The signature red brick and white buildings that make up the bulk of the campus of Wheaton College in the western suburb where Prohibition began over a century ago speak to the uniformity and tradition of a private, nondenominational evangelical institution with a one-hundred-and-fifty-year-plus history.
To the side of the winding road that stretches along the campus is an unusual site at the edge of it: a large, English-style Tudor mansion at curious odds with its surrounding architecture. It is the Marion E. Wade Center, named for my great-uncle who was the founder of the cleaning company ServiceMaster.
Coined as “service to the master,” Wade was an early proponent of operating a business according to Christian principles that viewed “each employee and customer as being made in God’s image— worthy of dignity and respect” and wrote an influential book in 1966 about his experience in doing so, “The Lord is My Counsel.” The writings of C. S. Lewis had been a particular influence on Wade and when he had the opportunity to purchase some Lewis manuscripts and memorabilia after the author’s death in 1963, that became the basis of the collection of the Wade-funded C. S. Lewis Collection that opened in 1965 as part of the Wheaton College Library.
Over the years, the collection expanded to include papers, books, artifacts, letters and manuscripts of Lewis and his wife and American poet Joy Davidman along with Lewis’ fellow Oxford Inkling authors J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Owen Benfield as well as associated British authors G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and George MacDonald. After Wade’s death in 1973, the collection was renamed in his memory; the standalone Wade Center building that remains a place of pilgrimage for research on these authors opened in 2001.
“I’ve been there two or three times,” says British actor David Payne, who has written and performed one-man C. S. Lewis shows for nearly thirty years. “I know it well. In fact, I did a performance of ‘An Evening With C. S. Lewis’ at Wheaton College a long time ago.”
A typical reaction to Payne performing as Lewis is the feeling that audience members have spent time with Lewis himself rather than an actor portraying him. “I don’t say it boastfully because it’s true: I regularly get comments where people say, ‘I felt like I was with C. S. Lewis.’ There was a time when they wanted the actor to come out and meet with the audience. I’m standing there and my first wife, who was still alive at the time, was standing next to me. And this dear lady comes up very solemnly and grabs hold of my hand and says, ‘I’m so sorry about the death of your wife,’ which Lewis talks about in the show. That’s the highest compliment you can get where she is still with C. S. Lewis. She was still with the play even though we were outside the theater.
“One lady came up to me and said, ‘Thank you so much. Thank you for your performance. And thank you for writing all your books!’
“You know, Anthony Hopkins played C. S. Lewis in ‘Shadowlands.’ A gentleman came up to me and was so excited after the play and said, ‘Oh, I loved you in the film.’ He had just enjoyed the evening and obviously had enjoyed the film and thought I was the same actor.” Or that both actors had been Lewis? “Could be. But he was so excited and so bubbly that I thought, no, I’m not going to burst his bubble. I just said, ‘Thank you.’”
Payne will be performing “Christmas with C. S. Lewis” for Broadway in Chicago at the Broadway Playhouse from December 5-10. But Payne emphasizes that the Christmas show can stand on its own, that attendees need not have seen “An Evening with C. S. Lewis” to appreciate it. “There are elements of the one-man show present because it’s Christmas and Lewis approached Christmas from a religious point of view although this is not a terribly religious play. It’s not meant to be.”
The setting of “Christmas with C. S. Lewis” is a group of American historians visiting England at Christmastime. “They have an interest in English history,” explains Payne, “so they’ve decided to spend Christmas in Oxford to experience a typical English Christmas. Because Lewis was a professor of medieval and Renaissance literature, they’ve asked whether he could do a small talk on Christmas past, Christmas present and also what Christmas means to him.
“Basically, there are lots of past Christmas traditions that he talks about that have survived until this day, which most people will find very interesting. Some Americans won’t understand it until he explains them, but he does explain them.
“He starts off by showing them a mince pie, a small round pastry with dried fruit in it. And he says, ‘Why am I showing it to you? Because it’s a delicacy that we English consume over Christmastime.’ They used to have mince pie in medieval times, but they weren’t round, they were rectangular so as to represent the manger of baby Jesus. The more devoted of his followers would create a pastry effigy of baby Jesus and they’d put it on the top. He says, ‘I’m glad that tradition doesn’t remain until these days, because one has the dilemma of do I eat baby Jesus or not?’ And then he talks about it being one of the very early versions of a nativity scene. Only it was pastries, not effigies.
