Bringing C. S. Lewis to the Stage

After the New Testament, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis was the second Christian book that literary and theatrical artist Max McLean read while in his early 20s. New to both Christianity and theater, McLean was fascinated with Lewis because of “his ability and will to organize the world under a Christian framework.” He had no idea at the time just how big a role the book would one day play in his life, career, and ministry.

As an undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin in the early 1970s, McLean struggled with social phobia, the fear of doing common things in front of others. In an effort to overcome the phobia, he enrolled in a theater class, which proved to be the perfect antidote. According to McLean, “acting is about borrowing from yourself and applying that to the text you’re working with.” He graduated with a BA in history and, smitten with the stage, continued his theater education at a drama school in London, England.

Attracted to the idea of combining his theater skills with the Scriptures, McLean began a theater ministry in partnership with the Christian and Ministry Alliance, performing oral presentations of the Bible across the US during the ’80s. In 1992 McLean founded his own arts ministry, Fellowship for the Performing Arts, based in Manhattan since 2010.
McLean’s reconnection with the book that had fascinated him as a new Christian began after Drew University Professor Jeff Fiske saw him in a performance of Genesis and emailed him to suggest that he would make a great Screwtape.
McLean and Fiske acquired the rights to Lewis’ book in 2005 and began adapting it for the stage. The play enjoyed a 309-performance run in New York City in 2010 and has since been performed in more than 40 additional cities. Along the way it has garnered reviews like this one by Don Aucoin in the Boston Globe: “A none-too-subtle allegory on behalf of Christianity … manages to be both engrossing and entertaining largely due to McLean’s silky, viperish performance … loaded with clever commentary on human foibles.”

One of Lewis’ most famous and influential books, The Screwtape Letters addresses Christianity from an intelligent and persuasive demon’s point of view. It centers on a series of letters between a senior demon named Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood as the younger demon seeks the damnation of a man referred to only as “the Patient.” The book is both satirical and apologetic, and McLean and Fiske used those elements to create a play that is funny yet poignant.
In his role as artistic director of the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, McLean has three guiding principles: (1) carefully select and produce work that captures Christianity’s intellectual integrity and dramatic power, (2) execute work at a level worthy to be produced in mainstream cultural venues where a diverse audience will see it, and (3) ask the Christian community to support it. The health of the Fellowship is evidenced by a second successful play—McLean’s recent adaptation of Lewis’ brilliant allegory The Great Divorce. Adapted for the stage by McLean and Brian Watkins, the play opened last September at the Kaye Playhouse in New York.

The Great Divorce, whose title refers to the separation between heaven and hell, centers around a bus ride from hell to paradise with some fascinating passengers. “This collection of self-satisfied day trippers,” reads the promotional material, “includes a belligerent bully who only wants his rights, an old woman who can’t stop grumbling long enough to question whether she has anything to grumble about, a bishop too ’wise’ to actually believe, and a famous artist more focused on his reputation than his art.” (Learn more at GreatDivorceonstage.com.)

The idea of Christian theater, according to McLean, is that if Christianity is true, a well-written—and enjoyable—play about faith and God can reach a lot of people. “The power of theatre and storytelling is that it flies ‘under the radar’ and hits us in our imagination—the place where a knowledge of God (Romans 1:19) already exists. Art draws people in. After a while they begin to wonder if the ideas that inspired the work are really true.”

Kara Lofton is a senior communications major at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.

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