Dallas — Though author C. S. Lewis died in 1963, he is still alive in David Payne’s imagination. The author of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is the focus of Payne’s one-man show, An Evening with C. S. Lewis, which runs at AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Wyly Theatre Jan. 16-19. In the show, Payne portrays Lewis in the author’s later years entertaining American writers with stories about his life.
Payne wrote the play in the late ’90s after he starred as Lewis in a 1996 production of Shadowlands at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. After each performance, Payne said audience members would always ask him questions about Lewis, which inspired him to write a play where Lewis could answer their questions himself.
Payne has written three other plays about Lewis, drawing from different aspects of his life such as his friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien and his marriage with American author Joy Gresham. But An Evening with C. S. Lewis has since become Payne’s flagship production and sees him travel across the United States for 100 performances a year.
Payne spoke with TheaterJones about the show and why it has captivated audiences for more than a decade.
TheaterJones: I’ve noticed the show is described as a sort of “fireside chat” with C. S. Lewis. Could you talk me through that format?
David Payne: Yes, he’s sitting in his armchair. He’s in his living room and there’s the audience in there. The assumption is that it’s quite a small audience, because they couldn’t get many into a British home. But there’s a group of American writers and he’s chatting away. He talks about his childhood, he talks about his friendship with Tolkien, he talks about how he was an atheist and then became a Christian. He talks about how he met his American wife, and there’s a lot of humor in that. And then he talks about how he coped with life after her death.
There’s a very broad aspect, he briefly mentions his writing, but it’s a show that’s got a lot of humor in it because Lewis was a humorist. So, people will laugh more than they expect. Some people will cry more than they expect.
And what were the different types of materials you used to make up the content of the show — were there essays or correspondence that added content to this show?
Not really. It’s a show that doesn’t have many Lewis quotes in it, to be honest with you. What it has is the concept. It’s really more about him as a man, and you can find that out not so much from reading his writings — although you can, to some extent. But a lot of the research I did was reading the letters he wrote to various people. But there are very few direct quotes from Lewis or Lewis’s writing.
It’s just a man sitting there, talking about his life. And it’s a story, but a true story.
What makes C. S. Lewis a particularly good subject for a show like this?
Well, he’s well-known, for a start, and that makes it a lot easier when you’re doing a play about a man who’s well-known because a lot of people may not know the actor, but they know the subject matter. And if they’re C. S. Lewis fans (which a lot of people are), they’ll come along hoping that it will be good. Fortunately, most people that come love it.
And I think he’s a very interesting man. A man who was a great writer. In many ways he was a philanthropist, he gave most of his royalties around. He was a bachelor who meets an American woman in his middle age, and she turns his life upside down and they get married. He had an incredible relationship with J. R. R. Tolkien, and they were both writers and they did much in assisting one another in their writing.
He’s just an interesting character, so there’s plenty of material to capture an audience.
I would imagine it would be somewhat intimidating to portray such a major literary figure like this.
Well, I don’t want to sound conceited, but I don’t feel that. I feel that my job is to do the best I can to portray the man, not so much — I never try to portray why he wrote what he did or all that, but what the essence of the man was, which drove him to achieve what he achieved. I think that has always been my aim.
I get people coming up to me afterward who say, “I’ve read a lot of his books, I’m a fan, but now I feel I’ve met the man.” You can’t a get better compliment than that.
So how do you discover that part of him?
A lot of research. I did a lot. In the years after he died, his brother [Warren, or “Warnie”] compiled his letters and put them into a book. You get a lot from reading those letters. He’s not out to write a book to interest an audience, he’s not out to write a book to make a point. He’s just answering questions, writing to people, writing to his father, writing to his brother, writing to people who wrote to him.
And you read those letters, that’s where you’ll find the man. Anecdotes about him. So, what people said about him and incidents in his life which are not necessarily well-known. It’s trying to find the essence of the man.
What are some of the other research materials that you used?
There were a number of biographies. There were three or four biographies, not least of [which] was written by his dead son Douglas Gresham.
Then of course there was his own biography, which is in the early years of his life, up to the point where he had gone from atheism to Christianity. And, as I say, the letters. And letters even that Tolkien wrote about Lewis. There’s so much out there which is just great stuff for material you want to put in the play.
There’s far more material than you’ll be able to put in a play because you’d be there for three or four hours.
