The Great Divorce is probably my third favorite C.S. Lewis book, coming in right behind Out of the Silent Planet, Perlandra, and just eking out The Screwtape Letters. Yes, being a Confessional Baptist there are many things that bother me about it, let’s get that out of the way upfront. George MacDonald (The guy who said “I turn with loathing from the god of Jonathan Edwards” and taught Lewis Inclusivism and to reject Penal Substutionary Atonement) being in heaven is one such bone. The notion that the Catholics can be just as right about their works centered, Christ dishonoring Purgatory as Protestants in their call for heaven is another. Emperor Trajan being there really sticks hard in my throat going down. Ultimately however I’m able to shrug it off as fiction because of the clarity of the imagery and the insight of the writing. (Anyone who’s read Narnia knows what this feels like). But in spite of those flaming red shortcomings this book is plainly wonderful and almost totally unique, because just like Screwtape it may take place in the next life but is really an observation of this one. The evil dictators of old being inaccessible because they are driven to pull away from everyone by their own consciences. The small petty, ordinary meanness of people standing in line for a bus. The appetites that can never be slated which results in roofs that don’t keep out the water, and relationships that are permanently broken. That smallness of hell, that yonder butterfly could swallow it whole and not think twice of it, though it seems big enough when you’re there. The man delighting in the blessings of heaven (like walking on the waters of the river), but fearful of its inhabitants (like the angel of the waterfall). Men who look back over the course of their lives and only ever say, “We have been given a foretaste of glory divine,” or “we have always been in hell.” The Calvinistic like insight that people are filled with not possibilities, but impossibilities. And my personal favorite, the fact that heaven is to some extent an unpleasant place, with needle-like grass and bullet-like rain. (This comes from Lewis belief, and I’ll just paraphrase it here, “when you’re bad you can always hope good will rescue you, but what happens when good turns out to be undesirable? What if good is frightening?”)
And oh, the people! How timeless, how sublime! The woman who desired to dominate her husband into the next life. The woman who lost her son and never forgave God for it. The man who was a hypocrite for so long that he shrunk until he’d become only his stage persona. The ordinary woman who was forgotten on Earth and not only remembered, but celebrated in heaven. The man who was controlled by the lizard of sensual lusts and who, once converted, rode it up the mountain of God. The painter who came to God for what God had done in creation but not redemption. The theologian who denied Christ for worldly fame and was appointed a bishopric.
I say all this because what makes a work of fiction entertaining to me is the ideas behind it, and really nothing else. I absolutely loathed Game of Thrones more than any other book I’d ever read not because the characters weren’t interesting, or the writing good, but because of the central idea Martin puts forward I detest. On the other hand I enjoy B science fiction books from unknown authors for the same reason—because it’s their ideas that are interesting to me. The singular idea here is that all these people want heaven—they want to be happy—but they want it on their terms. The woman would only be happy if she could dominate her husband. The mother would be happy if only she could freeze everything at a single moment in time and simply go on being that mother in that moment forever. The theologian would be happy if only God would allow him to go on blaspheming and trampling the blood of the cross freely, rather than bounding and containing it. None of them realize that hell is the place you get what you want, heaven is the place where you must bend and serve. The idea is brilliant. So once I heard The Great Divorce was the starting material for a play, well, of course I had to see it.
The result? It was good but not great. They got all the fundamental concepts of the book across smartly, and without apology. The critics who said that it was entertaining enough for their moneys worth but generally not a dollar more were on the nose. It was pretty funny up front, but as you went along the serious weight of it drained you of the energy needed for laughter. For those of you who were worried, it was faithful to the book for 90 minutes, it made it come alive, and seeing in the flesh was well worth it. There’s one kind of glory for a book, and another kind of glory for a play, and the expression of it as a play was something you really just need to experience.
First, they did the backgrounds with a projector, and the show with three people. The backgrounds could have used a little more work (felt like bad CGI at times) but the three covered for it. Why three? Because the structure of the book lends itself to a three person presentation given that there’s one spirit, one ghost, and one narrator in every scene of the book. As a consequence of this decision they decided have the narrator played by all three people both separately at times and together at times, and that was probably necessary all things considered. There needed to be a way to make you care about the person on stage, if they had him watch the whole time you wouldn’t think twice about him, and in allowing the actors to build up currency and then cycle them into the role was about as good as you can do.
As for the actors themselves, (a tall man, a short man, and a woman) each had a role they did well, a role they did okay with, and one that didn’t work very well. The scene with the dwarf and the marionette were left out, as well as the theologian, the poet, the seductress and scared ghosts, while Sarah Smith and the bus (but not the driver) was done with crappy backgrounds, but everyone else was there—19 characters in all. The scene changes were a mixed bag since I didn’t like the actors messing with their props during the early part of the play (I found it distracting), the transitions were okay, but these shortcomings here were saved by the brilliant ordering of the stories. One more thing I’ll say here before getting scene specific: I really appreciated how McLean (the director) picked regional American accents to show off the characters. His choices were perfect.
The first scene was an artsy throwaway move that I didn’t care for. Maybe these are obligatory, I’m not sure, but I didn’t see value in it. The line and Gray Town was good and moved rapidly, and the snipping between the tall man and woman were very expressive. The short man played the economist who feared the dark and this was his good performance.
