Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 802
Since its earliest productions, Shadowlands has split critics. While many believe the play is a powerful study of the human condition that left audiences openly weeping, some have questioned the authenticity of this portrayal of C. S. Lewis and Joy Gresham. Several critics highlighted inaccuracies, such as the fact that Joy really had two sons, not one, and that both Lewis and Joy were much more difficult people than Nicholson’s portrayal suggests. Many compared the stage play to the original BBC television movie, somewhat unfavorably.
Of an initial British production in the Queen’s Theatre on London’s West End, John James of the Times Educational Supplement wrote, ‘‘William Nicholson’s witty, humane script brings them both to theatrical life so truthfully that we are caught up in their autumnal romance.’’ The unnamed critic of Financial Times argued, ‘‘The play describes but does not illustrate. We never know why this bumbling bachelor falls in love, if not through pity.’’ Still, this critic concluded, ‘‘For all its ultimate evasiveness, it deserves to flourish.’’ Claire Armistead of New Statesman and Society believed Nicholson skimmed on the truth for dramatic purposes. She wrote, ‘‘in the interests of portraying their romance on stage William Nicholson’s fourtissue weepie makes only cursory mention of his arrogance and her waspishness.’’
Some of these same issues came to the fore when Shadowlands made its New York debut in late 1990. Frank Rich of the New York Times believed, ‘‘How you feel about Shadowlands depends a great deal on your degree of Anglophilia. The play . . . has little more intellectual or emotional depth than a tear-jerker set in a two-car-garage suburbia, but it does boast a certain rarefied British atmosphere.’’ Rich’s colleague at the New York Times David Richards saw the play as part of a trend towards tear-jerkers. He wrote that Shadowlands ‘‘represents the tear-jerker in full glory, and I say that admiringly. Oh, you can look down your nose at it and accuse it of middlebrow pretensions, if you wish. You can fault it for not always sidestepping the clichés of love and regret, for saying nothing that hasn’t been said before. But in the end, you’ll probably conclude that your reservations count for precious little.’’
Many New York critics still expressed reservations. Howard Kissel of the Daily News wrote ‘‘You sense that Nicholson has been extremely careful about the words he puts in Lewis’ mouth, and that much has been culled from Lewis’ own writing. Such genial wit is the chief virtue of this rather plodding account of their lives together, which tells us very little about either of them.’’ Mimi Kramer of the New Yorker also had problems with the way the characters were drawn, as did other critics. Comparing it to the previously aired television movie, she wrote ‘‘What’s missing from this stage version is any sense that Joy had a life apart from Lewis—she seems to be merely a woman obsessed with C. S. Lewis, a celebrity seeker—and any sense of the world she was invading.’’ Further, Kramer argued, ‘‘Shadowlands seems to suggest that what makes the events it recounts tragic is the fact that it happened to C. S. Lewis.’’
Kramer’s sentiments were echoed by other critics. Jan Stuart of New York Newsday argued that ‘‘Shadowlands is a sterling example of that uniquely British hybrid, the polemical soap opera. It is so artfully constructed that you may not be able to tell whether you are being lured into its fundamentalist ideology with prime-time melodrama or vice versa. And it is so skillfully acted that you probably won’t care.’’ Some critics had similar problems with how themes and settings were handled. Gerald Weales of Commonweal wrote, ‘‘A rather unusual love story, then, the play . . . is really about grief, pain and Christian faith. At least, it toys with those ideas.’’ Though Clive Barnes of the New York Post found much to praise about the play, he writes ‘‘The play is full of bright speeches—some more convincing than others—and offers a quaint and cozy view of Oxford Academic life that admittedly has more the tone of friendly caricature than reality.’’
Though many critics were critical of aspects of Shadowlands, there were a few who unabashedly praised it. John Beaufort of Christian Science Monitor believed that ‘‘because of the depth of love that has been expressed and shared, it is not a depressing play. Much of this is due to Nicholson’s wit and style as a dramatist.’’ Edwin Wilson of Wall Street Journal wrote that the play ‘‘is a rarity on Broadway: a well-crafted drama with a strong emotional appeal. Based on the life of writer C. S. Lewis, William Nicholson’s play is a most unusual love story, but all the more affecting for that.’’