In an era when romance is dead and divorce is considered a natural part of life, Shadowlands, now playing at the Acorn Theater in Manhattan, is both an old-fashioned love story and a reminder of the sacred nature of marriage.
Shadowlands: The Unlikely Love Story of C. S. Lewis & Joy Davidman, which runs on Theater Row through January 7, is a rendition of William Nicholson’s original script (which became a 1993 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger). It is based on the true story of Helen Joy Davidman Gresham, a thirty-something wife and mother who has been so influenced by the writings of C. S. Lewis that she initiates a correspondence with the Oxford don. Eventually, she travels to Oxford herself—along with her little boy, Douglas, an avid reader of the Narnia books—to pay Lewis a visit, and subsequently turns his life upside-down.
Joy, a Jewish New Yorker and former Communist, astounds Lewis with her blunt manner and quick wit. They become good friends, and (after Joy learns her husband has run off with another woman) a romance blossoms. In a practical move, made in order to extend Lewis’s British citizenship to Joy, the two enter into a civil marriage. Not long afterward, Joy learns she is dying from cancer. For the remainder of the play, the couple grapples with the knowledge that Joy is not long for this world. As her death draws near, Lewis decides they should have a sacramental marriage—a “true marriage”—and they are wed, Lewis standing beside Joy’s hospital bed as the two say their vows.
Joy’s arrival triggers a transformation in the Mere Christianity author. Initially a somewhat stiff, buttoned-up Englishman, fond of spending evenings alone with his books and pontificating in the abstract about “women” and “suffering,” Lewis becomes a man deeply touched by a real, tangible woman—and faced with the devastating pain of losing her. In his opening monologue, he delivers a carefully reasoned account of why God permits humans to suffer: “We are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect.” By the end of the play, his logic and professorial composure have given way to desperate sobs as he faces the prospect of Joy’s death.
Daniel Gerroll brings years of experience to his performance as Lewis. The English actor claims a long record of film and TV credits—you may even remember him as the young Henry Stallard in Chariots of Fire. Robin Abramson, as the sharp-tongued Joy, delivers her witty lines with an appropriate measure of American brashness. Together, along with John C. Vennema as Lewis’s brother Warnie and Sean Gormly as Lewis’s fellow Oxford professor Christopher Riley, they offer the audience a delightful glimpse into English life in 1950s Oxford.
When it comes to the question of Lewis’s actual marriage to Joy, however, the plot skirts some messy moral questions. Joy obtains a divorce from her first husband, and Lewis eventually marries her—against the wishes of the Church of England, which forbids divorce and remarriage. In one emotional scene, Lewis’s friend the Rev. Harry Harrington regretfully refuses Lewis’s fervent plea to unite him and Joy in holy matrimony: “The bishop would never let me,” he tells Lewis. “If you won’t do it, I’ll find someone who will,” is Lewis’s passionate response. A few scenes later, he has procured another priest—apparently one less strict, and less worried about the bishop—who is willing to perform the ceremony.
Lewis later reveals that he justified the marriage to himself by reasoning that since Bill, Joy’s previous husband, had been married before, Bill and Joy were never truly married. Thus, Joy and Lewis are free to marry now. This is a feasible line of reasoning, but the bothersome fact of Lewis’s undermining the bishop is never examined. In the eyes of the play’s writer and director, apparently, this information matters little in the grand drama of the story—why, after all, would anyone be cruel enough to deny marriage to a poor sick woman?
Although Shadowlands glosses over some of the problematic implications of Lewis’s marriage, it nonetheless presents marriage as something holy, sacred, and desirable—something that can’t be attained through the mere sanction of the state. “Marriage isn’t just a legal contract,” Lewis instructs Joy. A civil marriage, the play tells us, is not enough; to be married “properly,” a couple must be wed “before God.” For this treatment of holy matrimony, Shadowlands is to be commended—as it is for its celebration of old-fashioned romance. Joy and Lewis’s attraction for each other is not based on sex alone, but on genuine friendship, good conversation, and intellectual compatibility. Their relationship is not the shallow fling of young lovers (Lewis and Joy are middle-aged when they meet, Lewis in his fifties and Joy nearing forty), but something deeper. Shadowlands offers a lovely picture of romance as it ought to be: love and trust between friends that develops into a genuine longing for union.
Today, when hookup culture has nearly destroyed romantic relationships, and the gravity of divorce is so often dismissed, Shadowlands at least requires us to ask questions about the goodness of marriage and the consequences of sundering it. If you are in Manhattan anytime between now and January 7, it is well worth journeying to Theater Row to ponder them yourself.
Ramona V. Tausz is a junior fellow at First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?