C.S. Lewis and the Stage

December 6, 2018 — 7 Comments

mclean csl.jpg

Sadly, we can’t presently spend an evening with C.S. Lewis . . . but what’s the next best thing?

A week ago my wife and I joined some dear friends at the Seattle performance of C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert. It was riveting.

The presentation used Lewis’ own words—from a variety of his works beyond his autobiography—to explain his extraordinary faith pilgrimage. Lewis of course began as a simple, trusting child. Events and educational influences caused him to reject that youthful faith. For many years he was an outspoken atheist.

As God drew Lewis closer to himself, the future author of the Narnian Chronicles resisted fiercely. Eventually he surrendered to the evidence that there most certainly was some creative force. This did not make him a Christian, of course. It was merely a conversion to Theism.

Only later would Lewis recognize just what that creative force is. Not “what,” but more accurately, “who.”

Since the engaging drama focuses on Lewis’ conversion, it does not pursue other topics such as his marriage. (This is obviously due to time constraints, since a full telling of the author’s life would require meals and evening lodging.)

Max McLean himself, founder of the Fellowship for Performing Arts,  does an outstanding job as Lewis. The production team is also superb.

The proverbial icing on the cake comes with an informal discussion following the performance. McLean takes a seat on the stage and fields questions from the audience. Coincidentally, the previous performance location was in Berkeley, where they made the tickets so inexpensive for students that they comprised at least half the audience. McLean’s description of the play’s reception and the serious conversation which followed, was fascinating.

The Fellowship for Performing Arts is based in New York City, but fortunately tours each year. I have written in the past about their insightful performance of The Great Divorce,  which happens to be my personal favorite among Lewis’ amazing corpus.

I strongly encourage you to check out their future dates and locations across the country. Some venues will be treated to The Screwtape Letters this season.

In writing this piece, the question that came to mind was—what would Lewis have thought about having his life brought to the stage. Obviously, he was quite open and vulnerable in sharing his life with others. He made no pretense to holiness, beyond that which he received by grace as a child of God.

Still, having one’s words read is quite different than having yourself portrayed on stage or film. I suspect Lewis would have felt uncomfortable with the latter, and preferred that we stick to literary avenues for learning about him.

It’s not that Lewis was averse to the stage. In Surprised by Joy he describes how one of his favorite relatives assumed some responsibility for Jack and his brother Warnie after their mother’s death. Early exposure to the theater was apparently one element in his “civilization.”

Lady E. was my mother’s first cousin and perhaps my mother’s dearest friend, and it was no doubt for my mother’s sake that she took upon herself the heroic work of civilizing my brother and me.

We had a standing invitation to lunch at Mountbracken whenever we were at home; to this, almost entirely, we owe it that we did not grow up savages.

The debt is not only to Lady E. (“Cousin Mary”) but to her whole family; walks, motor drives (in those days an exciting novelty), picnics, and invitations to the theater were showered on us, year after year, with a kindness which our rawness, our noise, and our unpunctuality never seemed to weary.

We were at home there almost as much as in our own house, but with this great difference, that a certain standard of manners had to be kept up. Whatever I know (it is not much) of courtesy and savoir faire I learned at Mountbracken.

For those who wish to consider more deeply the relationship between C.S. Lewis and the theater, I recommend “Faithful Imagination in Theater.”  The author admits that “quality theatre presented from a Christian perspective is hard to find,” but offers hope from Lewis. The article concludes with a worthy challenge.

There is a great need for more imaginative engagement with “mere Christianity” in theatre. So let’s get to it.

7 responses to C.S. Lewis and the Stage

  1. 

    Thanks, Rob. C.S. “Jack” Lewis would not have minded having his writings brought to life on stage (as long, as he put it when someone suggested the Narnian Chronicles be made into movies, “as long as there is nothing in the Disney way”) but he hated and would have had no patience with making public his personal life: “I have no natural curiosity about private lives,” he wrote to one friend and to another, “…we begin thinking about the private life of the actors when the play ceases to grip us.”
    In response to a request for “background information” from an American minister in 1948, the British author of The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, A Space Trilogy, and The Chronicles of Narnia wrote back, in a rare burst of pique, ‘Ought you, as a Pastor, to encourage the public demand for quite irrelevant facts about authors?… I can’t abide the idea that a man’s books shd. be ‘set in their biographical context’ and if I had some rare information about the private life of Shakespeare or Dante I’d throw it in the fire, tell no one, and re-read their works.” In the same letter he declared, “…the only thing of any importance (if that is) about me is what I have to say.”
    Fortunately for us, Jack’s private life can be almost entirely reconstructed for Max MacLean’s grateful audiences through his writings.

    (Lewis quotes from The Passions of C.S. Lewis as seen in His Collected Letters for INKLINGS FOREVER, Volume VI, A Collection of Essays Presented at the Sixth FRANCES WHITE EWBANK COLLOQUIUM on C.S. LEWIS & FRIENDS, Taylor University, Upland, Indiana 2008) Also on my blog BONUS FEATURES at
    http://hisscribedownloads.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2010-05-25T16%3A41%3A00-07%3A00&max-results=7

    • 

      Thank you for your detailed and informative letter. You’re certainly right about Lewis’ disdain for intrusive biographical material that might divert a reader from the actual message of an author.

      That said, lives of the saints (like Jack) are deserving of study in and of themselves. I daresay he has encouraged a great many people by his example (in addition to his words themselves).

  2. 

    Well, I would have loved to join you! Wrong country, wrong coast, but glad you got to see it.

    • 

      They may quite well get up to Canada in their rounds… though I doubt they make it to the hinterlands.

      Still, as a person who relishes living in the woodlands, even an excellent program like this couldn’t move me to a metropolitan jungle. Just as I’m sure you love residing in a scenic region.

  3. 

    Hi Rob,

    Have you heard the Focus on the Family radio drama for The Screwtapes Letter? Great work: https://store.focusonthefamily.com/the-screwtape-letters-with-dvd

    Andy Serkis really nailed it as Screwtape!

    Merry Christmas,

    Gary

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