Two types of dramatic characters have arguably proved the most consistently compelling over the years: unapologetic villains and those who are tempted to join their ranks. So it’s no surprise that Max McLean and Jeffrey Fiske’s adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, which comes to the Granada for two performances on Saturday, has been such a nationwide success.
The 1942 novel takes the form of a series of letters from hell-based demon Screwtape to his novice nephew Wormwood, and it consists largely of instructions on how to corrupt a typical human. As director McLean explained in a recent interview, the production stays true to that devilishly simple construction.
When did you first encounter The Screwtape Letters? I was in my twenties. I had read C.S. Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy. I didn’t understand a word of it. But I instantly understood The Screwtape Letters. I thought, “I know this guy. He has been in my life, clouding my thoughts, for a long, long time.” Its impact on me was immediate and profound.
Haven’t there been previous dramatizations? There are at least two I’m aware of that attempt to cast all the characters. But then it becomes about the temptee rather than the tempter. You just have people behaving badly, and we’ve all seen that before. We tried to stay close to the book and the voice of Screwtape. The voice that came out of the novel was so smart, so insightful about human nature. It was kind of intoxicating; it drew you in. I thought that, if we could capture the voice of Screwtape, the constellation of ideas that emerge from that voice could be really seductive.
Lewis created this morally inverted universe where good is bad, up is down. One of our models for Screwtape was Iago in Othello, along with a little bit of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Both of them mask [their dark natures] very successfully.
So the language is completely from the book? Ninety-nine percent of it. There are a couple of segues we put in, but the words are Lewis’s. The audiobook would be about six hours, and our play is 90 minutes. But we probably tell 75 percent of the story. We skipped a lot of the rabbit trails and byways.
The book is written in the form of letters from hell to earth, and we stick to that, but Screwtape has free range on the stage; he’s not sitting behind a desk. Toadpipe, his secretary, is there, handling all the letter management; he takes the dictation and also transforms into people who are mentioned in the book.
Screwtape has been played by four actors. Brent [Harris], who has been playing it for a year, had a great sense of the material right from the beginning. He has played Iago and Macbeth, as well as Scar in The Lion King. Sometimes I see him as a cross between Jeremy Irons and Vincent Price. He has a marvelous speaking voice and a great stage presence — confident but very relaxed. He also finds a lot of laughs.
The reviews have consistently said that the appeal of this material extends far beyond the hard-core Christian community. So what is that appeal? Lewis does challenge your worldview. He converted to Christianity after a seven- or eight-year journey that started with atheism. He really understood the search for meaning. In our cynical age, truth is so relative, but every now and then, regardless of our belief system or world view, we read or hear something and think, “That’s true!” Lewis gets us there.
Fellowship for the Performing Arts presents The Screwtape Letters at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Saturday, January 18, at 4 and 8 p.m. Call (805) 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org for tickets and info. screwtapeonstage.com