TO MILLIONS of 21st-century readers and moviegoers, especially adolescents, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) might be best known as the creator of the Narnia books, which supplement their collections of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings volumes. Older adults may remember him for The Screwtape Letters, in which Screwtape, an experienced devil, explains to Wormwood, his nephew and a novice tempter, how best to ensnare his assigned human target.
Even at the age of 70, this novel continues to sell well, thanks in part to a new theatrical version that has played off-Broadway for more than 300 performances, in Chicago (six months) and in Washington, D.C. (10 sold-out weeks). A two-person play with a single speaking role, The Screwtape Letters challenges audiences to look not only outward to the stage but also inward at themselves.
The script “pulls back the veil of the spiritual world that most of us inherently know is there,” says Max McLean, who plays Screwtape as a dapper raptor with a grand goatee, brocade smoking jacket and matching vest, his eyes avidly searching for fresh carrion. “We tend to suppress that world because it’s too powerful, too much to handle,” he told St. Anthony Messenger recently.
Convincingly Gets Inside Evil
“What makes the book such a success,” explains McLean, “is that Lewis can really write—can really see—with piercing insight into human nature. He makes us squirm in self-recognition and wakes us up to the reality of spiritual warfare. That appeals not just to Christians of all stripes but also to people of different faiths—or no faith. It speaks to a spiritual reality that we all know is there but don’t want to acknowledge.”
In a 2002 address, Pope John Paul II described spiritual warfare as an invisible struggle in which people “engage every day against the temptations, the evil suggestions that the demon tries to plant in their hearts….More than ever in the lives of Christians today, idols are seductive and temptations [are] unrelenting….This battle is necessary in order not to be distracted or worried, and to live in constant recollection with the Lord.”
The notion that God and Satan are engaged in constant battles for specific human souls is not often heard in sermons today, much less on the stage. Nevertheless, The Screwtape Letters has drawn capacity crowds and almost universal praise. A critic in The New York Times labeled it “a humorous and lively stage adaptation.” The New Yorker magazine said it “captures the droll humor with which Lewis constructed his topsy-turvy morality lesson. Cleverly imagined for the stage, it gives even non-believers an amusing primer on the nuances of modern vice.” In The Wall Street Journal, critic Terry Teachout rated it “one hell of a good show….McLean is so delightfully repulsive.”
Inspired by Hitler’s Deceptions
The Screwtape Letters, begun in 1940, owes much to the 20th century’s greatest villain. After listening to a radio speech by Adolf Hitler, Lewis, an Anglican professor of literature at Oxford University, wrote to his brother. “I don’t know if I am weaker than other people, but it is a positive revelation to me that while the speech lasts it is impossible not to waver just a little.”
Reflecting on this insight, Lewis revealed that he was “struck by an idea for a book which I think would be both useful and entertaining. It would…consist of letters from an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started work on his first ‘patient.’ The idea would be to give all the psychology of temptation from the other point of view.”
Lewis would later wryly tell a friend that “some have paid me an undeserved compliment by supposing that [the book was] the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology. They forget that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works.”
In his Introduction to a later edition, Lewis revealed that composing these letters was, in fact, a severe trial. “Though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude,” he explained, “it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. The work into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded. It almost smothered me before I was
Lewis’s efforts to understand and disclose the underworld, especially its preference for paving a gradual slope toward damnation, resulted in 31 epistles from Screwtape, who advises Wormwood on the most underhanded ways to lead his “patient”—that is, the man he was assigned to tempt—to hell. In the upside-down underworld of Screwtape, God becomes “the Enemy” while Satan is “Our Father Below.” The original letters were published between May and November 1941 in The Guardian, an Anglican newspaper. Lewis donated his meager payments to a fund for widows of Anglican priests.
A year later, the letters were collected into a book, which became an immediate success and would go on to influence generations of Christians. In the 1950s and ’60s, many students in American Catholic high schools were assigned to read it. In 1995, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) began a commentary on a papal encyclical by citing this book.
Making the Connection
A spokesperson for HarperCollins, the U.S. publisher of The Screwtape Letters, testifies to the text’s popularity by noting, “Since [we] relaunched this book in 2001, we have sold 1,250,000 copies.” Some credit for recent sales belongs to McLean and Jeffrey Fiske, who converted the novel into a dramatic script. “The theatrical version,” confirmed the spokesperson, “has had a positive impact on book sales.” Theatergoers commonly read a novel either before or after seeing the dramatized version.
McLean explains, “I had been doing one-person shows for a long time. Jeff saw one of my theatrical productions, The Book of Genesis, in a small theater. He liked it and suggested that I would make a very good Screwtape.”
McLean laughs: “I didn’t know if that was a compliment or not.” While the actor had read Lewis’s book decades earlier and remembered that “it made quite an impression on me,” he admitted, “I never saw it as theatrical literature. I saw it more as a meditation on the banality of evil, but Jeff had an idea of how to do it.”
Converting the Book Into a Play
After securing the rights from Lewis’s estate, the pair began trimming the original text. “We had to cut quite a bit,” McLean says. Noting that an audio version of Screwtape runs about six hours, McLean adds, “You don’t need as many words to be clear” when gestures and facial expressions are available.
“Lewis was a very precise writer, and the level of detail he was trying to articulate would be useful for meditation,” the actor notes. “But, in a play, you have to move on.”
When McLean and Fiske finished their editing, the remaining words were about 98 percent Lewis’s. But the pair inserted a few modern references to make the content more accessible for contemporary audiences. Most significantly, since the novel was written during World War II, the play replaces Nazis with some unnamed terrorists.
