Performing a Christian Icon: Tom Key’s C. S. Lewis on Stage

Witnessing an actor play C.S. Lewis on stage hardly strikes the contemporary viewer as a novel experience. For over a decade, various versions of William Nicholson’s drama Shadowlands have traversed their way through different mediums, providing Lewis impersonators with unprecedented employment. Joss Ackland first played the Oxford don in the BBC teleplay (1985), followed by Nigel Hawthorn on stage in the West End and on Broadway (1989), followed by Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-nominated film portrayal (1993).

Although these high-profile productions dominate the Lewis landscape, the first, the longest running, and arguably the most ambitious theatrical portrait of the esteemed Christian writer comes, remarkably enough, from an American. Since 1978, Tom Key, an Atlanta-based actor and playwright, has given hundreds of performances of his one-person show, C.S. Lewis on Stage. Presented in such venues as Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Oxford University, the play boasts a distinguished list of enthusiasts, including Douglas Gresham (Lewis’s stepson) and fellow “inklings” Owen Barfield and George Sayer. Unfortunately, a special arrangement with the Lewis estate limits Key to single-night performances primarily for non-profit theatres, schools, and church-sponsored events. As a result, theatre critics largely ignore his production. Experienced for a quarter century by thousands of theatre-goers, Key’s Lewis warrants more consideration.

Drawing upon live accounts of C.S. Lewis on Stage, an analysis of Key’s script, an interview with the actor/playwright, and genre study of biographical one-person shows, I argue that Key succeeds in the challenging task of portraying a writer heralded by Time as the most influential spokesman for Christianity in the English-speaking world. Key’s performance works for three reasons. First, as an actor, Key circumvents the daunting task of performing a Christian icon by focusing on the humanity and humility of his subject. Second, as a playwright, Key arranges Lewis’s writings in such a way as to create an accessible and theatrical portrait of the author. Third, as a solo artist, Key admirably brings Lewis into performance through his successful, if uneven, use of the established conventions of the biographical one-person show.

Holy or Wholly Human?

One-person shows typically require actors to portray beloved biographical figures. In Cast of One, a seminal study of the solo-theatre genre, John Gentile states, “the historical figures selected for biographical one-person shows tend to be larger than life and have left an important legacy.” Obviously, these qualities draw audiences to one-person shows in the first place. This said, Lewis’s status among Christians offers unique challenges. In all likelihood, audiences attend Hal Holbrook’s popular one-man show Mark Twain CS Lewis on StageTonight because they view Twain as a great American humorist and novelist. By contrast, a projected audience for Key’s C.S. Lewis on Stage likely contains a core of believers who credit Lewis with their understanding of what theologian James Olthuis describes in his essay “On Worldviews” as matters of “ultimate concern.” These weighty worldview issues include such topics as salvation, the problem of pain, and the afterlife. With so much invested by an audience, a successful performance of Lewis seems burdened with near celestial expectations.

Unfortunately, a theatrical response to the sacred often leads to Christian melodrama. In Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture, William Romanowski articulates this phenomenon. He argues that “homogenized knockoffs” usually result when artists try to produce “Christian art” for mainstream audiences. Instead of being innovative and challenging, Romanowski observes a “shallow wholesomeness” emerging from such well-intentioned efforts. Famed English actor and solo performer Alec McCowen arrives at a similar conclusion. In his memoir, Double Bill, McCowen describes the preparation for his acclaimed one-person performance of Saint Mark’s Gospel:

In the early days of rehearsal, I inevitably fell into the trap of making Jesus sound ‘holy’ and ‘self-righteous.’ This is a well-intentioned error that has led many professional actors astray–to say nothing of the clergy and readers of lessons in churches. It seems proper to be devout and respectful when speaking the words of Christ; but this usually leads to a lifeless and solemn interpretation, making Jesus sound remote and wishy-washy.

In an interview conducted for this essay, Key, who also plays the role of Jesus in his acclaimed musical, The Cotton Patch Gospel, reflected on the pitfalls of playing characters associated with holiness. With a musing smile, the actor joked, “Most times I see holiness portrayed in movies it’s like a frontal lobotomy; it’s like an absence of humanity, rather than a fullness of humanity.” He continued: “I’ve just got to approach that character (Lewis) like any other character that I do and make sure that the question for me is not is there a certain way to play spirituality or Christianity. . . . This extraordinary mind was matched with this extraordinary humility.”

