WILLIAM NICHOLSON 1989
That the core love story of William Nicholson’s Shadowlands has staying power seems undeniable. The account of the unusual relationship between British author and scholar C. S. Lewis, who wrote on Christianity and literature, and also wrote the Narnia Chronicles many other children’s books, and Joy Davidman Gresham, an American poet and self-described Jewish-Communist-Christian, has been told in three mediums. Nicholson originally wrote it as a television movie for the BBC in 1986 before adapting it for the stage in 1989 and for a feature-length film, which garnered an Academy Award nomination in 1993.
The theatrical production of Shadowlands debuted at Theatre Royal in Plymouth, England on October 5, 1989. The production later ran for approximately a year in London, winning the London Evening Standard’s award for Best Play of 1990. Shadowlands made its New York premiere on November 11, 1990, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway. This production ran for about 180 performances.
Critics were sharply divided on Shadowlands. While many agreed that the play was very meaningful and tapped into powerful emotions about the nature of life, death, love, and suffering, others believed it was trite and inaccurate, if not sappy. But even critics that had problems with the play reported that Shadowlands had a cathartic effect on audiences, often leaving them in tears. For example, an unnamed critic in Variety questioned why the play even was written. The critic writes, “it is not clear why Lewis’ musings or his 10 year relationship with Davidman needs to be staged. The story is both tragic and difficult.” Yet other critics found much to praise. Gerald Nachman of the San Francisco Chronicle states “Shadowlands poses classic questions about God, pain and love, but mostly it makes you determined to embrace life. You can’t ask much more of play than that.”
Nicholson was born in England in 1948. During Nicholson’s childhood, his father worked as a doctor in Africa, while his mother raised the family (which included two sisters) in Sussex. Raised as a Catholic, Nicholson attended prep schools and public schools, mostly all-male boarding schools, in Great Britain before entering Cambridge University.
After graduating from Cambridge in the mid-1970s, Nicholson became a graduate trainee at the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). For the next ten years, he wrote, directed, and produced over fifty documentaries for the network. Nicholson also executive produced several television series.
While working for the BBC, Nicholson pursued his dream to become a novelist. He wrote each morning before going to work, eventually producing eight novels. However, Nicholson could find no publishers and he abandoned this goal. Instead, in the mid-1980s, he turned to writing dramatic scripts for television.
In 1985, he wrote a fifty-three-minute movie, called Shadowlands, about children’s author and religious writer C. S. Lewis’s relationship with American Joy Gresham. The movie, which aired on the BBC, met with positive reviews. Nicholson began writing many biographical dramas, influenced by techniques he learned as a documentarian.
Nicholson began writing screenplays in 1986 with his first feature, New World. He continued to work in television. In 1987, he wrote another drama for British television entitled Life Story, which was later aired in the United States under the titles of Double Helix and The Search for the Double Helix.
In 1989, Nicholson expanded his writing career to the stage. He adapted his television movie Shadowlands into a successful play in 1989. Nicholson would only produce a few more stage plays in his career. They included Map of the Heart and 1999’s Retreat from Moscow, the latter being influenced by the failure of his own parents’ marriage.
Primarily, Nicholson focused on screenplays. In 1993, he adapted his stage play for Shadowlands into a major motion picture. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Other movie scripts that he wrote or adapted include Sarafina!(1992, based on a stage play); Nell(1994, with Mark Handley, a fellow playwright), First Knight(1995), Firelight(1997), and Gladiator(2000, coauthor). Nicholson also tried his hand at directing with the script Firelight.
Much of what Nicholson wrote for television in the 1990s was biographical in nature. For HBO, he wrote A Private Matter(1992) based on the true experiences of a children’s show hostess who traveled to Sweden to get an abortion. In 1996, Nicholson penned Crime of the Century about the Lindburgh baby kidnapping trial for HBO. By 1998, eleven of his nineteen dramatic scripts were based on true stories or people’s lives.
Nicholson never forgot his desire to write books. Influenced in part by his work on C. S. Lewis, Nicholson published his first children’s book, The Wind Singer(2000), part of a planned trilogy called The Wind on Fire Trilogy. Nicholson resides in England with his wife, Virginia Bell, and their three children.
Shadowlands opens with a monologue by C. S. “Jack” Lewis. He addresses the audience as if they were attending a lecture. He talks about how much he knows about pain, love, and suffering, and why God lets tragedies happen to people. Lewis argues that God does not want us to be happy, but rather, he wants us to be worthy of love. He believes that suffering is God’s love in action.
In an Oxford dining hall, Lewis sits with his elder brother, Major Warner “Warnie” Lewis, and several colleagues from the university. They discuss how women are different. Lewis’ friends chide him for his vast experience with women, especially since he is defending them in this conversation. Lewis tells them about his correspondence with women. As the group breaks up, a slightly drunk Warnie begins to recite poetry. Lewis leads him home. They discuss their friends, revealing the brothers’ close relationship.
Lewis sits at his desk in his study in the morning, reading and writing letters, including a letter for a Mrs. Joy Gresham. It seems she has been writing many letters to Lewis and they have had an extensive correspondence. Lewis tells Warnie that he is curious about her. The letter indicates that she is coming to England and wants to meet the brothers. Lewis seeks his brother’s advice about meeting Mrs. Gresham in a hotel. Warnie is not helpful, but Lewis decides that they will go.
At the tea room of an Oxford hotel, Lewis and Warnie meet Mrs. Gresham and her eight-year-old son Douglas. Warnie still is not sure about the situation. Douglas tells Lewis that he does not look like he should. The polite conversation is a bit tense, especially after Mrs. Gresham tells Lewis that his letters are the most important thing in her life. They talk about Lewis’ religious writings. Mrs. Gresham talks about her religious experiences, including her transitions from Judaism to communism to Christianity. Warnie asks Mrs. Gresham about her poetry; she says that she only used to be a poet. Mrs. Gresham shows that she understands Lewis’ thought processes. As Mrs. Gresham and Douglas move to leave, Lewis invites them to have tea at his home before they leave England.
Before the tea at Lewis and Warnie’s home, Lewis tells his brother that he enjoys talking to Mrs. Gresham. They both still wonder about her and her motivations. When Mrs. Gresham arrives, she and Lewis discuss literature as Douglas reads a book. Lewis prevails upon her to recite one of her poems. Lewis is surprised by it. They discuss her poem and how personal experience and pain inflect their writing. Lewis tells her about how he was hurt by his mother’s death from cancer when he was eight years old. As Mrs. Gresham (now called Joy as she and Lewis are on a first name basis) and Douglas leave, Lewis invites them to spend Christmas at his home.
Later, at a pre-Christmas party at Lewis’ home, his colleagues from Oxford meet Joy. The colleagues are rather condescending to Joy, but she stands up for herself. Some of his colleagues believe that Lewis has found his soulmate. Joy soon leaves the party and reads a distressing letter. In the meantime, Lewis’ colleagues speak disparagingly of her to him. He does not really care. After they leave, Joy tells Lewis that her husband has written a letter in which he indicates that he has fallen in love with another women and wants a divorce. Joy also confides that her husband has an alcohol problem. Joy decides to give him what he wants. Lewis promises to be her friend.
