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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 break the news to Steve.
The setting for the second one-act is the living room of Brian’s cottage. He and Mark, his homosexual partner, are surprised by the unannounced arrival of Brian’s ex-wife, Beverly. Beverly is an outrageous and cynical drunk, who shows off her sexual trophies for Brian’s amusement and to Mark’s chagrin. Beverly’s mission is to make sure Brian forgives her for past injuries, to say good-bye to him, and to ensure Mark will take care of him. Mark and Beverly make insulting comments about each other throughout the play to a point where Brian scolds them for wasting precious time. The confrontation drains Brian’s energy and Mark puts him to bed. In Brian’s absence, the tension between Mark and Beverly builds to a dramatic climax when Mark slaps Beverly across the face and then falls into her arms sobbing. They both realize that neither of them feels equipped to deal with Brian’s death, but Mark vows to stay with him. Beverly escapes into the night in a drunken stupor, and Mark is left to take care of Brian.
The third one-act is set in the kitchen and dining area of the cottage and focuses on a feisty elderly woman named Felicity and her daughter, Agnes. Felicity mentally fades in and out with no regard to reality, sometimes reverting back to her days as a wife and mother on a farm. She waits for her daughter Claire to return. In one of her interviews with the doctor, Agnes explains that Felicity and Claire had a bitter argument, and Claire left home. Felicity has a deep need to make peace with her younger daughter before she dies. The play focuses more, however, on Agnes, who takes care of Felicity and puts up with her cantankerous outbursts and lapses into the past. Agnes tells the interviewer about Claire running away and getting killed in a car accident. Claire’s death triggered Felicity’s decline, and in her delusional state, Felicity believes that Claire is alive and coming for a visit. Because of Felicity’s illness, Agnes helps her maintain this illusion by writing letters to her as if they were from Claire. Near death, Felicity lives for the next letter and a visit from her deceased daughter. Agnes is tired and hopes that Felicity will surrender to death soon but discovers through her interview that she has unwittingly prolonged Felicity’s suffering by giving her something for which to live. Over and over again, Felicity asks Agnes what time it is, hoping that the mail has come and that there will be another letter from Claire.
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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, which is basically one cottage seen from three different angles. This device implies that all the cottages are alike, and by setting each family in a different area of the cottage, the audience sees the commonality as well as the individuality of the characters’ experiences reflected in the setting.
As in most plays, dramatic dialogue contains the action of the play so there is no need for a narrator that prose requires. Unlike novels that present the entirety of a character’s story, plays usually begin very close to the climax so that the most dramatic part of the story is told through the action of the play. It is important to note that dramatic action is different from physical activity. The term “dramatic action” refers to the action that characters carry out in the play, usually related to another character. For example, when Beverly is showing Brian her “medals,” she is “entertaining” him. Likewise, Agnes comforts Felicity, and Maggie resists Joe. The dramatic action is contained in the dialogue of the play and comes through vividly in The Shadow Box, even though the characters do very little physical movement or activity. Cristofer handles exposition, the part of the characters’ stories that is not presented onstage, in a purely dramatic way, finding present motivation to reveal past history between the characters. For example, Maggie and Joe’s reminiscing about their younger days does not feel artificial or didactic, but quite natural for a couple facing the end of their time together.
The Shadow Box
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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, undone . . . not a word, not even a lonely, obscure, silly, worthless thought. I want it all used up. All of it. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
But, at the core, his defenses are even more precarious than Joe’s and, honest man that he is, he knows it.
Unlike Maggie, Beverly accepts her ex-husband’s terminal illness without any qualms, even making a joke of it. Commenting on the accommodations, she quips: “All the comforts of home. Amazing what you can do with a coffin if you put your mind to it.” Her desperation is the product of her sense of helplessness—not only in the face of Brian’s dying, but in the fact that she has already lost him and can do nothing for him, or with him, beyond offering a brief gallows humor farewell.
A bisexual, Brian has settled on Mark, a male lover, as the companion of his last days. When Beverly arrives, she and Mark immediately tangle in an apparent rivalry over the doomed man. The tense, volatile arguments between them provide some of the play’s most vivid (if overlong) moments as each accuses the other of using Brian as a pawn in their personal ego games. But as they assault each other verbally, it becomes clear that more then sexual competition and antagonism is involved. Mark is the emotional key to Brian’s equilibrium, and he is on the brink of emotional breakdown himself. In the end it is up to Beverly to salvage her rival and give him the strength he needs to support their beloved. Thus, in this segment of The Shadow Box those surrounding the patient are the moving targets. Facing survival, Cristofer suggests, is as difficult and traumatic an experience as facing death.
