Jack Lewis Goes to Broadway

PUBLISHED ON

February 1, 1991

There is no such thing as stage biography. Life doesn’t cooperate with art, certainly not with the art of the drama. When a playwright presents a real person’s life on stage, or even just part of that life, he may not only pluck events out of life’s disorganized flow and arrange them for maximum narrative vigor (a good biographer does the same thing), but may also invent incidents, motivations, and even characters to achieve his objective—to turn messy life into unified fiction. In life, each human being pursues his or her own dream. In fiction, each character helps the author pursue the author’s dream.

All of which is easy enough to accept as long as no playwright or scriptwriter tries to put one of our personal heroes up on stage or screen. Let that happen and protests rise to our lips as we sit there in the theater’s darkness. We groaningly stifle them only to sputter later to our friends, “But Churchill would never have accepted that brand of cigar!” or “But Attila executed left-handed male virgins only in springtime, I tell you, in springtime!”

Therefore, let devotees of the life and works of Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis go to the Brooks Atkinson Theater, where Shadowlands is playing, 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 the known facts of Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman, and how close Nicholson comes to realizing that image theatrically. (As I discuss the play, I also will comment on Nicholson’s television drama of the same title—renamed C.S. Lewis Through the Shadowlands by its American distributors—which was written before the theater piece.)

In both the play and film, we are introduced to Jack Lewis in his public role as popular Christian apologist. The film’s Lewis is shown making a BBC broadcast; the stage Lewis lectures an audience in an auditorium and, naturally, we in the Brooks Atkinson become that audience as the actor walks downstage to deliver his speech. The film’s brief extract of a Lewis broadcast simply serves to motivate what is to come: since Lewis is well known to the public, he will receive fan mail. One of those letters will be from Joy Davidman Greshem, an unhappily married American Jewish ex-communist, Lewis will respond, and the story will get underway.

But the play’s opening lecture does much more than ignite the plot The question it raises is the central question of the play: why does God make or let us suffer? As lecturer, Lewis glibly provides the answer: “The blows of [God’s] chisel, which hurt us so much, are what makes us perfect.” By the time Shadowlands concludes, Lewis embodies that answer. Passing through a brief period of near-despair caused by Joy’s death, Jack Lewis at play’s end stands before the audience a transfigured man who looks forward to the death that will deliver him from the shadowlands. But this liberation has been achieved only after he has learned to love the shadowlands by walking through them with a cherished wife. How head knowledge becomes heart knowledge is the substance of the play.

The second scene in both play and film shows Lewis in his usual environment, dining and joshing with fellow dons in a hall in Oxford. These scenes will infuriate those readers who know that much of Lewis’s best imaginative work grew out of his extremely convivial and stimulating sessions with friends in an informal club called the Inklings. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and some of Charles Williams’s fiction also resulted from these meetings, and anyone who has read Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings would certainly never think of the male camaraderie Lewis enjoyed as pompous or arid. But Nicholson avoids the Inklings altogether. Nowhere in sight is a Tolkien or a Williams or a Nevill Coghill or an Owen Barfield. Instead, we see Lewis and his brother Warren (“Warnie”) chatting with an invention called Christopher Riley, a comic monster of self-satisfied rationalism, and a couple of faceless dons, neither of whom remotely suggests anyone whose company Lewis would voluntarily seek.

Now it is true that at the time Joy appeared in Lewis’s life, the Inklings were drifting apart, the most intense period of Lewis’s friendship with Tolkien was over, and Williams was long dead. But Lewis never regularly sought the company of bores, particularly rationalistic bores. (Riley seems more like a cruel caricature of J.B.S. Haldane than anyone in Lewis’s circle, and Haldane and Lewis were intellectual foes.) Why this distortion of Lewis’s pre-Joy social life?

By showing Lewis as the willing crony of mummies, Nicholson is, I think, trying to dramatize that safe-playing aspect of Lewis’s nature that he himself was well aware of and described: “I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as ‘Careful! This might lead you to suffering!’ ” Nicholson might have tried to show that, in the midst of a stimulating academic life, some desiccation was nevertheless overtaking Lewis, but it is a formidable dramatic task to show the threads of dissatisfaction in the fabric of a generally happy existence. Instead, Nicholson took a shortcut: he shows Lewis’s entire existence calcifying. It’s an efficient strategy but it severely reduces the complexity of Lewis’s personality and situation.

Equally efficient and certainly understandable is the absence of any mention of Mrs. Moore, the widow whose 25-year cohabitation with Lewis filled the heads of friends and future biographers with questions about the nature of the relationship. (See the recent biographies by George Sayer and A.N. Wilson for two contrasting views.) Nicholson has again chosen a simple dramaturgical route: Lewis is shown as having been a lifelong bachelor and celibate until his marriage to Joy. She is the icebreaker, and Lewis’s quotidian existence is the ice.

It is with Joy’s entrance that theater piece and teleplay begin to diverge sharply. Claire Bloom’s Joy in the movie is as serenely calm, beautiful, and assured as only Claire Bloom can be. And oddly taciturn. The last quality suits the way Nicholson has written all of Joy’s scenes with Jack: with an economy that borders on curtness. When the new friends share their pasts with each other—Lewis’s childhood loss of his mother, Joy’s marital woes, their conversions to Christianity—the film lets the viewer listen in on only the briefest of highlights, and the film’s director keeps the conversationalists moving through Oxford landmarks. (As Dwight Macdonald once noted, the “talkies” quickly became the “walkies” when filmmakers feared that long conversations would bore the audience.) It’s the briefest, smoothest of courtships. Where is the Joy who had such a seismic effect on Lewis’s life, who won Warnie’s devotion but repelled most of Jack’s friends with her assertiveness, whose “mind was as lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard”?

Well, she is all there in the play that is now on Broadway. From her very first entrance, Jane Alexander makes it quite clear that she is not going to make Joy Davidman ingratiating. She presents the woman as intelligent and vulnerable but also awkward, abrasive, gushy, demanding, touchy. She is more than a match for the offensive Riley but also brings Lewis up short when he dares to be patronizing.

This is a “difficult” woman whose very difficulty interests, challenges, involves Lewis. This is a woman whom he would have to love or else let go altogether. Claire Bloom’s Joy is all too convenient. Jane Alexander’s is a pain in the neck when she isn’t being wonderful. In this Alexander is being as true to the part as written as Bloom was to hers. For Nicholson, capitalizing on the stage’s greater capacity for language, lets us see and hear this odd couple falling in love with each other by telling their pasts: Joy’s supernatural apprehension of the Deity is given at length, as are her marital troubles and even a bit of her poetry. We see Lewis responding to the many sides of the woman by gradually, gingerly, fervently falling in love with her.

It was Joy’s first attack of cancer that made Lewis fully aware of the depth of his love, and here the film enjoys an advantage over the stage because the camera can go into an actual hospital and record its necessary sterility, the often frightening operation of surgical machinery, the hovering of officious nurses, and the drawn, pale face of the suffering patient. Physical suffering always looks rather contrived on stage and the hospital scenes in the theater’s Shadowlands present no exception.

When Joy is granted a seemingly miraculous remission and moves back into Lewis’s home, the play again proves to be superior to the teleplay. Once more, the camera simply skims the relationship: a brief montage of embraces, country walks, a few words of endearment, a few games of Scrabble. And then the cancer returns and ends Joy’s life. All very tidy. But in the play we experience the most joyful (pun unavoidable) year of Jack’s life through his consciousness, as he stands behind the seated, convalescent woman, caresses her neck and shoulders, and speaks to the audience of the unmiraculous miracle of marriage which lets us simply stretch out a hand to comfort ourselves with the thereness of the beloved. Joy’s passing is marked by no death agony; Jane Alexander is simply gone from the stage, and after Lewis’s eloquent monologue about her palpability, we fully realize the anguish her physical absence is causing him.

That brief period of near-despair, so eloquently rendered in Lewis’s own words in A Grief Observed, is surprisingly well captured by the film. (Here, for once, it is the stage play that skims.) Director Norman Stone communicates Jack’s depression by a few well chosen, gelidly lit shots of the widower and his grief, the wintry landscapes that seem a manifestation of the “door that has slammed shut” on his happiness, and a few passages from A Grief Observed quietly spoken on the soundtrack. Stone and Nicholson wisely refrain from over-dramatizing the lifting of grief. As in the book, the pain simply abates with the passage of time.