After Joy and Douglas have gone back to the United States, Lewis implies to his brother that he misses her. One of his colleagues, Christopher Riley, visits. He antagonizes Lewis over Joy and their unusual friendship. Riley leaves, and Lewis returns to work. A few moments later, Joy comes in unannounced. She and Douglas have moved to Oxford, much to Lewis’ surprise. He tells her that he is glad to see her. Later, at Joy’s new house, Lewis helps her unpack. Joy tells Lewis that while her husband did not like her moving to Britain, it is cheaper to live there than the States. Joy asks him if he minds that she has moved there. He does not, and they confirm the importance of their friendship.
At Lewis’ house, Warnie again asks Lewis about the nature of his relationship with Mrs. Gresham. Lewis says that they are merely good friends, though he has agreed to marry her so she can stay in England. Lewis calls it “technically” marrying her. No one will know about the arrangement. The scene moves to the Registry Office where Joy and Lewis marry, with Warnie as the witness. It is an uncomfortable ceremony. Later, Lewis visits Joy at her home. They are comfortable in their secret: everyone thinks they are having an affair, when in fact they are married and are having no affair at all. As Lewis leaves, Joy has a pain in her leg and crumples to the floor.
At the beginning of Act II, Lewis again speaks to the audience. Without naming Joy, he tells them that she has bone cancer and is in pain. He again talks about faith and suffering. Warnie and Douglas enter. Lewis tells his brother that Joy is not well. While Douglas visits his mother in the hospital, Joy’s doctor tells Lewis that she will probably die soon. After Warnie takes Douglas to tea, Lewis visits Joy himself. Joy wants to know the truth about her condition, which Lewis tell her only after being prodded. Lewis admits that he does not want to lose her. Joy tells him that she loves him, but he cannot say it back.
Lewis runs into his colleagues in a street. They are apologetic to the distressed man. He asks Harry Harrington, a chaplain, to marry them in a religious ceremony. Harrington declines because she is divorced. Returning to Joy’s bedside, Lewis tells her that he wants to marry her in this way and that he is afraid of losing her. She agrees. They have the ceremony in her hospital bed, with Douglas and Warnie present. Some time passes. Joy’s doctor and Lewis talk. The progress of Joy’s disease has slowed. Lewis and Joy’s visit shows how close they have grown.
Warnie, Lewis, and the Oxford colleagues talk. Lewis tells them that Joy is getting better. The scene returns to the hospital room. Joy can now manage a few steps, and the doctor expects her to live for some time. Lewis soon takes Joy (and Douglas) to his home. Joy and Lewis continue their intellectual banter before deciding to honeymoon in Greece. The action shifts to Greece, where Joy and Lewis are in a hotel. Lewis remains stiff, but Joy tries to loosen him up. They discuss their happiness.
About three years later, Lewis tells Douglas that his mother is going to die. At her bedside, Lewis and Joy talk about dying. Lewis promises to take care of Douglas, and tells her that he loves her. The scene moves forward in time to the high table at the dining hall. Harrington, Riley, and others talk about Joy’s funeral. Lewis joins them, but soon leaves when they do not understand his pain. Lewis comforts Douglas, and both cry in each other’s arms. Shadowlands ends with Lewis continuing his talk on human suffering. He realizes that pain is part of happiness.
Mrs. Joy Davidman Gresham
Joy Gresham is an American woman in her late thirties, the mother of one son, Douglas. Born Jewish, Joy later became a communist, then a Christian. She also was a poet who once won a national prize that she shared with Robert Frost. Gresham is having problems with her marriage to a fellow writer in the United States. By the beginning of the play, her correspondence with Lewis has become the most important thing in her life. On a trip to England with her son, she meets Lewis and finds that even in person they have an intellectual kinship that grows into a strong friendship. After meeting him in a hotel for tea, then accepting his invitation to come to tea at his house and staying there for Christmas as well, Gresham divorces her
- Shadowlands was based on a television movie written by Nicholson and aired on the BBC in 1986. It later aired on PBS and A&E. It featured Claire Bloom as Joy Gresham and Joss Ackland as Lewis.
- A feature film version was produced in 1993 with a script by Nicholson. Directed by Sir Richard Attenborough, the film featured Debra Winger as Joy and Anthony Hopkins as Lewis.
husband and moves to Oxford. Joy soon discovers that she has bone cancer and is dying. Her friendship deepens into love, a feeling the repressed Lewis comes to share. Though she gets a three-year reprise from her disease that allows her and Lewis to take a honeymoon to Greece and live in their love together for a while, Joy dies before the play’s end.
Douglas is the eight-year-old son of American writers Joy and Bill Gresham. Douglas is very close to his mother, and obeys her without question. Like his mother, Douglas is a fan of Lewis’ books. For him, however, the Narnia Chronicles are favorites. When he first meets Lewis on a trip to England with his mother, Lewis disappoints Douglas. As Lewis and Joy grow closer, Douglas becomes somewhat close to Warnie, Lewis’ brother, and Lewis as well. When Joy becomes ill, Douglas follows the course of action prescribed by the hero in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. Unlike in the book, Douglas’ mother dies. It is only when Lewis comforts him that Douglas can cry for his mother’s death. After her death, he is to be raised by Lewis and Warnie.
Harrington is a chaplain at Oxford and a close friend of Lewis’. Like many of Lewis’ colleagues, Harrington does not approve of his relationship with Joy. Not as overtly offensive as Riley, Harrington encourages others to express their negative feelings on the subject. Though Joy is dying, Harrington will not perform a religious wedding ceremony for his friend. Harrington does perform her funeral, but admits he just said what he thought Lewis needed to hear.
See C. S. Lewis
C[live] S[taples] Lewis
Lewis is the central character in Shadowlands. He is an Oxford scholar and professor in his late fifties. An expert in English literature, Lewis is also the author of religious writing and famous children’s books, including the Narnia Chronicles. A rather cold man at the beginning of the play, Lewis is also deeply religious and already pondering the meaning of life, death, pain, and suffering. He lives with his brother, Warnie, in a bachelor-type existence that is turned upside down when one of his pen pals physically comes into his life. American Joy Gresham is unlike any woman he has ever known. They first meet when she, while on a trip to England, visits him in Oxford. Then, he invites her to his home for tea and, later, Christmas. While there is an intellectual kinship, it develops into love after Joy returns to England permanently. Lewis realizes that he loves Joy, which changes his life. Their marriage ends with Joy’s death from cancer. Through her suffering in the last years of her life, Lewis learns that with happiness comes pain.