This is even more true in the third story. Felicity is actually beyond the point where the question of living has any real meaning. Physically she is barely alive; mentally she maintains a nebulous contact with reality, slipping frequently from the present to a past, partially real and partially imaginary, where she feels more comfortable. It is her daughter Agnes who is the main character in this relationship. It is obvious that she has spent the better part of her adult life in caring for her progressively deteriorating mother, a role that has given her life a shape and meaning, if not the appreciation and gratitude—and love—that she has longed for. But at the same time, it has left her “very tense, very tired . . . confused, awkward, and unsure of herself.”
The event that originally stimulated the old woman’s physical and mental decline was, it develops, the sudden death of her other daughter, Claire. As Felicity’s faculties have disintegrated, Agnes has attempted to placate her with the lie that her favorite daughter was not dead. To that end Agnes has written letters “from Claire” which she dutifully reads to the old lady. This make-believe therapy she has devised for her mother has become an emotional trap for herself. It is certain that Felicity’s rhapsodic responses to these letters have become Agnes’ only emotional satisfaction, the vicarious love that the old woman has always denied her “plain” daughter directly. When asked twice what she planned to do after her mother’s death, Agnes cannot answer. Her own life is so tied up with her mother’s that the death of the old lady will effectively end her own; she cannot look beyond. And because she cannot come to terms with her own existence, her problem is the only one left unresolved by the end of the play.
The other characters, those who will soon die and those fated to live on, do come to accept their respective fates. The act of forcing Maggie to acknowledge the fact of his dying returns Joe to an acceptance of the present and gives them both the strength to confront their son with the tragic news. And having seen the love and respect that exists between the father and son—one of the finest touches in the play—we know that Steve will be able to handle it. Perhaps he has known it all along.
Beverly finally breaks through Mark’s shell and forces him to the desperate realization that his composure is an act, that he is really distraught by Brian’s pending demise, unsure of his ability to handle it, and guilty of “a bad case of the hopes.” In the end Beverly and Mark manage to turn their hostility to strength, and the final image of Mark is that of a man truly in control of himself and capable of ministering to his dying lover with courage and compassion.
Cristofer ends the play with a coda in which the characters recapitulate the play’s themes in a commitment to the moment.
The Shadow Box is not without its faults. Some of the plotting is contrived and occasionally sentimental. A few scenes, such as the Beverly-Mark exchanges, are overdone. Cristofer also brings in an “Interviewer” who periodically quizzes the characters, but his function is never really evident. If he is present only for exposition, then the device is clumsy. If he is meant to function thematically, that is not clear. Occasional references are made to cameras that apparently view the patients constantly (and record their actions?), but this idea is never developed. In short, some of the play’s plotting seems too tight, some of its loose ends, too loose.
But the overall effect of the play is strong and memorable; it is a serious work laced with humor. Early in the drama when Brian says: “Our dreams are beautiful, our fate is sad. But day by day, it’s generally pretty funny” he defines the tone and mood of The Shadow Box well. In the end it is not a play about death, but one about life.
The Shadow Box was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama and the Antoinette Perry Award for Best Play in 1977.
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The era of the 1970s was the backdrop for Cristofer’s The Shadow Box, an era marked by uncertainty. First, American political confidence was in crisis after Nixon’s resignation from office. At no other time in history had a president violated the sanctity of public office as Nixon had. The country also had to cope with the aftermath of the Vietnam conflict and the failure it came to represent. Vietnam veterans returned home, greeted by indifference rather than applause. This climate led America to question its values, and image, on a national level.
Part of the political as well as social climate fixated or focused on issues surrounding the right to die and the nature of life. This concern is indeed reflected in Cristofer’s in-depth exploration of mortality in his own work. The case of Karen Anne Quinlan, like Cristofer’s play, explores questions concerning quality of life, and when life ends. Quinlan lost consciousness after allegedly combining alcohol and narcotics on April 15, 1975. She eventually fell into a coma and was sustained with artificial life support systems, such as respirators and intravenous nutrients. According to doctors, her brain was damaged beyond repair, leaving her body dependant on life support. But it was traces of electrical brain activity on an electroencephalograph, or EEG, that determined she was alive, from both a medical and legal perspective. Quinlan’s parents demanded the right for their daughter to die with dignity rather than be connected to life-support systems, and they pursued this right legally. What transpired was a long courtroom discussion amongst physicians, medical ethicists, and jurists as to when life ended. Some felt life was sacred, no matter what the individual’s physical state, while others sided with the Quinlans.
