The Screwtape Letters: a Student's Perspective
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Classic Christian Literature On Stage
A student review by senior English major Kelsey Luffman
C.S. Lewis (1898 – 1963), arguably the most influential writer, scholar, and Christian apologist of the modern age, is perhaps best known in the United States for his Chronicles of Narnia (published between 1950 and 1956). However, Lewis’s fiction writing extends far beyond the realm of children’s literature. MNU students and faculty experienced the effects of Lewis’s literary legacy on September 29, in the Fellowship for the Performing Arts’ theatrical adaptation of The Screwtape Letters.
The play, which took place at the architecturally gorgeous Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo., is an adaptation of Lewis’s 1942 novel by the same name. The book’s premise is simple, yet never ceases to fascinate: it is a fictional collection of letters from Screwtape, a senior devil, to his nephew Wormwood, a recent graduate of the Tempter’s Training College in Hell.
In his letters, Screwtape advises Wormwood how to best tempt and foster sin in a certain young man, referred to as “the Patient.” Throughout their elaborate deceptions and twisted antics, Screwtape and Wormwood’s ultimate goal is to damn the man’s soul to Hell so they can devour it – but there’s one thing holding them back. Screwtape and his nephew must fight against the influence “the Enemy” (i.e. God) before He can redeem the Patient for Heaven.
FPA’s production featured a lush, stylish set that allowed audience members to enter the hellish office where Screwtape dictates his infernal mail. I was pleased that the producers chose to preserve the book’s format; rather than creating roles for characters like the Patient, his mother, and the Patient’s love interest, who were discussed, but not present in the book, they chose to maintain the epistolary format.
Though the production was remarkably faithful to the source material, there were a few exceptions. One of the producers’ ingenious innovations was to appoint Toadpipe (who is but briefly referenced in the book) as a second protagonist. Toadpipe, as Screwtape’s demon underling, is repeatedly induced into trances where he puppets Screwtape’s words, enacting the various virtues, vices, and scenarios the senior devil suggests. Beckley Andrews was simultaneously disturbing and poignant as the twisted, reptilian, and elastic-bodied Toadpipe, evoking the groveling inhumanity that results from servitude to evil.
Besides the characterization of Toadpipe, the producers took other minor liberties to make the World War II work more accessible to contemporary audiences. The most obvious instance of this was replacing references to “the German war” with more relevant “terrorism” – an alteration which made Screwtape’s nonchalant explanations of how to inflict maximum damage on the human soul during wartime much more chilling.
The production’s greatest strength, however, was Max McLean’s virtuoso performance as Screwtape. McLean (who is also the president and artistic director of FPA), played a deliciously repulsive, shockingly avaricious Screwtape whose cartoonish self-importance suggested the manner of a pompous Oxford don. Most significantly, however, McLean succeeded in lending an air of exaggerated gravity to Screwtape’s ironic temptation strategies, eliciting knowing laughs from audience members, who came close to filling the theatre’s 1,800 seats.
Overall, the adaptation struck an admirable balance between textual faithfulness and artistic liberty, and succeeded in bringing Lewis’s words to life for a contemporary audience. Though I do not believe Lewis’s superb work can be improved upon textually, it’s inevitable that audiences experience cultural amnesia, and the production’s minor alterations served to bridge the gap between Lewis’s world and ours.
I attended the performance with a group of MNU faculty members and fellow students, and the experience was a memorable one. For us, the impact of the performance extended beyond the theatre. Our response was what I believe Lewis intended when he penned his devilish letters – intelligent consideration and discussion of the Christian faith, as well as increased awareness of that faith’s implications for our eternal perspective, as well as our daily lives in a modern (now, postmodern) context.
To learn more about the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, their critical reception, and their upcoming performances, visit screwtapeonstage.com.