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Max McLean is positively evil as the demon Screwtape in C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters," coming Saturday to the Pabst.
Max McLean is positively evil as the demon Screwtape in C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters," coming Saturday to the Pabst. (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)

"The Screwtape Letters" coming to the Pabst

Imagine a world where good is evil, right is wrong, heaven is hell and the devil calls the shots. C.S. Lewis brought such a world to life in his 1942 novel "The Screwtape Letters," an epistolary piece about two demons’ effort to claim the soul of a British man. 

On Saturday, "The Screwtape Letters" comes to Milwaukee for two shows at The Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St., at 4 and 6 p.m., presented by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts.

Stage adaptations of the work followed its publication, but the Fellowship for the Performing Arts has been most successful in bringing the demons Screwtape and Wormwood to mainstream audiences. The Fellowship produced over 300 performances of the play attended by over 50,000 at New York City’s Westside Theater. An additional 200,000 theatergoers have seen "The Screwtape Letters" on its national tour, which stars acclaimed actor Max McLean as Screwtape. 

It is said that Lewis was inspired to write this novel after listening to Hitler’s Reichstag speech on the radio in 1940. Hitler’s oratorical skills made Lewis realize how dangerously simple it is to be seduced by evil that masquerades as logic. Thus this intensely psychological piece revolves around a series of letters exchanged between Screwtape, a senior adviser to Satan, and his nephew Wormwood, who is attempting to corrupt the soul of a man in England during World War II. 

McLean, who is also the president of the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, caught up with while on the road. Why do you think a production about demons that was written in the 1940s has been so popular with your audiences? 

Max McLean: Lewis created this universe where up is down, good is bad, God is called ‘the Enemy,’ the devil is called ‘our father below,’ and in the process he writes probably the best example of reverse psychology in all of literature. And so the irony and cynicism backfires. Because so much of contemporary theater is so cynical, so ironic, and this kind of turns it on its head. But the thing is, it executes the irony so well and it executes the cynicism so well.

And one of the reasons is that Lewis writes not only one of the best examples of reverse psychology in literature but writes in the character Screwtape one of the great literary creations of the 20th century – I mean, he’s like Iago on steroids. And the one thing I realized when I read the book is you hear Screwtape’s voice. That voice is the kind of voice and those words are the kind of words that get into your head. And so there’s this real unique theatrical experience that the play is happening in your head. And that is very, very different from almost any other theatrical experience out there. 

OMC: Screwtape is such a rational, eloquent character, and his voice is really the center of the whole play – more than any props or costumes could be. Why is that? 

MM: There’s a constellation of ideas here that you’ll find nowhere else in literature. And it is because Lewis was able to – he set out to create this wildly inverted universe and that’s very, very hard to do. And then to sustain it for the entire play, that it never breaks down, it never has a false moment, and then you begin to see how the evil all around you really works. And not in the big sort of awful, sort of "Exorcist"- type way, but in the kind of normal, everyday bad decisions that we make.

And the key idea in "Screwtape" is this: that your life, my life, is dependent on the choices that we make. I think everybody agrees with that. The thing that "Screwtape" adds to that little statement is that those choices that we make every day – hundreds, maybe thousands of choices every day – are influenced. There are powers, there’s principality, there are spirits that are working in our heart, working in our mind to take us one way or the other. There’s no neutrality there. 

OMC: C.S. Lewis is famous for incorporating his Catholic theology into his works. But "Screwtape" isn’t really about God or even about religion – it’s about the difference between good and evil, which is something that everyone understands. So how does this piece appeal to a non-Christian audience? 

MM: That’s the genius of C.S. Lewis. His own spiritual journey ranged from atheism to paganism to dabbling in the occult, then philosophical theism…from there he came to what he called "absolute goodness" but that was an abstract idea which ultimately led to monotheism to, ultimately, Christianity.

He has this rich spiritual journey and he never forgot what it was like not to believe. He could put himself in those positions. So anybody who sees it, they immediately see that the truth of what is being spoken is undeniable. And that’s the interesting thing. Truth is truth. Emotional truth, intellectual truth – and theater is really about emotional truth. It makes you feel. 


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