John Cleese Is Devilishly Good as ‘Screwtape’

Times Arts Editor

John Cleese is a man of improbable versatility, one in an apparently endless line of latter-day university wits who come down from Cambridge and Oxford with their reputations already formed and careers awaiting them.

Cleese, he of the Monty Python gang and “Fawlty Towers,” is best-known as one of the most serenely splendid comic actors of our day, a master absurdist whose most frequent impersonation is of a tightly furled bureaucrat whose facade of imperial confidence is hopelessly fragile and, shattering, reveals the panicky and foolish chap beneath.

But Cleese is, like most of the Oxbridge troupers, nothing so simple as a performer only. He has written the script of “Life of Brian” and related works and did the music for “Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life.” He was comically endearing as an incompetent philanderer in “A Fish Called Wanda,” performing with a seeming casualness that is the mark of a very expert farceur.


Now, in a startling reversal of field, Cleese has recorded C. S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” on audiocassette (Audio Literature Inc.). And an incandescent piece of work it is, a rare and perfect matching of voice and material, to be ranked with Peter Ustinov doing James Thurber and John le Carre reading his own work.

The letters are from Screwtape, a highly placed assistant to Satan (referred to, however, simply as Our Father Below). They are addressed to Screwtape’s young nephew, Wormwood, a minor tempter who is trying to lure an otherwise unidentified man from the Enemy (God, that would be, in Lewis’ wonderfully inverted scheme) to Our Side.

What Cleese does is not a reading but a dramatic monologue of infinite and startling variety. He chides, he cajoles, he sneers; he is exasperated, then annoyed, then furious, then so apoplectic with rage that he turns briefly into a large white worm, as a kind of sotto voce footnote explains.

Calm restored, Screwtape is a whispery voice of patience, careful explanation, sweet reason. It can’t last, of course, because Wormwood (who presumably works on the client’s subconscious) is letting his man slip away into the comforting arms of Christianity. This, despite Wormwood’s subliminal appeals to both pride and despair, indifference, worldly pleasures and the fiery satisfactions of the flesh.

In all these modes Cleese provides an amazing and quite unexpected demonstration of his range as an actor. His visible image--that blandly handsome and calculatedly vacuous expression--is so familiar and successful that his public may not be not ready for a Cleese Hamlet. But it’s clear that he has a previously undisclosed set of muscles.

His performance of “The Screwtape Letters” is frequently hilarious. Nothing new there, except that now the laughter is subtly different. It is the delighted surprise of a tour de force performance. But the delight is not least in Lewis’ ingenious text.

Cleese’s vivid reading provides a wonderful clarity for Lewis’ topsy-turvy fantasy. All the inversions of thought that follow on his notion of Christian apologetics disguised as a defense of deviltry are somehow even easier to hear than to read.


Lewis, a scholar of medieval literature, had been converted to Christianity through the influence of his fellow medievalist, J.R.R. Tolkien (to whom “The Screwtape Letters” is dedicated).

Once converted, Lewis began to put Christian thought, especially in the matter of good and evil, into science fiction (“Out of the Silent Planet”), into children’s fantasies (“The Narnia Chronicles”) and in 1942 into “The Screwtape Letters.”

The book is provocative, wherever one stands theologically. It is a lively work of the imagination. The battle for the man’s soul is amusingly suspenseful. These days, nearly a half-century later, the book becomes the more moving because the real war and the air raids were the real and relevant background to the theology. The book is to that extent history as well as philosophy.

The revelations are provided equally by Cleese and Lewis. The text has been slightly abridged, four of the 31 letters cut. The two cassettes have a playing time of three hours. Audio Literature Inc. is at 3800 Palos Verdes Way, South San Francisco, Calif. 94080. The firm earlier released a prose version of “The Book of Job,” excellently read by Peter Coyote.