The Screwtape Letters, adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean
Review by Mike D’Virgilio
The FPA Theatre Company certainly merits praise for daring to take on a dense but short book that turns upside down the biggest subject in the world, and turn it into a play, in their production of The Screwtape Letters, based on the novel by C. S. Lewis. That they have made a success of it is truly impressive, and that they have done so on a clearly quite tight budget is even more so.
For those not familiar with the C. S. Lewis book written in the early 1940s, it recounts the epistolary correspondence between Screwtape, a mid-level satanic bureaucrat, and Wormwood, a young demon that is trying to lure his first soul into his demonic leader’s house. Some critics have derided the set and production as cheap, which in my view is quite false and simply suggests a ghastly lack of imagination on their part—or perhaps a more sinister fault.
Given that the book is in the form of a series of letters, it is obvious that the play will involve much talk and not much obvious action. Yet plays have successfully employed that approach in the past, and this adaptation of Lewis’s book definitely captures the essence, and more importantly the serious layers of meaning, of the exchanges between Screwtape and his underling. The drama is played out as nearly a one-man show, which critics have found quite acceptable in other contexts. One suspects, then, that their quibbles are based not on the form but the content.
Playing at Chicago’s Mercury Theater after successful runs in Washington, D.C., and New York City, the book was adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean, with McLean staring as Screwtape. The play is set in the underworld, in what looks like a reading room set up in a subway station tunnel. Dressed in a smoking jacket (I’m sure no pun intended), McLean stalks around the stage with his rich baritone voice enunciating Screwtape’s words to his underling Wormwood, his voice dripping with irony.
Screwtape’s secretary, Toadpipe (Yvonne Gougelet), shares the stage as a feminine seductress emitting wordless sounds (not in the book). She helps give the necessarily wordy production comic relief. Smoke and lighting complete the production effectively.
Having read the book prior to going to the play, I was surprised at how much I grasped from McLean’s characterization. His performance is truly illuminating. In the book I had to read some passages several times to get Lewis’ meaning. Given that up is down and down is up in Screwtape’s world, and that Lewis was a genius writing to an educated British audience in the early 1940s, some difficulty in reader comprehension is understandable. In the theatrical adaptation, however, McLean’s many physical gestures and gyrations and vocal inflections manage to make the meaning easier to grasp.
The wisdom of C.S. Lewis displayed in the play is just astounding. His ability to explain the human condition in ways that both surprise and ring entirely true makes one feel grateful to inhabit a universe that has objective meaning and standards.
Of course, even Lewis’s brilliant clarity of reasoning may not overcome the arguments of any nearby pagans, but it is not difficult to imagine the average bile-spewing, Christian-hating atheist actually enjoying The Screwtape Letters. It’s difficult to portray Lewis as some backward, benighted Christian ignorantly and fearfully clinging to his religion like an opiate-addicted junky. No, for Lewis, Christian faith clearly accords fully with reason and human experience, and anyone who would argue against him had better come very well prepared indeed, as Screwtape demonstrates vividly in both the book and this superb theatrical adaptation.
In fact, the transformation of Screwtape from a confident, urbane, sophisticated mentor into a desperate, haunted failure is the most striking aspect of the play. No matter what wiles and instructions Screwtape gives and whatever nefarious means Wormwood employs, the devils eventually lose their subject to the enemy. The dark, desperate, disheveled Screwtape of the drama’s climax realizes that no matter what he does, he is working in the “Enemy’s” territory (God’s creation), relying on lies and perversion to attempt to destroy a world his enemy created and which the devil does not have the power to redefine.
McLean’s bombastic portrayal of this failure is hauntingly gratifying and is superb drama and a moving theatrical experience—at least to followers of “the Enemy.”