— Screwtape, “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis
A trip to hell probably shouldn’t make for a night of jollification, but that’s exactly what happened on my recent visit to the underworld.
Imagine being in a topsy-turvy, morally inverted universe where God is called the “Enemy” and the devil is referred to as “Our Father Below.” That’s where I found myself for almost two hours Saturday night as I watched a stage performance of “The Screwtape Letters” at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Concert Hall.
The play, which is an adaptation a classic book of the same name by C.S. Lewis, is in its third year of touring nationally, delighting capacity audiences in more than 50 major cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta and Seattle.
The play follows His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape, Satan’s top psychiatrist (due to his profound understanding of human nature), and his slavish creature-demon Toadpipe, as they train an apprentice demon, Wormwood, on how to ruin the life and damn the soul of an unsuspecting human on earth.
Brent Harris, an award-winning actor who has performed in national tours of “The Lion King,” “Othello,” and “Macbeth,” portrayed Screwtape. Harris plays the role to perfection. “The Screwtape Letters” is one of my favorite books. I’ve probably read it 10 times, and Harris’ performance of Screwtape was exactly how I had imagined the senior demon.
While the entire play takes place in the skull-filled office of Screwtape and is basically two hours of him reading letters from his nephew and aprentice, Wormwood, it was extremely entertaining.
The only other actor in the play was Marissa Molnar who played Toadpipe, Screwtape’s reptilian servant. Molnar had no lines, but she said plenty with her body language. Toadpipe was a physical role which had Molnar slithering around the stage and climbing a ladder to retrieve each letter from Wormwood. Her role would have to be seen to truly appreciate it.
Much like the book, the stage performance of “Screwtape” is full of humor, but its subject matter is definitely serious. Love, pride and war are only a few of the topics that get discussed through Screwtape and Wormwood’s letters.
The idea for Screwtape first came to Lewis after listening to Hitler’s Reichstag Speech on July 19, 1940, while it was simultaneously translated on BBC Radio. Lewis wrote “I don’t know if I’m weaker than other people, but it is a positive revelation to me how while the speech lasts it is impossible not to waver just a little… Statements which I know to be untrue all but convince me…if only the man says them unflinchingly.”
Lewis dedicated it to his close friend J.R.R. Tolkien who had expressed to Lewis that delving too deeply into the craft of evil would have consequences.
Lewis admitted as much when he wrote “Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment... though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun or not for long. The work into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded.”
“Screwtape” was only in Birmingham for one day, but when it returns next year, be sure to catch it. The performance makes the work of the devil extremely interesting while also reminding us of the awesome beauty and amazing grace provided by his enemy.
James Phillips is Editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle. He can be reached at 205-221-2840 or firstname.lastname@example.org.