Major Warner Lewis
Warnie is the elder brother of Jack Lewis. Like his brother, Warnie is a bachelor. They live together in Lewis’ house, with Warnie talking care of his brother’s domestic needs. Lewis also takes care of his brother as well. Throughout Act I, Warnie is suspicious of Joy and her motivations, but goes along with what his brother wants. As Lewis grows closer to Joy and becomes a different person, Warnie too begins to like and care about Joy and her son. He and Douglas seem to be particularly close. Warnie and Lewis depend greatly on each other, and their closeness helps Lewis deal with his pain and suffering.
Riley is one of Lewis’ colleagues at Oxford, a fellow don. Riley is rather pushy and condescending, especially about women. When he says something implicitly offensive to Joy, she does not hesitate to put him in his place, much to Lewis’ delight. Riley does not approve of Lewis’ relationship to Joy, and tries to show it at every opportunity.
See Major Warner Lewis
Love and Passion/Change and Transformation
At the beginning of Shadowlands, both Joy and Lewis are rather unhappy in their own way. Joy is stuck in a bad marriage. Her husband, Bill, is an alcoholic and has had numerous liaisons during their marriage. She finds solace only in Lewis’ letters to her and in his published books. When she comes to England on vacation with her son, Douglas, Joy finally meets the man behind the letters. They grow closer, though Lewis is much more stiff and formal than she is. But after Joy moves to England, and Lewis marries her “technically” so she can stay in the country, their relationship deepens. It blooms into love when Joy becomes ill with bone cancer, and Lewis and Joy realize that they will soon be losing each other. Joy says “I love you” first, much to Lewis’ discomfort, but Lewis soon comes to share her feelings. It is he who insists on another wedding, a religious ceremony, between Joy and himself. Through their passionate feelings for each other, each grows as a person, though Lewis’ transformation is more drastic and obvious. He loosens up and is not afraid to express how he feels for Joy to his disapproving colleagues at Oxford. Even after Joy dies, Lewis continues to undergo change. Previously unable to cry, Lewis lets loose while comforting Douglas, who also lets the tears flow. By the end of the play, Lewis has been profoundly changed. Joy also has found the kind of passionate, intellectual love she wanted.
Pain and Suffering
The other side of love and passion is pain and suffering. Lewis discovers that with love comes pain. It is only when Joy learns she is suffering from bone cancer, has a tumor in her breast, and breaks her hip that she and Lewis grow truly close and fall passionately in love. At first, Joy and Lewis believe she will die right away, but the disease’s progression slows, giving them three years together. Hanging over this time is the inevitability of Joy’s death. Both Joy and Lewis do not like the pain or the suffering. Joy, in particular, believes it is unfair that she becomes ill when she finds her soulmate. As religious people, it is hard for them to understand why God is making them suffer, especially considering all that Joy has already gone through. But by the end of Shadowlands, Lewis understands why and accepts that pain comes with happiness. Joy also comes to terms with this dichotomy before her death.
God and Religion
Both Lewis and Joy are practicing, faithful Christians. Lewis has written religious works and gives talks on the subject. Indeed, at the beginning of Shadowlands in Lewis’ first monologue, he introduces the idea that with happiness and pleasure comes pain and suffering. He argues that it is God’s way of loving his creations. In the actual action of the play, Lewis and Joy’s relationship with God is addressed and analyzed. Lewis does not like that Joy has to suffer with her illness, that he has found love late in life but has to lose it. Yet he finds solace in prayer, he tells a colleague at one point, because it changes him. The experience teaches him about God. Lewis also has problems with the rules of religion. His friend Harry Harrington will not officiate at his wedding because Joy is divorced and it is against tenets of his religion. Lewis has rationalized the marriage and finds another minister to perform the ceremony. Joy also talks about her religious feelings and experiences. In the middle of Act I, she tells Lewis about a particularly dark moment in her marriage to Bill Gresham when she felt the presence of God coming to her in her hour of need. By Act II, her beliefs are tested by her illness, but she sees her temporary (three-year) recovery as a miracle and takes what she can get.
Shadowlands is a drama set in the 1950s. Much of the action is confined to Oxford, England, except for a brief scene in Act II that takes place at a hotel in Greece. Most of the scenes in Oxford are set in Lewis’ world: a lecture room, his home and study, the main dining hall at Oxford, and the surrounding streets. When Lewis and Joy first meet, they have
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research grief management techniques for both children and adults. How could such techniques have helped both Douglas and Lewis deal with Joy’s illness and death?
- Compare and contrast the character of Lewis with Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Discuss how both men handle their tendency towards indecision.
- Watch the 1986 BBC version of Shadowlands that Nicholson wrote before the stage version. Compare the two versions, focusing on how the characters of Lewis and Joy evolved.
- Research the social and cultural history of the University of Oxford, especially the institution’s dons. Did this insular society contribute to Lewis’ problematic character at the beginning of the play?
tea at a hotel with Douglas and Warnie. After Joy moves to Oxford, she has her own home with Douglas, where Lewis visits. So that Joy can stay in England, she and Lewis marry in an uncomfortable scene in the local Registry Office. When Joy becomes sick, many of their most intimate scenes take place in her hospital room. Shadowlands only leaves Oxford for Joy and Lewis’ honeymoon in Greece during a temporary reprise in her illness. These settings underscore what Lewis’ life was like before Joy and after, and how events have profoundly changed him.
Staging/Transitions within Acts
Within each act in Shadowlands, Nicholson has numerous small scenes with clever staging that underline the play’s themes and the characters. It is the staging that often defines the transitions between these scenes. The stage directions call for the stage to be divided in two by a translucent screen. The screen defines an inner area and an outer area. Only certain kinds of scenes take place in the inner area: the scenes in the Oxford dining hall; Lewis’ study and home, except for one towards the end of Act I when Joy goes into another room during the Christmas party and reads a letter from her husband who wants a divorce; Joy’s home in Oxford; the Registry office; and Joy’s hospital room. Others take place in the outer area in front of the screen: Lewis’ monologues; scenes on the street where characters are walking; the hotel tea room; certain scenes in Lewis’ house, especially those in which the outside world is intruding on Lewis; the corridor outside of Joy’s hospital room; the scene in Greece. The scenes in front of the screen generally signify the outside world, while those inside are more personal and deep. Changes in lighting also define the passage of time and the change of scene.
Another staging device is a large wardrobe at the back of the stage, looming over the proceedings primarily in the stage’s inner area. The wardrobe itself refers to a series of children’s books written by Lewis, the Narnia books, including The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Douglas is already a fan of Lewis’ books and carries around The Magician’s Nephew with him. After his mother has tea at the hotel with Lewis and Warnie in the middle of Act I, Douglas effects a transition in the scene by ringing the bell on the table, as a character in the book does. This makes the screen rise and Douglas walks into the world of Narnia inside the wardrobe. He returns to the other world in the wardrobe in Act II during the religious ceremony that marries his mother and Lewis. Douglas is reenacting the story line from The Magician’s Nephew, though this time the magic apple does not cure the mother permanently.
