By Neil Earle
RIVERSIDE, CA – “We must divorce ourselves from everything that stands in the way of God…Sometimes it is not so much our evil deeds that keep us from God but our good deeds. Maybe we love someone more than we love God, maybe we have turned our rights, our business, our art, our country, or our intellects into the rival of God and therefore we must lay all good things down…This is the great divorce.”
These were the dominant themes racing through the mind of the British writer C.S. Lewis when he penned his novel, “The Great Divorce,” in 1945. Published in 1946 TGD has now been rendered into an effective stage play by a team that included the Director of California Baptist University’s November productions of this dramatized Lewis novel. Nine of us from our Glendora New Covenant Fellowship made the one-hour drive last Saturday afternoon for the 2PM matinee and were not disappointed. Director/Co-adapter Frank Mihelich welcomed the attendees in the lobby of the Walace Theatre which was suitably darkened to render the experience of Lewis’ opening scene in the novel.
George Sayer explained the set-up in his Lewis biography titled “Jack:” “This book is a dream vision of Heaven in which the narrator meets several people who are on holiday from Hell. If they find that they prefer Heaven to Hell, they are free to stay there, but to do so they must give up something, some vice that comes between them and the experience of real joy.”
The action begins somewhat comically at a dingy bus queue in Grey Town (Hell) where narrator Lewis meets about ten bitter anxious and/or depressed people living in this place of gathering darkness and gloom. A heavenly bus appears to escort the grumbling passengers to Heaven – or at least its outer reaches. The passengers on the bus then encounter Spirit Guides who bombard them with love and urge them to make the decision to stay and go on to Deep Heaven.
This set-up was skillfully rendered in Riverside by a crew led by Lighting/Set/Sound Designer Lee Lyons who did an impressive job providing the necessary backdrop for the ten or so changing scenes. About one of ten “Ghosts” makes the right decision and we are told 2-3 others can still be “worked with.” The dialogue is largely the narrator’s (Michael Ring from Ojai capably playing the author C.S. Lewis) and the receptive spirits who make up the bulk of the play and the book.
Well what can we say?
Lewis’ talent for creative expression of broad-based standard Christian philosophy is superbly on display. The Cal Baptist players were spot on and never missed a mark that I could see. Actor Johnathon Meader playing the Intelligent Man and Lewis’ Guide, George MacDonald, remarked that doing the play was like seeing Lewis’ robust defense of the faith in “Mere Christianity” come to life. In answer to my question about what he had learned about the author, Michael Ring agreed with my own analysis: “Lewis had a problem with intellectual pride.” Yes. His setting up of the Socratic Club in Oxford to take on all comers in the 1930s is evidence of that. Like all of us, he could be brusque and off-putting at times. But then, rose bushes have thorns. As each character is asked to lay down what it is that separates them from God and finds it much harder than it appears, one can sense the author’s empathy – here was a man very much aware of his own foibles and who wrote about them quite openly.
Lewis’s moral didacticism, which irritates his critics so much, is on full display in TGD but it never overwhelms his gift for satire and biting Irish irony.
Insight into your own behavior is a key to all successful Christian living and the timeless virtue of humility and self-sacrifice is driven home by the gleeful Spirit who counsels the vain young Artist. She says: “You and I are already completely forgotten on the Earth.” Or the admirable Sarah Smith trying to counsel her manipulative husband to stay in Heaven by answering his demand to love him first with “I am in Love and out of it I will not go.”
Lewis’ point is drilled home with the repeated interviews that letting go of our sins is much harder than first appears.
Let’s not spoil the fun by telling too much. Rather, let’s ask some of our attendees from New Covenant Fellowship to give their first impressions of this truly memorable performance.
Janet, a human resources specialist, thought that “the whole production was so well-dramatized and very close to the book.” She also had reemphasized to her “the breadth of sin – we’re troubled by sins we don’t recognize like the artist who felt so unrecognized.” Ouch. Does that hit close to home!
Gary, a retired computer programmer, echoed that thought. “Like the man carrying the lizard of lust on his back, the most difficult sin is the one you’re not willing to admit.” He reflected that the man getting rid of lust being one of the few successes underscored Jesus’ statement about the publicans and harlots entering the Kingdom ahead of the self-righteous. Or as Frank Mihelich said in the preface to the program: “Sometimes it is the clearly wicked vices that are the easiest to escape from.”
Ralph, a building contractor/inspector from Pomona, loved the fluency and skill of the student actors. He was particularly impressed with Katherine Waisanen’s portrayal of the saintly Sarah Smith near the end. “This girl was the epitome of happiness and vibrant bubbly exuberance. They picked the right girl for that,” he opined.
Graham, a skilful foreign-language editor in downtown Los Angeles, was impressed that the Heaven-Hell interchange was only a vehicle to prepare people for the teaching that came later. “I felt that someone who knew nothing about religion would accept the arguments being made in that format much more easily.” Right. That was the peculiar and effective Lewis strategy – a man who had himself been an atheist and lifted back to faith.
Sayre, a Riverside resident, was – like me – impressed with the move from the darkened lobby to the brightness of the main theatre, especially with brightly clad young people smiling at us, welcoming us to our seats, and singing along with three poplar hymns. The door opening with light streaming out and the music to “Holy, Holy, Holy” was surprisingly effective. It made me think of a Lewis quote about heaven in his essay “The Weight of Glory” that, in heaven “we shall be well-received.”
What a great moment that was. I forgot all about the 90 minute drive, losing the directions, the rain, the overcast. Grey Town? There we were surrounded by about 30 eager and talented young people determined to do their best. Again, they never missed a mark that I could see.
Catch the next weekend’s events – November 18, 19 at California Baptist University in Riverside at 8PM – only $10 for the Saturday matinee at 2PM. Phone 951-343-4319 or see the info and video clip at www.calbaptist.edu/theatre. You’ll be glad you did.
(Neil Earle is a pastor and editor based in Glendora, CA with several books and hundreds of articles, essay and reviews to his credit. He also hosts the DCTV cable show ”A Second Look.”)