C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien (and Martin Luther) Walk Into a Theater
Christian-themed plays delight theatergoers in Washington, ahead of new runs.
WASHINGTON — When the stage lights go up, a solitary figure in a brown tweed suit is sitting in a book-lined study at a college at England’s Oxford University. He is C.S. Lewis, one of the most famous converts to Christianity of the 20th century.
“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet,” Lewis tells the audience.
A one-man show about an Oxford don’s twists and turns on the way to embracing Christianity may sound like an odd proposition for a bracing evening at the theater. Yet C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert, written and acted by Max McLean, drew a large and enthusiastic crowd to its world premiere at Washington’s prestigious Lansburgh Theatre.
After playing to full houses in Washington’s theater district, the Most Reluctant Convert will now be on tour, presented in select theaters around the U.S. It will be in San Francisco June 24-26 and in Los Angeles July 14-17.
The high-quality script and production are the work of Fellowship for the Performing Arts, a New York-based group that produces sophisticated theater from a Christian worldview. McLean, an award-winning actor whose voice is well known to many as the narrator of The Listener's Bible recordings, founded the fellowship in 1992.
“At the root of Christianity,” McLean said in a previous interview, “is the admission that this world is not what it ought to be, and at the heart of being a Christian is the confession that ‘I am part of the problem.’ Our vision [at FPA] is to select stories that explore how and why consequential choices are made and to produce those stories on stage in a manner that engages diverse audiences.”
FPA’s repertoire includes several plays based on Lewis’ life and work, including a production of The Screwtape Letters, which is scheduled to open in London in December. The newest addition to the roster is Martin Luther on Trial, a fantasy play about a trial in the afterlife of the Augustinian monk who started the Protestant movement. It was written by McLean and Chris Cragin-Day. Its cast of characters includes Sigmund Freud, Adolf Hitler and Pope Francis.
As they milled about during the intermission between a May performance of the play and what McLean calls a “talk back” session afterwards, D.C. theatergoers commented on the high quality of acting in the Luther play. Were the actors Christians?
“We don’t ask that question,” McLean said. “We have a professional cast, and we need people who can handle the language. Handling the language is very important.”
McLean said his goal is to get “the right material executed at the highest level your budget will allow.” But he believes that Christian themes make for good theater because Christianity is “multilayered” and “engaged in the truth,” so that “if you are true to that, it is going to capture people’s imaginations.”
“What we want to do with The Most Reluctant Convert,” said McLean — a man in preppy clothes who, out of costume, doesn’t look or sound at all like an English academic, but manages to convince you he is one when playing Lewis on stage — “is to get people so intrigued that they are following the play intently from beginning to end. With Lewis, the story is about an atheist who fought Christianity all the way, tooth and nail [until he gave in].”
The Reluctant Convert highlights the influence on Lewis of two Catholic writers, G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien. “Tolkien explained the Gospels to Lewis in that late-night walk recounted in the play in Addison Walk in 1931,” McLean said during an interview at the Lansburgh Theatre. “Tolkien explained to Lewis that the Gospel was the myth that really happened.”
The famous conversation on Addison’s Walk, a path at Magdalen College, is regarded as a turning point in Lewis’ movement towards Christianity. When Lewis regretted how sad it is that myths, which are often beautiful and heroic, are ultimately untrue, Tolkien made his case for the truth of the Gospel.
Relying on Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, and Lewis’ letters and other works, McLean created a seamless monologue that recounts Lewis’ Protestant childhood in Belfast, Ireland, the early death of his beloved mother, his demanding solicitor father, early education and service in World War I. He spent his entire academic career at Oxford. In the play, Lewis dramatically recounts how he made his first communion in the Protestant Church of Ireland without belief. The play ends when Lewis, now a believer, kneels and recounts receiving communion in an entirely different state of mind.
Many Catholic fans of Lewis believe that, if he had lived longer, he might have overcome the Protestant Belfast prejudice against Catholicism and become a Catholic. Asked about this, McLean, who is a Presbyterian, says he doesn’t know. He added, “But Lewis was concerned about the way the Anglican Church was going.” He recalled that Lewis was particularly concerned about a tendency he saw in the Anglican Communion to downplay or explain away miracles. Lewis, according to McLean, believed the rejection of miracles on the part of many Anglican clergy would either lead people affected by their views to embrace atheism or Catholicism.
The Luther play was written with the approach of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s break with Rome, coming in 2017, in mind. It features Katie Von Bora, the nun who married Luther, defending her husband in a trial presided over by St. Peter. Lucifer is opposing counsel. One theatregoer said the vignettes and intellectual nature of the dialogue made the play “Tom Stoppard for Christians.”
Catholics will be interested in the appearance of a Pope Francis character, who, when he realizes he is face-to-face with St. Peter, can only express a heartfelt, “Wow!”
When Lucifer asks for some of Pope Francis’ writings, St. Peter produces his own heavily annotated copy, bulging with copious stick-it markers to highlight things St. Peter apparently found of interest.
Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.
- martin luther
- j.r.r. tolkien
- g.k. chesterton
- christian writers
- charlotte hays
- c.s. lewis