At the beginning of each act in Shadowlands as well at the end of the play, Lewis delivers a monologue to the audience. It is done in the form of a talk or lecture, as Lewis gave these often in his lifetime. These monologues reveal much about Lewis’ character, motivations, and how he changes over the course of the play. The topic of his talk does not change. It is about human “love, pain and suffering,” and the role God plays (or does not play) in it. During the first monologue at the beginning of Act I, Lewis believes that suffering is God’s “love in action.” He seems to talk of such pain in a detached tone. At the beginning of Act II, Lewis continues the same train of thought in his lecture, but questions suffering from a more personal place. At the end of the play, Lewis has been completely transformed by suffering and his monologue is barely a talk, but more of a conversation with himself. He is quieter and more reflective about his relationship with Joy. God is not directly mentioned.
Philosophy of Political Leadership
The decade of the 1950s had much in common with the late 1980s in British history. For much of the 1950s and into the early 1960s, Great Britain was ruled by a Conservative government. Winston Churchill was prime minister from 1951 to 1955, Anthony Eden from 1955 to 1957, and Harold Macmillan from 1957 to 1963. The country was still recovering from the effects of World War II, and while there were some prosperity and expansion, much of it was illusionary until the end of decade. Still, high interest rates limited growth. Also, in 1957, Great Britain declined to join the European Economic Community (EEC), a burgeoning organization designed to regionalize trade and other economic concerns.
By 1989, the Conservatives were again entrenched in power, as they had been since 1979. They only had one prime minister in that time period: Margaret Thatcher. In 1988, after winning her third general election, she had become the longest continually serving prime minister. Under her leadership in the 1980s, Great Britain had eradicated the social welfare state that had been built up after World War II. Most major industries (such as coal mining) were denationalized and much of the power of trade unions was taken away. Like her Conservative predecessors, Thatcher opposed Great Britain becoming part of the European-wide currency.
Despite her best efforts, Thatcher did not totally dismantle the welfare state. Pensions and the National Health Service (NHS) remained, though they were reorganized in 1982 and 1988 to increase efficiency and accountability. Because of a sluggish economy, many were dependent on welfare at this time. Thatcher was forced out of power in late 1990 when she tried to put a uniform poll tax on British citizens in place of local property taxes. This proposal led to riots in London and other parts of the country, and Thatcher lost the support of her own Conservative party. She was replaced by a fellow Conservative, John Major.
Only about four percent of all British, and less than three percent of British working class adolescents,
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1950s: The Labour Party is in power throughout 1951, though the Conservative Party rules Great Britain for the rest of the decade.
Today: The Conservative Party is in power through much of the 1990s, until the Labour Party returns in the late 1990s.
- 1950s: At Oxford, women and men have separate colleges. There is not talk of allowing women and men into some of the same colleges until the mid-1960s.
Today: Since the mid-1970s, at least some of the previously all-male colleges admit women, though the women’s colleges fear they might return to secondary status again.
- 1950s: Great Britain is still recovering from the devastating effects of World War II on its economy, infrastructure, and people. Food is rationed until 1954, while coal is rationed until 1958.
Today: Fully recovered from World War II with no rationing, Great Britain still has economic problems but looks to the future in Europe with a common currency.
- 1950s: At the beginning of the decade, less than a third of those who reside in Great Britain own their home. Few homes contain featured televisions, washing machines, and refrigerators.
Today: Nearly 70 percent of those residing in Great Britain own their home. Since the consumer boom of the 1960s and 1970s, most homes contain “luxury” items such as televisions, washing machines, and refrigerators.
went to university by the late 1950s, a percentage that was much less than the United States and other countries in Europe. By the late 1980s, more British students went to university, but the proportion relative to the population did not change much. Education was a way to become socially mobile, but few were in the position to take advantage of it.
While in office, the Thatcher-led government worked to reform the government-sponsored educational system. Before these changes, a test given at the age of eleven determined what kind of comprehensive school they would attend. About 88 percent of British children attended these schools. Kenneth Backer created a national curriculum for schools with the Education Act of 1988. More vocational programs and technical colleges were also created in the late 1980s and 1990s to give young people more educational options. By the end of the decade, many more mature students went to university, about 237,000 towards the end of the decade.
To become truly part of Great Britain’s elite (leaders in government, industry, and banking), however, it seemed that one had to attend public schools (comparable to U.S. private schools) such as Eton. By 1988, 119,002 were in such public schools, where just over 95,000 were in such schools at the end of the 1950s. Fees over that period had greatly increased, limiting their access even further. Since many products of public schools went on to Oxford, Cambridge, and other select universities, educational opportunity greatly determined who would be in power and determine policy in Great Britain.
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 four-tissue 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 cliches 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 YorkNewsday 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.”
In this essay, Petrusso compares and contrasts the stage version of Shadowlands with its feature film counterpart.
While both the stage play and film versions of Shadowlands were written by the same author, William Nicholson, they each present the story differently. This is due in part to the nature of each genre. Dramatic stage plays only have limited setting
possibilities and are focused primarily on dialogue. Movies are generally more visual than stage plays because they are not constrained by the demands of the theater. Film scripts also can be constructed differently than stage plays, which affects the flow of action, dialogue, and character development. Some of these differences are apparent when comparing the stage play to the movie version of Shadowlands.
In the play version of Shadowlands, Nicholson calls for a symbolic staging. The stage is to be divided into two areas (inner and outer) by a translucent screen. Some action takes place in front of it. Other times, the screen rises, revealing Lewis’ study, Joy’s hospital room, the main dining hall at Oxford, and other places. These places are Lewis’ intimate surroundings, where most of his personal transformation take place.
Also dominating the stage, in the scenes that take place inside Lewis’ study, is a giant wardrobe. This wardrobe refers to the famous wardrobe in Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, a series of children’s books. The wardrobe is the portal to a parallel world. It symbolizes a number of things to Lewis, and to Joy Gresham’s son Douglas, including Lewis’ books and their themes and, for both, the loss of their mother. In a highly symbolic moment in Act I, Douglas actually goes into the wardrobe and disappears. In Act II, during the religious ceremony, which unites his bed-ridden mother and Lewis in marriage, Douglas again goes through the wardrobe to the Other World. He retrieves the magic apple, as described in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, in hopes it will cure his sick mother just as it does in the book. Joy’s bone cancer does go into remission, but she still dies at the end of the play.
The movie has a much richer visual text, though this Shadowlands has much in common with the stage play. Because there is no stage, the screen and its symbolism has been eliminated. The film takes viewers to Oxford and its hallowed halls, to train stations full of smoke and steam, to all corners of Lewis’ home, to Joy’s small place in England, and to the hospital during Joy’s illness and treatment. By actually seeing the period settings, the world in which Lewis and Joy lived becomes clearer. The audience sees how they interact with their environment as well as many other people. It also gives the filmmakers the opportunity to make visual symbols stronger and deeper.
One aspect does not change: the wardrobe continues to play an important role in the movie, but
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Grief Observed, a nonfiction book written by C. S. Lewis in 1961 (originally published under the pen name N. W. Clerk), is about how Joy Gresham’s death affected him.
- The Magician’s Nephew(1955), book six in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, is the book that Douglas Gresham reads in Shadowlands and which underscores its themes.
- The Wind Singer is a children’s book written by Nicholson in 2000 about a parallel world not unlike Narnia.
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe(1950), book one in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, also prominently features a wardrobe and is mentioned in Shadowlands.
- 84 Charing Cross Road, based on material by Helene Hanff and published in 1983, is a play that was adapted for the stage by James Roose-Evans. At its center is an unusual romance between an unlikely man and woman.
more for Douglas than Lewis. In the movie, the wardrobe—the actual one from Lewis’ childhood nursery—sits in his attic. When Douglas first comes to visit Lewis’ home, Warnie, Lewis’ brother and housemate, shows it to him on a tour of the attic. Douglas and Joy later return to stay for Christmas. At this time, Douglas sneaks up there and opens the wardrobe, hoping to find the portal to the parallel world, as Lewis wrote in his Narnia books. Douglas is rather disappointed that this wardrobe has a solid back instead of an open gateway. Lewis discovers him there, which leads to a conversation about Douglas’s alcoholic father. At the end of the movie, after Joy has died, Lewis finds Douglas in the attic, staring at the wardrobe. Though Lewis tells him of his mother’s death, Douglas is more upset that the wardrobe does not “work,” that there is no portal. It leads to both of them crying in each other’s arms over their loss of Joy. Lewis also cries for the death of his own mother when he was a boy, a feeling he has apparently kept inside since the age of eight.
Another contrasting aspect of the play versus the movie is how characters are portrayed and developed. One criticism of the play that seems corrected in the movie is the development of secondary characters such as Warnie and Douglas. In reviewing the original Broadway production of Shadowlands, Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote, “the Lewises’ fraternal bond, like the plays’ other important secondary relationship, between Joy’s son and Lewis, is so sketchily drawn that it cannot carry the dramatic weight it must in the evening’s waning scenes.” In the play, Douglas and Warnie are only in a handful of scenes and are barely developed as individuals. Warnie is merely a directionless man with a small alcohol problem who takes care of his brother’s every need. Douglas comes off as a young boy who lives in a fantasy world and obeys his mother without question. He is upset at her death, but their closeness does not seem obvious.
In the movie, both Warnie and Douglas are still secondary to Lewis and Joy, but Warnie seems more like Lewis’ equal. They have a housekeeper who takes care of them, and Warnie has his own desk in the study. While Lewis still looks to Warnie for opinions and approval as he does extensively in the play, Warnie’s support seems more respected and real. Douglas’s character is even better developed than Warnie’s in the film version. Douglas is not merely an obedient boy-machine who only breaks down in the end as in the play. While he is still very affectionate, he shows more anger about being in England away from his home and father, and his mother’s illness and death. He is scared when his mother comes home to die. In addition to the wardrobe scenes described above, the very end of the movie shows Lewis and Douglas together walking through the nearby countryside with a dog in tow. This gives some closure to about the issue of what happens to Douglas after his mother dies. The play does not say that Douglas lived with his stepfather until Lewis himself died a few years later.
Both Joy and Lewis are also better and more completely developed in the movie than in the play version of Shadowlands. Mimi Kramer of the New Yorker argued that in the play version, Joy only existed in terms of Lewis. She was an obsessed fan who met him and invaded his world. The play does include facts about Joy—she has a husband in New York who asks for a divorce in Act I, she used to be a poet who once won a national poetry award, and she moved to Oxford because it would a cheaper place to live far from her now ex-husband. Yet every scathing remark Joy makes, whether it be to one of Lewis’ boorish colleagues or Lewis himself, is ultimately for Lewis’ benefit and entertainment. Nothing pithy comes from Joy outside of that relationship.
While the majority of the film, and even more of the play, is interaction between Joy and Lewis, in the movie, Joy does have a more separate and individual character. In the movie, she does not move to Oxford, but to London. Lewis is forced to take a train to see her. When she enters a hospital, it is in London as well, so Lewis must journey to her. Only when Joy leaves the hospital after her cancer is in remission does she move to Oxford to live with Lewis. (Douglas apparently starts staying with them as soon as his mother becomes ill.) One critic of the play wrote that Joy seemed like the cat and Lewis the mouse she was hunting. In the play, Joy blurts out her feelings and Lewis holds back, keeping his rein on their relationship. In the movie, they are more balanced. Though Joy still does not have much of a life outside of Lewis in the movie, she seems more fleshed out, affectionate, and independent. More importantly, Lewis is portrayed much differently in the movie, which in turn changes how Joy’s character is defined.
At the center of both the play and the movie is the enigmatic character of Lewis, the writer many people are familiar with because of his Narnia books, religious writing, and works on English literature. In the play, Lewis is depicted as an indecisive man who cannot admit his affection for Joy in any capacity until she becomes very ill with cancer and death seems imminent. He is rather cold, and his life seems to consist only of his relationship
“THE FILM TAKES VIEWERS TO OXFORD AND ITS HALLOWED HALLS, TO TRAIN STATIONS FULL OF SMOKE AND STEAM, TO ALL CORNERS OF LEWIS’ HOME, TO JOY’S SMALL PLACE IN ENGLAND, AND TO THE HOSPITAL DURING lOY’S ILLNESS AND TREATMENT.”
with his Oxford colleagues and with Warnie. At the beginning of the play, Joy is merely an interesting pen pal. The situation changes as he and Joy meet in a hotel tea room, at her request. Though Lewis invites her and her son to come to his house for tea, and then to stay for Christmas, Lewis seems very out of touch with his feelings. He does not cry until the end when Warnie essentially forces him to comfort the distraught Douglas.
The Shadowlands movie makes Lewis much more human from the start and gives him different forums in which to express his humanity. The play limits Lewis’ interactions to Warnie, his colleagues, Joy (and illness-related people like doctors), and Douglas. In addition to those people, the movie also shows Lewis with students he teaches at Oxford. There is a very minor, but very important, subplot involving one of his students, named Whistler. The subplot shows what effect Joy has had on Lewis’ life.
At the beginning of the movie, Whistler does not get along with Lewis when he tries to start an intellectual fight at a tutorial. The student later sleeps during another tutorial led by Lewis. Lewis catches Whistler stealing books, and offers him a loan, which the student turns down. By this point, Lewis has spent Christmas with Joy before she returns to the States. After Joy has moved back to England and the couple has married “technically” so that she can stay in the country, she attends a graduation ceremony with him. Afterwards they fight. Joy criticizes him for dealing only with those weaker than him or those who indulge certain parts of him, and she storms off. Lewis is befuddled by her claim. Then Lewis learns that Whistler is dropping out of school, which makes him wonder what it is everyone wants from him. Joy discovers she has cancer, and Lewis learns to love. After the religious wedding ceremony, Lewis runs into Whistler on the train. Lewis has mellowed and asks probing questions about Whistler’s father, about whom the pair have already conversed. Whistler is working as a teacher, which makes Lewis proud. By the end of the movie, Lewis has a new student to teach. This time he does not verbally or intellectually intimidate, but listens to and interacts with the student.
