The Center for the Arts at the University of Buffalo is inviting the public to meet the Devil. Well, one devil, anyway.
Next Saturday, the stage at U.B. will be occupied twice by an actor named Max McLean, who has adapted Christian author C.S. Lewis' short novel ''The Screwtape Letters'' for dramatic performance. The resulting production has broken attendance records in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and is now on a tour of 50 American cities which will bring it to Buffalo next Saturday.
I recently had the opportunity to have a brief phone conversation with McLean, which I'd like to share with you, along with some basics about the performances in Buffalo, some background on ''The Screwtape Letters,'' and a few words about the author. I hope you'll enjoy it.
The demon Screwtape and his secretary, Toadpipe, are the featured characters in the professional touring company production of “The Screwtape Letters,' by C.S. Lewis, which will be performed at the Center for the Arts of the University at Buffalo, next Saturday.
The Center for the Arts is on the North Campus of U.B. To get there from Chautauqua County, take the New York State Thruway east to Exit 50. That's the Youngman Highway, and it's only possible to exit from I-90 in one direction, so you can't go wrong. Follow that road to the exit for Millersport Highway, going north, away from Buffalo. Driving on that road, you will pass more than one exit for the university, but you want the one labeled Coventry Road.
Once you've turned on that exit, you will see the Center for the Arts ahead of you. It takes a bit more than two hours, at the speed limit, from Jamestown, and of course, it's closer to Dunkirk.
Performances will be at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets range in price from $29 to $59, and there are a few premium seats available for $89. You may purchase them at the box office of the theater, or from Ticketmaster. Reach Ticketmaster by phoning 800-745-3000 or by computer at www.ticketmaster.com. You may also purchase tickets in person at any Ticketmaster outlet.
It sounds like a devil of a good time.
''The Screwtape Letters'' was a novel written between 1940 and 1942, in the early days of World War II, by C.S. Lewis. He is best-known in today's world as the author of ''The Chronicles of Narnia.''
Lewis was inspired to write the 31 letters which make up the book, upon hearing a radio broadcast of a speech by Adolf Hitler. Lewis would later write that he was astonished that, even though he knew that what the dictator was saying was false, he found himself nodding in agreement, because the speaker was so confident and the crowd's reaction was so positive.
Shocked by his own reaction to the speech, he decided it would prove valuable to study the nature of evil in order to avoid falling into its snares.
Interestingly, the book is dedicated by the author to J.R.R. Tolkein, author of the ''Lord of the Rings'' novels. Tolkein was a colleague of Lewis at Oxford University. One major theme of the ''Ring'' books is the belief that dealing with evil, even if one has the noblest intentions, can ensnare one in evil when one least expects it.
Lewis would later report that he found it easy to blot out any trace of beauty, freshness and generosity from his narrator's voice, and to think of everything from the opposite point of view, to which one was naturally inclined, but he found it a horribly painful experience.
The book would be so successful that it would elevate the previously little-known professor to the rank of world-celebrated author, and even land him on the cover of Time. Although his publishers tried to convince him to write more about Screwtape, he would never do so, except for a 1959 short publication called ''Screwtape Proposes a Toast,'' in which he used his devil to evaluate the tendency in education for institutions to adopt trendy teaching methods and force them on their teaching professionals, even when it was clear that they were wasteful and even counter-productive.
The book itself is a narrative by His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape, Satan's top psychiatrist. Screwtape has been assigned supervision of his nephew, a lower-ranking demon named Wormwood. The younger demon has been assigned to bring about the damnation of an ordinary Englishman, who is never named, but is always called ''The Patient.''
Wormwood thinks that his best course of action is to tempt the Patient into committing crimes or becoming wrapped up in drugs or sexual misbehavior, while Screwtape is assured that most people are reasonably able to resist such behavior, while smaller temptations such as undeserved pride, a bit of self-righteousness, and a ''perfectly normal'' amount of greed provide a much more assured journey down the ''soft, gentle path to Hell.''
There is a great deal of humor in the upside-down world in which this devil operates, but there is a clear examination of right and wrong, as well, and an opportunity for audience members to recognize areas in which they are fooling themselves about the motives and thoughts behind their actions.
Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast, in the part of the island of Ireland which remains part of the United Kingdom. He was baptized in the Church of Ireland, which is part of the Anglican Communion, like the British Church of England and the American Episcopal Church.
During his youth, he drifted away from his church, although he returned to active attendance and participation in his thirties. He would describe himself as ''a perfectly ordinary layman of the church,'' although in fact, he attained prominence through his writings and through a nationally broadcast radio program about dealing with life in a Christian manner, and a lifelong series of public lectures which were attended by large audiences.
