December 23, 2014

The Great Divorce on Stage

by Jesse Johnson

The Great Divorce is C.S. Lewis’ most controversial work. It provides a vision of the afterlife where hell is a giant sprawling suburb where everyone gets what they want—except happiness. Heaven in turn is compared to towering mountains, where every blade of grass is filled with the glory of God.

The plot turns on a bus ride taken from hell to heaven—yes, there is a bus that connects the two—and the passengers are “ghosts” making their way from the bus to the threshold of heaven. Once there, glorified bodies meet these ghosts and seek to persuade them to continue up into the high country of heaven.  

Literarily, the book is unusual because of the narrator’s role. He is reliable, but it is never entirely clear if he is part of the action or if he remains third person. In the end, the mystery is somewhat relieved as the narrator wakes up from a dream and continues his life.

Max McLean has adapted The Great Divorce and turned it into a play (McLean did the same for The Screwtape Letters; I liked that production, but this one is exponentially better). McLean uses a continuously changing backdrop to project the imagination and mystery that Lewis described on paper. He makes Lewis’ ambiguity with the narrator the key point of the play, using three different actors to play the one person. At times all three simultaneously are he, at times two, and at times only one. This theatrical slight-of-hand drives the play and really makes it come alive.

The three actors (two men and one woman) who play the narrator also play all of the other characters as well. Between the three they are over 20 different parts, and no two have the same costume or accent (that they switch in and out of accents so quickly is part of the fun). This gives the play humor both and pace. It lasts around 90 minutes, but it moves very quickly, and no one scene is longer than a few minutes.

McLean’s production is so well done it really feels like The Great Divorce was written as a play. The production has all the memorable scenes from the book; the sinful lizard, the blades of grass that pierce the feet, Mrs. Grumble, and George MacDonald (complete with Scottish kilt and accent) all make their appearances.  McLean even keeps Lewis’ clear allusions to Jonathan Edwards’ The End for Which God Created the World. The production conveys the full scope of the book with artistic flair that does Lewis’ book justice

It’s impossible to talk about The Great Divorce without talking about why it was controversial. One could see this as a Catholic version of the afterlife, where damned souls through the suffering of hell are gradually purified and fitted for heaven. The whole plot revolves around the ghosts of hell having the opportunity to be glorified, and that is certainly contrary to Protestant Theology.

But I’m not persuaded that Lewis was arguing that his depiction of the afterlife in reality is at all like it is in his book. The Great Divorce is fiction, and it is enduring precisely because of the characters that are brought to life. The conversations are so powerful and memorable not because they represent a possibility in the afterlife, but because they represent evangelism here and now. The lame excuses, the pathetic self-importance, and the misguided virtue…all the excuses you see in The Great Divorce are all ones we encounter now in evangelism. If the play (and book) is viewed as an explanation for why people reject Christ, it is powerful and biblical.

Regardless, McLean’s production is successful at what I thought would be an impossible task. Taking the gray, always raining, dusk-but-never-dark of Lewis’ hell, mixing it with the green glory of indescribable mountains, and bringing them alive on stage. Seeing it is an experience that will help your evangelism, and increase your appreciate for both Lewis and theater.

For more information on The Great Divorce tour, including upcoming cities and tickets, go to their website.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Josef

    If we speak about C.S.Lewis, we should first check this:
    http://esaie.free.fr/chretiens2/lewis.htm
    I’m sorry I don’t have the time to translate, I just know the owner of the page doesn’t wirite just to look important. Some of you will hopefully be able to understand it and discuss it.

  • I saw this in Atlanta. HIGHLY recommend.

  • Johnny

    From your description I’m intrigued to check out the book.