One might say that Max McLean knows C. S. Lewis in ways that few other people do. Not only has he produced dramatizations of “The Screwtape Letters” and “The Great Divorce” (and starred in the former), but he’s now playing the man himself. His new show, “C. S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert,” has just had its world premiere at the Lansburgh Theatre in Washington, D.C. In it, McLean takes us through Lewis’s journey from childhood faith, to atheism, back to faith again, using Lewis’ own words.
“’Surprised by Joy’ is the basic outline of the piece,” McLean told me in an interview. In particular, he and his team at Fellowship for Performing Arts relied heavily on an early, “much more raw” version of Lewis’s spiritual autobiography. Additional sources included “The Problem of Pain” and Lewis’s letters and essays (the latter were particularly useful for providing dialogue). They strove to capture the fighting spirit of Lewis, the side of him that loved the “ruthless dialectic” taught to him by his old tutor, W. T. Kirkpatrick. “This Lewis is not a laidback Lewis,” McLean promises.
Asked about the difference between playing a Lewis character like Screwtape and playing the writer himself, McLean answered, “I’ve just been so captivated by Lewis’s imagination and his journey. When you do research on his fictional worlds you tend to read far beyond that, and you look at what were the motivating factors” for his life and work. Playing Lewis has allowed him to explore those factors.
As for his characterization, McLean says, Lewis himself made it easy—mostly. “Lewis wrote for the voice, which I love, but his style was much more verbose than is useful for contemporary theater. So I did have to find a way to maintain his voice and maintain his syntax and his vocabulary, which is immense . . . but still move it forward in a theatrical way.”
Is portraying such an intellectual spiritual journey difficult in today’s world, where religious narratives often focus more on the emotional side? “There’s a lot of emotion in [Lewis’s story],” McLean contends. “But he lived in an intellectual world.” This actually raises an intriguing question for those who are used to thinking of intellectuals as atheists: “How many world-class intellects have conversions to faith, and what would they look like?”
And this particular story has drama built in. “The drama is,” McLean says, “he fought it all the way.” Lewis’ initial reaction to the possibility that God might be real was “rage and terror.” This is no warm and fuzzy conversion story. “The belief in a personal God brought with it the moral imperative,” McLean explains. “That was what he was really fighting against.”
Once he gave in, though, Lewis eventually became as much of “a bonny fighter” (to borrow a term from his friend Austin Farrer) for Christianity as he had been against it. McLean is enjoying channeling “the energy of his voice” and his “robust” nature, and is looking forward to continuing to play the role in other cities and, hopefully, in New York.
In the meantime, other FPA Lewis-related projects are still going strong. Their dramatizations of “The Great Divorce” and “The Screwtape Letters” “still have life,” McLean says, and the latter is scheduled to open in London in December (the first time it will play overseas).
Next up for FPA is the new play “Martin Luther on Trial,” which will premiere at the Lansburgh on May 12. Next year will mark the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, and, says McLean, “We wanted to be ahead of the curve for that.” The play will “tackle him, warts and all.” McLean isn’t appearing in show this time, but he’s still been excited to work on a show about Luther, who has “a Shakespearean-size personality, like [King] Lear.”
Unlike “Convert,” this show will have multiple characters—including Sigmund Freud; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Pope Francis; Adolf Hitler; and the devil himself! They’ve all gathered to help determine Martin Luther’s eternal fate. As McLean explains, “The conceit of the play is that . . . the devil is accusing Luther in a similar way that he would accuse Job,” of charges like anti-Semitism and dividing the church. McLean didn’t want to give too much away, but promised, “There’s a twist!”
If you’re in the D.C. area, visit the Fellowship for Performing Arts website to purchase tickets for “C. S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert” (be aware, it closes this Saturday!) or “Martin Luther on Trial.” If you’re in another part of the country, keep an eye on the site to see if one of these shows will soon be playing at a theater near you!
Image copyright Jeremy Daniel.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.