The impact of the writings of Clive Staples Lewis (“Jack” to his friends) on the direction of Christianity in the 20th and 21st centuries is not to be underestimated. Lewis was not a Roman Catholic, but his version of Christianity, which he called – in the title of his most famous work of apologetics – Mere Christianity (a phrase borrowed from G.K. Chesterton) was more Catholic than Protestant in many ways – or so it seems in retrospect. His view of divorce, for instance, was very much pre-Reformation – and therein lies the tale of Shadowlands.
Shadowlands is a 1985 play by William Nicholson that originally appeared on British television and was later adapted for the stage and then twice for film. It tells the story of the unlikely friendship and romance between C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman Gresham (later Mrs. Lewis), a somewhat brash but brilliant Jewish-American poet, former communist, and Christian convert, who in the course of their friendship became a divorcée. When Mrs. Gresham, fallen on hard times, needed a way to stay in England, she proposed to Lewis, with whom she had by then carried on a two-year, long-distance correspondence. At first, Lewis rejects the idea: they hardly knew one another and, besides, divorce and remarriage are contrary to Christian doctrine.
But then Joy falls ill, and Jack decides to jettison his religious scruples in a “city hall” marriage – one in name only but providing Joy with an end to legal and financial troubles. But later, when Joy is near death and Jack is genuinely in love with her (and she with him), they are married by a clergyman under the proper rite, simply ignoring Joy’s divorce.
Lewis had believed that the greatest love was always unobtainable. Now, in middle age, he finds love enfleshed. He reflects:
Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore, only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice. As a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.
In several of his books, Lewis wrote about the question of suffering: The Problem of Pain (1940) and A Grief Observed (1961) are two, the latter being the story of the pain of losing Joy to cancer the year before. (The book was originally published under a pseudonym, N.W. Clerk.)
Nicholson clearly drew upon these books in writing Shadowlands. The play is bookended by Jack Lewis telling the audience that:
[I]t is because God loves us that he makes us the gift of suffering. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. You see, 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.
This is classic Lewis theodicy.
Lewis, noted for his expertise in medieval love poetry, was a lot like the Orientalist Arthur Waley, once the greatest of experts on Asian literature, who – when asked why he had never visited China or Japan – remarked that such intimacy with the actual places would have spoiled his academic impressions. Lewis maintained his distance from actual romance until well into his fifties. When it came, the reality struck him hard.
After Joy’s death, Lewis was left with the care of Joy’s son, Douglas. Perhaps because he reverted to his mother’s original Judaism, no mention is made in Shadowlands of Joy’s other (older) son, David. David must have been a strong-willed boy, because he embraced Orthodox Judaism after his mother’s death and as the adopted son of C.S. Lewis, who obligingly provided David with kosher food. It’s an interesting story, but – understandably – not one Nicholson could easily have included in his play. David Gresham inherited half of the Lewis estate but wishes nothing to do with his stepfather’s legacy – or faith.
The great Christian writer, a few years shy of his own end, faces love and death in quick succession. “I’ve just come up against experience,” he tells his brother. “Experience is a brutal teacher. . .but you learn. My God you learn.”
Shadowlands is currently on stage through January 7, 2018 at Acorn Theatre, off-Broadway on W. 42nd Street, New York, NY. Daniel Gerroll is Jack and Robin Abramson is Joy. Mr. Gerroll, who has had a distinguished career, is perhaps best known for his role as an Olympian in 1981’s Chariots of Fire. (He appears in the famous poster, helping to support Eric Liddle [Ian Charleson] upon his left shoulder.) This new production of Shadowlands is presented by the Fellowship for Performing Arts, which has been responsible for two other Lewis adaptations: The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce.
The age difference between the actors is 31 years, whereas Lewis was “just” 19 years older than Davidman. No matter, really, although in one of the film versions, Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger were much closer at 17 years. Watching Mr. Hopkins is always a delight, and director David Attenborough’s film gives us town-and-gown Oxford, glorious Oxford. And yet there are intimacy and immediacy in live theater, and in Mr. Gerroll’s and Miss Abramson’s performances, that no film can match.
If you live in the New York area or plan to visit over the upcoming holidays, consider seeing this fascinating and moving dramatic performance. If you can’t make it to NYC, the Attenborough-Hopkins Shadowlands is available to stream.
And remember: “We live in the Shadowlands. The sun is always shining somewhere else. Round a bend in the road. Over the bough of a hill.” Finally, in heaven.