According to various accounts of C.S. Lewis on Stage, my own included, Key’s actor-centered approach works. Although Lewis’s Christianity necessarily pervades the play, the show avoids sermonizing or melodramatic formulations. While the inclusion of Lewis’s autobiographical and fictional writing within C.S. Lewis on Stage exhibits the writer’s laser intellect, it is ultimately Lewis’s “extraordinary humility,” as Key puts it, which makes the characterization so engaging. In place of a solemn saint, audiences bear witness to a self-deprecating, letter-writing, nicotine addict: witty, humble, and resentful toward his Creator over the loss of his wife. Key’s low-key portrayal successfully neutralizes and humanizes the daunting task of performing Christian celebrity. If, as Lewis would argue, God created human beings in His image, Key’s portrayal shows that the best way to perform godliness is to find the humanity.

Constructing Lewis

In addition to effective acting choices, Key’s dramaturgy factors into the success of C.S. Lewis on Stage. Specifically, the arrangement of Lewis’s writings within the script yields an accessible and theatrical portrait of the author. Playwrights typically compose biographical one-person shows out of material written by, about, or to a biographical subject. These texts might include anything: poetry, prose, essays, letters, personal journals, or autobiography. Portrayals of literary figures such as Key’s C.S. Lewis on Stage, Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight, or William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst, to name but a few, draw heavily upon the literary works of their subjects. Key himself was inspired to compose C.S. Lewis on Stage after witnessing how effectively Emily Dickinson’s poetry impacts the one-person show based on her life, The Belle of Amherst. When I asked him about this early catalyst for his production, Key recalled that “the poetry served the script just like music in a musical.” He became convinced that anchoring the developing script of C.S. Lewis on Stage with Lewis’s poetry and prose would likewise “intensify the points of Lewis’s life.”

Key’s success in placing Lewis’s literary texts into C.S. Lewis on Stage is revealed in the selection and placement of two divergent examples of Lewis’s fiction: a cutting from the widely read novella, The Great Divorce, and an obscure short story, “The Man Born Blind.”

Including The Great Divorce within C.S. Lewis on Stage makes obvious theatrical sense. Lewis’s allegory chronicling the cosm
ic battle between good and evil pulses with theatrical conflict. Within the first few minutes of the performance, audiences witness Key’s vivid characterizations of Satan and Gabriel dominating the stage with explosive power and resonance. Through Key’s skill as an actor, these characters hit the stage fully realized, both physically and vocally. Significantly, The Great Divorce did not appear in the original version of C.S. Lewis on Stage. Based on a growing awareness of one-person show dramaturgy, Key soon added a cutting. Of his decision, he remarked:

I think I added that story a little bit later, during the first year. I felt like there was a need to jump-start the character. The audience after about ten minutes needs to know what all the rules are, and I think that they needed more quickly to know that, okay, he’s going to dramatize characters, you know, because if I waited too long, it wouldn’t have seemed plausible.

A central conceit of C.S. Lewis on Stage centers on the tricky task of asking an audience not to object when the otherwise reserved and timid Lewis suddenly turns into a buoyant and expressive actor. This is to say that during the portions of the show when Lewis “reads” from his work, Lewis, as a character, vanishes. Key sensed early in the process that his audience would need assistance making such a large leap of theatrical decorum. Key’s wise choice to establish this convention early through the larger than life performance of characters from The Great Divorce informs the audience what the rules are, and, in turn, helps to create a dynamic yet accessible piece of theatre.

Whereas The Great Divorce survives as one of Lewis’s most acclaimed works, “The Man Born Blind” lurks in a mixture of disdain and scandal. According to Walter Hooper’s introduction to The Dark Tower and Other Stories, the previously unpublished short manuscript narrowly survived a 1964 bonfire at Lewis’s country home. The plot revolves around a man born blind who receives his sight after a successful eye surgery. Upon seeing his very first sunrise, the man throws himself off of a cliff because he mistakenly believes that the clouds will support his weight. Not published until 1977, this tale is almost universally dismissed by critics. In one representative jibe incorporated in The C.S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia, Kathryn Lindskoog describes the story as “amateurishly written,” lacking “both neurological and psychological validity” and “allegorical and fantastic coherence.” Debate increased in 1988 when officials from Britain’s National Library determined that the bonfire manuscript of “The Man Born Blind,” originally dated to the 1920s, was written in ink that did not exist prior to 1950. In light of the story’s weak literary merits and suspect origins, many Lewis scholars doubt his authorship altogether. Indeed, upon seeing a 1999 production of C.S. Lewis on Stage at Wheaton College, Bruce Edwards, a noted Lewis scholar and professor of English at Bowling Green State University, conveyed to me his revulsion that Key included this “apocryphal” text into C.S. Lewis on Stage.

