Theatrical Review: The Screwtape Letters

Janice Walker

The Screwtape Letters
Fellowship for the Performing Arts
Westside Theatre & Box Office, 407 W 43rd St (9th Ave), NYC.
Performances begin May 10, 2010

The snake may have all the lines, but this was never put to such glorious effect as in the Fellowship for the Performing Arts’ production of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. In this more than timely production now on national tour, actor Max McLean as demonic Under Secretary Screwtape has brought a new dramatic energy to the devilish epistolary and holds up a mirror to our own noisy, confounded, joyless age.

Those of you who are familiar with the C.S. Lewis novel upon which the play is based (and those among you who are not… well, you’re pagans) will be cheered to learn that all of its biting wit and penetrating insight into the nature of temptation and redemption have translated remarkably well into the theatrical format. For the purposes of this review, I shall strive very hard not to reveal too much of the story, but since a good deal of my analysis rests on those dramatic turning points in the play that act as fulcrums to new emotional and theological experiences, I hereby issue an all-points spoiler alert! Abandon hope all ye who read further!

The play makes the clever choice of opening with Screwtape Proposes a Toast, an addendum Lewis penned almost twenty years after the release of The Screwtape Letters. This hilarious ‘after dinner speech’ addressed to “Your Imminence, your Disgraces, my Thorns, Shadies, and Gentledevils,” establishes us in our cold, calculating, bureaucratic netherworld and introduces Screwtape as our tour guide. But, more than that, it establishes the reality of Hell in our own time. Most of the action in Screwtape takes place during the terrors of the Second World War—which might tend to give a modern audience far removed from such events a little breathing room. But, McLean offers no solace in terrestrial time and in this opening soliloquy sets the stage in a world we must recognize in which the small insipid road to Hell, falling so “soft underfoot,” has never been more highly trafficked. All times and events are alike to Screwtape. His lust for souls is illimitable.

The chief action takes place in Screwtape’s den—sparsely furnished with end table and a high-backed leather chair—located on a slanting precipice overhanging what appears to be a vast sub-basement and accessible only by means of a very long ladder. The action is relatively straightforward, but never dull: Screwtape dictates advice to his nephew Wormwood who has been given the task of damning the soul of a human “patient” (or, rather, tricking that human into damning himself) and delivering him up to the minions of Hell as food. Screwtape—a brilliant conflation of civil service bureaucrat and old Etonian (Begging soul-searching questions: Why are the hierarchy of hell always old Etonians? Why never a Harvard man?) —is an old hand at terrestrial troublemaking. The letters from Wormwood are cleverly introduced from above by means of a pneumatic tube and retrieved by Screwtape’s minion, the twitching Toadpipe. As Wormwood’s “patient” begins to feel the positive influences of his Christian friends, the letters begin “shooshing” in at an amusing rate.

McLean is a powerfully built actor with a deep, resonant voice and his posture throughout most of the play is that of wry dismissal toward the human “patients” and imperious authority over the inhabitants of Hell. This is the Screwtape of Lewis’ sardonic imagination—a creature who maintains his unruffled Sir Humphrey-esque demeanor through to the last page of the book (despite a few exasperated outbursts.) The demands of a theatrical trajectory, however, drive McLean’s Screwtape to a climactic fever pitch of rage and desperation as he is oppressed by the Divine victory. Through McLean’s urbanity runs a vein of lunatic savagery which, when sparingly manifested, chills the blood.

Toadpipe is Screwtape’s scribe and puppet, a perfect counterpoint to his own general elegance. Garbed in the manner of a mummified chicken the brilliantly agile Karen Eleanor White squawks, screeches, and hisses her way around the stage, the physical manifestation of Hell’s (and Screwtape’s) intrinsic chaos and fury, noise and debasement. At first I wasn’t sure what function Toadpipe might serve aside from fetching and sending the letters but quickly came to realize that it was her awful presence that kept the play from falling into the ‘Devil-as-lovable-rogue’ trap. (I’ve always regarded Laird Crager’s cuddly, compassionate Satan in Heaven Can Wait as a particularly egregious manifestation of this fictional genus of Devil.) But, Screwtape is not so disingenuous. Whenever the audience might be in danger of growing rather fond of the amusing Screwtape, Toadpipe emerges to remind us what Hell is really all about. In the one truly terrifying scene of the play, an exhausted Screwtape sates himself on the blood of the hapless Toadpipe. Nothing lovable or roguish there.

But, despite establishing this important note of horror, The Screwtape Letters is nothing if not funny. The source material is, of course, sparkling, but much of the humor is owing to the dry McLean’s impeccable timing. As a particularly clever and amusing device to illustrate Screwtape’s manipulation techniques, Toadpipe—under Screwtape’s control—will mimic the affairs of men from the particular (the “patient’s” smug and fussy mother) to the universal (an hilarious parade of sexpots through the ages). We can laugh at Screwtape’s machinations in part because we are really laughing at ourselves. There were more than a few chuckles of recognition from the audience when Screwtape described the doors left open to him through human proclivities toward self-aggrandizement, faddism and sexual malfunction. We are not his victims; at our worst we are his co-conspirators, treacherous and ruthless.

Like the source novel, Screwtape’s most moving scenes concern Divine encounters, torturous to Screwtape but revelatory to the “patient”—and the audience. In a climatic confrontation, Screwtape is painfully subjected to the piercing note of a Heavenly choir, which is held just long enough that the audience is forced to cringe with him. We are in Hell with Screwtape, after all, where the sweetness of Heavenly voices is anything but sweet. Screwtape’s “Enemy” harrows the demon’s somber den several times throughout the play, but Screwstape is powerless to retaliate. This is most graphically portrayed when Screwtape attempts to attack the “patient’s” Christian lover and is repulsed by the “realms of clearer light” that bathe and shield her.

This brings us to the crux of the matter: ultimately there is nothing to fear in Screwtape. The audience of this remarkable production may be troubled by what it perceives as its own complicity in the affairs of Hell, but in our last view of His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape, he lies exhausted, disheveled, and defeated. He has strained against his chains and, once refreshed on Wormwood, will strain again. But the chains remain.

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Janice Walker, art director for Dappled Things, is a freelance graphic designer living and working in Williamsburg, Virginia. In common with all her fellowmen, she has a blog: