Faithful Imagination in Theatre: What We Can Learn from C.S. Lewis

Quality theatre presented from a Christian perspective is hard to find.

It exists in small pockets, such as Lamb’s Players Theater in San Diego, California, or Taproot Theater in Seattle, Washington, but these are the exception rather than the norm. As sparse at that is, however, quality theatrical material written from a Christian perspective is even rarer. I was asked by a student a few years ago about what good Christian scripts and plays are in existence. My answer was simple: not much. The shows which have a reputation and name recognition are few: Godspell, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and perhaps Jesus Christ Superstar are the only ones that I could list. Undoubtedly there are others, and certainly there are smaller productions with smaller acclaim that have been done over the years (the recent success of The Christians by Lucas Hnath might be an example), but either I am not aware of them or they run below most people’s radar. Of course there are many plays and musicals that are amicable, or at least not antithetical, to the Christian worldview, and it is these that most Christian theatre companies, groups, and educational departments often turn to. But this does not negate the fact that quality work written from a Christian perspective is greatly lacking.

Let me interject a quick sidebar here. Some might ask, ‘What exactly is the Christian perspective? After all,’ they might rightly argue, ‘there are a wide variety of Christians in the world today who disagree on many things.’ By ‘Christian perspective’ I am not referring to an American, Republican, evangelical view, though it can be that. Nor am I referring to a progressive, social-justice oriented liberation theological view, though it can be that as well. Truth be told, it’s not really a located Christianity at all.

Rather, this simple, even blasé phrase is trying to encapsulate what was so beautifully called ‘Mere Christianity’ by C.S. Lewis. That is, in this context, a theatrical piece of literature or performance that allows for the simplicity of the gospel message (e.g., God exists, God came in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus died on the cross and rose again so that we might be reconciled with God and have life eternal in communion with God) to be influential within a larger narrative in a way that takes the weight of the message seriously. This does not mean that the overall story arc must be about Christianity, but rather that a Christian worldview undergirds and influences the way that the narrative develops. To adapt one of Lewis’s famous phrases about the sun [1], the Christian worldview of the writing, acting, and/or direction should allow audiences and actors alike to ‘see everything else’ related to the story in a new fashion.

There are works that leave it up to the viewer to discern truth from fantasy, such as Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain, a sharp one act that posits a fictional conversation between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis in London, 1939. There are works that retell the gospel story in a new context to try to make it more applicable, such as The Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Keys and Russell Treyz, which resets the Gospel of Matthew in small Gainsville, Georgia. And there are a few pieces in between. But these are rare, both in quantity and in performance. But their rarity, like fine stones, makes them all the more special when they are discovered (or, as is sometimes the case, rediscovered).

This shortage of quality Christian material is what led me to The Great Divorce. Adapted from Lewis’s book of the same name, The Great Divorce immediately captured my attention and my mind the first time I saw it. It was commissioned by the C.S. Lewis Company to be performed by Lamb’s Players Theatre at the triennial C.S. Lewis ‘Oxbridge’ conference held in Oxford and Cambridge. Robert and Deborah Smyth (from Lamb’s Players Theatre) adapted it for the stage, performed it at the conference, and later were given permission to include it in their mainstage season of shows in Coronado, CA, in 2004.

That is where I first encountered the production, and fell in love with the story. Here was one of the few instances of an unashamedly Christian production that was smart, intelligently written, humorous yet deadly serious when necessary, and which left the audience with the sense that they had witnessed something extraordinary and life-changing. It was not overtly missional in its focus, though it certainly sought some type of transformation in the viewers and participants who were open to it. It was not sappy, there was no alter call at the end, and it reached down to the very souls of those who partook in it.

And I loved it.

And I wondered why I had never encountered anything quite like it before. I was fascinated by the fact that Lewis could translate so well to the stage and that his work, which was so obviously Christian, could captivate audiences from all ilk. Since 2004 other adaptations have come out as well, and have been performed as far apart as Seattle, San Diego, and off-Broadway in New York City. Even the liberal-leaning New York Times, when reviewing the adaptation of The Great Divorce by the Fellowship for Performing Arts, called it ‘infinitely thought provoking’ and ‘consistently intriguing.’ [2] Indeed, I was so captivated by the adaptation that I first saw that I have since revived the piece several times in other venues, first as an actor then twice as a director, and most recently as a consultant to a university theatre department chair that saw the work and is adding it to their season next year.

It has, in a very real sense, become part of my own theatrical story. But it has only done so because the work itself, which lifts entire paragraphs directly from the pages of the book, is so powerful and compelling.

In his essay ‘Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare’ (1939), Lewis writes, ‘For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.’ [3] This understanding of imagination as meaning maker and the condition necessary for truth to be presented helps to explain why Lewis’ writings are still read today. As George Marsden states in C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2016), ‘[Lewis] recognizes that the best reasoning has to be set in contexts that excite the affections or the deepest loves, desires, fears, and hopes that make up the whole experience of the person.’ [4] With imagination holding such an integral part in Lewis’ understanding of how to both grasp and present truth, is it any wonder then that the arts, the most imaginative form of communication, can and do so easily embrace and translate his writings?

The Great Divorce is full of fanciful imagery that forces the reader to acknowledge the differences between the reality of this world and the world Lewis describes: grass that is too hard to walk on, waterfalls that talk, ghosts that become ‘more solid’ as they venture into the mountains, great saints that nobody on earth has ever heard of, and lizards and puppets that control their human masters, just to name the obvious ones. Though most of The Great Divorce is dedicated to the conversations between the ghosts and the mountain people, it is these imaginative set pieces that communicate an atmosphere of truthfulness to the points that he makes in those conversations; the conversations would be interesting but largely inconclusive on earth, but on the fields between heaven and hell, which clearly have different norms than we are used to, they become potent and intense. ‘We think we are listening to an argument; in fact, we are presented with a vision; and it is the vision that carries conviction.’ [5]

Theatrical presentations, like the Lamb’s Players adaptation with which I have become so familiar, have the unique ability to draw audiences into the world of Lewis’s imaginative atmosphere so that they may breathe the truth that he presents.

Unlike reading the book, which is usually a solitary experience, or watching a filmed version on a screen, theatrical encounters are designed to create a spiritual and emotional interplay between audience, actor and material (the play itself) which can only happen in live spaces without a canvas, screen, or paper serving as intermediary.

The experience of seeing real people speak real words in a real, shared space creates this imaginative atmosphere that Lewis understood to be so important for conveying Christian truth.

Theatre is a tool. It can be wielded like a hammer, or like a conductor’s baton. Both have their purpose and value, but one should never confuse one with the other. Lewis felt that his purpose as a lay apologist for Christianity was to put forth a ‘mere Christianity’ that conveyed the central essence of the faith in a simple yet reasonable way. This purpose supports all his apologetic works, including The Great Divorce. For those of us who engage in the theatrical arts and who seek to integrate our faith into the works that we create or participate in, we would do well to take a page out of Lewis’s playbook. Let us be bold in our creations, yet always mindful of the need for both truth and imagination in our work. ‘The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says “look at that” and points; the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I can possibly see of him.’ [6] There is a great need for more imaginative engagement with ‘mere Christianity’ in theatre. So let’s get to it.

 


[1] I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. In ‘Is Theology Poetry?’, 1945.
[2] For the full review, please see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/18/theater/review-in-the-great-divorce-searching-for-greener-pastures.html?_r=1.
[3] This essay is available at http://pseudepigraph.us/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/CSL-Bluspels-and-Flalansferes.pdf.
[4] p. 169.
[5] Austin Farrer, ‘The Christian Apologist,’ in Light on C.S. Lewis. Edited by Jocelyn Gibb. (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1965), 31.
[6] Lewis, ‘The Personal Heresy in Criticism,’ in Lewis and E.M.W. Tillyard, The Personal Heresy: A Controversy (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), 11.

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