But the stage and the page often live separate lives. A theatrical rather than a literary decision, Key’s seemingly odd selection of “The Man Born Blind” provides C.S. Lewis on Stage with something that one-person shows need most: conflict. As Gentile observes in Cast of One, critics frequently dismiss the one-person genre because “one-person shows lack drama’s most essential requirement: the interaction and conflict between characters.” To locate the conflict within C.S. Lewis on Stage, Key turned inward: “This really is a play where the protagonist and the antagonist are within this one character, and I think that that struggle is very apparent in Lewis too, and the climax of it, really of this play, is his conversion to Christianity.” Lewis of course describes his conversion to Christianity in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy, and Key predictably injects fragments from this poignant work into C.S. Lewis on Stage. But the playwright/actor felt that his script required more:

But the conversion is very flat in his autobiography. So that’s why I placed that story, “The Man Born Blind,” right before it, because that emotionally puts the audience there. I think that that story is like the parable that if you have the whole world, you would sell everything for the kingdom of God. You would. Nothing is too precious to find God and [the man born blind] thought that he was looking for light with a capital L. He was looking for God. So, to me, it was a fictionalization of the leap of faith. It could help deliver that to the audience emotionally.

At the time he wrote the script for C.S. Lewis on Stage, Key admits to knowing relatively little about C.S. Lewis’s biography or his literary reputation. In my interview with him, he described discovering Lewis’s Narnia series as an adult. A recent convert, he quickly devoured Lewis’s writings in the haphazard order in which he discovered them. With an enthusiast’s infatuation, Key stumbled onto Lewis’s major titles (The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy), as well as his lesser-known works (“The Man Born Blind,” his poetry). With a dramatist’s eye, Key incorporated these texts into his emerging one-man show. “The Man Born Blind” found its way into C.S. Lewis on Stage as a device used to figuratively illustrate the leap of faith undergone by the play’s protagonist. If its presence reveals Key’s limitations as a literary critic and historian, it also illustrates his keen dramatic sensibilities as a playwright and actor.

Casting the Audience

Delving into the dramaturgy of C.S. Lewis on Stage flows naturally into a discussion of the actor/audience relationship established by the play. In an interview included in Cast of One, noted playwright, director and actor Frank Galati addresses this concern as the most important element of solo-theatre construction: “The question that all solo performers must consider is ‘Why is this person speaking in this situation in front of this group or ignoring this group?'” Indeed, in Cast of One, Gentile evaluates several one-person shows that succeed or fail in their efforts to address this key question. In his attempt to establish “why C.S. Lewis is speaking to this audience,” Key capitalizes on Lewis’s career as a lecturer and writer.

The lights come up on the production to reveal a surprised Lewis lighting a pipe. He stands in what appears to be a combination university lecture hall/personal office. Sheepishly noticing the audience, Lewis immediately puts out his match and says, “Pardon me, I thought there was time for one last smoke.” After making a few self-deprecating remarks about his celebrity and his unattractive appearance, Lewis continues, “Now for the main task, to read from The Screwtape Letters.”

Almost immediately, Key embellishes the simple conceit that the audience is attending a public reading. Upon opening his copy of The Screwtape Letters, Lewis pauses. Humbly, he asks the audience:

Before I begin, may I ask a personal favor? I’m behind in some of my correspondence to a friend of mine who is a critic and poet in this country. I understood our time to begin tonight to be 8:30, so I was expecting a few more minutes to dash off a letter to her; if I could do that now, I would be so grateful. Any objections? (A pause for the audience to consider the request.) Thank you. Americans are so cooperative.

Before moving to finish his letter, Lewis strangely offers to “return the favor” by “reading from something which you probably have not heard much over here, my poetry.” He then performs his poem, “A Confession,” a tongue in cheek attack on modern poetry. Only after finishing the short recitation does Lewis move upstage to his desk to work
on his letter.

Although opportunistic in tone, this opening sequence quickly establishes two theatrical conventions necessary for the one-person show. First, the Screwtape allusion casts the audience as participants at a public reading, thus answering Galati’s question of “Why is this person speaking in this situation.” Second, the apparent “misunderstanding” about the starting time provides the conceit to slip in the unfinished letter. Conveniently, a desk awaits upstage.

