March 8, 2017
A new one-man play about one man's spiritual pilgrimage, C.S. Lewis on Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert, opens with a riff against a cruel, indifferent, and seemingly meaningless universe reminiscent of a Woody Allen monologue. "And what is 'life'?" the protagonist asks in defending his youthful atheism. "It is so arranged that creatures live by preying on another…Creatures are born in pain, live by inflicting pain, and mostly die in pain."
Playwright, director, and actor Max McLean achieves something rarely seen on stage or screen: a truthful, richly textured, and witty account of religious conversion. C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), the Oxford scholar renowned for works such as The Chronicles of Narnia and The Screwtape Letters, famously abandoned his atheism and became a Christian—but only after a long and tortuous struggle to reconcile his "ruthless dialectic" with the claims of the gospel. McLean traces Lewis's journey with a script informed by an intimate knowledge of his subject's thought and writings.
The play, now in its New York debut at the Acorn Theatre, is set in the 1950s in Lewis's study in Magdalen College. As Lewis recounts his journey, beginning with his childhood, we learn that his mother's death produced "a deeply ingrained pessimism." He soon stopped believing in God. His tutor, William Kirkpatrick, was a hard-nosed atheist who helped him develop "intellectual muscle," which eventually would undermine his materialist outlook. "I at least owe him in the intellectual sphere," Lewis wrote after learning of his mentor's death, "as much as one human being can owe another."
McLean's rendering draws attention to a singularly important feature of Lewis's story, often neglected by biographers: his experience of war. A hundred years ago, in 1917, Lewis arrived as a soldier on the Western Front, "the hell where youth and laughter go." He relates the grim memory of "horribly smashed men still moving about like crushed beetles…it was a ghastly interruption of rational life." It was an experience which deepened his skepticism.
Yet war also quickened Lewis's spiritual yearnings. It was during this time that he discovered the writings of George MacDonald, a nineteenth-century minister, mystic, and author of fantasy novels. When Lewis first picked upPhantastes: A Fairy Romance, nothing was further from his mind than Christianity: the cataclysm of the Great War was upending his generation's cherished beliefs in progress and religion. The book stirred a longing for beauty and goodness, an experience of joy that challenged his materialism. "My imagination was baptized," he says. "The rest of me took a bit longer."
In a smart production that uses portraits of friends and authors who helped Lewis in his quest—from W.B. Yeats to G.K. Chesterton—we overhear a fateful conversation with J.R.R Tolkien, another Oxford don and a Catholic believer. On an evening in September 1931, on Addison's Walk near Lewis's college, the two friends talked until 3 a.m. about whether Christianity was simply a myth, like the pagan stories Lewis enjoyed about dying gods sacrificing themselves for a noble cause. "Jack, the story of Christ is a myth: working on us in the same way as other myths, but with one extraordinary difference. It really happened." Lewis would regard his exchange with Tolkien as an intellectual breakthrough.
Whether moving from his armchair to his desk, or pouring himself a stiff drink, McLean delivers a performance that is worthy of its subject: learned, trenchant, wry, honest, and humane. "The Absolute had arrived, making a nuisance of itself," Lewis explains, compelling him to do a moral inventory. "What I found appalled me—depth after depth of pride and self-admiration—a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of hatreds. My name is legion."
The play captures the complexity of Lewis's struggle to believe, yet avoids the clichés and sanctimony that usually attend religious biographies. True to Lewis's own account, McLean portrays a man almost embarrassed by his conclusions: even Lewis's decision to adopt theism rendered him "the most dejected, reluctant convert in all England." The ultimate step of faith comes unexpectedly, during a country ride with his brother in the sidecar of a motorcycle. "When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God," Lewis explains. "When we reached the zoo I did."
C.S. Lewis on Stage delivers something truly novel in modern theater: a story about an immensely creative mind, through reason and imagination, arriving at the threshold of faith. "A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and I have been invited to follow our great Captain inside," Lewis says. "The following Him is, of course, the essential point."
Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at the King's College in New York City and author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.