The 1970s was also marked by religious fanaticism. In 1978, Leo Ryan and a group of journalists and relatives of cult followers traveled to Guyana, South America, to investigate cult leader Jim Jones. The group was acting on the request of family members related to those participating in the Jonestown cult. They feared their relatives were being exploited financially, physically, and emotionally. When Ryan and his group tried to flee with fourteen defectors, Jones’s assassins fired upon them. Some were killed, others narrowly escaped. Fearing the repercussions of such violence, Jim Jones staged a massive suicide, commanding his followers to drink cyanide-laced fruit punch. A total of 913 people died, and 276 of them were children.
At home, the United States in the 1970s was suffering economically from ‘‘Stagflation,’’ a combination of high unemployment and inflation. The situation was worsened by the increasing cost of petroleum imposed by foreign countries. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was formed by key Middle Eastern countries who imposed an oil embargo against the United States and other nations, causing gas prices to soar.
In midst of what seemed like economic doom, the country was also undergoing great technological advancements with the advent of the personal computer. No longer a science fiction dream, the PC or personal computer could be purchased by the average American for a nominal price, allowing them access to seemingly unlimited amounts of information. Excited by this new technology, theorist Marshall McLuhan saw the PC, along with the advent of the television, as a means of creating ‘‘global village,’’ an international community devoid of borders or political preference.
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The play is comprised of three different plots working together to create a sense of overall unity. Transitions in plot are indicated smoothly, at specific points in the play, during which one dialogue is faded out as another is woven in. The perspectives of characters involved in three different plots come together at the end of the play to give a fuller, richer picture of what it means to be dying, and how this condition impacts both the lives of those close to the terminally ill and the patients themselves. In Cottage One, Joe struggles to reach his wife, to share his thoughts and feelings with her about dying, but also to help her cope with his illness so that she is prepared for a future without him. In Cottage Two, Beverly and Mark struggle with each other concerning Brian’s well-being. And in Cottage Three, Agnes struggles with the guilt and pain of failing to live up to her dying mother’s expectations. Despite this blending of plots, the play does follow some strict patterns of dramatic structure. The action of the plot occurs in the course of a day, and the scene is limited to a single location, that is, the grounds of a hospital.
Point of View
Events of the play are presented outside of any one character’s perspective, in the third person. At no time does a character address the audience or offer any special insight into his or her motivations or actions. Instead, the audience is able to draw conclusions about the characters themselves by observing them in dialogue with various other characters. The dynamic nature of such interactions gives breadth and depth to these individuals and helps the audience to better understand their motivations. For example, Agnes reveals to the interviewer that she has been writing phony letters from her deceased sister to her mother, Felicity, for two years. In later scenes with her mother, Agnes says simply, ‘‘If I told you the truth, mama, would you listen?’’ The audience is already privy to what the truth is without actually hearing Agnes’s admission to her mother.
The work achieves a sense of objectivity primarily because of its structure. It offers snapshots or glimpses into the lives of three different groups of individuals and their struggle to cope with terminal illness, without coming to a particular consensus as to what it means to ‘‘die,’’ or what right action that one who is affected by terminal illness should take. The characters often bounce around ideas of what terminal illness means for them, working off each other to reach their own conclusions. Upon observation, this open-ended structure allows the audience to view terminal illness from many different perspectives, creating a heightened awareness, thus opening up different emotional possibilities. For example, Beverly’s way of facing her ex-husband’s illness is to confront it head on, interjecting humor into her conversations as a means of coping. Contrast or compare this method to Maggie’s avoidance. Maggie avoids the topic of Joe’s illness altogether by insisting they continue on with their lives unchanged by Joe’s hospital stay.
The various characters work as ‘‘foils’’ to one another, their psychological qualities often contrasting strongly. Such characters are either those interacting within a particular plot or on the basis of comparing actions of characters in different plots. Beverly’s honest, if somewhat abrasive, or realistic, approach to dealing with Brian’s illness, for example, illuminates the true nature of Mark’s seemingly selfless concern and self-sacrifice as being a function of self-interest. Beverly is a drunk and a bit of a floozy, but she is able to admit to her shortcomings, that she is not a hero but a ‘‘whore,’’ unlike Mark who spends much of his time feigning insult and injury in response to Beverly’s remarks. Maggie, in contrast to such boldness, such brashness, cannot process her husband’s death. Unlike Beverly, she is unable to confront the situation head-on and offer a listening ear, which would provide some muchneeded comfort to her husband, Joe; therefore, where Beverly seems to succeed, Maggie does not.
Both acts 1 and 2 reach a point in the rising action at which a climax is realized, apparent in the dramatic shift in dialogue. In a powerful moment at the play’s conclusion, all of the characters express what is important to them, what makes them feel alive, each offering an idea, ‘‘this smell, this touch’’ offers Joe, ‘‘this taste’’ offers Beverly, and for Brian it’s ‘‘this moment.’’ This finale supports the simplicity of a moment in which all characters, despite their differences, come together in agreement, mirrored by the statement, ‘‘They tell you you’re dying, and you say all right. But if I am dying . . . I must still be alive.’’
Compare and Contrast
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1970s: Karen Anne Quinlan’s respirator is disconnected as a result of a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling.
Today: Dr. Jack Kevorkian is found guilty of second-degree murder in 1999 for helping patient Thomas Youk, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, to die.
1970s: The American Psychological Association votes to remove homosexuality from its standard diagnostic manual of psychological diseases.
Today: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Boy Scouts may exercise their right to association by excluding homosexuals from leadership positions.
1970s: The heart of a chimpanzee is placed into the body of a fifty-nine-year-old man in Cape Town, South Africa.
Today: Scientists discuss genetically altering pig organs with human genes for the purpose of ‘‘xenotransplant,’’ an animal-to-human organ transplant procedure.
1970s: Jimmy Carter is elected president of the United States in 1976 after enjoying much public popularity.
Today: George W. Bush is named president of the United States in 2000, in one of the closest and most debated elections in history.
1970s: Voyager, one of two United States space probes, is launched in 1977.
Today: Built by Russia, Mir is the longestlasting space station, orbiting Earth for fifteen years, which ended March 2001.
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The Shadow Box was adapted as a screenplay for television in 1980. It was directed by Paul Newman and starred Joanne Woodward, Christopher Plummer, and Ben Masters, among other notable actors.
Bibliography and Further Reading
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Axelrod, Alan, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Twentieth Century History, Alpha Books, 1999, pp. 377–94.
Coe, Richard L., ‘‘An Eloquent Expression of Regional Richness,’’ in Washington Post, April 24, 1977.
———, Review of The Shadow Box, in Washington Post, April 1, 1977.
Cristofer, Michael, The Shadow Box, Drama Book Specialists, 1977.
Fretts, Bruce, Doug Brod, and Chris Willman, ‘‘The Week,’’ in Entertainment Weekly, October 29, 1999.
Kroll, Jack, ‘‘Where Is Thy Sting?,’’ in Newsweek, April 25, 1977.
Lemon, Brendan, Review of Gia, in Advocate, No. 752, February 3, 1998, pp. 51–52.
‘‘Shedding Light on Life,’’ in Washington Post, October 12, 1978.
Simon, John, Review The Shadow Box, in Hudson Review, Vol. 31, No.1, Spring 1978, pp. 147–48.
Carleson, James W., ‘‘Images of the Gay Male in Contemporary Drama,’’ in Gayspeak: Gay Male and Lesbian Communication, Pilgrim, 1981. In this critical study, Carleson comments on the homosexual image in Cristofer’s work.
Cristofer, Michael, Black Angel, Dramatists Play Service, 1984. This play is based on the story of a former Nazi who, upon being released from prison, must deal with the wreckage of his past.
Duclow, Donald F., ‘‘Dying on Broadway: Contemporary Drama and Mortality,’’ in Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Summer 1981, pp. 197–216. In this work, Duclow comments on the work of Cristofer as it relates to death and dying.
Gross, Leonard, ‘‘Michael Cristofer Writes ‘A Play of Questions,’’’ in New York Times, June 25, 1978. Gross provides an insightful review of Cristofer’s play.
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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.