Screwtape | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader


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Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

With the possible exception of "The Chronicles of Narnia," The Screwtape Letters was probably C.S. Lewis's most popular work. The book consists of 31 letters of criticism and instruction written by a devil named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, who is on earth trying to conquer the soul of a young man named Michael Green. Through his letters, Screwtape reveals hell to be very much like a modern corporation, with everyone consumed by ambition, resentment, and self-importance. In fact it's literally dog-eat-dog: devils who fail to bring in the required number of souls for the flames of hell to consume are eaten by their superiors.

Lewis actually believed in devils--he says so in the preface to the book. But it's not necessary to share that belief to appreciate the wicked satire of The Screwtape Letters. His purpose in writing the book, Lewis says in the preface, "was not to speculate about diabolical life but to throw light from a new angle on the life of men."

He does this by creating an inverted moral order. Those values promoted by "the enemy" (God)--honesty, chastity, humility, and prayer--are abhorrent, while pride, envy, lust, and anger are desirable. When Wormwood expresses joy in the fact that World War II has started (Lewis wrote the book in 1943), Screwtape urges caution. Human carnage is entertaining, he admits, but the horror tends to turn humans toward God. "Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy's party, prepared," Screwtape writes.

Although Lewis is obviously making a case for Christianity (the book is still a staple of most Christian bookstores), The Screwtape Letters is more than a didactic tract. It's a literary gem, because of the character Lewis has created in Screwtape. Like a true corporate climber, Screwtape is transparent, motivated primarily by fear and ambition and consumed by a desire to preserve his dignity and avenge his many grievances against others. Seeing through Screwtape is one of the book's chief pleasures, and it's a pleasure that can be enjoyed by an atheist as well as a Christian.

It's also a pleasure that is virtually lost in Screwtape, the stage adaptation of The Screwtape Letters. It was written by James Forsyth in 1961, two years before Lewis died, and although Forsyth shared the copyright with Lewis, the play is clearly his own. He used his own imagination to create characters Screwtape only mentions in his letters. There's Wormwood, of course, who in Forsyth's version is a high-strung young upstart who thinks he knows all the answers. And there's Michael Green, who lives with his abrasive and possessive mother. We also see Slumtrimpet, the "sexpert" (as Forsyth calls her) called upon to assist Wormwood in corrupting Mike. Forsyth also created several new characters, such as Mike's corrupt boss, Mr. Macadam, and the boss's daughter, Judy, who eventually falls in love with Mike.

Screwtape obscures the wit and satire of the book by shifting the focus from Screwtape to Mike. Screwtape's diabolical perspective--the heart and soul of the book--is reduced to brief lectures delivered in passing to Wormwood, while Mike's spiritual crisis moves into the foreground.

Mike is an architectural draftsman working for a man who is making a fortune transporting dangerous chemicals through the town's streets. Mike knows this, but he's too cowardly to object, so he sinks into self-pity and self-loathing. He turns to religion and starts attending church, but his conversion, which is a source of so much consternation for Screwtape in the book, is reduced to a blurred and insignificant episode in the play.

Far more conspicuous is Mike's attraction to Judy. They fall in love, but their relationship founders on that old bugaboo of orthodox Christianity--sex. "You said you wanted me, but you don't," Judy tells Mike. "You want sex."

In fleshing out The Screwtape Letters this way, Forsyth lost the spirit of the book. Instead of seeing events through Screwtape's stilted perspective, we see the events themselves, which are not particularly interesting. Even worse, they are not the point. What Lewis set out to do was show human activity through diabolical eyes. What Forsyth gives us is diabolical activity seen through human eyes.

Still, the production by the Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company, under the direction of Richard Cotovsky, is basically well acted and dynamic. Karl Potthoff endows Screwtape with a pompous self-importance that humorously belies the character's basic incompetence. Larry Underwood energetically portrays Wormwood as a neurotic overachiever intent on outshining his uncle. (The "Route 666" T-shirt is a nice touch by costume designer Kristine Hipps, who also plays Mike's mother.) Susan Jodry is the embodiment of bored, mechanical sexuality as Slumtrimpet, the seductress. Peter DeFaria, as Michael Green, projects both the tepid anger and the vulnerability of a bland young man. And in the small role of Rex Skinner, whose soul already has been captured by the forces of hell, Jeff Strong is superbly sleazy and diabolical.

But the question remains--what does Screwtape really have to say to us? The Screwtape Letters, though simplistic, still functions as satire. The stage adaptation lacks even that virtue, and it doesn't work very well as drama either.

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