Last Saturday, my wife gave me an early birthday present, and the two of us drove the 2 ½ hours to Birmingham to see Max McLean’s stage adaptation of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.
It had probably been 10 years since I last read the book, but when I first saw the announcement of this upcoming play, my heart leapt. I can still remember the early morning hours, turning page after page, tears trickling down my cheek. Few books have touched me so deeply, and inspired me to such heights. So, when I saw that it would be performed in Birmingham, I knew that I would probably do a lot in order to attend.
(That my wife knew the same thing shows what a blessed man I am!)
And Mr. McLean delivered. I’m always nervous when my beloved books are adapted for any kind of performance, and Mr. Jackson has, of late, done little to strengthen my faith in the process. But McLean and his Fellowship of the Performing Arts have an appreciation for Lewis’s work – they’ve performed The Screwtape Letters for several years now in at least 50 U.S. cities – and I expected as much faithfulness as a dramatic performance would allow.
Consider me satisfied. A decade removed from the book, I missed nothing and noticed nothing amiss. The story retained its force and even received an infusion of energy, even of urgency, that is one possible advantage of a live performance over the printed word. Of course, Lewis is often better read than heard, as the eye notes certain patterns and the mind links thought to thought in one long, logical chain; his sort of prose can become unwieldy on the stage. Nevertheless, the actors showed much that Lewis told, delighting this fan.
I wondered how the play would speak to those unfamiliar with the book or Lewis’s other writings. The opening scenes are, to use McLean’s own word, “disorienting.” But my wife, who has not read Lewis beyond Narnia, said she followed it and appreciated much that the play presented. The overall ideas were clear enough, which would have been Lewis’s intent.
In The Great Divorce, he describes a group of passengers who take a bus trip from hell to the “doorstep” of heaven. The point, Lewis warns, is not to speculate about what either heaven or hell might really be like, but to expound upon the great distance that separates them…and those who belong to them. From the queue in the “grey city” (hell) to the sprawling sunlit meadows at the foot of the mountains (heaven), the passengers display their various forms of self-absorption and finally declare their hatred for what heaven offers. There is the self-righteous foreman who demands that he gets his “rights” when he discovers a notorious sinner among the saints, the woman who must possess her deceased child, the skeptic who is too clever to be duped by it all, and the artist who won’t live where she cannot build her reputation.
There are many others, but this last one, the artist, connected most with me. This is where the tears came. The artist is appalled by the notion that in heaven she is already known, not for her work, which in life was a poor substitute for the reality now all around her, but for who her Creator made her to be. For an incorrigible self-promoter like me, the thought that Christ knows me because I am his own, formed by his hand and bought by his blood… There is no earthly fame that can compare.
And Christ is behind everything in Lewis’s tale. He is not mentioned directly, but he is the key to the great divorce. He was the only one to leave the shores of Heaven and descend to our level; likewise he is the only one who makes it possible for any of us to cross over into his. When the foreman profanely refuses any “bloody charity,” one saint admonishes him that “bloody charity” is exactly what he needs. (Other profanities might be mentioned, but they are uses of “damn” and “hell” that can be taken quite literally in the context.)
As the passengers make their discoveries, they are often assisted by glorified saints and observed by Lewis’s narrator, who is himself one of the bus’s passengers. This makes McLean’s use of three actors ideal. Tom Beckett, Joel Rainwater, and Christa Scott-Reed interchange their multiple roles, each at different times playing narrator, passenger, or saint. Clever lighting, costumes, and projection technology are used to great effect in this process, and the result is a dozen distinct scenes blending seamlessly into one another and keeping the pace fresh and lively.
Finally, the play ends where it began, with the narrator – played by all three actors at once – in a library. Only, he now realizes that the bus trip had less to do with the hereafter than with the here and now. And that was Lewis’s point. Despite his errant beliefs on certain doctrines, Lewis was quite correct when he pointed out that broad and narrow roads never merge, for they start at very different gates. And the baggage we might carry on one journey simply won’t fit on the other.
Certainly there is much of Lewis that is better in the book. But McLean has brought his characters to life, and in a story like The Great Divorce, it’s what people do and say that show us the difference Lewis was trying to get his readers to see. That’s where this play, so faithful to the original, really shines. In the actors, we see caricatures of our own sins and temptations, and maybe the resemblance is a little too close at times. But that’s when we discover that we must declare ourselves with Christ or against him. There is no middle ground. There is, in fact, a great divorce.
(If you are near any of these cities this spring, and are even the slightest fan of Lewis’s work, go see the play!)