Art, Life Are Inseparable in One-Actor Play About Author C.S. Lewis
By Doug Carroll
GCU News Bureau
After two hours of watching British actor David Payne play the great C.S. Lewis onstage, audience members sometimes become confused.
“Thank you for writing all of those books,” they will say afterward to Payne, who didn’t write a single one.
Or, “I’m sorry about your wife’s death” (she’s still very much alive, thank you).
Or, “I loved you in the movie” (sorry, that was Anthony Hopkins as Lewis in the 1993 film “Shadowlands”).
Payne, 71, admits to some confusion of his own, so completely does he inhabit the character of Lewis, the Oxford scholar, novelist and Christian apologist best known for works such as “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Mere Christianity.”
Lewis died 50 years ago of renal failure on the same date (Nov. 22) as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He was 64.
Similar to the way that Hal Holbrook adopted the persona of Mark Twain, Payne has been performing as Lewis for most of 20 years now. His one-man play, “An Evening With C.S. Lewis,” which will come to Grand Canyon University Arena for a 3 p.m. show on Sunday, Oct. 20, has been going for 10 years.
“It’s as natural for me to do Lewis as it is to have breakfast in the morning,” Payne said, phoning recently from across the ocean as he prepared to leave on a monthlong U.S. tour scheduled to kick off tonight in Vero Beach, Fla.
“He’s like a good friend to me, really. Because I do the play so much, Lewis is with me all the time.… He was a very sincere and open Christian, and a very generous man who gave most of his royalties (from books) away. He was engaging and good to be with. Those are qualities worth emulating. I’m always learning from him.”
Payne’s earliest memory of Lewis’ work is reading “The Screwtape Letters” as a teenager. After careers in engineering and the Christian music industry, he fell into the role of Lewis while on a business trip to Nashville, where his son was involved in a local theatrical production of “Shadowlands” that was looking to cast actors with a British accent.
Thinking he might have a shot at a small part, Payne auditioned — and was chosen to play Lewis.
“Because of that,” Payne said, “I started reading him a lot and I really rediscovered him.”
He read “A Grief Observed,” about the death from cancer of Lewis’ wife, American writer Joy Gresham, and memorized it in three months. That led to his first all-Lewis show, “Mist in the Mourning.”
“People would ask me lots of questions afterward, and I did my best to answer them,” Payne said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if Jack (Lewis’ nickname among his friends) answered them to an audience?’”
And so “An Evening With C.S. Lewis” was born. In the play, Payne imagines Lewis at home, hosting a group of inquisitive American writers and holding forth on a variety of subjects, including his childhood, writing, friends (among them J.R.R. Tolkien), faith and family.
Payne’s only quibble with Hopkins’ big-screen portrayal is that Lewis was much less sophisticated than he came off in the film, and he said he has the word of Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham, to back him up.
“He was much more down-to-earth, even though he was a great intellectual,” Payne said. “He had an incredible sense of humor and was very funny.”
Lewis’ sharp wit shines through in the show, Payne said, promising that he’s not coming to deliver a dry lecture.
“It’s an informal chat,” he said. “My excitement is in engaging a new audience. I’m in this adventure with them as soon as I say, ‘Good evening, my name is C.S. Lewis, but do feel free to call me Jack. Most of my friends do.’
“People will feel that they’ve spent time with C.S. Lewis.”
This year, Lewis fans at GCU have Payne’s show and more to look forward to. The Ethington Theatre Series will present “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (from “The Chronicles of Narnia”) over two weekends in February.
Tickets to “An Evening With C.S. Lewis” are available at the Arena box office starting at $10 for GCU students and employees.
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.