“He talks about some of the anomalies of Christmas that he struggles with: the giving of presents and what to give, when to give them. When to send out cards, what happens if somebody sends you a card and you didn’t send them a card? That type of thing.
“And then he talks about how for thirty years, Christmas didn’t mean anything to him from a religious point of view until he met J. R. R. Tolkien. It was his meeting with Tolkien—who was himself a very sincere Christian, a Catholic Christian as it happens—that changed things.
“Lewis had always felt that the story of Christ was a myth. And Tolkien sort of persuaded him that in a way, it was a myth, but that unlike other myths, it was a true myth: it actually happened. And that’s the start of Lewis’ journey to Christianity where he ends up ending thirty years of celebrating Christmas without any reference to a special baby. And so he talks about that.”
Loss is a central theme of the play though at different stages of Lewis’ life. “Lewis had a very happy childhood and says, ‘Our house was filled with books and I turned the pages of most of them.’ I think he was six years old when he started reading Beatrix Potter and started writing his own stories about talking animals. So you’re talking about a young lad who just had that appetite for reading, for writing. And that remains throughout his whole life.
“He says one of his greatest adventures as a young boy was when he was thumbing through a book of poetry by the American poet Longfellow and stumbled across these words: ‘I heard a voice, that cried, “Balder the Beautiful is dead, is dead!”’ He counts that as one of the great joys of his childhood, discovering Balder. That’s partly because Balder was naughty. That’s what ignited his love of Norse mythology. It was also one of the reasons why he and Tolkien got on so well, because Tolkien loved Norse mythology.
“But that happiness almost evaporated when Lewis was nine years old and his mother died from cancer. His mother was his world. His father was a man wedded to dull routine, so his mother got all the Christmas stuff going and made Christmas what it was. It’s not that the father didn’t, but it was his mother who was the life and soul of the party. So when she died, not just Christmas was taken away, but for a long time, Lewis decided that he would never be happy again. That was it. It was all over. Of course, he was only nine years old at the time but he says everything was different. The next Christmas he didn’t want to celebrate, he didn’t want presents. All he wanted to do was to go up into the attic of his house and mourn.”
The second loss that affected Lewis’ perception of Christmas was the death of his wife. “When she came with her two sons to live with Lewis, they spent a Christmas together. There’s a lot of humor in that, English versus American reactions. He talks about how his wife died and how he felt that first Christmas after she died and how he coped with life that first Christmas.
“To my mind, one of the issues I have with Christmas is that we approach it with such anticipation of lots of fun and great food and drinking and partying and enjoying it. He talks about those people that have to face Christmas for the first time without their loved one and how he coped with that. It’s very tender. It’s quite moving.
“Any actor tries to portray emotion the best he can, even if he’s not gone through it. But my wife, my first wife, died two weeks before Christmas in 2014. And so, I found myself just living—yes, acting in a way because I was playing Lewis—but I was also David Payne who had been through that whole experience and just two weeks before Christmas. And I knew how I felt before Christmas. I didn’t want to be with anybody, conversation is shallow, it’s forced. If you smile, it’s a weak smile. If you laugh, it’s a shallow laughter. And all you want to do is go and hibernate.
“And then he goes on to say that thereafter, Christmases are never the same. They never can be the same. It doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy them. But they can’t be the same in the way grief never goes away fully. Time helps to alleviate grief. And of course, you realize that if you wallow in grief, that’s no good. But that doesn’t mean to say that you don’t have those pangs.
“I didn’t want this to be a play which was grim and, ‘Oh gosh, I’m coming away feeling like I wished I hadn’t come now.’ There had to be a real balance. I wanted to cover the joy of friendship, which Christmas also reminds us of when we come together with friends. I wanted to cover the joy of marriage. But I wanted to cover the sadness of marriage when you lose somebody: how do you cope with that over Christmas? I wanted to cover how Lewis came to be against Christmas and for Christmas in the sense of it is to celebrate a special baby, not to be giving presents and cards. That’s nice, but it’s not the important part.
“Having said all that, it’s very funny. There’s lots of humor in it. That’s because Lewis was very humorous. You couldn’t have a play with Lewis that didn’t have humor.
“He tells a story about when he was going into Oxford once and they passed a church with a nativity scene. He was sitting behind two ladies who were looking down and one lady looks at the other and looks at the nativity scene and says, ‘Would you believe it? They’re dragging religion into Christmas now!’”
“Christmas with C. S. Lewis” at Broadway Playhouse, 175 East Chestnut, broadwayinchicago.com. December 5-10.