The actor/audience relationship takes on a playful turn midway through the drama. In an act of sheer will, Lewis musters the strength to return to the unfinished letter. As he reads his composition out loud, the audience learns that he is writing to an elderly friend named Mary. Over the course of several paragraphs, Lewis corresponds with Mary about books, life’s painful twists, aging, and their mutual affection for cats. Pausing from his letter writing, he reflects, “I really must tell her some dreadful news of my own. But then, so much hardship has come her way it seems awfully bad timing on my part . . . perhaps after tea.” Lewis then conducts an unsuccessful search of the stage for tea. Panicked, he wanders off stage only to return a few moments later, looking utterly shocked. “THERE IS NO TEA,” he exclaims. “I can’t really go on, you know . . . I fail to see this as a laughing matter.” This comic diversion was so convincing on the night I saw the production that I honestly wondered if some poor props person had forgotten to preset a teapot. The convention humorously revealed itself a few moments later when Lewis notices a brandy decanter. “This should help,” he says, as he pours himself a drink.

Key uses opportunities such as this to inject his character with familiar biographical touchstones, or “biographemes,” as Roland Barthes refers to them in Image/Music/Text. Barthes defines biographemes as those pithy allusions that “reduce a biographical character to a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections.” People only marginally familiar with Lewis’s biography are likely to know about his pathologically conscientious letter writing. Likewise, Lewis’s love for tobacco and alcohol received much attention in the United States during his lifetime, making the Oxford don a troubling and contradictory figure to many fundamentalist Christians. Readers may recall the often repeated statement attributed to Bob Jones concerning Lewis’s less than Puritanical personal habits: “This man smokes and drinks, but, by golly, I think that he still may be a Christian.” Indeed, Key’s depiction of Lewis writing letters, smoking, and drinking, efficiently imbues his famous character with a sense of legitimacy and familiarity for the theatre audience.

As a plot device, Key’s decision to show Lewis writing a personal letter warrants further reflection, especially in light of its impact on the performer/audience relationship. The biographical one-person show often relies on personal letters and other autobiographical forms. Indeed, a sizable portion of Key’s script derives from Lewis’s posthumously published letters. Like an unseen character, the letter referred to in the opening moments of the production mysteriously haunts the evening. Multiple references to it, and failed attempts to finish it, force the audience to wonder why this humble little epistle to an elderly female friend warrants so much attention.

It is not until the closing moments of the drama that the audience finally understands the cause of Lewis’s reluctance to finish the letter. Building on the friendship gradually earned with his audience, Lewis states, “I was not going to finish this letter in front of you, but . . . you have been so patient.” The play continues:

(Writing) Mary, I am afraid I am at once a bridegroom and a widow. Joy managed to get all around Greece with me–performing prodigies, climbing to the top of the Acropolis–they give the condemned man what he likes for his last breakfast, I am told. She died on the 13th. I can’t describe the apparent unreality of my life since then. She received absolution and died at peace with God . . . Yours, Jack.

Surprisingly, this brisk statement concludes any direct reference to Joy Davidson Gresham within all of C.S. Lewis on Stage. This fact stands in sharp contrast to the three versions of Shadowlands, in which Lewis’s relationship with the American poet dominates the action.

A case can be made that having Lewis share the news of his wife’s death with an audience of strangers strains the plausibility of the actor/audience relationship. Similarly, of the actor/audience relationship in William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst, one critic observed, “We wonder a little at a recluse chatting away so readily about her private thoughts–the Dickinsons wouldn’t even have talked about this among themselves.” Likewise, would Lewis actually share an account of his wife’s recent death with a lecture hall audience? Of course he did unflinchingly chronicle his personal tragedy in A Grief Observed, a work described by Thomas Talbott not so much “as an account of Lewis’s grief as it is a manifestation of it.” Even so, Lewis chose to publish this personal diary under a pseudonym. More so than the other theatrical conceits found throughout the play, the short invocation of Joy’s death laces the play with an air of contrivance.

This said, Key stretches the elastic convention of the actor/audience relationship considerably less than other representations within the one-person show genre. He stays away from contrivances such as using a tape recorder, the telephone, a mysterious person in the next room, or other tiresome and difficult to sustain conventions used by playwrights to justify the one-sided dialogue of a one-person show. For the challenging task of explaining “why is this person speaking in this situation,” Key provides an admittedly contrived but still reasonably satisfying set of circumstances that establishes the biographical substance of his subject, enhances the overall theatricality of his play, and permits his protagonist the latitude to connect directly with his listeners.

With acclaim absent of fanfare, Tom Key has performed C.S. Lewis on Stage for roughly a quarter century. God willing, this gifted professional actor and playwright will continue bringing Lewis into the twenty-first century. As an actor, Key honors Lewis’s legacy with an appropriately humble and human characterization. As a playwright and dramaturge, Key makes compelling theatre out of Lewis’s life and work. As the private persona of C.S. Lewis only grows within the public sphere, Key’s C.S. Lewis on Stage warrants further attention and praise.

Robert J. Hubbard is associate professor of theatre and speech at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.