An Irritance Observed
In 2016, I remember listening to podcasts one afternoon while cleaning my grandparents house. One day, the host of the podcast I was listening to interviewed a man named Max McLean. The actor was a performer in a stage play about C.S. Lewis, one of my favorite authors. The show was even going to be in town in short order, but sadly I wasn’t able to catch it in time. Unbeknownst to me, this was about to set me on a three and a half year odyssey to finally being able to see his production of C.S. Lewis onstage.
Every year since, the production has come through the greater Chicago-land area near me only for me to realize at the last minute I wasn’t available. Either I had to work the evening of the show or had obligations to attend like a wedding which put me four hours away from Chicago on the day in question. I was more than ready to go above and beyond for tickets to finally see this play after waiting years.
Then out of the blue in the fall of 2019, I received a Groupon in my email inbox for a different stage production than the one I was initially looking at. At the moment, there are currently two touring stage productions in the United States based on the life of C.S. Lewis. The first, starring Max McLean, is called C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert. The second one which I had just become privy to was called An Evening with C.S. Lewis. I wound up driving into Chicago on Halloween night with a friend and seeing it at the WaterTower Place.
An Evening with C.S. Lewis
I was completely smitten by A Evening With C.S. Lewis. David Payne, the show’s writer, director, and star, does an absolutely amazing job creating a space between the audience and actor to converse in a one-sided conversation. The plot of his version of the play is that the audience is a group of English majors touring England who stop by the home of C.S. Lewis one summer night in 1963 (a few months before his death). Over the course of two acts, he explains the broadstrokes of his life, his conversion to Christianity, and closes the show in the second half after a long retelling of his tumultuous and emotional relationship with Joy Gresham.
An Evening with C.S. Lewis is a play of incredible intimacy and wit. It’s born of an actor’s deep and abiding love for the individual who’s name is the title of the play. I can’t speak to Payne’s background, but he takes the role extremely seriously. He’s gone so far as to write multiple spin-offs and sequels including Weep for Joy, St. Jack and the Dragon, A Christmas with C.S. Lewis, and Lewis & Tolkien – Of Wardrobes & Rings, which all focus on different aspects of Lewis’ life.
Much of the script is recognizable to anyone who’s read Lewis’ books. A lot of the dialog and humor is directly lifted from several of his books. Payne plays the role with a unique combination of English humor and straightforward honesty. It’s almost intimidating when he first enters the room, but throughout his monologue the audience is drawn in as we become invested in his unique whirlwind of an life. I purchased the DVD of the performance the night of, and every time I’ve watched it there are no less than two places where my eyes water up because of how invested I am in the drama of Lewis’ life.
C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert
After years of waiting to see one of these productions, I was happy to have finally seen any production of C.S. Lewis live. Luckily, I wouldn’t have to wait long before I would have the opportunity again.
Like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky, I found myself an opportunity this past month to finally see the Max McLean version of the play I’d first heard of years before. C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert would be playing for one night only at Northwestern University on March 4th. I immediately bought two tickets, called in for a late shift at work, and prepared to make a long excursion to the north side of Chicago on a weeknight.
The Most Reluctant Convert immediately sets itself apart from its cousin production by means of its storytelling and presentation. Though both of them are comprised of a one-man-show monologuing about the life of Lewis, this version is far more direct and detail oriented. Instead of drawing upon the broad swaths of Lewis’ life, this hones in specifically on his religious journey and how the traumatic events of his life lead him to atheism, occultism, begrudging theism, and finally to a revelatory embrace of Christianity. This version of the story even comes with something of an audio-visual presentation in addition to the monologue which features soundscapes, photographs of important figures in Lewis’ life, and scenery that emphasizes the mood of what McLean is saying.
It’s a much less intimate and plot driven experience. Unlike An Evening With C.S. Lewis, the plot isn’t diegetic. We aren’t just sitting in a room with an actor pretending like we’re in the room with Lewis. There aren’t subplots about where Warney Lewis is hanging out for the duration or why the audience is in attendance. At times, it feels more like a Ted Talk. On those grounds though, I’d say this is the more informative of the two shows. Results may very depending on your previous knowledge of Lewis or which order you see the two productions in, of course. I thoroughly adored both productions on their own terms.
The production company for Most Reluctant Convert is itself something to behold. McLean is the founder and artistic director for the company, but at any given time they have upwards of four separate productions touring the United States independently. In their current season, they’re touring adaptations of The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and Paradise Lost, and they’ve previously done adaptations of Shadowlands, Martin Luther on Trial, and A Man for All Seasons. I’m more than a little excited to see all of these productions whenever they decide to come to Chicago.
The Idolization of Man
Stage plays based on the life of C.S. Lewis are not new phenomena. The most famous version of the story is the William Nicholson play Shadowlands. The play, adapted twice in a TV film and a biopic directed by Sir Richard Attenborough, is one of the most famous depictions of the life of C.S. Lewis. It’s a full production that follows Lewis’ relationships and the emotional cost of his wife Joy Gresham’s battle with cancer. The stage play version has been in and out of production with a cult-following for the better part of three decades.
It is fascinating that there are two independent productions ongoing at this time. I won’t say this is some major cultural phenomena, if only because selling out a one night show based on the most popular Christian intellectual of the past century shouldn’t be that hard in theory with good word of mouth behind both productions. That said, it was nothing if not a soul enriching experience. There’s an amazing energy being in a room filled with hundreds of like-minded people who similarly adore Lewis’ work. Now that I’m fresh off of seeing both of these plays and both filmed adaptations of Shadowlands in the past six months, I’m left to reflect on the legacy of the titular man.