The conclusions of play and film subtly yet decisively differ from each other. The sharing of grief by Lewis and his stepson Douglas is made the penultimate scene in both mediums, and both scenes are heartbreaking. In the film, Lewis quietly replies to the boy’s question about the existence of heaven that heaven does indeed exist and that life is a shadowland. But the collapse into tears overwhelms such speculation for both characters and audience. The tears flow, and the film dissolves to the ice-breaking return of spring in the natural world. The last shot shows Lewis and Douglas walking along the banks of a thawed river. Lewis promises to teach the boy how to dive and the boy expresses enthusiasm. Earlier in the film, Lewis used diving as a symbol of surrendering to natural emotion. And, as the boy and man walk away from the camera, we feel that Lewis’s final triumph is that he has become a good father, a more “normal” man, a human being reconciled to the earth.

In the plays’s final scene, Lewis stands alone and addresses the audience. His last speech recalls the lecture at the opening of the play about the perfecting of the soul through pain in preparation for the greater reality of the life to come. But now we realize that Jack isn’t addressing some audience; he is talking directly to Joy. He is celebrating their unending, unbroken union. The last glimpse of the play’s Lewis is not that of a “normal” man but of a transfigured being, a spirit ready to make a transition from world to world.

Norman Stone’s film direction is facile and fluent, draws beautiful performances from the children who play David and Douglas, but does surprisingly little, considering that the movie was shot at Oxford and its environs, to capture either the academic atmosphere or the feel of Lewis’s house at the Kilns. Paradoxically, Elijah Moshinsky, working only with a unit set, creates a very believable atmosphere of mustiness for the academic settings and of coziness for the Kilns. Using few pieces of furniture, he keeps the movements of the actors varied and believable.

In the Broadway supporting cast, Paul Sparer gives a delightful and self-delighting hammy performance as Riley. The movie’s Warnie is a walrus of a man called David Waller. He is quietly, tenderly magnificent.

Whether you see play or movie, you will see a remarkable performance in the role of C.S. Lewis. The film’s Joss Ackland is, like Harry Andrew or the latter day Sean Connery, one of those British actors born to play retired colonels with ramrod spines who bark at club waiters and deplore the way modem life is going to the dogs. Ackland does little to transform or even mitigate these qualities for the role of the British don. His Lewis is a growly, muscular, no-nonsense bear of a man. His brand of virility seems the wrong sort for Lewis, who was another kind of man’s man: portly, witty, bookish. When an officious nurse tries to shoo Lewis away from Joy’s bedside and Ackland roars at her, “Good God, woman, she’s my wife!”, I expected the poor attendant to turn white, snap to attention and salute. (I nearly snapped to attention myself.)

Yet Ackland is an unbeatable actor at showing the submerged, halting tenderness that such rough men are capable of. Towards the end of the film, this actor comes into his own. His frozen anguish is perfect, and his shared mourning with Douglas is a wonderfully modulated, wonderfully touching piece of playing.

By contrast, Nigel Hawthorne (known to American T.V. audiences as the conniving civil servant of Yes, Minister) captures the C.S. Lewis we have seen in photographs: the diffident jowly man in baggy flannels beaming at us over a pint or peering from under an old cloth hat. The way Hawthorne laboriously fumbles out of his overcoat upon returning home neatly encapsulates a lifetime of one peculiarly comfortable sort of bachelorhood. He also knows how to project a don’s delight in hair-splitting argument, an evangelist’s joy in communicating the spiritual good news, and an ex-celibate’s wonderment at the newfound riches of marriage. Only in the scene with Douglas, in the very passage in which Ackland excels, does Hawthorne have to force his emotion. The open expression of agony evidently does not come easily to him, and though he does deliver the goods technically, the effect is a bit manufactured, especially as compared with Ackland’s easy eloquence.

Nevertheless, the play ultimately provides the more powerful and more memorable experience. It is not a matter of fidelity to facts. Both works play fast and loose with the facts of the protagonists’ lives. But while the TV version skims the Lewis-Davidman affair, the play pierces very nearly to the heart of it. The film is short, neatly knit, and comfortable to watch. The play is longer, clumsier, yet more thorough, more attentive to the interplay of two endlessly complex people. Like Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner,” it arrests us, holds our attention with a tale of terror and ecstasy, then sends us on our way, certainly sadder and perhaps wiser. It’s no surprise that the teleplay was so popular in Britain, but it is startling, hearteningly so, that the play is doing well on Broadway.

Author

  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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