If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, who’s laying the bricks?
Are we solely to blame? Or is there an engineer of our self-destruction, a debonair devil in a smoking jacket who knows our every weakness and preys upon it?
C.S. Lewis’ sinister satire, “The Screwtape Letters,” suggests the latter. New Orleans audiences can see one of Lewis’ darkest and most cerebral works in the flesh at the Saenger on Wednesday.
“The Screwtape Letters” are essentially a sermon in reverse, with the play’s eponymous demon Screwtape dictating advice to his younger relative about how to best corrupt the soul of an unsuspecting human, The Patient. It’s a how-to guide for hell, essentially.
“It’s very witty. And Lewis sort of sneaks in his theological points over the course of the events, but you get it from a backwards perspective. You get it from the Devil’s point of view, which makes it really interesting,” said Max McLean, who adapted the play from Lewis’ original novel and starred as Screwtape in the show’s first run.
The play, like its titular character, is complex. One the one hand, it’s a story of hope for the human race.
If the Patient, who represents mankind at large, can resist Screwtape’s machinations, perhaps we can, too.
“It’s a haunted story, it’s a predator/prey story, with Screwtape as the predator and the Patient as the prey.
The arc that we follow in the play is what happens to the Patient, who is an everyman who has no idea that Screwtape is out to get him and who begins the play as spiritually indifferent.
By the end of the play he is quite devout, despite all of Screwtape’s attempts to ruin him,” said McLean.
After watching his careful plans for The Patient’s soul fall apart, the audience gets to watch the tides turn on the tormentor.
“The other, more theatrical arc is what happens with Screwtape, who begins the play as this master of the universe character who loves the way he looks, talks and dresses, is the smartest man in the room and Satan’s right-hand person. “And by the end of the play he’s a defeated devil. And so following those two arcs in tandem is what makes for a satisfying, cathartic theatrical experience.”
Brett Harris, who starred in the national tour of “The Lion King,” is the Screwtape that Saenger audiences will see onstage, but McLean originated the role during the show’s initial run. McLean said he drew from several sources when crafting his take on the character.
“I thought of Iago, from Shakespeare’s ‘Othello.’ I thought he was a really good model … I also liked Anthony Hopkins in “Silence of the Lambs,” in that he had this really aesthetic exterior — loved fine wine and all that — that hid the cannibal inside.”
In addition to being an actor and writer, McLean is also the founder and artistic director of the Fellowship for Performing Arts, a group focused on bringing a Christian perspective to the stage. McLean feels that C.S. Lewis, author of the popular children’s series “The Chronicles of Narnia,” is a perfect entry point for those who are not particularly religious but are curious about works with a more theological bent.
“First of all, Lewis was recognized as being a scholar of the highest order. And so there’s a recognition factor where, whether you agree with his world view or not, you respect his thought processes and his genius … Lewis has helped so many people to open their imaginations.”
More information about the show can be found at saengernola.com.