If you are coming to New York City in what remains of the holiday season, you might consider heading over to The Pearl Theatre, which is west of Times Square, to catch a performance of The Great Divorce, an adaptation of the book of the same title by C.S. Lewis.
The play is put on by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts (FPA), a Christian group that earlier did a very fine, long-running (and widely touring) version of The Screwtape Letters. Max McLean, the original Off-Broadway Screwtape, and Brian Watkins have taken Divorce and turned it into a three-actor performance piece – just 90-minutes long – that very nicely captures the spirit of Lewis’s meditations on why heaven and hell exist and who goes where.
It’s really a gloss on Dante, Milton, Blake, and Bunyan – on The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Pilgrim’s Progress. Lewis, of course, was a Protestant, although of that lively subset of believers within the Church of England that refers to itself as Anglo-Catholic. If you did not know that, you would deduce it from The Great Divorce, which assumes that between heaven and hell there is something else.
Thus Lewis would express elsewhere (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer) what no fundamentalist Protestant could, believing as they do that those who’ve passed on are either damned or blessed immediately at death. “Of course I pray for the dead,” Lewis wrote:
The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden.
Indeed, he once wrote to a friend to ask that she visit him in purgatory. This may be why when I’ve asked some Protestant friends if they’ve read The Chronicles of Narnia or Screwtape they say they’ve never even heard of C.S. Lewis. He was simply too “high church” I guess.
For those unfamiliar with The Great Divorce, it’s the story of a bus ride that originates in the Grey Town and takes its passengers to the outskirts – the foothills – of heaven. We learn that in that murky world, people are always moving away from each other, so that the spaces between them grow ever more vast. You can have whatever you want there; it’s just never enough.
When our narrator exits the bus (he’s Lewis, we suppose – the actor is made to resemble him, which resemblance is aided by a large photo of Lewis that appears on a large backdrop at the start of the play), he experiences – as all the passengers do – what we might call the unbearable lightness of first being in heaven.
It’s true that in Lewis’s book this ghost-lightness makes the sheer solidity of this tiered paradise actually painful – the blades of grass pierce your bare feet. In the dramatization, however, much of the actors’ hour-plus in heaven is spent hopping about gingerly with too numerous vocalizations of discomfort. One gets the point – the joke – in the first few instances, after which it becomes (for me anyhow) tediously repetitive.
Our narrator – in the performance I saw played by Joel Rainwater – mostly listens to the self-serving tales of woe of other passengers, most of whom quickly head back to the bus stop for a return trip to the Grey Town. But the narrator is more blessed, because he receives guidance from George MacDonald, the great Scot writer whose work was a reason for Lewis’s own conversion. (G.K. Chesterton also admired MacDonald’s work, and it was G.K.C.’s The Everlasting Man that Lewis always said spurred him back to Christianity. Indeed, Lewis took the title of his greatest book from a phrase of Chesterton’s: “Mere Christianity.”)
The MacDonald of FPA’s Divorce (marvelously played by Michael Frederic, who also portrays other passengers and guides) is a wise and witty Vergil to the Dante of Lewis, and it is he more than any other figure who lays plain the problem:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.
Perhaps the most dramatically arresting moment comes when our narrator wrestles with his sin, in the personification of a “lizard,” represented on stage as a bit of very mobile red fabric, which sits upon his shoulder and crawls up and down his arm and whispers in his ear. Another angelic guide (Christa Scott Reed, also in multiple roles) offers to kill the lizard. Quite a struggle follows, as it did in Lewis’s own life.
As you can imagine, much of what’s in the book cannot make it to the stage. For one thing, some of the blesseds Lewis describes are naked, i.e. as God made them, returned to Eden as it were. This would hardly have been appropriate on the stage – even in the shadow of Times Square – given the number of church groups that occupied the theater the night my wife and I saw The Great Divorce.
Coming from FPA in February, by the way, is Martin Luther on Trial, described thusly: “The judge is Saint Peter. And the prosecutor. . .is the Devil. . . .Luther’s beloved wife Katarina defends him as witnesses including Adolf Hitler, Sigmund Freud, Rabbi Josel, St. Paul, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pope Francis take the stand.”
I gather our pope is a witness for the defense, not the prosecution. Ah, ecumenism!