisa Hartigan, University Press of America, 1988, pp. 117–27.

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Critical Overview