When I first came to Wheaton College, on a snowy January Sunday in 1969, I was transferring from the University of Alabama, where I had enjoyed a most happy three semesters. I loved Tuscaloosa, the Tide and all things Crimson. But God led me to Wheaton. I have never doubted it.
One of several reasons for my transfer was to get to a place where I could begin to formally study the Bible and Christian theology while still pursuing my B. A. degree in history. The first Bible class that I ever took was a freshman-sophomore New Testament survey course taught by Dr. Walter M. Dunnett, now a retired Episcopal priest who lives nearby and remains a dear friend to this day.
Dr. Dunnett began each class, three mornings a week, with readings from C. S. Lewis’ classic book, The Screwtape Letters, and then with prayer. Lewis (1898-1963), the well-known British writer, professor and Christian apologist, died on the same day as President John F. Kennedy. He is the author of numerous books but plainly The Screwtape Letters is one of the more humorous and practical things he wrote.
In the Introduction to this fine book Lewis wrote: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight. Lewis added, “Readers are advised to remember that the devil is a lair. Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true, even from his own angle. There is wishful thinking in hell as well as on earth.”
My good friend, Pastor Keith Duff, invited me several weeks ago to hear actor Max McLean’s dramatic presentation of Screwtape Letters at the Mercury Theater in Chicago, I jumped at the opportunity. So on last week, on Thursday evening January 8, Keith and I were joined by mutual friends Jeff Malas and Pastor Tim Badal for a great evening in Chicago. The drama was presented by this brilliant actor who offered his own careful rendition of the Lewis’ material. The stage was simply adorned to give the appearance of a part of hell. McLean was assisted by Yvonne Gougelett, who did a great job playing the role of Toadpipe, the assistant to Uncle Screwtape. She helped record his messages and got them to the junior devil, Wormwood. This was cleverly done with a ladder and a mail box that mysteriously carried letters from the teacher, Uncle Screwtape. The theater, which must seat about 350 or so, was about half full and McLean’s voice was all we needed to hear the famous words. It was melodious and brilliant.
The drama, written for stage production by McLean himself, featured two
locations. The play began with Screwtape giving a prolog in “A Dining Hall in Hell: A Graduation Banquet at the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils.” This gave the context for the rest of the play. Screwtape explained the concept of training junior devils in his opening remarks and this showed us how the work proceeded. The bulk of the play was “thereafter,” or scenes from Screwtape’s office in hell. The whole production lasted for eighty minutes with no intermission. It was well received by an interested audience.
Readers of Lewis will know that the characters in the work include “the patient,” who is the young man on earth who becomes a Christian. “The enemy” is God and “our father below” is Satan, the devil himself. Slubglob is the principal of the training college and “the woman” is the patients new romantic interest who is also a Christian. Tempters include devils named Glubose, Triptweeze and Slumtrimpet. (Lewis had a great use of names!)
McLean’s performance of C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters was simple but beautifully captivating. Having read the book, as I stated at the outset, while in college forty years ago, I was personally concerned about how the portrayal would compare to my first impressions and those I have formed in re-reading it over the decades. I was more than pleasantly pleased. This performance was outstanding and left me wanting even more at the end. I would highly recommend this play to anyone who could see it in Chicago or anywhere else it might appear in the coming years. It was memorable and reminded me of one reason I love the city and what it offers by way of serious art.
McLean’s performance was plainly a dramatic reading at its very best. Included in the oral presentation was a minimal amount of acting but what was included, especially that supplied by Yvonne Gougelet (Toadpipe) was both amusing and quite well done. She added a great deal to McLean’s work.
McLean has done a number of recorded readings including works from Augustine, Luther, Bunyan, Edwards and Whitefield, as well as Bible readings for audio use. At one time he made appearances in churches. I assume he still does but he may limit his work to the stage more these days. He has a great voice, enunciates words very powerfully and makes older readings into first rate dramas for a modern audience. His Screwtape Letters performance at the Mercury Theater has been going for well some months and has been a real hit in the Chicago art scene.
He also has credits for the performance of plays like A Streetcar Named Desire, The Threepenny Opera, Love’s Labor’s Lost, A Man for All Seasons, Good Man, Charlie Brown, etc. McLean directs the work of the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, which expresses a passionate concern for restoring the arts among Christians. You can connect to his numerous resources and interests online and learn a lot more.