As I’ve been working through C. S. Lewis’s devolution into atheism on my other blog project, I’ve recently had occasion to spend some more time with The Screwtape Letters. That reminded me of an exciting gift I received this summer that I had not been able to enjoy yet: an audio rendition of Screwtape read by none other than John Cleese. My lovely wife and beautiful daughter won it for me in an auction at this year’s Mythcon (the annual meeting of the Mythopoeic Society). The trouble was, it was on cassettes. Since we had no easily available player, it sat languishing until this week.
Finally, with one of our cars in the shop, I got the chance to drive our old truck on a regular basis, and I put two-and-two together: Old truck+cassette player=Cleesian Screwtape!. Unfortunately, I was somewhat underwhelmed–though only somewhat.
For C. S. Lewis/Monty Python fans, the marriage of the voice acting of Cleese to his Abysmal Sublimity and Under Secretary of the Lowerarchy would seem to be a match made in Hell..er…Heaven (depending on your perspective). There is so much strong, clear content and Cleese has an incredible ability to make just about anything (i.e. a man talking about a dead parrot) into a brilliant comedic routine. The blurbs on the box would seem to uphold that, noting that the performance was a 1989 Grammy Award Finalist for the spoken word.
There are moments that live up to Cleese’s full theoretical potential. I particularly enjoyed his rendition of Screwtape’s transformation into a “large centipede,” and his performance on the final letter was worthwhile. There were other snatches of brilliance peeking out here and there, and they made the time I spent listening to it time unwasted.
That said, I do wonder how many entries the Grammy Awards had in the “Spoken Word” category that particular year if this was one of the finalists. Throughout, I got the distinct impression that Cleese was putting far less than his best into it. A subtle hesitance permeated much of the performance which made it seem as if Cleese were actually just sight-reading a cold script. (You can get an idea by listening through this sample on YouTube.) This was reinforced by a tendency to stumble over words and phrases that he apparently did not expect, resulting in strange, in-congruent changes in emotional tone and even plain mispronunciations. Cleese mentions Hell’s “tempers” at one point, where the book clearly said “tempTers.”* The changes in emotional pace one might be tempted to blame on Cleese attempting to make Screwtape seem insane, except that his tone (with the associated pauses and hesitance) seems to strongly imply that he had no real idea what he was talking about, and so did not understand what tone to adopt.
In Cleese’s defense, some of this is perhaps not his fault. When I first heard that Cleese had read The Screwtape Letters, I instantly assumed that it would be, as one of the backcover endorsements states, a “rare and perfect matching of voice and material.” On further reflection, I see that was wrong (that’s happened a lot recently…). The Letters are full of humor and irony, but not of the type in which Cleese specializes. His style, I think, works best with completely preposterous situations in which the subject is completely ridiculous, outlandish, and over-the-top in an almost contemptible sort of way (think Ministry of Silly Walks). He’s brilliant, but we mostly laugh at him, not with him. There is a certain gravity to Screwtape that Cleese only rarely approximates, and his humor doesn’t easily adapt itself to it. For the most part, it doesn’t sound like Cleese seriously tried.
So, if you are either a Monty Python fan or a hardcore Lewisian, The Screwtape Letters read by John Cleese are worth your time. Overall, though, I would suggest checking out the more recent rendition performed by Joss Ackland from HarperCollins. He is much more effective in capturing the ironic depths of Screwtapian depravity!
*I think this also implies that Cleese refused to do more than one reading of the script. Otherwise, the mispronunciation could have simply been edited out. Either that or the editor was incompetent. Who knows?