Adult Fiction · Other Stuff

Review: The Great Divorce On Stage

The Great Divorce poster

I’m a huge C.S. Lewis fan, and I’ve loved Max McLean’s stage productions of his stuff. I’ve driven three hours each way to Atlanta to see his The Screwtape Letters – twice. Tickets to The Great Divorce were part of a Christmas present from my mom and I’ve been looking forward to it for literal years, since Max announced the project. Luckily I didn’t have to go all the way to Atlanta this time!

If you’re not familiar with the novel, it’s about people from hell visiting the outskirts of heaven. The thesis, or at least one of them, is that those in hell are there by choice. Those in heaven try to convince them to stay, but they refuse, for one reason or another. (Start looking into this and you open a huge can of worms, but it’s an interesting topic. You might start with this interview in Rachel Held Evans’ “Ask A…” interview series that mentions The Great Divorce a few times: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/hell-series-ask-a-traditionalist-1-response-walls).

The Great Divorce is a surreal book about ideas and conversations, playing on Lewis’ unique afterlife imagery, not so much a narrative novel. I’m sure everyone who heard about it wondered how they’d ever manage it onstage. Three actors – Tom Beckett, Joel Rainwater, and Christa Scott-Reed – play about 9 roles each. (Beckett’s turn as George MacDonald was charming). I was disappointed Max McLean wouldn’t be one of them, but his voice does make a few appearances! The book is mainly a sequence of conversations and examples of the kinds of people who prefer hell, with some hints about how they got that way. Not every character from the book made it onto the stage, but there really wouldn’t have been time and it would’ve gotten bogged down.

All three actors also play Lewis/the observer, sometimes one at a time, sometimes several at once. It’s essentially a one-act, with them switching roles and props on stage. That immediately lends the production a dreamlike quality, as does having few props at all. The location is suggested by rear projection onto a blank backdrop (and occasionally moving pieces of screen in front of it), allowing for slow scene shifts. They evoke ineffable heavenly events with glowing special effects on the screen, supplemented by characters’ narration but mostly left to the imagination. This was a good choice, letting the audience fill in the details for themselves and avoiding real-world-constraint disappointment. (It must be nerve-wracking to be that dependent on technology, though. Our performance did indeed start late because of technical difficulties, but we didn’t know that until afterward, they pulled it off admirably!)

All told, the material made for a talky play, but the actors did a great job and delivered moving performances for many characters in quick succession. I do feel like The Screwtape Letters was more accessible for a general audience, but if you enjoyed that or are a Lewis fan, I can encourage you to see The Great Divorce. Otherwise, I think you probably know by now if its the kind of thing you’d enjoy – surreal theological and spiritual discussion. I certainly recommend the book to all interested parties, and you can get it for much cheaper than a theater ticket!

For more information and current tour dates, go to http://greatdivorceonstage.com/.

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Related Posts:

Reading C.S. Lewis Chronologically

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15 thoughts on “Review: The Great Divorce On Stage

  1. Really interesting stuff. Gene’O is right- I am a big Lewis fan. I’ve always found The Great Divorce and The Pilgrim’s Regress to be the most difficult of his work for me, though. My hands-down favorite is Til We Have Faces. Sounds like this was interesting, though!

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    1. Good to meet a fellow Lewisian! In my experience, The Pilgrim’s Regress involved the most extra research just to understand. Til We Have Faces is drop-dead AMAZING though! I can’t believe so many people have never heard of it, it’s got to be his best.

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      1. Yes. I had a really difficult time with it, and I probably also read it when it was too young.

        Til We Have Faces is just beautiful. I’m always happy when I run across someone who knows it, because you’re right-it is woefully unacknowledged.

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        1. To be honest, I’ve never had the nerve to read Til We Have Faces again, it was so intense the first time, but I want to mount a campaign to read all his stuff in chronological order, and then I will. 🙂 Have you seen Boxen? It’s charming.

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          1. I haven’t, but I will now!

            I think that would be an interesting project-reading the books in chronological order, I mean. Perhaps once I get done with school’s required readings I’ll give that a try. 🙂

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  2. Reblogged this on The Writing Catalog and commented:
    Hannah is rapidly becoming one of my favorite bloggers. This is a review of a stage production of Lewis’ The Great Divorce. It’s a nice piece for a writing-centered blog because it concerns the work of a well-known writer, and it is a good example for anyone who wants to know how to write a short review of a book adaptation.

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  3. Nice review. If I’d known about this in time to plan and save, I would probably have been in Birmingham yesterday. I am not the biggest Lewis fan in the world (Diana likes him way more than I do), but I do appreciate his work, and I find the maturely-philosophical stuff like Screwtape, The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, etc., much more interesting than the Narnia books.

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