C.S. Lewis: The Great Divorce (Theatrical Review)

Having the rights to produce a theatrical play of this classic C.S. Lewis book (The Great Divorce) is a treasure made of performing arts gold. Max McLean and the Fellowship for Performing Arts have treated this piece with great care, respect, and reverence and it shines through in this mixed media presentation. The production came to the lovely Long Center in Austin, Texas, on March 26th.

It all starts off with Clive Staples Lewis in his library, toiling late into the night trying to write a novel, which he fails at in this one moment in time. He succumbs to sleep and a wild dream sequence begins. The round stage is illuminated as it soon turns into a patch of grass that pierces the bare feet of all the characters that later walk upon it. Behind the stage is a large video screen that projects fantastic images like space, stars, and a magic bus. The transition between each scene is pushed along with these images and loud, booming synthetic sounds that would go well with any doomy, progressive rock bands of today. The room was dark, the images psychedelic enough, and the sounds intense enough to take the audience on the intended journey.

Anyone who’s read the book will be glad to see and hear Lewis’ signature wit throughout. The most poignant use of cleverness for this writer was when one of the Spirit guides asked Lewis if he “understood all this.” I believe he just smiles as the audience laughs at the audacious question. Wrapping your mind around the heady concepts and the eventual logical divorce between good and evil is an arduous exercise of the intellect.

Artistic Director Max McLean referred to Lewis’ arguments in his post-performance onstage Q&A time as “Excedrin headache inducing.” This is a funny way of describing the mental gymnastics necessary to follow along the character for his journey. All that to say, this presentation was probably delightful both to the many church-looking people in the audience, as well as the atheist or skeptic.

Four actors play 22 characters in various settings – from soliloquy to dialogue between two, three, and four people. As a story, it’s not hard to follow along: C.S. Lewis falls asleep, has a dream in which he is transported into a holding place, as it were, where the passengers on the bus can choose between Heaven and Hell. Heaven is just beyond the horizon past beautiful hills, streams, and blue skies.

Lewis is not making a theological statement with his book, but instead presents an imaginative setting with which to contemplate good and evil, Heaven and Hell, and even suffering and joy.

The bus station exists in a dismal place called Grey Town, which seems to be a hellish settlement where people are so disagreeable that they live as far from each other as possible. Napoleon, Hitler, and Genghis Kahn are there, but at a great distance, as are “most famous people.”

The references to the half-light, the color grey, and the size of Hell being like a tiny crack compared to the largeness of Heaven bring to mind the influence of Lewis on so many rock bands from the past (such as King’s X, Atomic Opera, and Love in Grey).

The bus goes on a fantastic celestial journey that brings the passengers to the main place of the play. Upon their departure from the bus, the characters bring their suitcase, which conjures images of people foolishly thinking they can “take it with them” (when they die). These suitcases are one of the few simple props in the play, which conveniently act as chairs and even pads to stand upon.

The raised stage reveals a grassy area that gives each of the recently departed fits. Our main character soon surmises that he is a ghost, for each blade of grass pierces his feet. The substance of things in this new place is so weighty and solid that gentle grass blades don’t bend over underneath each character’s feet. It’s funny to see the newcomers all walking gingerly as each step causes knee-jerking pain.

Each of the visitors to this place are met by a Celestial Spirit. These knowing folks are dressed in thick robes and walk normally without pain and explain what’s going on. Lewis’ Spirit guide is none other than one of his greatest writing inspirations – George MacDonald. The discourse they share reflects the sort of understanding and admiration they might have had of each other had they had these moments on earth.

So many of the visitors are wrestling with common problems. It’s easy to see yourself in each of them. There’s conviction to be had for the willing audience member if they are open to it.

There’s a grumbler who is funny to watch and listen to as one grumble transitions into another almost like an atonal chant. It’s interesting to note that grumbling can eventually just become a grumble that overtakes a person.

There’s an artist that is captivated by all she sees but is reminded by her Spirit guide that what she painted on earth were only glimpses of the beauty that is present in Heaven. Her value of notoriety and fame is also, of course, weighted against and judged with the perspective of death, time, and eternity.