There are many other differences between the stage and film versions of Shadowlands, including the key components of the core story as described here. Neither version is superior to the other, but the film gives Lewis and Joy’s unusual love story a firmer visual foundation and deepens many of the characters. Both versions capture a wealth of emotions and show how hard it can be to suffer through love and loss.
Source: Annette Petrusso, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
A comparison between the play an the movie is given in this review by Richard Alleva.
I reviewed the stage play, Shadowlands, three years ago (Crisis February 1991), praised it, but issued a warning that I now repeat re Richard Attenborough’s film adaptation. “Let devotees of the life and works of Clive Staples ‘Jack’ Lewis go to. .. Shadowlands. .. forewarned though not necessarily forearmed. If they go to sniff out omissions and distortions of facts, they will have a field day. But they won’t have as good a time as those who attend the play to discover what idea, what compelling image the playwright William Nicholson perceived in. . . Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman, and how close Nicholson comes to realizing that image theatrically.’’
The stage version is made of sterner stuff than the new film. In the play’s first scene, Jack Lewis, delivering a lecture, addresses the question of why God makes or lets us suffer. His answer, “the blows of God’s chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect,” is something that Lewis believes intellectually but doesn’t feel with his entire being. By the final curtain, because of the suffering he has undergone, Lewis faces the audience as a transfigured man, prepared, even longing to undergo his own death because only death can release him from the “shadowlands” of earthly life into the higher reality of heaven where he will be reunited with Joy. Head knowledge has become heart knowledge. The stage play, when well performed (as it certainly was on Broadway with Jane Alexander and Nigel Hawthorne), provides a deeply spiritual experience.
Not so the movie. Artfully directed, photographed, and played, it is a poignant, funny-sad movie that can provoke an instant nostalgia for the dreaming spires of Oxford even in the breasts of those who have never been anywhere near Oxford. But it is also about as untranscendent as any film about C. S. Lewis could possibly be. Quite a feat, that. How did Attenborough and Nicholson bring it off?
The lineaments of the plot are the same. Jack, self-trapped in the forlorn bachelorhood he shares with his brother, Warnie, and in the academic routine he shares with a bunch of academic stiffs (no Tolkein, no Owen Barfield, no Hugo Dyson on view in this movie, since any suggestion of bracing intellectual companionship would queer Nicholson’s dramaturgical pitch), encounters an American, Jewish, ex-Communist, soon-to-be-divorcee Joy Davidman Gresham, marries her to give her British citizenship, then marries her before God when her first bout with cancer makes him realize how much he loves her. Joy has a seemingly miraculous remission, then succumbs. Lewis is left to spend the rest of his life... how?
The answer given by this movie indicates how a spiritual experience has been yanked sharply down to earth. In the early scenes, Lewis is still seen delivering his lectures about pain being the chisel-blows of God, and this statement is still perceived as an untested, purely cerebral concept. But, at the conclusion, Lewis does not affirm his belief as now verified by his experience. Instead, he quotes a remark of Joy’s, “the pain now is part of the happiness then.” This Lewis isn’t braced for the afterlife by the heartbreak of Joy’s death. Rather, he has accepted suffering (as J. W. N. Sullivan said Beethoven did) “as one of the great structural lines of human life.” Earthly happiness is worth the suffering we undergo when we lose the bringer of happiness. I found this conclusion quite as poignant as that of the play’s but not quite so grand. Oddly enough, it makes Lewis’s fiercely held Christian beliefs quite inessential to the main dramatic action. After all, an atheist or agnostic can learn to accept earthly suffering in the same way that this movie’s
version of Lewis does. There is no wholehearted acceptance of the strokes of God’s chisel at this movie’s fade-out, no more talk of Shadowlands.
Another way Nicholson diminishes the spiritual aspect of his story is by deleting the scene in which Joy tells Jack Lewis of her first apprehension of God’s existence. Though many of Joy’s qualities attracted Lewis, he would obviously be especially drawn by her personal experience of the holy. And since Joy came to her conversion after a long period of Communist commitment, we may well wonder how this transformation came about. But the script never answers this question and Lewis never even raises it. A breathtaking omission in light of who Lewis and Davidman were in real life, yet a logical omission considering the kind of movie Attenborough and Nicholson want to make. For Shadowlands is no longer the story of the romantic union of two equally life-perplexed, God-seeking individuals, perfectly matched in intellect and mettlesome high spirits. It is now the story of an overgrown teddy bear, lovably bookish and unworldly, who is rescued from emotional suffocation and his own virginity by a warmhearted, tough-tender earth mother who shatters his routine, skewers his narrow-minded colleagues, and takes him on a motor tour of the English countryside. Let’s face it: this Shadowlands is really the latest rendition of Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
And a nice rendition it is. Richard Attenborough’s direction is the best work of his career. It’s as if the intimacy of the story had reined in Attenborough’s penchant for visual fustian and incoherent storytelling. Each directorial stroke makes its point succinctly.
Following his triumph in The Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins’s Jack Lewis comes across as The Butler Escapes. For, like Stevens in The Remains of the Day, Nicholson’s version of Lewis is a man who has fashioned his own leash and wears it with conviction. In researching this role, Hopkins must have read Lewis’s confession that emotional safe-playing was his greatest temptation. Hopkins has zeroed in on that trait and amplified it. This Jack Lewis is an overgrown boy who keeps his eyes on the carpet in the presence of an attractive female. This virginal, flustered quality is the keynote of the first three quarters of the performance. Later, when Lewis is moved to passion, first by the love of Joy, then by anger at her death, Hopkins’s specialty—staccato bursts of emotion issuing out of a seemingly passive exterior—comes into play and makes viewers sit up wide-awake in the knowledge that
“THE STAGE PLAY, WHEN WELL PERFORMED (AS IT CERTAINLY WAS ON BROADWAY WITH JANE ALEXANDER AND NIGEL HAWTHORNE), PROVIDES A DEEPLY SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE.”
there is more to this man’s character than they had suspected. And so another triumph is added to Hopkins’s seemingly unbreakable chain of triumphs.
But Debra Winger’s triumph is bigger. While Hopkins tailors Lewis to match his peculiar strengths as an actor, Winger extends the boundaries of her talent to encompass Joy. Though too pretty and still too young for the role, she bestows the best sort of amnesia on the viewer. She wipes out her own backlog of characterizations and makes you accept this woman as the only Debra Winger you have ever seen. Nicholson has given Joy a few too many wisecracks, but Winger never lets us forget the emotional neediness that deploys those wisecracks like SOS signals. When Jack casually asks his Yuletide guest if her husband is looking after himself for Christmas, Winger raps out “Yes!” with a speed and fierceness that bespeak a world of marital woe.