When you were putting together the show, how did you decide what material to include, since there’s so many things that make up a person?
That’s true, and actually when I first wrote the show and first performed it — it’s a very different show now from what is was then. Material that was in it is not in there now, and material that wasn’t in there at the beginning is in there.
The way I have found to craft the play is gauging the audience reaction. An audience will tell you what works and what doesn’t work. And when you’ve done it as many times as I have, I don’t go out there thinking, “Is the audience going to love it?” I know they’re going to love it. … The bulk of the audience loves the show. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t still be doing it.
It sounds like it has changed over time and is not always the same show every time you perform it.
The show has definitely changed. And in a way, I don’t think I ever do the same show twice. The dialogue is mainly the same, but the delivery — there’s always things to find out in-show. I think when I stop finding things, that may be when I call it a day because then I might get bored with the show.
Is the show finished now? Pretty well but does that mean there won’t be anything added? That’s always a possibility, and I think that’s what makes the show interesting still, for me.
Do you read C. S. Lewis’ work for enjoyment, as well?
Yes, to an extent. Although, it’s either Lewis or stuff about Lewis. There was a new biography that recently came out about Lewis… and I found the biography really good and I’m enjoying that.
So, you’re still doing a lot of research, then.
DP: Yes. Certainly, with a show like this, once you stop it’s done. That’s it. It’s all over. There’s nothing more that can be improved. I think that’s a dangerous thing. You’ve always got to be looking for improvements.
How do you know when it’s time to stop adding — or is there ever a point where that happens?
Well, I’ve been doing it for 20 years and I haven’t reached that point yet.
I would be pompous in saying that I wound never reach that point, but I would probably say that by the time I hang up my boots I would still be thinking, “You know what, there’s still things that one can find.”
Do you have a feeling at this point that, even though you never met him in person, that you know him — like he is still alive?
Yeah, I think so. I think every actor has got to be careful about claiming things that are dangerous to claim. I think I know Lewis pretty well, but once I get up there [heaven] and he’s up there, he might say, “I need to have a chat with you, David.”
Since religion is something that so many people take away when they’re first reading C. S. Lewis’s work, how did you decide to address the topic of religion in this show?
To relay his journey. The play is very much a comprehensive play, it’s not a religious play, but you couldn’t do a play about C. S. Lewis and omit his religion. That would be as untruthful as a play could be.
It was just wanting to show how he slid into atheism and how over the years he found it a doctrine that didn’t work for him. Then he had friends like Tolkien who had a strong religious belief and how, ultimately, he comes to his own faith in Christianity.
But I have to say, that’s briefly covered in the show. It is just Lewis saying, “This is where I was and this is where I am now.”
What is it that people love so much about Lewis and his work?
Oh, they just love his writings, don’t they? They love the Narnia books. And, of course, a lot of people who are religious love his apologetic books and find his way of expressing Christian truths very stimulating. That’s why he’s one of the most quoted men in the American pulpit — because he has a way of expressing truths that a lot of people believe in, but expressing them in a way that becomes illuminating.
People like him for so many things. And then there are some scholars who like him for his scholarly writings. He was no mean scholar.
I’m trying to get an idea of how you portray him, since you’re drawing so much from written materials. Since there are parts of a person that aren’t conveyed just through words — like mannerisms and one’s way of speaking — how do you channel that?
I try and present a man who was boisterous, funny, sincere and enjoyed life. And I remember when I was with Douglas Gresham in those early years, I asked, “Should I imitate Lewis’ voice?” And he said, “I wouldn’t. You’ve got a very strong British voice. Lewis had a strong British voice, but Lewis had a sort of Oxford accent and if you spoke the way Lewis did they wouldn’t understand it. Stick to your voice.”
Mannerisms, we don’t know much about Lewis’s mannerisms, apart from a few small things, because there’s no video recording of him, for a man as famous as he was. … So that you have to make up. You just have to do what you think he may have done, but you can’t say he did it.
Has your relationship to C. S. Lewis changed since you started your research?
I don’t think I would say it’s changed that much. I admired his writing very much … You can’t help but admire a man who writes the way he does and is more successful now than he was when he died. I think if anything has challenged me is that he was a man who was very genuine in so many ways. And we don’t have enough of that in this world — people who aren’t genuine and who are not out to say things just to get attention.