There’s a controlling wife that starts by bragging about being away from her deceased husband, but later begs to have him back so that she might control him some more.

There’s a mother who seeks to bargain with God to have her son back to return to Grey Town with her. The dialog here between Spirit and grieving mother is intense and passionate. She is challenged with the notion that her professed love is really self-centered. This is underscored by the fact that she’s rather have him in Hell with her than be apart from him and his residence in Heaven. This is the heaviest moment in the show, and it’s wonderful to see the treatment Lewis gives this discourse. Once the mother character leaves the stage decrying the unfairness of it all, his brokenness over this comes out in his own argument with the Spirit. It’s quite moving to see the real empathy and emotion portrayed here.

There’s a character named Sarah Smith, who is portrayed as a light being on the video screen behind them. She is basically great in the kingdom but was regarded as a nobody on earth. Her light shined brightly with simple deeds and great love, and she is honored in Heaven.

There’s a character near the end that appears with a lizard on his shoulder, which seems to represent his vice, idol or possession that he can’t seem to let go of. He really wrestles with the decision of staying in this great new place but having to part with his pet lizard. His celestial guide keeps asking him if she can kill it. He refuses and refuses and … well, I won’t spoil everything for you.

There’s some quotes that show up in the play that are so great, they almost leap from the performers’ mouths:

“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.’

“The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned
that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe:
that till they consent to be happy on their own terms, no one else shall taste joy:
that theirs should be the final power;
that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”

“They say of some temporary suffering,
‘No future bliss can make up for it,’
not knowing that Heaven, once attained,
will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”

“All that are in hell, choose it.
The choice of every lost soul is ‘Better to reign in hell than serve in Heaven.’
There’s always something they’d rather have than joy.”

Not exactly light and fluffy thoughts to meditate upon a Saturday night out on the town, but brilliant points to ponder. While not exactly hard rock music, it’s definitely heavy mettle.

While many live theatrical performances might take patience to endure, this one delivers with charm and ease. Seeing a bald Lewis under the spotlight of a dark stage was reminiscent of Paul Q-Pek’s The Story of Scrooge. Simplicity can many times be large, full, and satisfying, as this was.

The cast of The Great Divorce includes Joel Rainwater (The Lion King), Jonathan, Hadley (Jersey Boys), Carol Halstead (Gore Vidal’s The Best Man) and Tom Souhrada (Mary Poppins, Kinky Boots). The Great Divorce is a companion piece to FPA’s hit adaptation of Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. “In The Great Divorce, Lewis poses a most challenging question,” said FPA Artistic Director Max McLean. “Are the gates of hell locked from the inside?”

The Austin production of this show continues The Great Divorce’s 2022 National Tour. For additional tour cities visit GreatDivorceOnStage.com. McLean and the Fellowship for Performing Arts have also presented a movie, The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis. If it’s half as good as this play, it’ll be a must-see film.

A New York City-based production company founded by Artistic Director Max McLean, Fellowship for Performing Arts’ mission is to produce theatre and film from a Christian worldview that engages diverse audiences. In addition to its annual New York season where it has produced Paradise Lost, A Man for All Seasons, Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis on Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert, The Great Divorce and Martin Luther on Trial at The Pearl Theatre and at Theatre Row, it tours in major performance venues nationwide and recently added a university tour that includes Columbia, Brown, Princeton, UC-Berkeley, UNC-Chapel Hill, UT-Austin, Duke, Vanderbilt, Penn and UVA, among others. FPA also produced its first film in 2021, the international hit The Most Reluctant Convert: The Untold Story of C.S. Lewis, also starring McLean.

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1 thought on “C.S. Lewis: The Great Divorce (Theatrical Review)

  1. Brilliantly written (no surprise from you, Doug). As a founding member of One Bad Pig, long-time friend/brother, and recipient of your shadchan services, you know I love a good pun. Heavy mettle, indeed! Now you’ve made me jealous. Once I finish this comment, I’m clicking on the link to see if there are any remaining performances I can make it to.

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