C. S. Lewis once complained that writing The Screwtape Letters brought him no pleasure. “I never wrote with less enjoyment,” he said. “The strain produced a spiritual cramp.” That’s because Screwtape is a devil, and his letters are pieces of fiendish instruction sent to Wormwood, an apprentice demon who is trying to tempt a soul into Hell. “The world in which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch,” said Lewis. “Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded.”
And yet The Screwtape Letters, published in 1942, is one of Lewis’s best-loved books–it is probably more widely read than any of his titles, with the exception of Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia. It might even be said that in certain respects it was the most important book he ever wrote, if only because it “made Lewis a household name,” according to biographer A. N. Wilson. Would we know Lewis if he had never written Screwtape? Probably. But it’s a little like asking whether we’d know Shakespeare if he had never written Hamlet–removing it from his opus diminishes him.
Anybody who has dipped into the book can sense its power. The concept of a devil writing letters to his subordinate is pure genius, and The Screwtape Letters if full of crackling-good prose. Here’s a sample, from the first letter in the book:
Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary,” “conventional” or “ruthless.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous–that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.
This is at once a firm denunciation of moral relativism, a bracing plea for coming to grips with its seductive power, and a clear message of warning to readers. Lewis believes that by creating a fictional devil and trying to plumb his ways, his audience will improve its faith.
Screwtape is continually mystified by the agenda of the Enemy–i.e., the God that he and his fellow devils have rejected. This gives rise to one of the best passages in the book, from Screwtape’s eighth letter:
One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself–creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like his own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to his. … He cannot “tempt” to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do the Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
There are 31 such letters. They vary slightly in length but average perhaps 1,000 words each. Lewis was a speedy writer, spending only a few hours on each one, and they initially appeared in a weekly newspaper in serial form. (He donated the initial proceeds to a fund for the widows of clergymen.) The letters may be read quickly, too, though they may also be read repeatedly with profit. It might be said that the first half of the book is stronger than the second half, but the book as a whole deserves its status as a popular classic.
I have often wondered how The Screwtape Letters might be dramatized, especially in the wake of last year’s Narnia movie. A splendid audio version of the book is available, performed by John Cleese of Monty Python fame. It is at bottom a recitation of the letters. Turning the letters into an actual story that might be made into a film would require an enormous amount of invention–the creation of characters and situations that are only dimly hinted at in the words Lewis actually wrote. Anybody who attempted it would be accused of deviating from the script.
Last month, I did watch an excellent stage performance of The Screwtape Letters in New York, put on by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts. It opened in January and closed earlier this month. “We have sold out for the vast majority of the performances,” says Jeffrey Fiske, the FPA’s artistic director. “There have only been around half a dozen performances that have not sold out, and the lowest attendance we have had was 75 percent.” The production may move to a larger venue off-Broadway venue in New York, and there is also a hope for shows in other cities.
The presentation is simple enough: Screwtape, played in a bronze smoking jacket by a Robert De Niro-ish Max McLean, recites his letters to Toadpipe, a demonic scribe and dancer played by Jenny Savage. Yet McLean so dominates the stage that The Screwtape Letters seems almost a one-man show. He is both charming and gruesome, which is exactly how theatergoers who are familiar with the book would want him to be. The show is essentially an edited version of the book plus a snippet from “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” a short essay that Lewis wrote in 1962–it clocks in at roughly an hour and 45 minutes (compared to about three hours for the unabridged recording by Cleese). There are a handful of embellishments, such as Toadpipe chanting “Om,” like a 1960s hippie, when Screwtape urges Wormwood to produce “a vague devotional mood” in his patient. At another point, Screwtape, seated in a high-backed brown leather chair, flips through a book about Madonna (i.e., the singer). Between the letters, Toadpipe dances to music–this is a bit distracting, but at least it serves the purpose of breaking up what otherwise would be an extended monologue. All in all, The Screwtape Letters, as produced by the FPA, is an outstanding piece of work.
There have been other attempts to revive Screwtape–I enjoyed this short, unofficial “sequel,” which won a contest sponsored by Lewis’s publisher several years ago. But each one of them owes everything to the original author, who was always finding new ways to instruct his flock of fans, proving that a spiritual cramp for Lewis can be a revelation for the rest of us.
–John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America..