Sleeping with the American

Shadowlands, by William Nicholson, Connaught Theatre, Worthing, Tuesday 19 April, 7.30pm.

It was very astute of William Nicholson, back in 1985, to see the potential in this story, whatever its antecedents. (The very first television script was written by Brian Sibley and Norman Stone.)

The affair and marriage between C.S. Lewis, of Narnia fame, and Joy Gresham, nee Davidman, poet and critic, comes at the precise moment when the Empire, the great project, was teetering. And Clive Staples Lewis, known as Jack, born 1898, who fought and was wounded in the Great War, later Oxford fellow, Cambridge Professor, popular broadcaster and philosopher, writer of the Narnia series, not only lived through the transition from World domination to Suez crisis, but was famously at the intellectual centre of everything, the conscience, the raison d’être, the inner sanctum, the keepers of the flame, Oxford and Cambridge, universities of the world, guardians of the universe.

Joy Gresham, an American, first met Lewis in 1952. She had been a child prodigy, graduating with a masters degree from Columbia University when only 20. By the time they met, they had already been corresponding for two years. What with one thing and another, her husband taking up with her cousin and asking her for a divorce, she and her two sons (reduced to one in the play) moved to England and ultimately to Oxford.

Apart from writing children's stories, Lewis was also noted for justifying the ways of God to men, as John Milton had attempted to do three hundred years earlier, in Paradise Lost, the great allegory of the English Civil War. The empire was really only just getting going in Milton's time, but the over-arching theme, duty, and the terrible consequences of straying from the path were being laid out without much in the way of sympathy or even mercy. The devil might have the best lines God has the final say.

So for most of his 54 or so years before meeting Joy, Lewis has been ruled by duty, as has his generation. Everyone knew their place and did what was expected. Feelings, what were they? Stiff upper lip, bravery in the face of bullets, go to the colonies and suffer. The empire demands it.

But the empire is kaput, defunct. They can't even scare up a decent war in Egypt. America has called a halt to the British adventurism. What to do?

What can you do, after all, but sleep with an American? An American will have the answers. The foundations of Oxford might be shaking, the dreaming spires tossing in their sleep, but America, it's the future.

It's always been odd, for those of the baby boomer generation (and I am one) to contemplate the way the generation gap, between themselves and their parents, came to be so definitively and vertiginously. The same kind of misunderstanding, of mistrust, doesn't hold today. Something happened, in the 1950s, to utterly change the way people thought, the way they saw themselves. Duty to something larger than yourself was out. Duty to yourself was in. The children had no respect for their parents' sense of responsibility, the parents were horrified by their children's selfishness.

Jack Lewis is always banging on about why God is so cruel, why He makes us suffer. Compare this to Rudyard Kipling fifty years earlier, who didn't hesitate for a moment to make his characters suffer in the most extraordinary ways. Train a child to be a spy in Afghanistan? No problem. Have a tiger eat a child's parents and then send the child to be raised as a wolf? Bring it on. This is the empire, baby.

The play dramatises the shift, in the character of the famous author, C.S. Lewis, from duty to feeling, the very same seismic upheaval which threw up Elvis and the Rolling Stones, which has led us to where we are now, where ever that is.

Did William Nicholson see how important this would be, back in 1985? At the zenith of the Thatcher ascendency? How the cult of the individual has come to dominate every aspect of modern life? We have to assume so, or why would this play still seem so relevant, especially in the heat of the debate about whether Britain should remain in the European Union? What did we lose when we lost the empire, and should we want to go back, even if we could?

So it's a bit of an ask for an actor to not only have to convincingly display this change, but to play someone well known, his work widely loved, and to embody a broader social transformation with all its ambiguity and complexity, which we are all still trying to make sense of more than 50 years later. Such a role requires real authority, and calm certainty, which Stephen Boxer, as Lewis, combined with a kind of understated charm. We definitely wanted to like him, and to believe that Joy would cross the Atlantic for him. Denis Lill, as his brother Warnie, reflecting his goodness and thoughtfulness, watched his brother from the sidelines, so committed to his ideas, his philosophy, transform into something more honest, less deformed, less ruled by his convictions.

Joy, many things, atheist, communist, Jewish, converted Christian, divorcee, could easily have become a cypher, a mechanism for moving the play forward, but Amanda Ryan makes her a real person, independent, forging her own path, believable as one half of a relationship that had a profound effect on all whom they encountered.

By the end of the play it is impossible to imagine Jack Lewis going back to his life of moral certainties, just as it's impossible to imagine going back to the days of empire and the inhuman demands it made on its subjects. A highly rewarding evening.

Paul Corcoran