C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters
That’s a tall order, indeed, and best handled by someone who must be a true believer. Max McLean, who is listed as co-adaptor and co-director of the C.S. Lewis’ classic-cum-theatrical production, convincingly plays Screwtape, the demonic mentor of his nephew, the inexperienced tempter Wormwood. McLean’s résumé brims with proficiency in saintly subjects, having recorded award-winning readings of The Bible in three translations, as well as John Bunyans’ Pilgrim’s Progress, Martin Luther’s Here I Stand,St Augustine’s Conversion, and Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Director/actor McLean brings Screwtape to life in a manner that may have made even C.S. Lewis himself smile.
We arrived at the cozy, somewhat cramped Westside Theatre a quarter hour early, finding our seats in the century-old former-German-Baptist-Church-turned-theater. I grinned in recognition, welcoming the sounds of Bob Dylan’s 1979 album, Slow Train Coming, particularly the song, Gotta Serve Somebody. Looking around the theater as it gradually filled with patrons, I seemed to be the only one lip-syncing with the lyrics that served to poignantly address the play’s theme:
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
The play’s directors, offering pre-performance music as a Michelin three star chef would offer an amuse-bouche to his patrons, made their final warm-up selection the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil:
Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul and faith
And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game
Tonight’s theater might be filled with modern skeptics and materialists, I imagined, but some of our best-loved cultural icons testify to at least a fascination with the themes C.S. Lewis’s writings bring to our attention.
I read The Screwtape Letters as a high school senior and remembered being entertained and challenged by Lewis’s reversal of the subject of morality from a godly point of view into a demonic Weltanschauung. The calculating Screwtape, rather than bedazzling a believer with spectacular temptations and corruptions, counsels his nephew to take the long view, saying that “the safest path to hell is the gradual one.”
Unfortunately, my teen-aged son was not prepared for this play as I hoped. I assumed his background and upbringing in our faith was enough to enable him to “get it,” but, sadly, there was much explaining to do afterwards. It made me wonder about the other souls in the audience, what they had hoped to see when they ambled in and to what extent they comprehended the nuanced messages Lewis’s characters delivered.
This performance included a silent character on stage, Toadpipe, played by Elise Girardin. Serving as Screwtape’s amanuensis, Toadpipe slinked feline-like about the floor and occasionally growled, making occasional guttural sounds of approval or disapproval. Neither distracting nor compelling, the inclusion of this character did little to affect the play’s impact overall. More stirring use of creative license in dialog and casting to enlarge the play’s consequence would be welcome. I could see introducing the character of Wormwood himself, perhaps in a different room, or other situational elements that might serve to convey the message more powerfully and emphatically. It’s difficult, I think, for a solo performer to engage in the business of letter dictation on stage for eighty minutes and hold an audience’s sustained attention. The script, being faithful to Lewis’s British-style of writing in war-torn England of the 1940s, was miles away from the parlance of the twenty-first century U.S., requiring a level of mental concentration nearly akin to that when listening to Shakespeare.
This adaptation, I believe, was made by those who truly love C.S. Lewis and his work, and who fully realize the depth of his contribution. But in some sense, they are too close to the subject, if that can be said, in not going far enough to bring the message to an audience that has moved beyond the era in which it was originally written. True, skeptics, hard-bitten materialists and agnostics will eschew this message out of hand. But a bridge toward understanding the reality of the supernatural world might better be built when more contemporary dialog and stage theatrics are employed. When that is achieved, the timelessness of C.S. Lewis’s work will become more fully displayed.
C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters, featuring Max McLean as Screwtape and Elise Girardin as Toadpipe plays at The Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St., New York, NY. www.ScrewtapeOnStage.com
The play is produced by Fellowship for the Performing Arts, founded in 1993. FPA is a non-profit organization whose mission is to produce theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience.