The late American humorist Jean Kerr describes, in one of her essays, a day when her young son returned home from Catholic grade school and reported that he had been assigned the role of God in a class play about the Garden of Eden. The proud mother said, “That’s wonderful! That’s the lead role!” “Yeah, I guess,” the son replied, “but the snake has all the lines.”
‘Twas ever thus. In stories, plays, and all creative literature, Satan and his demonic forces are more intriguing and entertaining than the forces of Good in the higher realms. Composers may lift us to heavenly heights with their music; visual artists may depict vivid Bible scenes and saintly haloed faces, and we appreciate it all. But when it comes to hearing a good story, we’re much more interested in what’s going on below. From “Mephistopheles” to “Damn Yankees,” from “The Devil and Daniel Webster” to “Don Juan in Hell,” we may aspire to heaven, but we love to hear about what’s going on in hell.
The snake quite literally has all the lines in “The Screwtape Letters,” a new stage adaptation of the book by C.S. Lewis that is currently having a successful run at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs in New York City. One actor, playing Screwtape, a minor but self-important functionary in the regions of hell, does all the talking while his mute but very involved assistant takes his dictation and shares his emotions.
The premise of the play – and of the book – is quite simple. Screwtape’s nephew, Wormwood, is currently on Earth, assigned as a sort of guardian devil to an unnamed English man during the early years of World War II (The Lewis book was published in 1942.) His job is, of course, to ensure the man’s spiritual downfall. His uncle Screwtape receives periodic reports of his progress and dictates a series of letters offering advice on how to achieve his goal. The result is an intriguing reversal – a sort of mirror image of standard morality in which ‘good’ becomes ‘bad’ and ‘bad’ becomes ‘highly desirable.’ It’s as if C.S. Lewis had stepped through his own spiritual Looking Glass and, like Alice, found that the reversed world had perhaps more in common with ours than he might have expected.
Now, C.S. Lewis was certainly one of the most influential Christian writers (in English, at least) of the twentieth century; so even a light entertainment such as The Screwtape Letters must be taken seriously as an intended statement of faith. Indeed, the worldview of mankind as hapless pawns in a great cosmic battle between the forces of Good and Evil is implicit in much of Lewis’s writing – including his most enduring work, the series of books for children known as The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s an easy worldview to embrace – it’s certainly easier to see ourselves as victims of forces beyond our control than to accept responsibility for the choices we make.
But the duality of the heaven/hell paradigm is hard to reconcile with our shared understanding of the energy we call ‘God.’ If we define that energy as ‘omnipotence,’ then how can there be another power? And if hell is generally described as a place in which the greatest torment is the absence of God, then what does that do to the quality of ‘omnipresence,’ which is another characteristic of that which we call divine? There is certainly a quality at work in the world deserving to be called ‘evil.’ But it is a quality of our own creation, spun from choices we’ve made out of our ignorance of the absolute Presence of All God, everywhere. It seems something of a spiritual cop-out to pass off the energy of evil our own ignorance has created as the workings of the devil.
And yet, of course, we do love our dramas. And there can be great benefit – and much fun – in sharing stories of temptation and consequence – as long as we don’t allow ourselves to become victims of it all. It can be helpful – and darkly amusing – to attribute to agents of darkness some of the deviousness, anger and outrage that we know all too well from our own human consciousness – as long as we remember that removing those qualities from our life experience is an inside job.
And so listening to Screwtape expound on the flawed nature of mankind as he tries to guide his nervous nephew from afar is both entertaining and thought-provoking. The production at the Westside Theatre is imaginatively designed and rather excessively staged, as if the words and ideas could not be trusted to hold our attention on their own. The character of Toadpipe, the assistant – effectively danced, mimed and snarled by Karen Eleanor Wight – seems to have wandered in from Cirque du Soleil, or a demonically costumed production of Cats.
Max McLean’s performance as Screwtape is totally masterful, moving with apparent ease through what amounts to a ninety-minute monologue. It’s impossible not to be impressed; and yet it’s difficult to be moved or involved. The audience at the performance I attended was subdued and, I suspect, not as responsive as others may have been. McLean’s instinctive reaction was to double up on the intensity by saying everything very loud and very fast. I’m not sure Screwtape is consistently in the high dudgeon McLean maintained throughout; I somehow suspect the devil is most effective when he is not yelling at us, but charming us with a confident air and a sardonic smile, allowing the underlying danger and rage to show in brief glimpses. I missed that in the performance. And I longed for him to slow down from time to time, to take a moment to consider – and savor – what he was saying, so that I could do the same.
Still, The Screwtape Letters is a provocative evening of theater – amusing and thought-provoking in equal measure. Say what you will about his role in our story, the snake can be a lot of fun to hang out with for a while.
Fellowship for the Performing Arts presents “C.S. Lewis The Screwtape Letters,” adapted and directed by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean, with Max McLean as Screwtape and Karen Eleanor Wight as Toadpipe. Scenic Design by Cameron Anderson, Costume Design by Michael Bevins, Lighting Design by Jesse Klug, Original Music & Sound Design by John Gromada. At the Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street, New York, NY. For performance schedule and ticket prices visit http://www.ScrewtapeOnStage.com.
Rev. Edward Townley is senior minister at Unity of Greater Hartford in South Windsor. He is the author of The Secret According to Jesus and responds to a lively range of Bible questions on the “Interpret This” blog on the international Unity website, www.unity.org.