Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 299
In describing The Shadow Box, one might say it is a play about death, as anyone might suspect of a play focusing on three terminally ill patients. Michael Cristofer, however, never reveals the illness from which his characters suffer because the play is not about their disease; it is about people and human emotions. Although there is a lot of conversation about dying and what it feels like to face impending death, most of the dialogue is about the joy of living.
The play’s title indicates the meaning of the play. A shadow box is a picture frame in front of a recessed box on which shadows of objects can be displayed for viewing. The patients in The Shadow Box are not only on display for the doctors, who are studying them, but also for the audience. Even though the play is set in an experimental program, it does not focus on the program or the doctors involved. Cristofer’s device of making the doctor a faceless voice reinforces the focus on the families and their responses to the dying process.
The final moments of the play affirm more than any other part its basic message, however, that every moment should be treasured. As Brian says near the end: “They tell you you’re dying, and you say all right. But if I am dying . . . I must still be alive.” The play is sad but never depressing. The characters continually reaffirm the gift of life, and in the antiphonal chanting at the end, they remind the audience that “This living. This life. This lifetime. This air. This earth. This smile. This pain. It doesn’t last forever. It was never supposed to last forever. This breath. Yes. Yes. Yes. This moment,” is all anyone can truly count on.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1266
Death and Dying
The perspectives on death offered by three terminally ill patients define the plot of The Shadow Box. Voices of the patients and family members alike illuminate many aspects of death. Each character gives the audience a glimpse of death and dying that is different from the next. Those experiences— whether it be those of a concerned husband, fearful wife, or angry patient—come together to give the work a richness and depth unattainable in consideration of any one experience.
Joe’s emotional efforts are spent trying to help his wife, Maggie, accept his approaching death, rather than on his own grief. Maggie is reluctant to face Joe’s condition, refusing at first to enter the cottage, and then to acknowledge he will never be returning home, ‘‘Don’t believe what they tell you. What do they know?’’ Mark, Brian’s companion, shares with Beverly the horror he faces daily caring for a dying friend, speaking of death, ‘‘You can wipe up the mucous and the blood and the piss and the excrement, you can burn the sheets and boil his clothes, but it’s still there.’’ As a patient, Felicity is the only one to express anger toward the interviewer, ‘‘Patient? Patient, hell! I’m a corpse.’’
Appearances and Reality
All of the characters, either those dying or those affected by a dying loved one, must face the reality of death, that death is part of the human condition. Depending on the characters themselves, this process of acceptance is expressed in a wide range of emotions. Brian expresses feelings of disbelief in an unguarded moment with the interviewer, confiding, ‘‘It’s a bit of a shock, that’s all. You always think . . . no matter what they tell you . . . you always think you have more time. And you don’t.’’ He expresses the sentiment of the overall work—he, not unlike the other characters, struggle with the idea of what it means to be in the process of dying as well as how to cope or live with such an idea.
Others choose denial as a means of coping. From the outset of the play, Maggie resists Joe and his attempts to involve her in his life on the hospital grounds, by refusing to enter the cabin and refusing to speak to Joe on the subject of death and change. ‘‘I’m telling you I don’t want to talk about it,’’ exclaims an insistent Maggie in an intimate moment with her husband. Because her husband appears to be fine, Maggie won’t discuss his illness, claiming that Joe ‘‘looks fine,’’ and is ‘‘getting stronger everyday.’’ Maggie also says to Joe that she bought a ‘‘big red chair just for [Joe]’’ to surprise him. For Maggie, Joe’s death will transform her life in ways she doesn’t want to acknowledge or cope with. The idea of this event is impossible for her to embrace.
Dehumanization and Dignity
Terminal illness has a very dehumanizing effect on Joe, Felicity, and Brian alike, stripping them of human dignity. During the course of what seems to be lengthy medical treatment, each one has fallen victim to some form of poking, prodding, or cutting, as if each were part of an experiment. As a function of this scientific approach, the treatments these patients receive are also rather cold and mechanical, and by their very nature deprive these patients of human qualities or attributes. Joe is frustrated by his treatment, sharing that ‘‘nobody wants to hear about’’ how he feels, adding that ‘‘even the doctors . . . they shove a thermometer in your mouth. . . . How the hell are you supposed to say anything?’’
Felicity is more daring in her protests. She too feels dehumanized by the experience, and voices this sentiment loudly to the interviewer, ‘‘I have one lung, one plastic bag for a stomach, and two springs and a battery where my heart used to be.’’ She refers to those responsible as ‘‘butchers’’ stating that they ‘‘cut [her] up and took everything that wasn’t nailed down.’’ Mark’s recollection of Brian’s appearance after cortisone injections evoke monster-like images akin to those of Frankenstein, ‘‘the skin goes sort of white and puffy. It changed the shape of his face for awhile, and he started to get really fat.’’ Outside of these treatments, Mark confides that Brian’s dizzy spells are also a source of embarrassment for him.
Memory and Reminiscence
All of the characters reminisce about their lives before illness. Whether patient or family member, these memories are the connection to normalcy, to happier times, and those closest to them. Most of the time, these memories also serve to ease conflict and tension during interactions between characters. For both Maggie and Joe, fond recollections of their life together create the tonic necessary to soothe the reality of the present. These shared moments provide stability; they are calming because they are pleasing to both Maggie and Joe. They provide moments of neutrality in otherwise troubled discussions of Joe’s condition.
It is unclear whether Felicity is suffering from dementia or denial in her refusal to accept her daughter’s death. Agnes, another daughter and caretaker, insists that the memory of Claire ‘‘keeps [Felicity] going,’’ explaining to the interviewer that, ‘‘It means so much to [Felicity]. . . . It’s something to hope for. You have to have something. People need something to keep them going.’’ Claire is a connection between the mother and the daughter unaffected by illness. Also, by denying Claire’s death, Felicity finds a way to deny the passage of time and by extension, the inevitability of death.
But memories also form the basis for some stark realizations. Brian recalls a moment with a doctor when he asks why he is shaking so badly. When the doctor can offer no reasonable explanation, Brian recalls a time in his childhood when he was separated from his father during a train ride to Coney Island. He tells Mark that when he tried to ask for directions he ‘‘couldn’t talk because he was shaking so badly . . . because he was frightened.’’ He then realizes that he ‘‘shakes now’’ for the same reason, he is afraid, afraid to die.
Remorse and Regret
Taking an inventory of one’s life, one’s accomplishments, is an understandable response to terminal illness. What is left unsaid and undone becomes of primary importance to several of the characters during the course of the play. All share regrets ranging from bitter disappointment to sadness or longing for something unsaid or undone.
Towards the end of the play, Joe tells Maggie that to have a house was something tangible, a symbol of life, a place where he could ‘‘put in one more . . . tree . . . fix up another room . . . see grandchildren,’’ dwell in possibility. Joe feels a sense of loss or longing for opportunities long gone, those taken by the financial burden of illness. He also betrays feelings of disappointment concerning the finality of his condition: ‘‘one day, somebody walks up and tells you it’s finished. And me . . . all I can say is ‘what’ . . . what’s finished?’’
Brian approaches his mortality driven to offset, or avoid, regret by personal achievement. He explains to Beverly that the moment he discovered he was going to die, he realized ‘‘that there was a lot to do that I hadn’t done yet.’’ Brian wants to champion death, claiming, ‘‘the only way to beat this thing is to leave absolutely nothing behind.’’ He will accomplish this by avoiding ‘‘anything unsaid, undone,’’ wishing even the loneliest ‘‘obscure, silly, worthless thought’’ be expressed in some fashion.