SALT LAKE CITY — Max McLean knows from personal experience that acting like a conniving devil for five years is no easy slog.
McLean wrote, directed and acted the lead role in “The Screwtape Letters” stage adaptation that debuted off-Broadway on Oct. 18, 2007. Although two other actors had intermittently inhabited the skin of scheming Screwtape, it was McLean who usually acted the title role as the play toured the country and enjoyed extended runs in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
But at the dawn of 2013, McLean’s time playing Screwtape unofficially ended when he chose to hand off the reins to actor Brent Harris.
“We are working on multiple other pieces, and I needed the time to develop those pieces,” McLean told the Deseret News. “We also wanted to have several actors play Screwtape.”
Despite the proverbial passing of the torch, though, the show must go on. Based on the classic C.S. Lewis novel of the same name, the “Screwtape Letters” stage production continues touring the country. More than 300,000 people have seen the play in more than 50 cities across the U.S., and it returns to Salt Lake City on Saturday for 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. performances at Kingsbury Hall.
With 2013 marking the 50th anniversary of Lewis’ death, it’s appropriate that the stage version of “Screwtape Letters” is the most visible vestige of the famed Christian author’s legacy — because, after all, it’s the story of Screwtape and his devilish friends that first cast Lewis as an international sensation.
Adapting a classic
When Lewis published “Screwtape Letters” in 1942, he was a 43-year-old professor of English literature at the University of Oxford. England was in the throes of World War II, and eight more years would pass before Lewis released the first volume of his “Chronicles of Narnia” series.
As a book, “Screwtape Letters” consists of a series of written correspondence from a senior devil, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood regarding the latter’s attempts to wrangle the soul of a British man referred to as “the Patient.” Screwtape’s counsel frequently centers on methods for subtly steering human souls away from true Christian conversion.
“‘Screwtape’ was the book that really kicked (Lewis’) career into overdrive,” said S. Michael Wilcox, the best-selling Deseret Book author who wrote his doctoral dissertation about Lewis. “I think it won people’s admiration because of the sheer uniqueness of its creativity — these letters from hell — and its deep insight into human behavior that Lewis was so good at. And the characterization of Screwtape is (noteworthy) because in a sense you begrudgingly begin to like him — he’s so devious, just so clever.”
The unique composition of “Screwtape Letters,” however, posed an inherent challenge for McLean in penning his stage adaptation.
“The book is very dense and was meant to be thought through,” he said. “You would have time to read it — if you didn’t quite get it, you could go back and read it again.
“But in theater, it has to be alive right at that moment, engaged right at that moment, so the action and the language had to support the theatricality that was necessary to keep the audience’s attention and to keep the story moving forward.”
Ultimately, McLean harvested from Lewis’ book two narrative arcs for the stage version: the spiritual progression of the Patient, and “what happens to Screwtape, who begins the play as this larger-than-life, master-of-the-universe character who loves the way he looks, loves the way he talks, loves the way he dresses, smartest guy in the room — and (becomes) a defeated demon.”
‘Screwtape’ on the silver screen?
Due to the success of the three “Chronicles of Narnia” movies released between 2005 and 2010 — combined, the films grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide — during recent years C.S. Lewis properties have attracted renewed interest in Hollywood circles. Walden Media, which produced the “Narnia” pictures, actively explored the possibility of bringing “Screwtape Letters” to the silver screen.
In thinking of ways to adapt “Screwtape” into a movie, Walden Media president Micheal Flaherty ran into many of the same issues McLean wrestled with in creating the stage adaptation.
“We’re not working on that one anymore because we couldn’t crack the story,” said Flaherty, a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. “We couldn’t figure out a great way to present that theatrically.”
Flaherty, who speaks glowingly of McLean’s “Screwtape” play (“I’ve actually been blessed to see Max perform it just in front of small groups at different retreats. I love it.”), offered his opinion that “if someone is going to figure it out film-wise, Max would be my leading candidate in terms of someone who could figure it out.”
For his part, McLean isn’t optimistic that Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters” will be adapted into a motion picture anytime soon.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I mean, it could be (made) — but the play is set in hell, and so very few filmmakers want to set their whole play in hell. And so what would happen is very likely they would want to tell the back-story — what’s going on, on Earth. Which of course the book only alludes to; it doesn’t explain, it doesn’t show, it only alludes to it.”
Flaherty doesn’t rule out the possibility of Walden Media someday revisiting the idea of a “Screwtape Letters” movie.
“It’s not that it can’t be done,” he said. “There’s always a chance that we could return to it.”
The nature of Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters” is such that there is no shortage of deep, thoughtful insights about what one must guard against in order to lead a truly Christian life.
“The big wakeup call for me,” McLean said, “was Screwtape’s insight that the safest road to hell is the gradual one — those imperceptible things that you do that slowly but surely corrupt your soul.”
The author Wilcox sees himself in the Patient against, whom Screwtape plots.
“If we are honest with ourselves as we read ‘Screwtape,’” Wilcox said, “we will recognize ourselves in the victim in ‘Screwtape’ — this newly converted Christian that the devil is trying to destroy. None of us are impervious to the various temptations he comes up with.”
Flaherty finds deep meaning in the part of the book where Screwtape allays Wormwood’s anxiety regarding the Patient’s church attendance.
“I love what it says about having to be honest with yourself,” Flaherty said. “There’s that scene where the junior devil’s nervous because the guy’s going to church, and Screwtape tells him, ‘Look, don’t worry about that. We have him just where we want him there.’ What I like about it is (it shows) how those external behaviors that we have are completely irrelevant, and what matters is where we’re at with our heart in that moment in terms of our relationship with our creator.”
“Screwtape Letters” returns to Salt Lake City on March 23 for two performances — 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. — at Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus. For more information, visit screwtapeonstage.com.
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-236-6051.