"The Shadow Box"

By Michael Cristofer

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"The Shadow Box" shadow box. R.M. Flynn

You might not think that a play about three terminally ill patients and their loved ones coming to grips with death could be uplifting and even funny at times, but this one is. The Shadow Box by Michael Cristofer won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama and the 1977 Tony Award for Best Play.

The first time I ever heard of this play was in the year after it won those awards, but I didn't hear of it as a play.

Instead, I experienced a readers theatre version of the final three pages of the script in which all the characters speak beautiful words about looking back on your whole life. In a series of short lines, they reflect on how even a long life can feel like it went by in a minute and that someone should have mentioned that it doesn't last forever and that everything you see, hear, touch, smell, and feel is significant.

Setting

The setting of the play is three cottages on the grounds of a large hospital. It's not immediately clear that this setting is a hospital because, according to the playwright’s instructions at the start of Act One, the design goal is that these cottages look like vacation homes amidst trees in a secluded area.

Little by little through the dialogue and the characters interactions, it becomes clear that the main inhabitant of each cottage is terminally ill. The person's illness is never specifically spelled out or referred to, but the assumption is that the illness is real and that death is unavoidable.

When this hospital moves patients to the cottages, it means that there's nothing further they can do for you.

Characters

Cottage One: The patient is Joe, a middle-aged man described as strong and thickset. Maggie is Joe's wife. She and their teenage son Steve have not seen Joe in over six months. They arrive at the cottage, but Maggie has a difficult time agreeing to go inside.

Steve has not been told the seriousness of his father's condition, so he thinks he's just at this resort for a little vacation.

Cottage Two: The patient is Brian, an intellectual, an older man—a scholar. Mark is Brian's younger gay lover and caretaker. Beverly is Brian's outrageous, hilarious, authentically blunt ex-wife. Beverly sashays into the cottage to pay a final visit to Brian and her comments force Mark to look more clearly at himself.

Cottage Three: The patient is Felicity, a blind but feisty elderly woman. Agnes is her tense and tired daughter and caretaker. The third character in this cottage is an absent character, Agnes's sister Claire.

The Interviewer. One aspect of this play that was notable in its time was that the audience got direct insight into the characters’ inner thoughts. This was achieved by almost the breaking “the fourth wall,” using a character that the playwright calls The Interviewer. The audience never sees The Interviewer, but instead only hears his or her voice in conversation with the characters.

The Interviewer is never completely identified, but the logical conclusion is that this could be the voice of a psychologist or social worker or any hospital personnel responsible for counseling people who are close to dying.

It is through conversations with The Interviewer that the audience meets each terminally ill character for the first time and learns about the other characters who will feature in that dying character’s story. (The Interviewer could actually be played by more than one actor because of the frequent use of the pronoun "we," as in "We want to hear as much as you want to tell us.")

Significance of the Title

There are nine roles in this play, but the inhabitants of each cottage do not interact with one another. Instead, the audience gets to observe how three different sets of people deal with an inevitable death, hence the title of this play. A shadow box is a decorative 3-D frame in which there are separate compartments for displaying items that have a certain significance or importance to the theme of the piece of art.

All of the separate parts contribute to the impression created by the whole shadow box. And so it is with this play. Eventually, the dialogue from the characters in all three cottages overlaps and three stories merge into one profound whole. Some theatre companies extend this metaphor into their posters and, of course, set designs.

Two of my students made a shadow box called The Shadow Box. I am including the photo of it with this article.

The number three figures predominantly in this play.

There are three cottages and within each cottage, three significant characters. But despite the emphasis on threes, there are only two acts and no character dies within this play. Critics feel that the implicit message is that Act Three is death.

Living with the knowledge of death 

The emphasis in this play is not on the physical complications and interventions that accompany a hospital stay for a terminal ill patient. There are no machines, IVs, surgical masks, tubes, needles, or nurses. The only medical evidence mentioned in the script is bottles of pills. The emphasis in this play is on how a living terminally ill person and the people who love him or her deal with an imminent and unavoidable death.

Themes

The play manages to deal with a multitude of themes that have always and continue to surround the issue of death. They prompt excellent discussions. To close, here are just a few:

Denial

Brian: “They think it's a mistake, they think it's supposed to last forever. I’ll never understand that. My God, it's the one thing in this world you can be sure of!

No matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter anything—sooner or later—it’s going to happen. You’re going to die.... Well, the trouble is that most of us spend our entire lives trying to forget that we’re going to die. And some of us even succeed.”

Maggie: “Don’t believe what they tell you. What do they know? We’ve been through worse than this. You look fine. I can see it.”

Preoccupation with minutia to avoid reality

Maggie: “I brought the newspapers, some cookies and some pumpkin flowers. The airplane made me sick. There was a man sitting next to me. He kept talking and talking. All those clouds. It looked like you could walk on them.”

Blowing little problems out of proportion

Brian: “My God, it’s only a jacket. Two sleeves, a collar, a piece of cloth. It was probably made by a machine in East Podunk. Why are we wasting this time?”

Reminiscing about the past

Maggie: “I found a picture of us in New York. Kids. We were kids. Laughing. Standing on my head in Central Park. You were in uniform.”

The realization that you will miss even the bad things

Maggie: “I want to fight so you’ll take me to a movie and by the time I get you to take me I’m so upset I can’t enjoy the picture.”

The insignificance of possessions

Joe: “...the lawn mower, the barbecue, three bicycles, four, six lawn chairs and a chaise lounge.... Before you know it, everything you had is gone.”

Hope

Agnes: “It means so much to her. It’s important to her. It’s something to hope for.... People need something to keep them going.”

Beverly: “Hopes, baby. That’s what you got. A bad case of the hopes. They sneaked up on you when you weren’t looking. You think maybe it’s not gonna happen.”

The will to live

The Interviewer: “She has a strong will.... Sometimes that’s enough to keep even a very sick person alive for a long time.”

The Shadow Box via Video

In 1980, this play was adapted and made into a movie for television.

Here is a video of the final 30 minutes of a performance of the play.