Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Screwtape, on stage

So, Saturday Janice and I took the 'Link' into downtown Seattle, where after a fine meal at Wild Ginger (a great restaurant that friends Sig & Anne introduced us to and to which we get maybe once a year or so) we walked to the Paramount Theater for a four o'clock live show, a two-person adaptation of C. S. Lewis's THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS.

Now, this is the book that made C. S. Lewis famous, got him on the cover of TIME magazine, and in general changed him from an academic who cdn't get a professorship into a popular author. In recent years THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA have replaced SCREWTAPE as Lewis's best known writings (unfortunately so, in my opinion), but for a long time this was the book CSL was known by more than any other. And it's still one of the very best.

It was also one of the first books by C. S. Lewis I ever read,* while I was still in high school. And the one he dedicated to J. R. R. Tolkien, which made it a great starting point.

I'd heard about this adaptation for a while, so I had a good idea of what to expect. I have to say that on the whole I enjoyed it. McLean, the actor playing Screwtape is no John Cleese, but then who is? I wd have preferred Cleese's acerbic academic bite, but McLean's flamboyance worked well enough. I'm certainly glad we went, and I'd recommend it to fans of the book who are curious to see how they cd dramatize what is essentially a correspondence, and a one-sided correspondence at that.

In essence this is a one-man show, except with two characters on stage. Only one has dialogue, though; the other is to writhe, contort, fetch and carry, and generally act out while the other pontificates.** David Bratman compared this second figure (Toadpipe, Screwtape's secretary in the book, his factotum in the stage play) to Sirkis's Gollum, which isn't far from the mark (except that it's a largely silent 'gollum', speaking only the occasional gibberish).

As for Screwtape himself, he reminded me more of a Ringmaster than infernal bureaucrat, partly from his flamboyant outfit (a gaudy dressing gown) and partly for his doing a fair amount of gesturing while holding forth dramatically as he airs his opinions. I understand entirely why they decided to make this a two-person show, so there'd be something for the audience to see, but for my money they wd have done better to just have a one-man show: Screwtape has the moxie to carry it off, and the self-absorption of a highly opinionated senior demon (sorry: devil) wd come across even more strongly that way, I think.

In any case, the show starts with Lewis's later piece, "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", then segues into the main story; the whole only takes up about ninety minutes. Here's a link to the group putting on this adaptation, whose explicit goal is to create quality Xian drama;*** the website has a lot more about the production, and includes a good picture of the actor/playwright in costume.

I am curious about one point: the credits in the little program book say that this play was adapted by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean (who plays Screwtape himself), but the full listing of cast and crew later on (p.7) includes a note that this play was "Inspired by Tony Lawton's stage adaptation". If anyone out there has seen Lawton's version, how does it differ from this?

Oh, and for those interested: they announced that their next project is a similar stage adaptation of THE GREAT DIVORCE. Now that shd be interesting . . .

--John R.

*I originally wrote here "the first book by CSL I ever read", but checking my Reading List I find that I actually read the space trilogy first (I.8, I.9, I.10, from Sept 4th thr Sept 10th, 1975), while I didn't read Screwtape until two months later (I.34, circa Sept 17th or 18th, 1975). And another two years passed after that before I read another, The Great Divorce (I.157; Tues. Oct 18th 1977), shortly before I read my first Ch. Wms, All Hallows' Eve --this being the only Wms book in the local university library (I.167; Tues, Nov 15th-Th. 24th, 1977); the first Barfield came a year later, during my summer at Fayetteville, when I gained access both to campus and off-campus bookstores and the excellent Univ. of Arkansas library: Worlds Apart (I.221; July 10th-15th, 1978), quickly followed by Unancestral Voice (I.228; July 25th thr Aug 1st, 1978). From that point on, the Inklings' books come thick and fast.

**or whatever the infernal inverse of that wd be.

***shades of George MacDonald!

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