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scene

The Screwtape Letters on stage

| Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Diane Park | The Observer

On Sunday afternoon at the Morris Performing Arts Center, the stage-adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s 1941 novel, “The Screwtape Letters,” provided audience members with insight into the inner workings of hell. Starring Brent Harris as the charismatic master devil-temper Screwtape, with Tamala Bakkensen playing his loyal secretary, Toadpipe, the duo presented a passionate exploration of spiritual temptation.

The play opens with Screwtape’s address at the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils graduation, where the senior-tempter toasts to the graduates’ upcoming careers. Screwtape emphatically comments on the banquet’s lack of quality courses, as they conclude their feast on captured human souls, lamenting the days when they devoured the souls of people like Hitler and Henry VIII.

The scene then transitions to Screwtape’s office, where he dictates letters to his nephew, Wormwood, a junior tempter who is beginning his first assignment, for the remainder of the dialogue. The play pulls material from 24 of the book’s 31 letters to create 15 letters recited by Screwtape onstage. Throughout these letters, Screwtape advises Wormwood on how to best seduce his patient — a young man on Earth — away from the “Enemy” (God) and towards “Our Father” (the Devil). However, far from a typical repulsive demon, Harris portrays the charismatic Screwtape, dapperly dressed in a red brocade jacket, vest and tie, as charmingly amiable. He dictates several of his letters while lounging comfortably in his leather chair, feet up on a footstool, against a backdrop of the skeletal remains of successfully corrupted patients. His eerily charming disposition helps to explain how his patients surrender so easily to his luring and, further, reveals how easily humans can surrender to temptation in our own lives.

While mentioned only once in Lewis’s book, Toadpipe’s role expands in the play. The lower-demon both transcribes and mails all of Screwtape’s letters and embodies the human personalities that Screwtape describes. Covered in scales and feathers, Toadpipe shifts around the stage throughout the play while growling and convulsing. During the recitation of one letter, the lower-demon writhes on the floor; for another, it perches on the footstool; it gnaws on a bone while writing a third. Toadpipe seals each letter with a sizzling palm, then climbs the tapering spiral ladder to reach the pneumatic mailbox that transfers the correspondence between hell and Earth, glowing red when letters are sent and received. Fundamentally, the lower-demon serves as a visual embodiment of different spiritual states in society, as the demon changes its personas on Screwtape’s command, bringing his letters to life.

The majority of Screwtape’s advice centers around preventing the “patient” from discovering his flaws, thereby keeping him ignorant of his false spirituality. He encourages Wormwood not to rush the process of corruption, emphasizing the cumulative effect of small sins and imparting that “The safest road to hell is the gradual one.” While emphasizing the human person’s vulnerability to temptation, though, Screwtape also—however unintentionally— offers a profound description of the beauty of God. The demons seek to “absorb” human souls for their own feast, but Screwtape speaks of how God desires humans to be drawn to him so that they may become their fullest selves, a concept which he finds strange. Screwtape clearly cannot understand this unconditional love: at one point, he stammers and struggles even to speak the word “love.” He then proclaims that God cannot really love us “hairless bipeds,” believing that his concern for us must be a act because of selfless desire is so foreign to him.

Throughout the play, Wormwood’s patient becomes more spiritual and resistant to Wormwood’s temptations. Angry that Wormwood is “letting a soul slip through his fingers” when the “patient” becomes a Christian, Screwtape can no longer fake his composure, as his nephew’s failures reflect on Screwtape’s own inability to provide accurate counsel. When Screwtape begins to discover Wormwood’s lessening hold on his patient, he becomes increasingly frazzled, removing his suit jacket, pulling at his hair and gradually deteriorating to insanity as the letters progress.

While witty and entertaining, the stage-adaptation inspires its audience to thoughtfully reflect on our own spiritual lives: how we disguise vice as virtue, how we disregard our true nature, how we become increasingly drawn to temptation and repeatedly turn from God to ourselves. Although the play can be startling, “The Screwtape Letters” ultimately illustrates the power of God over evil, and, with God’s grace, our ability to triumph over temptation.

“The Screwtape Letters” is currently touring the country, with a special effort to bring the play to college campuses.

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