As a C.S. Lewis fan, I’ve been wanting to see Max McLean’s theatrical adaptation of The Great Divorce for some time. When I learned the play was coming to Nashville for a one-night performance, I was excited until I realized I would be traveling on the date of the performance.
Now, more determined than ever to see this play, I scoured the Internet for other venues hosting this once-in-a-life-time event. (which really just involved a quick search on Google) Fortunately, all my hard work paid off (again, really just a lot of clicking), as I discovered the play was to be at the Cobb Performing Arts Center in Atlanta for another one-night performance the following month. Before it sold out, I grabbed two tickets, and booked a hotel room across from the venue. A month later, my wife and I traveled four hours down to Atlanta to see the play! It was truly outstanding!
Many of you know The Great Divorce to be one of my favorite Lewis books. Mainly because I believe the book is more accessible to the average reader (like me) than some of his others. It was also one of my favorite Bible studies to both write and lead at church. I remember the hearty class discussion, even from those who don’t normally take part.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, assuming you’re as familiar with this great Lewis classic as I am. In fact, many of you might be asking “divorce” from what? And what is so “great” about it?
Lewis wrote The Great Divorce in 1945 in response to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which Blake imagines a point at which the difference between good and evil will somehow be resolved. Lewis’ instead wrote a counter response of their divorce.
In this delightful and puzzling book, damned spirits are given a vacation or a “holiday” away from hell to visit heaven, where they are invited to stay. These brilliantly drawn characters take a fantastical bus trip to the outskirts of paradise where there, they are persuaded by people they formally knew, relatives and friends, to come with them up the mountain to enjoy the bliss of Heaven. But they can only do so by leaving behind what is keeping them in Hell and accepting the love of God.
To you and me, the answer seems obvious, but the choice proves to be more challenging for this group of odd characters than imagined. Reading further, we learn that it’s not their choice to sin that binds them to hell, but rather their own choice not to repent. They must let go, step out into the light, and forgive themselves and others. But many simply cannot.
McLean’s production features four actors portraying 22 vivid characters who bring to life this mesmerizing fantasy about heaven and hell complete with Lewis’ signature wit, amazing actors and dazzling, state-of-the-art projections. And it all takes place in 90 minutes! The cast 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).
McLean is no stranger to the stage himself having starred in C.S. Lewis on Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert and the live adaptation of The Screwtape Letters. In fact, I would encourage you to watch the movie adaptation of The Most Reluctant Convert staring McLean. You can rent it on Amazon for a few dollars. It’s definitely worth the watch.
Regarding the book, McLean says, “In The Great Divorce, Lewis poses a most challenging question. Are the gates of hell locked from the inside?”
Through the play Lewis, responds, “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.’ 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.”
After the performance, we were treated to a post-performance onstage Q&A time with McLean. He graciously entertained questions from the crowd about the performance, the book, and C. S. Lewis. His knowledge of Lewis and his books are unparalleled.
I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed the show and would highly encourage you to see it if it ever comes to a performance hall near you. You won’t be disappointed. If you’ve not read the book, I would just as strongly encourage you to read it before going. And, if you read it in the past, a quick refresher wouldn’t hurt. Looking around the theater, I saw many confused looks at various points in the performance from those I assume might have been unfamiliar with the book.
But don’t just take my word for how great it is, The New York Times called the play “infinitely thought-provoking!” and it was hailed for its “striking vignettes . . . packaged into a tidy, brightly designed 90-minute show” by the Washington Post in a “recommended” review. Broadway World called it “a rare and welcomed treat!”
If you’ve seen the play, I would love to hear your thoughts on it. Just send me a note here.
…Watch the video below for a short preview of the play!