The Screwtape Letters – Four Stars
C.S. Lewis is perhaps best known as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia series, which, despite its scarcely subtle Christian metaphors, remains widely adored by both the secular and religious communities. The Screwtape Letters is a satire on human folly written from a Christian apologetic point of view and takes the form of a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a Junior Tempter called Wormwood who must ensure the damnation of a human soul known only as “the Patient.” Throughout the letters, Screwtape advises his nephew on how best to turn the Patient toward “Our Father Below.” While his young nephew hopes for his charge to do something truly evil on a Henry VIII or Hitler scale, Screwtape emphasizes repeatedly that such dire sins aren’t necessary to seal the Patient’s fate. “The safest path to hell,” he says, “is the gradual one.”
It’s easy to see why this is Lewis’s second most popular work. Despite its blatant advocacy of Christianity, the novel is enjoyable because of its pointed and acerbic observations about human weaknesses, many of them aimed at the religious community itself. For example, Screwtape is livid to learn that his nephew’s charge has joined a church, but then remarks that many churches have been doing the devil’s work for years. He says, “A moderated religion is as good for us [demons in hell] as no religion at all-and more amusing.” When he takes aim at the secular personality, it’s the disaffected dilettante who comes under fire; the sort of person who reads a book so that he can brag about it and not because he enjoys it, and who mindlessly adopts an attitude of fashionable disdain about everything. Lewis could have been writing about the suckers on Look at That F*cking Hipster. The work is largely a very funny criticism of failings like pride, selfishness, complacency, laziness, and hypocrisy, all of which most people would agree are unfavorable and counterproductive, regardless of their religious persuasion.
As a devout atheist who still retains her childhood love of C.S. Lewis, I was especially eager to see how well this epistolary novel translates to the stage and how much Bible-thumping the company would attempt to get out of this production. I’m happy to report that Max McLean’s performance as Screwtape was excellent, and I was impressed by how well he fulfilled a very tall order: It’s basically a one-man show in which he continually narrated for 90 minutes without intermission or, indeed, much more than a handful of 30-second intervals for breaks. Nevertheless, his energy was invigorating and the audience was riveted
That said, his delivery wasn’t always perfect. There were too many pauses in the middle of sentences that lasted too long, and sometimes he would look expectedly at the audience while he did it. While it’s clear that this was a deliberate choice, it was an awkward one that often spoiled the timing of the jokes in the script. Lewis’s language is relatively complex and leans heavily on finely-wrought paradoxes and maxims; in such cases, timing is paramount. The theatrical adaptation of The Screwtape Letters originated with small developmental production in 2006, so I’m not sure why timing presented a problem Friday evening. It did, however, correct itself as the show went along, and this one problem was the only defect in an otherwise excellent performance.
Tamala Bakkensen kept McLean company onstage as Screwtape’s peculiar and impish secretary Toadpipe, outfitted in a fiendish get-up that made her look like one of Brian Froud’s illustrations. Her colorful and intensely physical performance reminded me a lot of a goblin from Labyrinth or Animal from the Muppets. She didn’t speak other than to cackle or grimace at Screwtape’s narration. I found it especially endearing when she vomited after Screwtape first mentions the word “prayer,” but then again, I would.
The production design deserves particular praise. Cameron Anderson’s set design established a slick and dramatic atmosphere with just a scant few set pieces. The wall of bones and skulls was delicious, and the raked platform and distorted ladder was a nice nod to German expressionism. John Gromada’s soundscapes were even more evocative, an assemblage of groans, creaks, and roars that was absolutely perfect. It isn’t often that sound design stands out to such a degree, but the play definitely would have suffered without it.
The goal of Max McLean’s company is to produce high-quality theatre from a Christian perspective that will attract and engage a diverse audience, and they seem to have succeeded with their Screwtape tour. While I congratulate them on their success, I’m disappointed that it’s not enough for them- they want to try to convert people, too. I understand that tellin’ it from the mountain is something these people feel obliged to do, but the Cutler Majestic is a theatre, not a pulpit. As such, I didn’t appreciate the Christian propaganda in the program. I especially did not appreciate McLean’s lamentations in his program note about how Christians are marginalized and mocked by the “cultural elite.” Really? Artists have suffered bullying at the hands of Christian communities for centuries, especially in this country where only about 10% of the population is made up of non-believers. As little as two years ago, David Wojnarowicz’s short film A Fire in Belly was excluded from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery after complaints from religious groups who claimed the film was offensive. McLean doesn’t seem to realize that we still live in a world where religious groups have the power to deny artists expression, and as such, I have no sympathy for him.
My best advice to Mr. McLean is to stick to his own assertion of art’s power to inspire, and let his company’s very decent work speak for itself. I think both sides of the religious divide need to spend more time exploring common ground rather than trying to convince the opposite side that they’re wrong, and theatre like this is a step in the right direction.
This Boston performance is over, but the show continues to tour the country. See www.screwtapeonstage.com.