Bringing Screwtape to life
Mary Jacobs, Religion News Service
August 11, 2010

Bringing Screwtape to life

Bringing Screwtape to life
Mary Jacobs, Religion News Service
August 11, 2010

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.

RNS photo courtesy Joan Marcus/Fellowship for the

Actor Max McLean plays Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” currently on stage at New York’s Westside Theater.

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


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


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.”