About the author:
When Max McLean takes the stage in The Screwtape Letters (which just extended for an open-ended run at off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre), the deep-voiced actor gives a chilling portrayal of C.S. Lewis’ devilish title character. Never has a demon seemed more charismatic, which was precisely the point of Lewis’ World War II-era novel, told in a series of letters written from Screwtape's office in hell to an unseen acolyte named Wormwood. McLean has won national acclaim for his performances in biblical texts, so Broadway.com asked him to fill us in on his background and how he turned an evil character into a compelling evening of theater.
I was born in Panama City, Panama, and came to America via New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty at the age of four. The first item on my agenda was to master the English language. Due to Dad’s military career, “home” included many places in the U.S., Far East and Europe. I went to college in Texas and drama school in London before arriving in New York.
My work in the theater began in college as a way to overcome a mild stutter and sociophobia, the fear of being in front of people. After graduation I had a conversion experience after reading John’s Gospel in one sitting. The experience was amazingly clarifying. It has stayed with me in ebbs and flows to this day.
I went to seminary because I wanted to better understand my faith, following St. Anselm’s maxim, Credo ut intelligam, "I believe so that I may understand." A seminary faculty member discovered that I had a theater background and asked: “Why not use the skills developed in the theater and apply it to ministry?” When I read the Bible, I tend to see it theatrically. It strikes me as vivid, emotional and alive. The stakes are high. Then I saw Alec McCowan’s one-man show St. Mark’s Gospel, and it just melted me. Those two events led me to develop one-person shows of Mark’s Gospel and Genesis that have been produced in New York and across the country. Mark received a Jeff Award in Chicago last year.
The Screwtape Letters came to me after director Jeff Fiske saw my performance of Genesis. He sent me an e-mail suggesting that I’d make a good Screwtape, C. S. Lewis’ imaginary senior demon and one of literature’s most chilling villains. I didn’t know if that was a compliment or not! However, I was intrigued. The book had been in my consciousness for a long time. It was one of the first Christian books I’d read after my conversion. But I didn’t see how it would work onstage. I didn’t see it as dramatic literature but rather as a profound meditation on the banality of evil.
Screwtape first came to Lewis after he heard Hitler’s Reichstag speech as it was being translated by the BBC. In the speech, Hitler makes a final appeal to the British people before unleashing the blitz that would pummel Britain for the next nine months. “It never had been my intention to wage war, but rather to build up a State with a new social order and the finest possible standard of culture. Every year that this war drags on is keeping me away from this work.” Hitler asks the British people to talk some sense into Churchill before it is too late.
The next day, Lewis writes his brother in response to the speech: “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, at any rate for the moment, if only the man says them unflinchingly.” Lewis did not finish the letter that day but on Sunday, after attending church. He tells of an epiphany: “Before the service was over…I was struck by the idea for a book which I think might be both useful and entertaining. It would be called ‘As one Devil to Another’ and would consist of letters from an elderly retired devil to a young devil who has just started to work on his first patient.”
The key to the character of Screwtape is his ability to use rhetoric for malevolent purposes. On stage, we tried to capture Lewis’ indictment against manipulating people for selfish gain. Our culture is at a point where folks will believe just about anything. Consequently, the play challenges us to guard against being “played” or manipulated.
In going from a cerebral novel to action on stage, we had to make the letters work as oral text. Lewis delivers such densely packed ideas. Our show has twice the content of most scripts, and yet it is half as long. That could be a recipe for disaster. If it is too dense, the audience will simply tune out. And believe me, I know when that happens, so I’m doubly motivated to make sure the audience is engaged.
As an actor, I bring an athletic presence and have made a living with my voice for nearly 30 years. So I knew that I had the tools to make Screwtape work on stage. However, the text just ate me up. I had to stretch my capacity to access aspects of my voice and body to articulate these profound thoughts into an engaging and entertaining personality while still being true to Lewis’ intent.
Since opening at the Westside Theatre in May, The Screwtape Letters been welcomed as a unique presence in the New York theater landscape. About 12% of our sales are from religious groups; we would not still be running if we relied solely on a niche audience. I hear regularly from self professed atheists and agnostics who appreciate the play’s psychological insights as well as the clever stagecraft employed to tell the story. We have a fantastic design team who really committed to the project and are a large part of the play’s success. I also hear good things about the robust conversations the play generates. One of my favorite comments is, “It’s fascinating to spend an evening with the devil!”
What I really appreciate is the large number of what may be called “closeted” Christians who come to see the show. Screwtape and Lewis have a wonderful way with the half convinced. The play tends to resurrect emotional longings that have been buried for years. That is Lewis’ great gift. Christianity has been stigmatized by its association with authoritarian politics and embarrassing episodes by media personalities. Many believers don’t want to be associated with that, but long to see their faith portrayed winsomely and with integrity. Lewis shows us how. His clarity of thought, imagination and his vision of joy as an antidote to humanity’s bent toward banality and cynicism provide a compelling alternative.