By Mary Jacobs
Religion News Service
(RNS) In the theatrical adaptation of C.S. Lewis' novel, "The Screwtape Letters," now playing at New York's Westside Theater, actor Max McLean brings one of Satan's top demons, Screwtape, to life.
Garnering positive reviews in the secular press ("One Hell of a Good Show," according to the Wall Street Journal), the play recently extended its run indefinitely. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. So what was it like playing Screwtape?
A: I hate to admit it, I loved playing him. Screwtape is the smartest guy in the room. It's all about him. He walks in and just sucks the air out of a room. He loves the way he looks, he loves the way he talks, he loves the way he dresses. He's pure pride. To be able to get that across on stage, it's quite joyous.
Q. Screwtape is a rather elegant demon in a red brocade smoking jacket. How'd you make that choice?
A: The devil appears in many guises. He works in deception, in the illusion of grace, power, and elegance, for the purposes of enticing us into his world. There was an elegance there, but as soon as Screwtape took off his jacket, you saw that his shirt was ripped and bloody. He was covering up his true malevolence.
Q. In the book, C.S. Lewis doesn't tell readers much about Screwtape himself. How did you fill in the gaps to create a character?
A: I thought of Shakespeare's Iago in Othello, because he was able to get into Othello's and everyone's confidence. He gave the appearance of a man of peace, who wants the best for everyone, when what he really wants is the best for himself.
There was a little of Hannibal Lecter from "The Silence of the Lambs," because he was frightening, but from a very erudite, calm perspective. Then bits of (British actor) Noel Coward, just for that la-de-dah elegance and physical grace he exuded. All of that is to establish the kind of illusion required to entice you. As in, "Oh, he's a good guy. I can trust him. I want to be like him. I want what he has."
Q. You're a member of New York's Redeemer Presbyterian Church. How has your faith been affected, after spending several months in the skin of a devil?
A: In a very positive way. St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians that we must not be ignorant of his devices. That was Lewis' intent. In Lewis' books, Christianity does have a villain. He wants Christians to be more aware that there is an enemy to our souls. That has been the biggest lesson of Screwtape, being more aware. The way it manifests itself, it has certainly deepened my prayer life.
Q: As in defensive prayer?
A: Yes. Jesus says Satan goes about like a roaring lion looking for whom he will devour. In the temptation, Satan tells Jesus, "All this I will give you if you bow down to worship me." Of course Jesus doesn't take it, because he's strong enough but we might say, "Well, let me think about it." Lewis reveals that, while Screwtape gives the illusion of offering stuff, he has nothing of beauty, of merit, of goodness to offer at all.
Q. You're getting good turnout for this play. Do you think your audience is mostly Christians?
A: It's definitely more of a mixture. We have a group sales department and about 12 percent of our audience comes from outreach to religious groups. I don't think we would still be running if we were limited to a niche audience. New York is a competitive theater environment. There are so many choices.
I do hear anecdotally, from people coming up to me who define themselves as either atheistic or agnostic, and they tell me how much they enjoy the play. They enjoy the language, and the philosophical and psychological insight. They enjoy the questions that it raises.
So often I hear about the wonderful conversations after the play. There's a buzz about what has been said that I think is really good. And here's my favorite comment: "It's fascinating to spend an evening with the devil."