On July 20th, 1940, C.S. Lewis listened to a radio broadcast of a speech by Adolf Hitler, which the New York Herald Tribune described as a "masterpiece of hypocrisy and distortions."
Chilled to the core by Hitler's words, Lewis resolved to write a new book that would take his readers not only into the heart of darkness, but also into its central nervous system. What he came up with was "The Screwtape Letters," a slim Christian polemic written from the unlikely perspective of the devil's chief psychologist that has been embraced by figures as ideologically disparate as David Foster Wallace and Sarah Palin.
It's also been embraced by performer Max McLean, who will play the central character of Screwtape (Satan's shrink) in his and Jeffrey Fiske's theatrical adaptation of the book in the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts on Saturday.
McLean has been performing in the phenomenally and somewhat unexpectedly successful production since 2010, when it debuted at the Westside Theatre in New York City.
In a phone interview, McLean called Screwtape a "top-of-the-world, master-of-the-universe character who loves the way he looks, loves the way he talks, loves the way he dresses, thinks he's the smartest guy in the room, pure pride."
Though previous adaptations of Lewis' novella existed, McLean and Fiske set out to create a theatrical version of the tale that hewed as closely as possible to the book's epistolary form and avoided bringing in too many characters.
Previous adaptations, McLean said, had failed to capture "the genius of the story."
"That is the character of Screwtape and the brilliant language that Lewis gave him, this morally inverted world that he created that made Screwtape such a compelling character," McLean said.
McLean readily admits that "The Screwtape Letters" is both a morality play and a Christian polemic designed to trumpet its author's faith in no uncertain terms. But in his eyes, that's no drawback.
"I think it's the kind of proselytizing that you know people will appreciate, I suppose, because he really values people's intelligence. He doesn't try to manipulate anybody.
"Here's the deal: if you have created a very compelling character, then it doesn't matter if it's Jewish theater, Puerto Rican theater, communist theater -- it's good if it's executed well. I mean, Bertolt Brecht was quite a polemicist. So was Bernard Shaw. He wrote sermons and called them plays," McLean said. "And I think if you can stay rooted in the disciplines of the theatrical art form in terms of story, character and arc, then an audience will follow a story anywhere, taking them places they didn't expect to go."
WHAT: "The Screwtape Letters"
WHEN: 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, North Campus, Amherst
TICKETS: $29 to $59
INFO: 645-2787 or www.ubcfa.org