All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The difference between literature, of which drama is a subset, and theater has rarely been demonstrated as clearly as in Anthony Lawton’s adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s religious satire, “The Screwtape Letters,” playing at Philadelphia’s Lantern Theater, with Lawton as the show’s star and director.
Screwtape, created by Lewis in 1941, during the early years of World War II, is one of the devil’s agents on Earth. It is his assignment to steer people towards eternal damnation by acquainting them with pleasures the pious may deem sinful and tempting them to enjoy these amenities to voluptuary excess, thus insuring they’ll join the devil’s fold and abjure the humbler life Lewis equates with accepting Christianity and living by its principles.
As a higher-up in the devil’s firm, Screwtape trains junior tempters, such as his nephew, Wormwood, whose job is to make hedonism attractive to a specific young man who is contemplating conventional goodness and a seemingly happy marriage.
In a series of letters, Screwtape instructs Wormwood about the best ways to proceed with his prey. The letters are sarcastic. They make fun of the everyday virtues people are taught to cherish. They tell how even the best-intended person can be lured to mild indulgences that lead to bad habits, bad behavior, and an afterlife as a denizen of the underworld, a.k.a. Hell.
Lewis plays with language by referring to the rungs on the diabolical organizational chart as a “lowerarchy,” with Screwtape holding a more advanced position than Wormwood. Screwtape smugly refers the devil as “our father below” and tells Wormwood the surest route to damnation is the gradual one, “the gentle slope without milestones or signposts.”
Lewis’s text, though obvious in content, is witty in the way it compares and juxtaposes righteousness and hanky-panky and in the way it discusses the pitfalls that rob men and women of peace of mind and ultimate tranquility in this life, let alone what, if anything, comes next.
The author knows the stuff that has corrupted mankind and cleverly turns his findings into the ammunition that can insure anyone’s decline. Screwtape writes about the wide array of damaging temptations with glee, ecstatic that his boss, the devil, has so many methods by which to achieve his end and have legions of company down below. Lewis is not preachy or puritanical. Yes, he writes a lot about men and women who are sexually promiscuous and the perils of tobacco, gambling, stepping out in the evening, and demon rum, but he warns more of habitual practice and excess than he advocates abstinence or asceticism. Perspective and proportion can defeat the devil without a person having to turn into a total prude or pill. Lewis is more concerned with the person who is so mindful of the opinion of others, he or she that is influenced by peer pressure or trends to the point they never determine their own preferences and opt for those that seems to them to be more popular and less square/nerdish. Screwtape tells Wormwood to inveigle his subject to date the indiscriminate and get sloshed regularly, but his more dangerous advice involves getting the young man to join social groups he will surrender his own ideas to impress, acceptance at all cost being the goal. Going against Polonius, and being untrue to oneself, is the quickest way Screwtape sees to unhappiness, and he recommends it emphatically as Wormwood’s strategy to corrupt and corral his subject.
Lewis has obviously thought enough about the devil’s arguments and maneuvers to write a sharp manual on the best ways to entice someone to wend his or her way through the world without taking the time to exercise discriminating judgment or seriously creating a responsible personal code that allows for some fun and even some folly but ultimately leads to a comfortable and purposeful life. “The Screwtape Letters” is that manual, and it can be as amusing as it is enlightening.
In print. “The Screwtape Letters” is literature. It is meant to be read and absorbed as a satiric guide to naughtiness. Its entertainment comes from the written word, the published page. Any text can be translated to drama, but care must be taken that the resulting script take a theatrical form, one that is to be acted and augmented by props, design, and effects. Otherwise, a performer may be reciting, but he or she is really only reading.
Anthony Lawton’s version of “The Screwtape Letters” never makes that crucial and critical leap from the page to the stage. Lawton pares down Lewis’s text, but his script remains a text, a literary entity that doesn’t have the lightness nor the intensity to take hold of or entrance an audience.
The editing and memorization Lawton has done is admirable. He has committed large chunks of Lewis’s work to mind. He hits on all of the high points I mentioned earlier, the “lowerarchy” and “the gentle slope” most pointedly. He lets you see where Lewis is heading with Screwtape’s letters and how sincere the author is, but his style of speech doesn’t convey the wit or cleverness of Lewis’s work. His approach is more like a schoolboy who has learned a lot of facts and wants to impress you with them. Lawton’s delivery lacks finesse and texture. Though the actor can recite Lewis’s words fluidly and without hesitation, his impressive feat of memorization does not metamorphose into an exciting or compelling sharing of ideas. Lawton works with several choreographers and consultants. Perhaps what he needs more is a director who can pace his monologues and hone the inflection so that Lewis’s words register as the clever moral conversation they are instead of as a lecture.