There’s a danger in the Christian life of making idols of our religious leaders. I’ve met all too many Christians who have a special place in their hearts for the likes of John Calvin, Martin Luther, or G.K. Chesterton which they honor with a religious-like zeal. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with love and adoration towards a writer who’s inspired us, but a lot of Christians take the extra step into lavishing more praise and adoration onto the man than the God behind him. Part of me wonders if I’m in love with Lewis’ ideas or the idea of Lewis. Am I just in love with this humorous, grandfatherly, and quietly brilliant old scholar because we Christians find them all too infrequently in culture, or am I being affected by his ideas? Is my emotional investment in his life nullifying my ability to judge his ideas independently of my empathy for him?
These are hard questions to reflect on. As we speak, I’ve been reading Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain. Shermer is a famously agnostic scientist and the editor of Skeptic Magazine who has made a career out of debating Christianity and other ideas he considers superstitious. So far in the book, he’s made an extensive case religious beliefs and superstitions are formed on false experiences in the fever dream of chemicals that form our existence. They’re created by shortcuts in the brain that once served to aid humanities’ survival, but harm our ability to judge any religious experience as a real one. With his book, I’m approaching the ideas with open ears and disagreeing with much of what I’m hearing. I don’t disagree with the science, just the conclusions he comes to in regards to what degree humans should or shouldn’t trust their perceptions. My point is I’m engaging with the book intellectually. As much as I respect Shermer as a scientist, I’m not gushing over him as an individual.
A Modern Pilgrim’s Progress
Anyone who has read my Flawed Faith essays can tell you I quote C.S. Lewis constantly. His book The Screwtape Letters is my favorite book, and I’ve referenced and quoted several of his other books including Mere Christianity, A Grief Observed, and Abolition of Man. I’ve read the majority of his most popular works, and I’m going to be starting on some of his less popular works like the Space Trilogy this year. His reflections on faith aren’t just beautifully worded; they’re emotionally powerful. They come from a place of understanding, intellectual depth, and lived experience most Christians simply will never have. Most people don’t have the amount of pain in their lives necessary to write a book as honest as A Grief Observed. He was a quasi-orphaned, Great War veteran who lived most of his life alone only to watch the love of his life die of cancer in his arms. Most people sparsely carry the strength to endure even one of those trials.
He emerged from the horror of his life and intellectualism of his education with an enduring atheism that broke as he seriously interrogated Christianity as an adult. It means something in this day and age that an Oxford educated professor would choose the alienation that comes with faith just to follow the truth it offers. At the same time, his words need to stand on their own. In truth, I think they very much do. Many a faith has found its footing on his famous argument about desire from Mere Christianity.
“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger: Well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: Well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: Well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is I was made for another world.”
I can speak for myself that this argument appeals to my own sense of existential angst deeply. As Lewis says in the monologue of Most Reluctant Convert, this world is a sinking ship of which there is no hope to escape. There is much tragedy, inevitability, entropy, and horror to this world, even amongst the privileged and wealthy. My own faith was born of a desire to understand the faith that guided my closest friends and understand the peace and growth it brought them in the face of immense personal pain and tragedy. Understanding this desire to reach beyond the vale for a truth greater than this world has drawn me deeply to Christ.
I read most of these arguments long before I came to know the man who wrote them. Though I will admit they mean more to me now then they did by themselves.
The Weight of Ego
In some ways, I see that separation between my empathy for the man and the strength of his ideas at work between the two plays. An Evening With C.S. Lewis can best be described as right-brained focused. Much like Shadowlands, it’s a deeply emotional drama that places us within the horrors and sadness of his life as it celebrates the glories of God.
At the same time, C.S. Lewis: The Most Reluctant Convert is more left-brain focused. Of the two, it’s the more emotionally distant but charts out a complex line of thought through its story punctuated by moments of humor and sadness. It’s about this man’s inner wrestling with his ego and realization of the world around him that the people he respected like Chesterton and George MacDonald were religious and he ought to take those ideas seriously. The play ends on his moment of conversion and dramatizes each moment of joy and revelation.
Faith isn’t just a conversion experience. It’s an angel we have to wrestle with for our entire lives. To be alive is to live in fear of something that’s coming towards you that you cannot stop. How we choose to deal with that is what defines us. My generation all too easily embraces resignation to the inevitable. They drown themselves in vice and hopelessness. They pour their religious instincts into radicalism of all kinds and despair when their dreams don’t come to fruition. They have no joy for life or the beauty it brings us.
I never had a full conversion experience as a life long pseudo-Christian. I was always passively aware of my religion and its implications, but it took me until my mid-20s to decide to live by it publicly and honestly. It’s been a difficult transition. I very much relate to the personal submission of one’s ego Lewis had to undergo in his life. It’s not easy to put your desires aside and take up your cross to live like Christ.
Both of these stage plays capture within their stories not only the desire for God, but the joy of God. When I watch these plays, I walk away wanting to be a better Christian. I see the hope that springs eternal from a life that suffered crushing pain. I see the thought processes of a man looking out upon the consequences of multiple paths in his life and choosing to live for the things that make life worth living. I see what it feels like to be born again. In that, they’re perfect tellings of Lewis’ life. No story about C.S. Lewis should leave us without the hope and reality that we are not merely meant for this world.