Interview with a ‘demon’
McLean plays the devil’s right-hand man in the theatrical adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ popular novel, “The Screwtape Letters.” Taking place in hell, the story follows the demon “Screwtape” on his evil quest to lure humans down Satan’s path.
The play, which is coming to the Chicago area for one weekend in March and one night in May, is presented by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, a New York-based organization that produces theater from a Christian worldview.
ChicagoCatholicNews.com recently spoke over the phone with McLean, the star and co-creator of the show, about the play’s spiritual message. Below is an edited transcript.
How would you describe “The Screwtape Letters?”
It is a theatrical adaption that is very faithful to C.S. Lewis’ classic novel about spiritual warfare from the demon’s perspective. The play is set in hell and follows Satan’s chief psychiatrist Screwtape. Screwtape is like a top employee of Satan. He has all the tricks of the trade — mental, spiritual and emotional — to tempt a human patient into damnation. It’s interesting that C.S. Lewis uses the word ‘patient’ to describe this human. You and I would think of a patient as someone who needs healing, and he thinks of it as someone who needs to be damned. So he created this gnarly, morally inverted universe where up is down, good is bad, God was called ‘The Enemy’ and Satan was called ‘Our Father Below.’
Tell me about this demon, Screwtape.
He’s so smart. He’s really good at his job and he loves ruining people’s lives. He’s kind of a ‘master of the universe’ character. He loves how he looks, he loves how he talks, he loves how he dresses; he’s the smartest guy in the room. He is the tool of pride. He is kind of like [the character] Iago from Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ who likes to win you into his confidence so he can manipulate you. Or Hannibal Lecter from ‘Silence of the Lambs’ who has this outward aesthetic and likes fine wines, but he’s hiding a cannibal inside. Those are some of the images I think about. I think Lewis has created one of the greatest literary characters in the 20th century in Screwtape. And I think the book is one of the best examples of reverse psychology in 20th century literature.
What’s it like to play this character?
It’s a very challenging role because Screwtape is so, so smart and so, so confident. And the audience likes him because we like people who are very good at their jobs. … People are sympathetic in the sense that he has a journey in the play that people are very interested in, but not in the sense that people say, ‘Poor Screwtape.’ It’s more like you understand his motivation. You get in his head; you understand who he is and how he works. But you do realize that he intends harm.
What does the play tell about good vs. evil?
Lewis’ objective is following St. Paul’s advice when he said we must not be ignorant of his devices: The devil masquerades as an angel’s light trying to manipulate you. Lewis in his book wants to pull back the material curtain so we can see the spiritual influences that are really at work in our lives. Every day, every moment, we have choices. We can do this or that. The sum of those choices really makes up the quality of our life. And those choices are influenced by the good and the bad. How we nourish ourselves spiritually will determine the choices we make. This book warns us from the opposite perspective, and the play does it, too, in a very humorous and provocative way, and it allows us to see that negative influence in action.
What makes it relevant today?
We see ourselves in it. Every example, every situation in the play is something you and I can relate to. It comes right out of your everyday life. When you go to the theater, there will be a situation that will remind you about something from that morning. And you’ll come to squirm in self-recognition.
In what ways would it appeal to a secular audience?
Everybody believes in the devil a little bit. But first and foremost, it’s brilliantly written. Lewis was really, really smart and could really, really write, especially in his ability to look at yourself and at your behavior. You may not believe in devils and angels or heaven and hell but you are aware that some of the choices you make are not good. These kinds of choices are universal. You don’t have to be a Christian; it’s about human nature. People pretty much act the same wherever they are or whatever they believe. The only difference is the Christian knows when they may need help and where to find it, and the secular person will say, ‘Oh, I can handle it myself.’ But both will say those problems exist.
What do you hope viewers walk away with?
A better understanding of the spiritual influences for good and for evil that are happening in everyday life. … It’s not like ‘The Exorcist’ or anything like that. It’s much more about how evil works in everyday normal circumstances, in your relationships with other people, in your pride.
“The Screwtape Letters” is scheduled to run at the McAninch Arts Center Mainstage at the College of DuPage, 425 Fawell Blvd., in Glen Ellyn from March 16 -18 and at the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., in Aurora on May 19.
By Katie Drews, for ChicagoCatholicNews.com