Editor's Note: This Q&A originally ran on March 31, 2011, when The Screwtape Letters came to the Majestic Theatre for the first time. It returns this weekend, on Saturday, Nov 19 (at 4 and 8 p.m.). Here's our original review.
Max McLean has loved C.S. Lewis' popular 1942 book The Screwtape Letters for some time, but hadn't thought of adapting it as a play. Not until Jeff Fisk brought the project to him. Together, they ended up with a 90-minute show that has been touring the country, following a nine-month run off-Broadway. It hits Dallas' Majestic Theatre this weekend, for three performances.
The book is about a demon named Screwtape, who helps a younger demon turn a character known as the "Patient" away from God, and toward the devil. McLean has performed stories from the biblical books of Genesis and Mark onstage before (his Genesis show played at the Dallas Theater Center in the mid-'90s), and is currently recording an audio version of the entire Bible. He is also narrator for a project called The Listener's Bible.
Here, he plays Screwtape. TheaterJones chatted with him about the character and show.
TheaterJones: Small tours don’t always do as well as this one has been doing. How to you market it?
Max McLean: Lewis has a really significant fan base. Definitely evangelicals love Lewis, Catholics love Lewis, Protestants love Lewis. Chris Jones, the theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, started off his review saying that Lewis is to agnostics what David Brooks is to liberals, meaning he’s the only conservative they can stand. Lewis is like that with agnostics. He’s very smart, he can really write. He was an adult convert. His education was really formalistic, in terms of logical arguments, from his time with [teacher William] Kirkpatrick. He never forgot what it was like to not believe, to be skeptical, and he always wrote from that perspective. I think that’s why people respect his writing.
With Screwtape, he wrote an extraordinary character. I think it’s one of the great creations of 20th century literature as far as characters go. You have to create this morally inverted universe. You’ve got to follow through. You can’t break down. He was really enthusiastic about it when he started it.
What about this story spoke to you?
I think it was the second Christian book I read after I read the New Testament when I converted. I was an adult convert myself. First was his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy. I’ve since read it multiple times and I think it’s one of the most important books he wrote, but it’s a tough read, and the first time I didn’t understand a word of it.
The second was Screwtape. I thought, "I know this guy. This guy has been in my life for a long time." I didn’t see it as theatrical literature. I saw it as a meditation on the banality of evil.
You’ve made theater of the Bible before, presenting plays based on Genesis and the Gospel of Mark. Was it difficult to turn the Bible into theater?
I really like to recreate the oral tradition, I think it has power. The original Biblical story was handed down by tellers, and it had this amazing way of captivating an audience. Genesis is really good storytelling, if you edit it right.
What’s the trick to get nonbelievers to these shows, those who come to see good theater but don’t want to be converted?
That’s always a concern any time you do religious material, about what is the objective. We try very hard to say that we’re not a church. That’s not our thing. Theater has to entertain and engage. I want to tell stories that are meaningful to me, and need to organize it in a way that works as theater. And then help people that don’t see the world the way I see it, to get a glimpse. I think the power of theater is that it creates empathy. It allows somebody to sit in and view another experience, another way of seeing the world. And maybe you walk out and think "could this be true?"
Is there a trick to performing well-known literature so that those who’ve read it will connect to what’s onstage, regardless of what they've already imagined about the characters?
I recently saw Brian Bedford’s The Importance of Being Earnest on Broadway. I’ve seen the show multiple times, and thought it was good. I realized after seeing Brian’s performance what truly a literary genius Oscar Wilde was, but the ability for receiving that genius was through the actor’s talent. If the actor’s not technically skilled or actually smart enough to really understand how to interpret the language, the author’s genius is not going to get through.
What did you learn about Screwtape as you were creating this stage character, as opposed to when you first read it?
Obviously you have to bring something to it. In the book, he’s a dark, a little bit distant character. The first thought that I had was Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello. I've had some experience with that. I love that he brings you into his confidence, he brings you in and then destroys you. I thought that was a good handle on Screwtape. And then there was Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs. He has this aesthetic exterior, he loves the fine lines, the finer things in life, but inside there’s this malignancy. Slightly crazed, but not too much. The biggest surprise to me is that the audience loves Screwtape, because he’s really good at his job.
The bad guys are always more popular.
They know he’s creepy and out to ruin their lives. But that’s the appeal. The story is a basic predator/prey story.
There are two arcs to the play that the audience follows. There’s the Patient’s arc, who starts rather indifferent to the spiritual values that are in the play, and then he becomes engaged and rather devout, though grace. And that’s his journey.
Then there’s Screwtape’s journey, what happens to him as the Patient evolves. Screwtape starts off so confident, so on top of his game. This person is so easy, he’s got a lot of conceit, this middle-class intellectual snobbery. He’s lazy, he’s perfect for bringing down. The safest road to hell, according to Screwtape, is the gradual one.
When things become a little more challenging, Screwtape has to roll up his sleeves and you see his veneer cracking. The audience enjoys that.
Lewis said that writing Screwtape wasn’t a pleasurable experience for him. Can you see that in the book?
I don’t think so. That’s not my experience reading it. I’m almost ashamed to admit I love playing Screwtape.
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