C.S. Lewis lived between 1898 and 1963. He’s best known for his works of fiction such as “The Screwtape Letters” and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” although his non-fiction work is arguably more important. He ranks among the foremost 20th-century Christian apologists and theologians.
Max McLean has written a terrific solo show in which he presents Lewis in his study at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1950, C.S. Lewis on Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert. Mr. MacLean is the show’s actor, and he’s co-directed it with Ken Denison.
The script details Lewis’s conversion from atheism to Christianity, delineating the transformation in discrete steps. Lewis begins with his childhood in Belfast: “Mother’s death produced in me a deeply engrained pessimism,” he tells us. And “At 13 I ceased to be a Christian. At that age one scarcely notices.” He was confirmed in The Church of Ireland “in total disbelief.”
The script presents us with the structure of Lewis’ life – his time at Oxford, his enlisting in the army during World War I – but the substance of the narrative is his internal life. He refers to one spiritual epiphany as an event compared to which “everything else that ever happened to me was insignificant by comparison.” He stresses that he experienced joy then, not happiness or pleasure.
The script offers us insights to his education — he mentions people like G. K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien. However, he refers to none of his writings. We learn the unexpected when he tells us that at one point in his life he developed “a ravenous desire for the supernatural” and speaks of séances and ouijas.
The passage from non-believer to theologian was gradual. He was first converted to theism, not Christianity, in 1921, when he “admitted that God is God.” “All my books were turning against me,” he tells us.
Later, he tells us “I remember when but hardly how the final step was taken.” It was during an excursion to a zoo in 1931. “Rock-bottom reality had to be intelligent” he realizes. So complete was his conversion that he tells us “I’ve never met a mere mortal.”
Mr. McLean is a very fine actor. His work is precise and meticulous. He gives us all the variety he can find in his stage life, smoking, drinking, leaning against a table, holding his hands at shoulder-level, palms outward. He has a great time with diction in his British dialect, from time to time stressing sounds like the opening of “mmillions of years” and the plosive in “Nature is a sinking ship-ah.”
Along with Mr. Denison, Mr. McLean has directed a rigorous philosophical exercise. The Most Reluctant Convert is an inspired script, and the intellectual workout is masterfully executed. But although the show engages us intellectually, it fails to capture our emotions. Mr. McLean is adept at indicating a new thought, but he too seldom indicates a new emotion. His work in another solo show, The Screwtape Letters (based on Lewis’ book), earlier this season, had an emotional range that this script doesn’t give him the opportunity to realize.
And so, in the course of 90 minutes, we move from “I was angry at God for not existing,” to “Unlike my first Communion 17 years earlier, I now believed.” How many stage shows take us on such a journey?