Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Screwtape Letters or Theater That is Literally Satanic

After learning that our lives if not our very souls may rest on our willingness to maintain pure Ashkenazi halakhah, Lionel Spiegel and I left Rabbi Binyamin Hamburger's lecture to Metro down to Washington DC to catch a performance of the Screwtape Letters. For those of you who are not familiar with it, the Screwtape Letters is a short novel by C. S. Lewis about the Undersecretary of Temptation, Screwtape, writing to his nephew, Wormwood, who is a field agent on earth, a junior tempter, and advising him as how to best keep his patient out of the hands of the "enemy" and deliver him to our "father down below." Basically this is a guide book how to spiritually destroy people. I consider it to be one of my all time favorite novels. Since I am not dating anyone at the moment, I decided, in the spirit of Prof. Henry Higgins, to take my best guy friend out. The tickets were out of my cheap Jewish graduate student price range so I opted to try to go for the $10 standing room only tickets. One more advantage of taking a guy out; you can get away with sitting around waiting to see if we could buy tickets to stand on our feet for an hour and a half. The theater only sold standing room tickets for sold out shows so we had some tense moments waiting. If only Screwtape would come out and offer to exchange a ticket for my soul; now that would have made things interesting. Thankfully we were able to get the standing room tickets and did not have to resort to any extreme measures.

Long ago I had this idea to adapt Screwtape for the stage of the Haredi summer camp I worked at. Obviously we would have needed to Jewify the whole thing or at least remove the explicitly Christian elements. (I can only be subversive up to a point.) We could update the story from bombs falling on England to terrorist attacks. I also had a more radical idea. The problem with presenting Screwtape in visual medium is the complete lack of action within the story. It is a demon sitting in his office writing off letters. How do you make that worth watching? I would have told the story from the perspective of Wormwood on earth interacting with his patient and the rest of the world much as Bruce Willis' character does in Sixth Sense. In between the main scenes, we would switch to Screwtape in his office dictating his advice and commenting on the situation. This would put an interesting twist on the climax. In the final letter Screwtape assails his nephew for his ultimate failure and prepares to eat him as the patient has come to see him and the role he plays in his life. In my play the patient was going to turn around and see Wormwood for the first time as the audience has seen him all along.

Max McLean's version of Screwtape also updates the story along the terrorist lines. What it does not change is the Screwtape focused story with all the difficulties that come with it. McLean, as Screwtape, is sitting around his comfy den in Hell in a red smoking jacket writing off letters. McLean's solution is to bring Screwtape's secretary, Toadpipe, into the story. While Screwtape has all the lines Toadpipe, hissing Gollum like, is at his side taking dictation, and acting out Screwtape's examples, whether as the patients mother or the different types of women that Hell has sought to encourage through their control of the fashions of the day. This is not enough to save the play from being an oral recitation of the novel. I am a big believer in the value of oral storytelling as a performance art. That being said McLean, while fun to watch, does not compare to John Cleese's turn as Screwtape for the audio book. (It seems that Andy Serkis recently performed as Screwtape for a BBC radio production. This I have to check out.) This show is certainly worth watching, particularly for fans of Lewis' work. I am still waiting for someone to take Lewis' more mature (non-Narnia) work and give it the stage or film production it deserves. McLean's company is working on a production of the Great Divorce. I will be waiting on the cheap tickets line for it.

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