Play about assemblage artist Joseph Cornell

By Abigail Reese

The creative eccentricity of shadowbox artist Joseph Cornell comes to life through Hotel Cassiopeia at Wheaton College Arena Theater. Written by Charles Mee and infused with exploratory movements derived from the minds of director Michael Stauffer and the cast, the show presents itself as a collage of music, images and dialogue that probes the inner experiences of this great, but perhaps little known, American artist. With no particular regard to appropriate temporal continuity, Mee focuses rather on the relationships that fed and influenced Cornell’s work.

Cornell himself is a meek guy in a suit who lives quietly in his basement with his mother and disabled brother. He is a man so obsessed with living a “meaningful” life that he never actually lives. He is desperate for love and affection, yet seems determined to sabotage even the most determined of seductresses. This expressive work shows the audience glimpses of all these well-described observations while giving us a sense of who this mysterious man truly was.

While nothing about Hotel Cassiopeia is conventional – least of all its plot – there is a powerful story at its heart. It is about Joseph’s love for his disabled brother Robert, a quadriplegic who is dying of cancer. The play demonstrates that living with a loved one in this condition is heartbreaking. And Cornell is not alone in this struggle. According to Medical Info database, approximately 150,000 people have quadriplegia in the United States. Taking care of a quadriplegic parent or other family member at home can be physically and emotionally challenging. Jack Merriwether who plays the quadrapaligic brother says “I saw Robert as a representation of home for Joseph, and also as a reason to tell the stories of his life through the images he sees. I think Robert gives Joseph a reason to collect images and objects.”

Cornell’s art and reliance on God are especially important as he struggles with suffering in his life. Audience member Justin Dillenback 16’ says that “From watching the play I was able to get a glimpse into Cornell’s loneliness and reason behind his artwork. He created art not for money or fame, but for his brother, for love. The materials he obtained for his boxes were for his brother, and he combined the materials with his creativity and attention to detail.”

Cornell’s conversations with Robert seem like the beginning of wisdom. Merriwether commented on his relationship with Cornell, “I think a central message of Joseph’s work and this play is really the importance of our experiences as humans and how we honor those experiences…we can learn how to better see the world around us and how to honor the experiences of our lives in ways only we as individuals can.”

Cornell’s art and relationships are largely influenced by the teachings of Christian Science and membership of the Christian Science church. They provided Cornell with clarity essential to his sanity and his art – the certainty, despite everyday trials and confusions, of ultimate cosmic harmony within the all-encompassing mind of God. His shadow box art communicates a sense of abiding, of a world forever moving and changing, yet forever fundamentally unchanged.

Director Michael Stauffer believes that this play has “the power of art which invites participation on the part of the viewer…we have found that Joseph’s simple explorations of the meaning of found objects are imbued with life and the ability to point to true meaning in the soul of those who are willing and able to go with him on this journey.”

Dillenback reflected on his journey through the play saying, “I really enjoyed how the actors discussed topics with such detail and imagery which gave me a glimpse at the creativity in each of the artists. Lines spoken by characters were often witty and caused me to laugh out loud. The play also had an awesome bubble machine and beach balls which the audience was able to toss around.”

For those interested in art, madness, dreams, and reality, I recommend checking out Hotel Cassiopeia, which runs through March 2nd. Come with an open mind, an open heart, and a willingness to go along for the ride, and you will surely not be disappointed.

Tickets are still available for Hotel Cassiopeia at Arena Theater.  If you would like to purchase tickets, call the box office at (630) 752-5800 or buy tickets online at