When he was 4 years old, Lewis' dog was killed by a car. The boy was distraught, and insisted upon adopting the dog's name for himself. The dog's name was ''Jacksie,'' which the author eventually agreed to modify to ''Jack.'' He was known by that name for the rest of his life.
Lewis' father was a lawyer, whose father had moved to Ireland from Wales. The father owned a huge private library, and Jack and his brother Warren or ''Warnie'' both read almost constantly. Both boys felt particular affection for books in which animals were given names and human-like characteristics, especially those by Beatrix Potter. They created an entire imaginary kingdom, populated by anthropomorphic animals of their own inventions.
This would eventually serve as a model for Narnia.
Lewis was drafted into the British armed forces, during World War I, and experienced frontline trench warfare. There, he formed a friendship with another soldier, Edward Moore. The two men made a vow that if one of them was killed in the war and the other survived, the survivor would assume responsibility for the family of the killed man.
Moore was killed, just shortly before the Armistice which ended the war. Lewis' own mother had died while he was still a child, but he adopted Moore's mother and introduced her as his mother for the rest of his life. He lived with and supported her and her daughter until she had to be enrolled in a care facility, late in her old age, where he visited her regularly, until her death.
On separation from the Army, Lewis attended Magdalen College, part of Oxford University, where he earned outstanding degrees. He was invited to join the faculty of his college, and began his writings and his public lectures. He often answered letters from his public and became involved in a number of close relationships with them, through letters.
One such relationship was with an American divorcee, Joy Davidman Gresham. She was an outspoken and well educated woman who had spent a period of time as a communist and as an atheist, but who had converted to Christianity before she met Lewis. The four-year marriage between the dusty professor and his spirited, young fan was described by Lewis in his memoir ''Surprised by Joy,'' and was made into a very popular feature film called ''Shadowlands,'' in which Lewis was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins and Ms. Gresham was portrayed by Debra Winger.
When she died of bone cancer in the fourth year of their marriage, Lewis found himself nearly overwhelmed by grief, and he wrote a book which described his struggle to deal with his grief within a Christian context, called ''A Grief Observed.'' He couldn't bear to have people see so deeply into his own personality, so he published the book under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk. To his astonishment, a great many of his personal friends and associates gave him copies of his own book, believing that he would find comfort in it.
It wasn't until after his death that his authorship was officially acknowledged.
Lewis died of kidney failure on Nov. 22, 1963, shortly before his 65th birthday, although his death went unremarked in the media because John F. Kennedy was killed that same day. Another famous author, Aldous Huxley, also died that day.
He remains highly respected as a Christian writer, although some have attacked him as a propagandist, especially novelist Philip Pullman, author of ''His Dark Materials.''
''The Screwtape Letters'' is on tour, although Max McLean, who co-wrote the adaptation of the story, told us that he isn't traveling from city to city.
''We are based in New York City, and we go out to one or two cities, then come home for a while, then go out yet again,'' he said.
He is the only speaker on the stage for the 90 minutes of the performance, but there is another actor who shares the stage.
''We have cast three different actresses who play the role of Toadpipe, Screwtape's demon secretary. They take turns playing the role, which involves a great deal of dashing about, although Toadpipe doesn't speak, except in a language called 'Demon,' '' the actor said.
McLean reports that he has never performed in Buffalo before, although he has been there, during a visit to Niagara Falls, some years back. He said that he has performed in cities as different as San Diego, Miami, and Boston, but that audiences' reactions to the material has been very similar, and extremely positive.
I noted that Christian organizations are so different from one another that they often become shrill opponents of each other's material, especially in our contemporary political climate. Have his performances been picketed or editorialized against by non-Anglicans?
He replied that Lewis's reputation is so positive in nearly all elements of Christianity that there has been no opposition to the production of which he is aware.
I asked how he chose the material for 90 minutes' performance from a full-length book involving 31 letters. He said he begins the performance with segments from ''Screwtape Proposes a Toast,'' because he felt that they best described who Screwtape was and the circumstances under which he was working.
The majority of the performance is taken from segments of 24 of the 31 letters, selected because they maintained the story of the attempts to ensnare ''The Patient,'' and leaving out the author's responses to other elements of the story.
''I'd say 97 to 98 percent of the play comes directly from Lewis' book,'' McLean estimated.
Is the audience advised to study up on Lewis or on his book, before coming to a performance at U.B.? McLean thinks not.
''This is a fun show, and yet a provocative show. Based on responses from audiences, it is readily understood and appreciated both by those who are fully acquainted with Lewis and his thinking, and by those who are meeting them for the first time. It's a good combination of entertainment, with a bit of a kick,'' he concluded.
Now, that sounds interesting.