Down to Salisbury Playhouse last night to see ‘Shadowlands’.
C. S. Lewis is the middle-aged Oxford don leading a life of complacent intellectual smugness. His shtick is writing and lecturing about theological issues such as the meaning of suffering. “We are blocks of stone, and the pain we feel is the sculptor, chiselling our shape out of the rock, to make us perfect”. God, that is. And our present life, the sculpting process, is the Shadowland, prefiguring the perfect world to come.
Lewis had met suffering when he was eight years old, when his mother had died of cancer, but had reacted with denial.
Enter Joy Gresham, an American poet with young son in tow, and a huge fan of Lewis. They meet and hit it off. The first part of the play shows Lewis falling in love with Gresham and not knowing it. As Gresham divorces her abusive American husband, Lewis agrees an arranged marriage to enable Joy to stay in the UK.
Now it’s Joy’s turn to be diagnosed with terminal cancer. Almost too late, Lewis realises that he is in love with Joy, a love which infuses his whole being. He has begun to live at last (‘he rejoins the human race’ as a review on Amazon has it) - and then she dies.
His is a searing grief - how can his previous glib thoughts about the necessary role of suffering in Christianity hold up? His clever, but shallow and vacuous intellectual theorisations collapse under the load of his unbearable anguish.
Somehow, his faith remains. We know, by the way, about the aftermath. Lewis wrote up his pain in a brutally honest journal “A Grief Observed” (here).
We thought the play was brilliant - excellent ensemble acting which captured the time (1950s) and attitudes perfectly. Most of Lewis’s misogynistic friends loathed Joy. As she was American, rather ‘in your face’ and had no time for their brittle anti-feminine banter, one can see why.