So, by all means, go see Shadowlands but be prepared to take it on its own terms. This is a C. S. Lewis biopic for secular humanists in search of a good cry. I believe they constitute a sizable audience.
Source: Richard Alleva, “Shadowlands,” in Commonweal, Vol. 121, No. 2, January 28, 1994, pp. 22-23.
In the following, an overview explaining the main points of the film are given.
When we meet him, C. S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) is giving rather smug lectures about the blessed necessity for suffering in our life: “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” he happily informs his listeners.
But what does Lewis—Oxford don, literary critic, fairy-tale writer, Christian apologist—actually know about the ordinary hurts of ordinary life? Or, for that matter, about life as most people know it? His beloved mother died when he was a child, and for decades he has lived in withdrawn bachelorhood. Snuggled up in a charming book-lined cottage with his brother Warnie (the excellent Edward Hardwicke), he is sage but distant with his students, witty but somewhat abstract with his colleagues at the high table.
The man needs shaking up. And Joy Gresham (Debra Winger) is just the woman to do it. She’s an American, something of a poet, something of an imposition. But she’s also someone any writer is bound to cherish, a knowledgeable fan. They meet for tea; she and her eight-year-old son (she’s in the midst of a messy divorce) return for Christmas; and eventually they settle in London. Bemusement soon gives way to concern. Lewis marries her so she can stay in England, but true love does not happen until she falls ill with cancer. A period of remission offers them the opportunity for an idyll. That brief happiness, followed by the pain of her death, does indeed “rouse” Lewis. But in ways deeper and more mysterious than he formerly gabbled about.
Shadowlands is, in essence, a true story, though screenwriter William Nicholson, adapting his own play, admits that given Lewis’ reticence, he has had to imagine much of what went on in the relationship with Gresham. And reticent is the word for Richard Attenborough’s film version. But that’s a virtue, not a defect, when your setting is English academia (no one has more persuasively captured its manners) and your subject is mortality. There is something very moving in the understated way that these people confront it, something very sweetly believable in their courtship and in the brief bliss they shared. Hopkins gets to do what he could not in The Remains of the Day, shake off repression, and Winger is awfully good too; there is a steady pressure in her forcefulness that is never flashy or abrasive. They—the entire movie—are strong, unsentimental, exemplary.
Source: “Shadowlands,” in Time, Vol. 142, No. 27, December 27, 1993, p. 72.
Kramer points out the flaws in Shadowlands and explores the personalities of the different characters.
Shadowlands, the William Nicholson play about C. S. Lewis, which ran for a year in London in a production directed by Elijah Moshinsky and starring Nigel Hawthorne and Jane Lapotaire, has just opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. It turns out to be a major disappointment. Like the television film of the same name, which Mr. Nicholson wrote for the BBC, the play tells the story of Lewis’s strange, doomed love affair with the minor American poet Joy Davidman Gresham. Anyone who has seen the movie version of Shadowlands(it has been broadcast on PBS and on the Arts and Entertainment cable network) knows how poignantly and affectingly this story can be told. She was a married woman with two children (boys), a Jewish convert to Christianity, and a former Communist, who, having initiated a correspondence with Lewis, sought an introduction to him on a visit to England, which she undertook when her marriage appeared to be failing. Eventually, she was divorced (her husband had left her for another woman), and she moved lock, stock, and barrel to Oxford (with the two boys), whereupon Lewis agreed to marry her for immigration purposes. She became the love of his life, and soon afterward died of bone cancer.
I have no idea what Joy was really like, or how Jane Lapotaire portrayed her in the West End production. But Claire Bloom, who played the role, opposite Joss Ackland, in the television movie, was beautiful, charming, and graceful, with a kind of lively-mindedness that made it perfectly clear why a celebrated author and academic might have turned, for love and friendship, to a Jewish American intellectual divorcee. Jane Alexander, who plays Joy, opposite Mr. Hawthorne, in the current production, brings to the role a combination of toughness and tartness that has served her well in other roles, but for lively-mindedness she substitutes belligerence, which reduces the relationship to a hackneyed conflict between American brashness and Oxford inhibition. Moreover, where Bloom was gawky only in approaching passion, Alexander is gawky in everything. (She seems to come onstage limping.) This, along with a certain freeness of the hands and upper torso, seems to be her way of getting the idea of Jewishness across. Owing partly to a quality of abrasiveness that Alexander brings to the role (something that A. N. Wilson, in fact, attributes to Joy in his new biography of Lewis, which is discussed elsewhere in this issue), and owing partly to Nicholson’s script, which doesn’t give the relationship between the two people much time to develop, Joy appears to be plotting: she seems to have designs on Lewis.
“BUT WHAT DOES LEWIS-OXFORD DON, LITERARY CRITIC, FAIRY-TALE WRITER, CHRISTIAN APOLOGIST—ACTUALLY KNOW ABOUT THE ORDINARY HURTS OF ORDINARY LIFE? OR, FOR THAT MATTER, ABOUT LIFE AS MOST PEOPLE KNOW IT?”
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. The film used pictures and tiny gestures to establish a moral context and ambience: a world of middle-aged men who talk to each other without looking up from their books. It juxtaposed scenes of Lewis reading, lecturing to students, and strolling through Magdalen deer park with references to and images from the sacred and secular medieval literature Lewis taught and studied. Nicholson’s script for the stage version substitutes Robert Louis Stevenson for Guillaume de Lorris and Chretien de Troyes; it has Paul Sparer, Robin Chadwick, Hugh A. Rose, and Edmund C. Davys (playing a collection of stereotypical dons and vicars) spouting some sort of ghastly parody of high-table conversation; and it vulgarizes everything that in the film was subtle. As for Mark Thompson’s set, its only nod to the idea of Oxford is a vaguely Gothic front panel that moves endlessly up and down, up and down, allowing stagehands to get ready for the next scene.
Joy’s younger son, Douglas, was in his teens when his mother died. The movie fudges this a bit, making him a child of eight or nine, and fair enough: the movie wants to offer a parallel between Joy’s children and Lewis and his older brother, who lost their mother when Lewis was nine. It suggests visually that those two little boys might very easily become those two middle-aged men. In the movie, though, Lewis’s brother, Warnie, was played by an actor whose puffy, feline face—he was like a maiden aunt—presented an image of passionlessness and sterility. Michael Allinson, who plays Warnie in the
“JANE ALEXANDER, WHO PLAYS JOY, OPPOSITE MR. HAWTHORNE, IN THE CURRENT PRODUCTION, BRINGS TO THE ROLE A COMBINATION OF TOUGHNESS AND TARTNESS THAT HAS SERVED HER WELL IN OTHER ROLES, BUT FOR LIVELY-MINDEDNESS SHE SUBSTITUTES BELLIGERENCE, WHICH REDUCES THE RELATIONSHIP TO A HACKNEYED CONFLICT BETWEEN AMERICAN BRASHNESS AND OXFORD INHIBITION.”
current production, cuts a rather dapper figure. He’s tall and distinguished—like an American’s dream of the romantic English gentleman. Moreover, since the play reduces the number of Joy’s children to one, the trumped-up parallel between Douglas and Lewis has to be pounded home verbally.
Douglas Gresham, who seems to have been involved with Shadowlands at every phase of its development, from screen to stage, has provided a program note for the current production in which he says that the play “comes closer to the truth” than anything else he has read “about the nature of my stepfather’s relationship with my mother.” The film version made some sort of spiritual sense out of the dilemma that Lewis’s Neo-platonic relationship with Joy posed to his Neo-platonic Christianity. But the play, which purports to answer the question “If God loves us, why does he allow us to suffer so much?,” succeeds only in Broadwayizing everything. “Her death,” Douglas Gresham writes of his mother, “taught him. . . that in the very deepest despair there is hope and when by grief the entire universe is suddenly emptied, there is God.”
The movie script gave bigger play to what may have been Lewis’s true final comment on life as symbolized by Joy’s bone cancer: “This is a mess, and that is all there is to it.” Cancer is a mess, and the stories of people who die from it don’t usually get made into a play. Shadowlands seems to suggest that what makes the events it recounts tragic is the fact that they happened to C. S. Lewis. Given that Mr. Hawthorne, who hasn’t the authority or the presence to play Lewis with any depth or complexity, is a television star before anything else (he plays the shady secretary in the popular series “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister”), the whole thing has the feel of a tourist trap—the sort of play that gets mounted in London with the idea of capitalizing on America’s love for anything having to do with Oxford or England.
Source: Mimi Kramer, “Shady Doings,” in New Yorker, November 26, 1990, p. 124-125.
William A. Henry, III
The tragedy portrayed in this play is described by Henry as a “metaphysical dilemma.”
For almost every person of religious conviction, the most harrowing test of faith comes with the suffering and death of a loved one. It is hard to believe in a just and kind God who allows innocent people to suffer the physical agonies of dying or the mental agonies of being parted. Yet it is precisely at these moments that religious belief can be most comforting. Being sure that apparently pointless grief does serve some higher purpose, even if one cannot yet divine what it is, may enable a depressed mourner to get himself through the despondency of the day.
That metaphysical dilemma lies at the heart of Shadowlands, a new Broadway play that personalizes the issue in the life of Clive Staples Lewis, a distinguished literary scholar and one of the 20th century’s foremost popular writers on Christian theology. When Lewis was nine, his mother died of cancer. When he was 61, his wife Joy died of the same disease. Both were racked with pain; both endured the false hope of brief remission; both left behind baffled, brittle sons. Part of Lewis plainly believed these horrors somehow reflected the Almighty’s benevolent hand. Another part of him, the play argues, never could. That led him to escape into writing another kind of literature for which he is remembered: children’s fables such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He yearned, it is suggested, for a healing magic he could not find in the everyday world.
Writers’ lives rarely yield good drama. Their work is mostly done silently and alone. They live out their fantasies more openly on the page than in company. They often thwart relationships with others because they view everyone as “material.” Shadowlands might seem doubly doomed because it also embraces disease-of-the-week pathos of a kind that TV generally does better. The plot focuses almost entirely on Lewis’ relationship with Joy, whom he met and married—less to live as man and wife than to enable her and her offspring by a prior marriage to stay in Britain—after a half-century of hearty bachelorhood. The script is far more graphic about her symptoms (her hip “snapped like a frozen twig”) than about whether this marriage of convenience ripened into sexual love, and its overall view of Lewis as a near monk clashes with a recent biography. Moreover, the play is lumbered with Lewis’ fellow Oxford dons, middle-aged men joking about women in an awed, distant, prepubescent way that may resonate for audiences in London, where the show originated, but does not for American theatergoers.
Yet Shadowlands does work. William Nicholson, adapting his 1984 TV drama, finds a wealth of delicate metaphor in the imagery of the title, a reference to Lewis’ assertion that true life is inner life or afterlife and what happens on earth a mere shadow existence. He prospers by Jane Alexander’s blunt, practical, meticulously underplayed Joy and by Nigel Hawthorne’s epic performance, reminiscent of Ralph Richardson at his finest, as Lewis. Shuffling and shambling, looking as if forever surrounded by muddy acres and faithful hounds, Hawthorne is the embodiment of an older, surer England coming to grips with a new world that is not so much brave as demanding of bravery. He makes theological abstractions breathe—and weep.
Source: William A. Henry, III, “Shadowlands,” in Time, Vol. 136, No. 22, November, 19, 1990, p. 106.
Armistead, Claire, “Visions of Love,” in New Statesman & Society, February 9, 1990, p. 42.
Barnes, Clive, “Stars Shine in Shadowlands,” in New York Post, November 12, 1990.
Beaufort, John, Review of Shadowlands, in Christian Science Monitor, November 4, 1990.
James, John, “Improbable Attachment,” in Times Educational Supplement, November 3, 1989, p. 33.
Kissel, Howard, “Tepid Tea, Anyone?: Shadowlands Conveys Little About Its Celebrated Subjects,” in Daily News, November 12, 1990.
Kramer, Mimi, “Shady Doings,” in New Yorker, November 26, 1990, pp. 124-25.
Nachman, Gerald, “Drama of Oxford Don in Love,” in San Francisco Chronicle, November 27, 1990, p. El.
Nicholson, William, Shadowlands, Fireside Theatre, 1989.
Review of Shadowlands, in Financial Times, October 24, 1989, p. 25.
Review of Shadowlands, in Variety, November 12,1990, p. 68.
Rich, Frank, Review of Shadowlands, in New York Times, November 12, 1990, p. CII .
Richards, David, “Why Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” in New York Times, November 18, 1990, sec. 2, p. 5.
Stuart, Jan, “Probing the Humanity of C. S. Lewis,” in New York Newsday, November 12, 1990.
Weales, Gerald, “Partially Observed,” in Commonweal, February 8, 1991, pp. 99-100.
Wilson, Edwin, Review of Shadowlands, in Wall Street Journal, November 23, 1990.
Finkle, David, “For C. S. Lewis, Does Love Conquer All?” in New York Times, November 4, 1990, pp. HI, H5.
This article gives background on the relationship between Lewis and Gresham, how Nicholson came to write both the television movie and play, and the stage production.
Green, V. H. H. A History of Oxford University, B. T. Batsford, Ltd., 1974.
This nonfiction book gives the historical background at the institution where Lewis taught for many years and is used as a setting in Shadowlands.
Gresham, Douglas H., Lenten Lands, Macmillan, 1998.
This book by Joy Gresham’s son who is a character in Shadowlands, describes his perspective on the relationship between his mother and Lewis.
Wilson, A. N., C.S. Lewis: A Biography, Collins, 1990.
This is the definitive biography of Lewis and includes information about his relationship with Gresham.