It's amusingly ironic that in the same county where a theater is mounting Jerry Springer: The Opera, which has elicited more than 19,000 e-mail protests from outraged Christians, that a show written by C.S. Lewis, one of the most rational and hallowed Christian-oriented writers of the 20th Century, is on display this weekend: a theatrical version of his 1942 work The Screwtape Letters.
But though Lewis was a devout Christian, the language in his book is nothing like the shrill intolerance of the Religious Right, or the voluminous ineptitude of Left Behind. But neither is it a proselytizing sermon.
Instead, the book, a series of 31 letters written from one of Satan's chief demons to a minion trying to upend the faith of a recent convert to Christianity, is a meditation on the nature of evil. And its primary inspiration was less Nazareth's Christ than Branau's Hitler.
"The idea came when (Lewis) was listening to Hitler's Reichstag speech over the radio in July, 1940," said Max McLean, who conceived the theatrical version of Screwtape in 2005, and who, after a nine-month run in New York City last year, is touring the country with the show. "Hitler was trying to convince the British people that he meant no harm, that his intention was to build a master culture led by the British and Germans united together. He said the longer the war went on, the longer it was keeping him from his work, and someone had better talk to Churchill."
Strangely, McLean said, as Lewis listened to the translated broadcast, he became transfixed. "He knew that Hitler was saying things that were absolutely not true, but he became convinced they were right. So he experienced the power of persuasion for malevolent purposes."
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In Screwtape, the titular character (played by McLean) uses that power as Satan's chief psychiatrist drawn to undermine the faith of his "patient" (who never communicates in the book and is never seen in the play). But, as the work progresses, Screwtape's struggle to "cure" his patient unravels. McLean calls it a "morally inverted, topsy-turvy world where Screwtape is both the protagonist and antagonist so the audience sees the play through his eyes. It's a fascinating gymnastic journey. I think Screwtape is one of the great literary creations of the 20th Century and the book is one of the best examples of reverse psychology ever written."
Although the book, and play, have a definite Christian worldview in the sense of the battle between good and evil, and human choices amidst that backdrop, McLean said the play, like the book, is filled with droll, satirical humor designed to entertain any person, regardless of belief system.
"He tells a great story and we put on a good show," he said. "That is the first and foremost job of theater: to entertain. If it doesn't, it doesn't matter what else is there. But through that entertainment, people will hopefully be provoked, to think about things that they don't normally think about. That's one of the things I love about theater. You can walk in and enter another world view and live in it for awhile."
Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 854-4646.Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. $29-$59. www.screwtapeonstage.com.