There was conjecture after the tragic death of Heath Ledger that becoming completely immersed in the darkness of the Joker character resulted in a tortured mental state which led the actor to abuse sleep medication. The Summer of Love came crashing to an end as Hell's Angels beat and stabbed a man a few feet from The Rolling Stones performing their tour de force, Sympathy for the Devil. Apparently bad things happen when prying into evil.
The Screwtape Letters, now playing at the Rodeheaver Auditorium on the campus of Bob Jones University, presents an interesting opportunity to delve into the minds of devils. The play is based on the classic novel by the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, who was warned by his close friend J.R.R. Tolkien, to whom the work is dedicated, about the perils of exploring so deeply the heart of darkness. Although from a reader's casual perspective The Screwtape Letters are something of a romp, Lewis found the writing torturous. As he notes in his introduction to “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”, the sequel to The Letters:
Though I had never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment. The ease came, no doubt, from the fact that the device of diabolical letters, once you have thought of it, exploits itself spontaneously, like Swift’s big and little men, or the medical and ethical philosophy of ‘Erewhon’, as Anstey’s Garuda Stone. It would run away with you for a thousand pages if you gave it its head. But though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. The world 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. It almost smothered me before I was done. It would have smothered my readers if I had prolonged it.
- Lewis, C. S. (2009-05-28). The Screwtape Letters (Kindle Locations 1440-1446). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
The show begins with that sequel, Screwtape at a lectern speaking to the most recent graduates of the Tempters Training College. The remainder of the play adheres fairly closely to Lewis’ tale, in many ways improving upon it. The letters work quite well in the theatrical format. Like the book, the play consists of a series of letters from a senior administrative demon in the "Lowerarchy" of hell, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, a junior level Tempter, to effect the eternal damnation of a human soul referred to only as "the Patient".
The theater itself is good. Yes, this is theater, albeit dominated by monologue. It is very wordy, as you might expect. But the devices used to break the monotony are entertainingly clever, and the timing impeccable. In many ways, Screwtape's assistant Toadpipe, who is not in Lewis book but was added for the theatrical production, steals the show. Providing balance, lightness to Screwtape's bombastic heaviness, Toadpipe transcribes Screwtape’s dictation in contortionist fashion, including writing with her feet. In an example of nuanced stagecraft, for the first few letters Toadpipe climbs the spiral staircase and shoots off the letter in a vacuum tube like one finds at a bank drive thru, suggesting that Wormwood exists at a “higher”—“lower” in hell’s upside down hierarchy--level than the superior Screwtape. Even better, the producers of the play recognized this action was no longer necessary after the first repetitions, and subsequent mail operations are merely suggested, through the soundtrack, or by Toadpipe climbing upon the stairs. One of the delights of the play thus becomes setting Pavlov’s dog upon the very psychology which is, after all, the calling card of Lewis’ work.
The lithe Toadpipe is also used to dramatize or emphasize the content of a letter, such as regurgitating when the word “prayer” is uttered, and supplies much of the levity. There is a great deal of humor in the play, as there is in the book; perhaps a little too much at times, distracting from the seriousness of the subject. We are, after all, talking about a man's soul here. At some point, the way Screwtape pronounces his name, with a prolonged hissing ‘s’ and a popping ‘p’, becomes no longer amusing, but mildly annoying. Then very annoying. As often as the rhetorical device “Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape” must be used, punctuating each of the letters, the perhaps originally clever stratagem becomes a painful distraction.
But then, you are in hell. As in the book, the archetypal themes of life and literature are all here: grace and salvation, parents and relationships, war and peace, sex and marriage, aging, death and the afterlife. This is an amazing depth and breadth for a 90 minute show. Nearly three quarters of a century after C. S. Lewis began publishing the Letters serially in The Guardian in 1941, the material is still fresh and alive, proving its timelessness. This is, of course, the quality of a classic, and well worth the price of spending a little time in hell.
The Fellowship for the Performing Arts presentation of The Screwtape Letters runs thru February 7, with performances each evening at 8 p.m. Tickets may be obtained online or by calling the box office at 864-770-1372.