C.S. Lewis on stage, and on the couch


There are those who love C.S. Lewis, and those who have never read him, and that accounts for pretty much everybody.

This month the Philadelphia theater presents two opportunities for fans and for those who need to become acquainted with one of the most popular and influential Christian writers of his day.

A theatrical adaptation of “The Screwtape Letters,” Lewis’ novel about spiritual warfare from a demon’s point of view, comes to Philadelphia for three performances at the Merriam Theater, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Friday, Oct. 19, and Saturday, Oct. 20.

The next weekend begins a two-month run of the Arden Theatre Company’s production of Mark St. Germain’s “Freud’s Last Session,” an imaginary encounter between Freud and Lewis.

Like Freud, Lewis was once an atheist, abandoning faith at age 15. But as a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University he became a member of the Church of England.

He was a respected literary critic and author of the popular fantasy novels “The Chronicles of Narnia.” As a Christian, he wasn’t an original thinker and didn’t claim to be. But like G.K. Chesterton — who he credited, along with his friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien, author of “The Lord of the Rings,” as influencing his conversion — he had a talent for presenting the doctrines of the Christian faith in ways that are both understandable and challenging.

“When you argue against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on,” he wrote in his book “Mere Christianity.”

Freud, of course, did argue against “Him” in several books, such as “The Future of an Illusion.”

The fictional “Freud’s Last Session” takes place on the day England enters World War II. The legendary psychoanalyst is near the end of his life, having already undergone numerous operations for the cancer in his jaw.

Lewis, then a little known professor on the brink of literary fame, has been invited to Freud’s home in London, expecting to be called on the carpet for satirizing him in a recent book. Instead they debate the existence of God, love, sex and the meaning of life.

Unlike Freud, Satan’s top psychiatrist —Screwtape — knows that God exists, and is a dedicated opponent of God and humankind.

“The Screwtape Letters” follows His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape, and his 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.

“The Screwtape Letters,” first published in 1942, is one of Lewis’ most popular works. It brought him worldwide fame and put him on the cover of Time Magazine.

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 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.”

Lewis was married late in life, at age 58, to Joy Davidman Gresham, an American writer 15 years his junior. She, like Freud, battled cancer. Hers was bone cancer. She died in 1960. She and Lewis had been husband and wife for four years.

“The death of a beloved is an amputation,” Lewis wrote in his memoir “A Grief Observed.” Readers of  Joan Didion’s memoir of the year after her husband’s death, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” will find it interesting to compare the two works.

Didion’s work has been brought to the stage. Lewis’ relationship with Joy also has been turned into a play. Perhaps one day it will be staged in the area. In the meantime, “Shadowlands” was made into a film in 1993. It stars Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger and was directed by Academy Award winner Richard Attenborough.


If you go

The Screwtape Letters

Merriam Theater, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts

Oct. 19 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 20 at 4 and 8 p.m.

For tickets, visit www.ScrewtapeonStage.com, call 215-893-1999, or visit the Kimmel Center Box Office, 300 South Broad Street, daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and Merriam Theatre 90 minutes prior to performance start time.

Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain

Arden Theatre Company, Arcadia Stage

40 N. 2nd Street, Old City Philadelphia 19106

Oct. 25-Dec. 23

For tickets call the box office at 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org