Reality and Grace in The Great Divorce

This summer, the high school students participating in the Templeton Honors College Summer Scholars Program of 2017 had the privilege of attending a performance of The Great Divorce, a stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s Classic, by the actor Tony Lawton. Anthony Barr (’19), a Templeton Scholar and teaching assistant for the Summer Scholars Program, attended the performance as well; these are his reflections.

The curtain rises. The stage is dimly illuminated. In the first two rows of seating, some thirty high school students stare curiously at the actor seated motionlessly on a wooden stool. Earlier that week, those students, participants in the 2017 Summer Scholars Program, read depictions of the afterlife from Homer, Virgil, Dante. This performance dramatically depicts a vision of the afterlife from C.S. Lewis. As the play begins, actor Tony Lawton helps us see the scene: dreary, an unpleasant drizzle, only as much sun as can be found at dusk. A man waits at a bus-station, watching detachedly as fights break out around him. Throughout the 75 minutes to follow, Tony Lawton will bring over a dozen characters to life, giving vivid representation to unforgettable characters from Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

Tony Lawton during the Q&A session after the performance.

Tony Lawton has been performing The Great Divorce for decades and has been acting professionally since 1992. In 1998, he started the Mirror Theatre Company, which performs solo and small-cast plays, among them The Great Divorce as well as another Lewis classic, The Screwtape Letters. Lawton told us that the Lewis plays especially are an opportunity to present spiritually rich explorations of good, evil, virtue, and vice in a way that is accessible and meaningful to diverse audiences. Indeed, the mission of Mirror Theatre Company is to offer “Spiritual Theatre for a Secular Audience.” As Lawton’s website explains: “the company is committed to presenting drama about our spiritual life that will be of interest to all audiences, secular or religious.” Through presentation of plays like The Great Divorce,  Lawton wants to form “an ongoing dialogue with the audience—a dialogue in which we discuss and consider that which is (or isn’t!) Eternal in us.”

During the Q&A after the play, Tony Lawton tells us that he believes “every person is on a continuum and through every choice is either moving closer to or farther away from Christ.” For Lawton, this is the mindset that allows him to portray such a wide-range of characters, whether noble, villainous, mundane. But this observation also rings true in the narrative of The Great Divorce: every soul that rides the bus to heaven is given the choice to stay and become more real (more truly themselves), a choice that requires sacrifice and a willingness to change (or rather, to be changed) but not every soul is willing to move and be moved toward God. Lawton points out that the story can be understood on multiple levels: moral, theological, psychological, and that each level gives us profound questions to wrestle with as each of journey through our own lives.

Lawton finds that The Great Divorce brings clarity to some of our perplexing problems and illuminates the struggles that we face as human beings in a broken world. One of the most intriguing themes that emerged from a week of discussing moral theology and philosophy was the interplay of deception about reality and willful rejection of reality in the temptations we face. This theme was introduced early on as the students ruminated on an excerpt of Milton’s Paradise Lost: the serpent deceives Eve into believing a lie that distorts her vision of reality, but isn’t her decision to reject the clear command of God an act of her will? Later, in The Screwtape Letters, students wrestle with the strategy of hell which is to confuse humans: the misconception, says the demon Screwtape, is that the goal is to put thoughts into the minds of humans, but in reality, the goal is to remove all thoughtfulness. In The Great Divorce, reality is much more substantive, beautiful, and joyous than all the shadowy illusions of hell, and yet we watch soul after soul fight against joy in order to cling to misery. The question of how much is deception and how much is willful rejection in these souls lingers long after the final curtain call.

Dante’s Divine Comedy opens with these words: “Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path.” We are told it is the journey of “our life” because this is the human condition: we wander from the path toward the Good, and find ourselves in pursuit of goods that can never satisfy us. The Great Divorce gives us a sobering diagnosis of our plight, but it also gives us a picture of grace, where even our sinful appetites can be transformed by God into a vibrant source of love, if we are only willing to submit to the healing hands of our Creator.

Anthony Barr (’19) is a Templeton scholar double-majoring in English Literature and History and minoring in Orthodox Thought and Culture. He is a homeschool grad with several years of experience working for two publishing companies. He is interested in the ways in which literature and spirituality inform one another. 

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