Lawton is like the members of the social club about which Lewis writes. He thinks his spouting words and philosophy is enough for the text to be accepted. He expects members of the audience to be so taken with the deftness of Lewis’s prose, he doesn’t bother to dramatize it in a way that invites listening or that holds interest for the duration of the 100 minute or so intermissionless length of his adaptation.
Lawton seems as smug and confident as Screwtape, but, like his lead character, he can be thwarted by taking too much for granted in terms of the audience’s patience.
Although new ground is covered in each letter, it seems as if each missive is a rehash of the previous one. Lawton does not alter the tone or timbre of his readings. Lewis’s text becomes monotonous and tedious. Lawton has spirit but no charm. His style of presentation doesn’t vary. In all cases, Screwtape acts cleverer than thou as he spells out a course of action designed to lead a person away from religion and towards wanton pleasure for pleasure’s sake.
Lawton’s approach is unctuous. Screwtape always seems so proud of his logic, so self-satisfied to impart his lessons to Wormwood. It belies the wit and deviltry in the letters. It makes them seem to be moral in their own right instead of the revealing thoughts of a dedicated, unmitigated villain who finds joy in ruining lives.
Lawton’s Screwtape comes off an self-conscious, pompous. and conceited. He is not sly or crusty enough to make his dictates fun or funny. He lets you hear the thoughts Lewis provides his devil, but he doesn’t give you a chance to absorb them or to take mischievous delight in being taken into the devil’s confidence.
Without being able to make Lewis’s words immediate and spellbinding, as Alec McCowen did when he acted “The Gospel According to St. Mark,” Lawton loses his audience. His “Screwtape Letters” remains literature and never graduates to theater. Too little of authentic drama occurs. Too little variation in presentation is stifling.
Ironically, the best moments in Lawton’s show happen between the actor’s recitations.
A devil needs some recreation, some way to leaven his days of encouraging nastiness or evil. Lawton’s Screwtape finds it in having unrestrained sado-masochistic contests with his secretary. Toadpipe, played with lustful gusto by Sarah Gliko, who, after her stint in “Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq” at the Wilma has to take care that no one typecasts her as a dominatrix or a woman who relishes the feel of leather, on her jacket or from a whip.
In his “Screwtape Letters,” Lawton punctuate the reading of every brief by staging an intense dance or indulging in some feat of daring. Gliko nonchalantly waves her hand through real flames. Lawton eats the fire. Both of them crack whips and battle seriously with wooden sticks. Screwtape and Toadpipe take turns besting the other. Screwtape usually has the edge, but Gliko’s Toadpipe is a fierce competitor and takes special delight in pummeling or trouncing her boss. Lawton’s Screwtape seems to enjoy Toadpipe’s beatings as well.
The various machinations conceived by Lawton and choreographed at various times by Rachel Camp, Melanie Cotton, Myra Bazell, John Bellomo, and Lee Ann Etzold, provide a touch of wit and a frisson of tension Lawton’s reading do not muster.
Why? Because the tap dances, box step, pole fights, and pyrotechnics are theatrical. They have bite. They have a visual component. They have discernable rhythm. They move. The significance of each vignette doesn’t matter. The choreographed sequences offer something to watch, something to involve you. The literary scenes remain flat, even when pictures or titles pop up on a screen to allegedly illustrate and edify one of Screwtape’s precepts.
Theater is more than words. It’s words measured for effect. It’s words presented to engage you, entertain you, and provoke you to thought. Reading “The Screwtape Letters,” and its 1959 sequel, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” which attacks the breakdown of standards in British education, makes you cleave to Lewis’s thoughts and appreciate his wit. Listening to it becomes stupefying. All seems repetitive. Art does not shine through.
Lawton may be able to improve his program by making Wormwood a character or by finding a better way to present Lewis’s prose. I would love to applaud Tony’s effort because I can see the creativity and commitment that went into it.
Unfortunately, I was too conscious of time passing and of drifting into boredom to recommend Lawton’s “Screwtape Letters” to another.
Lawton’s “Screwtape Letters” has had several incarnations, mostly produced by Lantern. It may be time for a re-examination or a rewrite with some mind towards making Lewis’s letters and theatrical and lively as the interludes between them.
Lawton, by the way, is adept at writing. His “From the Adapter” essay in the Lantern program brings out Lewis’s points better than Lawton’s play does.
Lance Kniskern’s set, especially the solid desk and the hatstand, are just right for Screwtape’s office, and the arrangement of the furniture leaves room for dancing and battling. Dave Jadico trained Lawton and Gliko in fire eating.(There’s no end to Jadico’s talents.) Fire eating was the most riveting part of Lawton’s show.
“The Screwtape Letters” runs through Sunday, June 15 at Lantern Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $38 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-829-0395 or by going online to www.lanterntheater.org.