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New York company brings C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Great Divorce’ to Birminghamcomment (0)

January 23, 2014

By Martine Bates Sharp

New York company brings C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Great Divorce’ to Birmingham

Max McLean says that after he became a Christian, the first book he read besides the Bible was C.S. Lewis’ autobiography.

“I was impressed by how smart the author was and how he used language. But I didn’t understand a word of it,” he said. 

The fledgling Christian persisted, however, reading “The Screwtape Letters” next. McLean was hooked.

“As soon as I started reading, I said, ‘I know this fellow,’” he recalled.

McLean is founder and artistic director of the Fellowship for the Performing Arts (FPA), a New York organization that has as its mission “to present theater from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience.” In a culture that marginalizes all things Christian, including Christian literature and entertainment, the FPA seeks to challenge “assumptions about truth and reality” and to engage the imagination. 

“When we do our work with excellence and respect we receive a fair hearing in the cultural marketplace,” McLean wrote in a newsletter article. “One of the challenges we face in New York is that many artists perceive Christianity as a political ideology. This means that they often experience the Christian worldview by what it is against. By creating high quality theatre, the wonder of Christ is conveyed under more favorable conditions.”

The FPA brought Lewis’ work “The Great Divorce” to Birmingham’s Alabama Theater recently, playing to a nearly full house. The two performances drew a fairly young crowd, given that Lewis died in 1963 — perhaps not so surprising, since Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose popularity continues among young adults, were contemporaries and close friends. 

“The Great Divorce” was the second Lewis book to be adapted for the stage by McLean and the third time the FPA has traveled to Birmingham. “The Screwtape Letters” was performed in September 2011 and January 2013. 

Audiences who attend the performances of “The Great Divorce” and “The Screwtape Letters” are usually familiar with Lewis, McLean observed. 

“It’s like a C.S. Lewis convention,” he noted. 

An informal canvas of those who attended the recent play in Birmingham yielded a range from dedicated Lewis fans to those who were unfamiliar with the author but came with a friend, to some who were there because they enjoyed theater productions. 

For those who are not familiar with the book, the title seems odd. McLean explained that the name “‘The Great Divorce’ was written in response to [William] Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.’ Blake tried to find a point at which good and evil could be reconciled.”

Lewis, believing a reconciliation was not possible, wrote of the final divorce of good and evil, heaven and hell. He wrote in 1945 in his preface to the book, “I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists of being put back on the right road. Evil can be undone, but it cannot develop into good.”

The title was not Lewis’ choice, but his publisher’s. The original title was “Who Goes Home?”

The stage adaptation features three actors, each playing several characters from the book. The characters are all put on a bus, taken to the outskirts of heaven and given the choice to continue on to heaven or to take the return trip that will result in their being doomed to hell. The choice is not as clear-cut as one might expect; even at the very gates of heaven, the choice to give up selfish ambition and desire is not an easy one for some of the characters. 

Birmingham was the second stop of the nine-city tour. 

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