Hell's waiting room

C.S. Lewis depicts the banality of evil in The Screwtape Letters

Hell's waiting room
Gerry Goodstein

The Screwtape Letters

Through Dec. 30
Plaza Theatre
425 N. Bumby Ave.

I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the end of the Christmas season – and the dawning of what will surely prove to be yet another dark and twisted year – than by catching a performance of the Fellowship for the Performing Arts’ critically praised and popular theatrical adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

A stage adaptation of The Screwtape Letters seems, to say the least, difficult to pull off. After all, Lewis’ 1942 novel consists of a series of letters written by a senior demon, Screwtape, who is also Satan’s top psychiatrist, to his nephew Wormwood, a junior demonic “tempter” who is tasked with corrupting the soul of a young British man. The letters are highly satirical – and often hysterical and thought-provoking – suggesting a variety of devious ways by which Wormwood can complete his task of carrying the man “down the soft, gentle path to hell.” The story takes place in a morally inverted universe in which the figure of God is depicted as the enemy, and greed and avarice are considered to be the greatest good, a world which pointedly reflects elements of our own. The creators of the play have overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that a stage adaptation of the novel would seem to present in order to produce a play that brings Lewis’ novel to life and explores, as star and co-writer Max McLean puts it, “the banality of evil from a demon’s point of view.”

Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia series, underwent a thorny conversion to Christianity late in life. He went from describing himself as an atheist in his teens to approaching religion as a skeptic in his late 20s, but eventually was reconfirmed in the Anglican Church at 31. Those years spent studying, teaching, doubting and questioning his doubt make his religious literature (especially Mere Christianity) among the most powerful extant – appealing to believers and nonbelievers equally, perhaps because he is able to put himself in the place of each. Screwtape appeals not merely for its intellectually supported Christianity, but for its dark humor.

McLean says that the stage production does not attempt to rewrite or rework any aspects of Lewis’ original novel. In fact, despite making a few interesting additions to the story that serve to help adapt the book’s epistolary style to the stage, the play remains entirely faithful to Lewis’ original. McLean hopes that the play will not only engage and entertain audiences, but also “lead them back to the novel itself,” which he feels to be “one of the most profound and important novels of the 20th century.” Though it was written during the early stages of World War II, and comments, both directly and indirectly, on the rise of fascism throughout Europe, the story remains as applicable and timely today as it was when it first appeared 70 years ago.

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