A towering influence and a warm man – The Register-Guard

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Nov. 22, 1963 saw the death of three men who profoundly effected Western thought and culture. It was the assassination of John F. Kennedy, however, that shoved the natural passing of British-born authors Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis to the back burner. Lewis’s death received a short blurb in The New York Times two days after his passing and did not warrant mention in Britain’s The Times until three days later.

These three towering figures all used the power of language to achieve vital impacts in disparate realms. The iconography of these three men, however, conceals that fact that beneath their veneer, these men were all human. As Bob Dylan reminds us, “even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.”

Kennedy, the brilliant rhetorician, urged the United States to reach beyond self-imposed borders to establish an allied politic toward progressive ambitions. As a man, Kennedy earned a reputation as somewhat of a playboy in the 1950s and, before he died at 46, as a doting father his young son and daughter.

Huxley, the eccentric essayist and author of “Brave New World,” compelled his readers to reach for an independent utopia, free of government control while extolling psychedelic experimentation and Eastern mystic exploration. Being born in 1894 allowed Huxley to observe and to distrust the 20th century’s technological cascade. His piercing intellect and broad embrace of eclectic ideas, though, somewhat socially isolated the man in his younger years, paving the way, to certain extent, to eschewing his birth country for a more open mindset in Southern California.

And Lewis represented a buttoned-up, straightforward yet uncaged and sporting intellectual provocation for adhering to traditional Christian orthodoxy. However performer David Payne —in his show “An Evening with C.S. Lewis” coming to the Hult Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday — however, presents the warmth the man exuded in life, seated in his living room, extolling a kind recollection of the people and events that inspired and shaped his life.

Of these men, though Kennedy’s death still casts a cavernous shadow on the American psyche, it may be Lewis that has had the biggest impact on the late 20th and early 21st century.

The seven books that make up “The Chronicles of Narnia,” first published more than 60 years ago, have sold an estimated at 150 million copies and have been popularized on stage, in movies, on television and on radio. Since 2001, Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” has sold upwards of 3 million copies and “The Screwtape Letters,” a correspondence between two demons on how to soil Christian soul, has moved more than 2 million copies. In all there are 110 authored or edited books by Lewis have been translated into more than 40 languages. And there are an additional approximately 300 books that discuss Lewis and his work to accompany the more than 300 C.S. Lewis Societies across the globe, according to the Independent Institute think tank. 

While Lewis’ contemplations are of the deepest nature, they belie a carefree man in love with living life when he was not considering its consequences in practiced, playful conversations with some of the leading thinkers of his time, as attested by Payne, who has played Lewis in more than 500 performances of “An Evening with C.S. Lewis.”

“He was a serious man, but he’s described as a man who embraced life,” Payne said in a conversation with The Register-Guard. “He was a great walker and he’d get two or three of people walking on the Yorkshire moors who’d want to turn around when the fog came in. What was the point when the view was obscured? Lewis said it was then that you felt the experience more than anything.”

Payne wrote “An Evening with C.S. Lewis” after a classified ad changed his life. Born in London, Payne was in Nashville, Tennessee, as a marketing consultant for a religious books publisher in the early 1990s.

“Auditions for ‘Shadowlands,’ British accents a help!” read the ad.

“The plan was to go back to England after two years, but the project was extended,” Payne said. “As a result, I went to an audition and won the lead role, C.S. Lewis.”

Now a major motion picture, “Shadowlands” is the theatrical adaptation of Lewis’ correspondence, growing love and eventual marriage with American English teacher, Joy Gresham.

Payne, who had never been on stage before, but who did have a British accent, decided to audition, hoping for a minor part in the production to be staged at the prestigious Tennessee Performing Arts Center in August of 1995. Payne staggered everybody when he landed the part of the main character.

During “Shadowlands” rehearsals, Payne read “A Grief Observed,” Lewis’ diary of grief following the death of Gresham four years after their marriage. Captivated by Lewis’ brutal honesty, Payne memorized the whole book and then adapted it into a one-man show, “Mist in the Mourning.” His adaptation premiered and sold out all three performances at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, leading to a subsequent United States tour from 1997 to 2001. 

Payne’s performance of “Mist in the Morning” elicited so many questions about Lewis from audience members that Payne thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun if Lewis himself could answer these questions?” Hence, “An Evening with C.S. Lewis” was born, written by Payne over three years from 1999 to 2001 and based on answering viewer questions and highlighting the pivotal points in Lewis’ life.

Being a practicing Christian himself, Payne has a lot of sympathy for Lewis’ aversion and eventual reconversion to Christianity, but Payne’s adaptation has more to do with presenting a complex human being than showing off one particular aspect of C.S. Lewis. Fifteen years of touring and 500 shows later, it’s safe to claim Payne’s project a success.

“The play is about the man,” Payne said. “It talks briefly about his childhood. It talks about the people who affected his life, particularly J.R.R. Tolkien and his brother, Warnie, and a lot about his wife.”

The play is set as a fireside chat with a group of American writers at Lewis’ home near Oxford. Payne intends it to be a “captivating evening with a man whose engaging conversation and spontaneous humor made him one of the great raconteurs of his day.”

Raconteur is an apt description — Lewis is considered one of the great storytellers of his generation. 

“A lot of people are surprised by how much they laugh,” Payne said. “I want people that when they’ve been there, they’ve been there with a man, not just one part of the man, but the whole man.”

Follow Matthew on Twitter @MatthewDDenis. Email mdenis@registerguard.com

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