The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Shadow Box is actually three one-act plays intertwined together around a common theme. Since the play is set in three cottages that are connected to a large hospital and contain a terminally ill patient in each, the assumption is that this is a hospice or experimental program for dying patients and their families. Michael Cristofer never specifies the illness, but most critics have assumed the characters all have cancer. Tying the three plots together are interviews conducted by an unseen doctor, who questions the patients and their loved ones about having to confront death and their reactions to the process of dying. The time is linear with occasional lapses, covering one twenty-four-hour period. Scenes switch rapidly from one cottage to another, and sometimes lines alternate from character to character without regard to scene. The cottage inhabitants, however, never show an awareness of one another. At the end of the play, the characters speak directly to the audience in an almost chantlike delivery of similar lines, reminding the audience that “this moment” is all anyone has for certain.

In cottage one, Joe, a former factory worker and bar owner, awaits the arrival of his wife and son from New York City. The setting is the front porch of Joe’s cottage. When they arrive, he learns that his wife, Maggie, has not told their son Steve that Joe is dying. This one-act focuses mainly on Maggie’s inability to come to terms with the reality of Joe’s situation. She keeps insisting that he will get better and come home, and he gently assures her that he will not. Her resistance to enter the cottage parallels her refusal to acknowledge that Joe’s illness is terminal. He hopes she will accept his condition so they can enjoy what time they have left together. In an outburst of anger, Maggie finally faces the truth and they enter the cottage to...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Most of the play’s critics concede that The Shadow Box uses many unique theatrical devices that increase its emotional power in performance. The first and most obvious is Cristofer’s intertwining of three short plots into one cohesive play. This episodic structure allows the audience to concentrate on all three “families” without being overly drawn to one character. Scenes switch effortlessly from one cottage to the next and also to the interview area. Often dialogue from one area is overlapped with or punctuated by lines coming from another area. In a lesser play, this technique could blur the focus of the play, confusing and confounding the audience. However, Cristofer’s mastery is in the flow of the play from one conversation to the next without any appreciable transitions needed. Although most episodic plays translate well to the screen, the television version of the play lacked the simultaneous impact of seeing all three families at the same time, even when the attention shifts from one to the other, making it flat and not as interesting on television. The beauty of the last two pages of the script had to be omitted, which robbed the play of its most powerful moments. This technique of having the characters walk through the fourth wall and become actors speaking directly to the audience is highly theatrical and most effective in emphasizing the play’s theme.

Another interesting theatrical device used in this play is the set,...

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The Shadow Box

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

The mid-1970’s may be remembered as the time that death became fashionable, or at least respectable, in America. This remark is not intended to be facetious. The highly publicized studies and writings of such experts as Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the general media treatment of the subject, film and television documentaries, the new emphasis on “death counseling,” both for the terminally ill and for their survivors, even the inclusion of “death education” courses in high school and college curriculums (including visits to a crematory and the touching of a cadaver), all signal a new and more open acknowledgment of the always present, but traditionally avoided, fact of mortality as a conscious, central concern in one’s life.

One aspect of this new, more honest approach to dying has been the growth of the “hospice” concept, the creation of centers for the terminally ill where they can live out their final days, weeks, or even months in contact with family and friends and unencumbered by the false hopes and hypocritical deceptions that usually pervade such situations.

But, this new enlightenment notwithstanding, the hospice setting does not seem a promising one for a Broadway hit, nor terminal illness a very likely subject. The built-in bleakness of the topic and its potential for cloying sentimentality would seem to disqualify it as typical entertainment fare—perhaps in a small, offbeat, experimental or regional theater, but certainly not on Broadway. Michael Cristofer has, however, overcome both objections in The Shadow Box to offer an intense, thought-provoking, moving, even humorous play.

The drama centers on three patients: Joe, an earthy, vigorous middle-aged working man; Brian, a sophisticated intellectual and would-be writer; and Felicity, an old woman confined to a wheelchair, alternately fiesty and senile. Cristofer carefully juxtaposes the stories of these three characters against one another, cross-cutting between them, to set up a dramatic and thematic counterpoint that is most effective. Each character must face—or not face—the fact of death in his or her own way; their loved ones also must encounter mortality and determine its meaning for them as, willing or otherwise, they take on the role of the survivors. The contrasts between the characters and their personal dilemmas are most vivid, but the underlying similarity of their situations forces their separate stories into a single potent theatrical experience.

Despite their relative youth, each of the two male characters has, at the beginning of the play, apparently come to terms with his own pending death, Joe by a retreat into a hard-won stoicism (“Ya get used to the idea”), Brian by a torrent of words and a posture of intellectual detachment. But these tenuous defenses are destroyed by the arrival of “family”—Joe’s wife and son, and Brian’s ex-wife. In old Felicity the problem is somewhat different; it is not the fact of death that plagues her, but the shifting reality of her life that must be dealt with.

When Joe’s wife Maggie arrives, she immediately begins a pointless argument over a ham she has hauled 3,000 miles on the plane, and she refuses even to enter their cottage. To do so would be to accept the fact of Joe’s dying, and she adamantly refuses to do that. Moreover, she reveals that she has not told their teenage son Steve the truth about the trip. Maggie’s refusal to accept Joe’s situation provokes resentment and bitterness in her husband. Not only is his stoicism vitiated, but his sense of meaning is disrupted. He begins not only to resent his pending death, but even to question the value of his life.

Brian is a far more complex individual, so his problems are more intricate and subtle. His defense is in “thinking,” in achieving a nonemotional, philosophical detachment, while at the same time doing everything he wants to, however meaningless it may be. As he tells his ex-wife Beverly,BRIAN: . . . You see, the only way to beat the thing is to leave absolutely nothing behind. I don’t want to leave anything unsaid,...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The era of the 1970s was the backdrop for Cristofer’s The Shadow Box, an era marked by uncertainty. First, American political...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The play is comprised of three different plots working together to create a sense of overall unity. Transitions in...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1970s: Karen Anne Quinlan’s respirator is disconnected as a result of a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling.


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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Examine arguments on both sides of the Karen Anne Quinlan decision. What did medical ethicists have to say about this case? What was the...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

The Shadow Box was adapted as a screenplay for television in 1980. It was directed by Paul Newman and starred Joanne Woodward,...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

In Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and the Last Great Lesson (1997), Mitch Albom, a Detroit Free Press...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Axelrod, Alan, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Twentieth Century History, Alpha Books, 1999, pp. 377–94.


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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Kelley, Margot A. “Life Near Death: Art of Dying in Recent American Drama.” In Text and Presentation, edited by Karelisa Hartigan. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988.

Kryhoski, Laura. “Critical Essay on The Shadow Box.” In Drama for Students. Vol. 15. Detroit: Gale, 2002.

Wallace, Carey. “Critical Essay on The Shadow Box.” In Drama for Students. Vol. 15. Detroit: Gale, 2002.

(The entire section is 61 words.)