On a lesser level, a photo of Madonna shows up, and Screwtape languorously pretends to use a TV remote to show how humans often waste their lives. “It’s a metaphor for doing nothing that everyone gets,” McLean says of the gesture.
“Doing nothing,” however, hardly describes the stagecraft of the actor, who took four months simply to memorize the script. On stage, he speaks for nearly 90 minutes without interruption in a setting that represents his character’s hellish office, its decor heavy with human bones.
The play’s only other character is Toadpipe; several actors have played this role. Audiences see this obsequious imp invented by Lewis—now taking dictation, sending and receiving the letters, yelping and growling—and occasionally acting out Screwtape’s descriptions of human behavior.
“Toadpipe was the director’s idea,” McLean says. “We didn’t want to bind Screwtape behind a desk, but we had to have a way to manage all the letters. Toadpipe frees Screwtape to articulate what was on his mind and be as theatrically exuberant as he wants to be. He loves his job, and loves the way he talks and dresses. The audience really is taken in by his confidence.”
What People Are Saying
Audiences have responded enthusiastically to this play, packing venues from coast to coast. A recent tour took McLean from New York to California, Oregon, Washington State, Colorado and North Carolina.
After a January 2011 performance in Manhattan, for instance, one man shared with this writer that he was impressed by “the depth covered of Lewis’s meaning in such a short time. The play is so true to the book.”
The opposite view was voiced by a woman who noted, “I was unable to embrace the book when trying to prepare for the production. But, from the very first phrase, I was a captive of Screwtape, Lewis and all who created a script of timeless relevance within our Christian theology. It was sad for me to have the magnificent drama end, yet there was no more to be said. It grips one’s soul and showers us with God’s gift of promised hope.”
One member of an audience that saw the play in Glendale, California, took her seat with more information about Lewis than the others around her. Nan Rinella is a conference coordinator for the California-based C.S. Lewis Foundation. “I’ve been looking for the play since I first heard about it,” she said. “I was very impressed. The audience watched with rapt attention, as if they were one body. It’s very artistically done. I appreciated it more because I have read the book, and I think the play will send people back to the book to read it again.”
Back East, the Rev. Arthur Mollenhauer, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Stamford, Connecticut, says that McLean “has superbly re-created on stage a well-acclaimed Christian classic with his extraordinary performance. Lewis’s writings come to life in a very pithy performance.”
Echoing Rinella, Father Mollenhauer says that “the audience becomes absorbed in the strategy of [Screwtape] who uses all means at his disposal to win over souls from heaven to hell. The viewer comes to understand the ruthless strategies the devil avails himself with in his struggle to triumph
over the sincere efforts of Christians to live their faith on a daily basis.”
Main Character Unseen
For his part, McLean sees the stage version’s main character as not Screwtape but rather “the patient, who is unsuspecting and who is trying to be a Christian and to do what his conscience is telling him. But he gets sidetracked constantly by Wormwood.
“The patient gets help from God, through the Holy Spirit and Jesus. That help frustrates Screwtape, and so there is a second journey: what happens to him. Screwtape begins supremely confident and at the top of his game, thinking that this particular prey is going to be quite easy. As things become more difficult and he realizes he has a formidable foe, he starts to crack up and fall apart. A kind of catharsis emerges at the victory of the patient.” That victory, in the inverted logic of The Screwtape Letters, is achieved when the patient dies.
McLean feels that agnostic or atheist actors could play Screwtape as long as they “were true to Lewis. A good actor follows the text. The problem with playing Screwtape is that you could make him a Snidely Whiplash and a kind of a two-dimensional character pretty easily. That would be a loss, and the play would not be that interesting. He has to be a three-dimensional character. The actor has to realize that Screwtape believes in God and thinks about him every second.”
McLean’s Own Conversion
The actor describes himself as “an active Christian.” Raised “nominally Catholic but not in an alive, spiritual home,” he was “awakened to the reality of Christ” later in life and joined the Presbyterian Church. “I could have had the same [conversion] experience in the Catholic Church, too,” he adds.
McLean’s faith and his career are united. As noted in his biography on his publisher’s Web site, “McLean has received critical acclaim for his theatrical adaptations of Mark’s Gospel and Genesis. He is known widely as the narrator of The Listener’s Bible and classic Christian literature, including Pilgrim’s Progress and Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. His daily radio program is heard on 700 radio outlets.” McLean also founded the Fellowship for the Performing Arts to promote religiously oriented plays (www.FPAtheatre.com).
As he reflects on his experience with The Screwtape Letters, McLean says that the book “is incredibly instructive and an extraordinary morality tale.” As for the play, which he has performed for weeks in some locations and for a single night in other venues, McLean says, “I love doing it; I absolutely enjoy doing it.
“Both Lewis and Screwtape understand human nature. It’s the most challenging piece I’ve done. I continue to learn and find new things that make the character more alive and compelling—and more real to the audience.”
C.S. Lewis died on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. When Time magazine eulogized Lewis two weeks later, it made up for the neglect by dubbing him “one of the Church’s minor prophets, a defender of the faith who with fashionable urbanity justified an unfashionable orthodoxy against the heresies of his time.”
That praise reflects his fame and is reinforced by McLean’s engaging dramatization of The Screwtape Letters.
Performance dates are available at www.screwtapeonstage.com. Recommended biographies of C.S. Lewis include The Narnian, by Alan Jacobs, and C.S. Lewis, by A.N. Wilson.