Irvine Barclay's Case for Wormwood

Why C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters remains so relevant and popular

The oldest conspiracy theory in one of the oldest of books would render any other one irrelevant. It's the one that begins in Genesis 3:15 with a little bit of enmity between a serpent and a woman, gets a human face in the book of Job, and reaches a show-stopping crescendo in the book of Revelation. It's the battle between two distinct camps for humanity's soul, and whether you have a dog in that hunt or couldn't care less, without that conflict, some remarkable works of literature probably would have gone unwritten, from the greatness of Milton's Paradise Lost and Dante's Inferno to the je ne sais quoi of The Left Behind series to the pinnacle of all human artistic achievement, the 41st episode of The Twilight Zone, with its unforgettable howling man.

C.S. Lewis, a most literary 20th-century writer, also broached the eternal chess game between God and Satan with his 1942 work, The Screwtape Letters. It's basically a series of 31 letters written from a silver-tongued senior devil, Screwtape, to an entry-level tempter, Wormwood, who is doing his damnedest to turn an Englishman, known only as the Patient, from the path of the Enemy toward Screwtape's beloved Father (in this satirical, topsy-turvy world, there's an obvious bit of role reversal).

Since there's only one character and all the important stuff happens outside the boundaries of Screwtape's words, the work wouldn't cry out for dramatization. But that hasn't stopped people over the years from adapting it to the stage, most recently Max McLean, who co-wrote and starred in a production that has basically been touring nonstop around the country since a nine-month run in New York City in 2010.

"She's the sort of woman who lives for others . . ."
"She's the sort of woman who lives for others . . ."

Though definitely Christian in bent (Lewis may be best known for creating Narnia, but he also spent a considerable amount of energy attempting to infuse rational argument into the concept of religious faith), McLean says Screwtape isn't a logical defense of Christianity as much as it is an "imaginative fantasy about how we choose to behave the way we behave. . . . So while the premise is there that the supernatural world has an impact on our lives, you certainly don't need to believe that to enjoy the play."

Along with co-creator Jeff Fiske, McLean created a mesmerizing Screwtape in this production, which is set in an office in hell and uses about 25 percent of Lewis' words to relate about 75 percent of the original work. Here, Screwtape is a flamboyant, bellowing English gentleman; his scribe, Toadpipe, gets a far more expanded role as a slinky, slithering female assistant; and decidedly non-Lewis touches, such as Screwtape admiring the lyrics to Madonna's "Material Girl," are tossed into the mix.

But Screwtape is the anchor. "I think he's one of the greatest literary creations of the 20th Century," McLean says. "His use of language is so theatrical, and he's such a well-written character. And there is something he wants really badly, and on that journey, he gets frustrated. He has a real narrative arc, and all of that is theater."

This is the third time The Screwtape Letters has made an appearance in Irvine. But it's the first time that McLean, who still directs, won't be starring. He has handed the reins to Brent Harris, an accomplished stage actor whose many roles include playing Scar in the national touring production of The Lion King.

"Audiences love him," McLean says. "He's got a tremendous presence, and he has a seductive quality that Screwtape needs to have in order to hold the stage. But though his personality, voice and body are different than mine, he still has to follow a track of a character that has already been created. So while there will be a different feel, the same story is still being told, which is very important for something as dense as Screwtape.

"He's one of these Masters of the Universe characters," he continues. "[Screwtape is] very smart, confident, disciplined and learned and does a very good job at ruining other people's lives. When you stick all of that together, you get a constellation of [traits] that makes him an unforgettable character."

Evil doesn't triumph in Screwtape, but good doesn't necessarily give it an ass-whumpin' either. Lewis was a former skeptic turned devout Christian, and he brought considerable intellect and humility to his writings about Christianity, something that McLean says is the reason why, next to Narnia, this is his most beloved work.

"It's very pragmatic and practical in terms of how we behave," says McLean, who became a Christian in his early 20s. "It holds a mirror up to all of us, but it's more narrative than prescriptive, more story than symbol. And one of the things I've found in the theater is if you produce good work, people will tolerate any [admission of faith], and if you don't produce good work, they won't. Lewis told a great story, and we put on a good show. That's theater. If it doesn't entertain first, it doesn't matter what else is in the play."

 
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