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Screwtape on Stage

After seeing Max McLean perform a one-man play in New York, playwright Jeffrey Fiske had a conversation with him that went something like this:

“Hello, Max? I just saw your production of Genesis and, y’know, you’d make a great Screwtape. I’d like to write an adaptation for the stage.”

“Hold on. Are you saying you just saw me depict several heroes of the Bible and your response is that I should play a demon?”

“Yes.”

“Makes sense to me. I’m in.”

 McLean now embodies the devilish title character in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters six times a week. Having played to sold out theaters in New York City and Washington, D.C., the Fellowship for the Performing Arts’ production is enjoying an extended run at the Mercury Theatre in Chicago. Its glowing reception from audience and critics alike is indicative of both Lewis’ wide appeal and the production team’s commitment to dramatic excellence.

McLean and Fiske’s first hurdle was securing the rights to Lewis’ classic novel; the second, perhaps even more daunting one, was translating it from the page to the stage. The challenge is that Screwtape is told through a series of letters jam-packed with heavy theological ideas—all from the demon’s point of view. Through this correspondence, Screwtape mentors the young apprentice devil, Wormwood, on the art of temptation and how to undermine the formation of faith and virtue in his human target, the Patient.

“In the beginning, we were very taken with the rich ideas that Lewis was trying to present, in a kind of devotional way,” McLean says. “This really resonated with me, but didn’t seem best for the stage. Lewis’ work is so dense. We felt the audience would get lost in just the ideas, miss the story and subsequently miss the ideas as well. So after a little trial and error, we found that if we focused on finding the story, and telling that story, the ideas will come.”

At the heart of the play is the hunt for the Patient’s soul, wooing him away from the Enemy, the demon’s name for God. To heighten that story, the creative team of McLean and Fiske utilize a character that is only mentioned once in the novel: the secretary Toadpipe. Played by Yvonne Gougelet, Toadpipe serves as the scribe for Screwtape, taking care of all the letter management issues and freeing up the senior devil to pontificate and storm around the aesthetically pleasing office in hell.

More importantly, Toadpipe morphs into the human characters and personifies many of the ideas which helps clarify for the audience what Lewis is doing in creating this upside-down spirit world. Yet Toadpipe never speaks a word. She croaks, screeches and grunts. She climbs up a ladder, seals all the letters and munches on what looks like a bone. But she also adopts the posture of the humans in a way that draws the audience in, allowing the imagination to create an emotional bond with the core of the story.

At first, the audience may not be sure how they feel about Screwtape himself. McLean is a powerful figure on stage with a rich resonating voice. His beginning monologue is an address to Young Devils in Tempters’ Training College—I was a bit removed from it, wondering where I might find a way in to connect with this character. Yet the very next scene, McLean was able to reveal an authentic emotional life within Screwtape, perhaps a chink in his armor, that truly captivates. The combination of all these elements, of Toadpipe’s antics, of Screwtape’s growing frustration, and of the civility of a collegiate correspondence school, create a provocative evening of theater that is at once funny and frightening.

On the night that I saw the play, a Q & A followed the performance. Two thirds of the audience stayed for it. I spotted small groups from about four different churches from around Chicago-land. Yet it seemed they had brought friends who were not necessarily from their church, but were interested in an evening of professional theater. Several groups continued the conversations from the Q & A into the bar next door. I noticed McLean and Fiske were also there, making themselves available to groups of people who wanted to discuss the ideas of the play. The event not only brought the novel to life, but became a kind of communal affair.

Certainly the individual can read the novel and wrestle with the ideas in the privacy of their own home. However, when Screwtape is standing a few feet away in real flesh and blood, and he steps down afterwards and dialogues about what just took place, and when others around you are engaging in the concepts of the play, those ideas become harder to dismiss.

It’s easy to dismiss the idea that evil is real or at least is not personified by a devil. “Perhaps evil happens,” we may say, “but is it calculated and authored by some demon out to get us? That’s just in the movies.” The irony is that Screwtape counsels Wormwood about lulling the humans into disbelieving in the devil’s existence, adding “the safest way to hell is the gradual one.” The young demons try to tempt with the spectacular sins, but the surest way to win them over is the slippery slope of slothfulness or selfishness or indifference.

McLean explains, “Lewis wanted to hold up a mirror and expose us to what evil may be rooted in, to look into the mind of the Tempter, and to show us how easily we succumb to his voice. After people see this production, they’re drawn back to the book, perhaps coming to it for the first time, and with a renewed awareness of the Tempter’s craftiness.”