They arrive in heaven and the first scene is the blue collar murderer Spirit come to beg forgiveness from the hardened ghost who wants to make people miserable. They were hard scrabble, salt of the Earth New Yorkers. The short man gave a passable performance, the tall man an okay one. It plodded well enough.
The artist scene was played by the woman and gave another passable, average, nothing to write home about performance. Eh. It communicated the pride of the ghosts well enough, but to me it fell flat.
The woman who wanted to dominate her husband comes next I believe—she’s an English woman who moved to a place where her accent got softened, and here the actress did so well that she tugged too hard on my emotions. This was a mistake, I don’t think she should have done the scene backwards, and because her performance was so good (head and shoulders above the men; she was really in a league of her own most of the production) it put a spear through my heart and jeopardized the play. She starts out standoffish and smug, not listening or caring, boasting even of how she abused her husband. But then, almost at the end, she breaks down and starts crying, or sobbing, or pleading for him back. She needs him and you feel it. It didn’t feel demonic, or selfish, or cruel like she was in the book, it felt pitiful, like when my daughter can’t find her stuffed monkey that she absolutely can’t sleep without. It was hard to watch. In all of the other performances you realize that as the characters go on and you start to see what they really are, that they are no longer people but expressions of sin. Not this one.
The economist who tried to steal the apple scene sucked. Can’t put it very nicely really. I didn’t care for it at all.
The woman who lost her son was, owing to the talent of the actress, outstanding. And this time she played it to perfection. She was agreeable, charming, lovely on first contact. You really felt that she was a mother who had crossed thousands of miles just to see her son smile. What would you feel like if you could see your dead child again? This was a mother who desperately missed her baby boy. The pathos radiated from her so strongly that the mediocre performance from the tall man didn’t even matter. But as she went on talking the storm clouds came in and you started to see the malice in her. By the end she was openly blaspheming God boldly. The best scene in my estimation.
George MacDonald the guide Spirit was okay. The tall man did well enough at the accent and insight to make it happen, but not really make it happen. This scene, and the scenes with him felt like the longest, almost like we were getting the needed information or lecture about how the whole play worked.
The seasoned but cynical traveler ghost who you instinctively trust was a Texan, and I loved it. This was the other contender for my favorite scene, and it was way better than the book. The tall man plays Ron Paul and gets his excellent award for this one. At first you’re hearing him as this kind of tough soul, with a vagabond quality, but then he starts to make sense and the things he’s saying sound believable. You can see why the narrator would value his statements. Then in the final third he starts to disintegrate and his eyes get wide, his gestures get larger, and he starts talking about the conspiracy. Them. They. They’re in on it. And you realize his mind is lost and empty.
The Minnesotan lady was the grumble, and she was spot on too. There’s such a thing as Minnesota nice, but it also comes with Minnesota passive aggressive, and she nails it. She took neither breaths nor pauses, but churned out complaints like a badly functioning machine. She didn’t need anyone around her, or events happening to her to springboard off of, she just grumbled. It was delightful.
The final interactive scene between the spirits and ghosts was the man beset by lusts. The short man played it and here he gets his excellent award at this time. What I liked best was that at first he pauses to listen to the lizard and the stage goes quiet, and half way through his conversation with the angel you get to hear what he’s hearing, you hear the lizard pouring believable lies into his ear and it brings it home. Unfortunately the woman plays the angel, and she doesn’t carry enough… majesty, or power, or threat, or gravitas, or whatever you want to call it to pull off a proper angel. Oh well. Still a great scene.
So it was good. Not the best production, but good. After the three or four bows of running off stage and back on, McLean came out and invites questions and here I think misses an opportunity to close out strong. Perhaps if he had I would have enjoyed the play much more. Perhaps. Because part of the problem is that this play is ambiguous. McLean wants us to consider the reality of heaven and hell, but the play wasn’t strong enough on it’s own to deliver the message, and a direct word from the director would have done a lot to ameliorate this, because otherwise a Mormon or Muslim can feel good about heaven. Instead he goes wishy-washy, modern mega church, let’s not offend anyone and asserts that he wants us to take home the idea that we should try to make good decisions. I get it. I do. You don’t want to offend. But honestly, when your source material is a world so real, so thick, so absolutely uncompromising in its truth and construction that we in this life are as a mist and shadow compared to it, unable to change the smallest course of one blade of grass, is it really the best idea to end by trotting out a polite form of relativism? Do you realize that you just took us to the valley of the shadow of life only to herd us back in the bus to drop us off at Gray Town for the ending? For 90 minutes you just told us that the damned build comforting imaginary shelters that they know won’t keep out the demons once the sun sets using the tools of relativism, and then you turn around and hand everyone an extra supply of relativism to build with. Bah! One gets into hell with relativism, one stays there thanks to relativism; one doesn’t get out with relativism. For that you need something more real and substantial than anything in this world. Pointing out instead that since all our longings have no satisfaction in this world, we must logically be made for the next one in a true Lewis fashion would have been good. Going for it and telling people about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ would have been better.
So I liked it, would recommend it, but didn’t love it. If you are wondering if you should see it I’d say go for it, you won’t regret it.