Tolkien feels like academic Christian fanfiction. If that’s your thing, by all means go for it—all three acts and almost three hours of it.
In his new script, playwright Ron Reed explores the friendship between J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings) and C.S. Lewis (the Narnia fantasies).
Tolkien starts off promisingly. When they meet, both men are lonely. Lewis is a new faculty member at Oxford, where Tolkien is teaching linguistics, and Tolkien is still grieving the loss of his comrades in WWI several years earlier. As Reid frames it, Tolkien is known on the campus as an eccentric and a bore but, when Tolkien recites a portion of Beowulfto Lewis in the original Icelandic, Lewis is smitten. The men discover in one another a common passion for heroic myths and for the numinous beauty with which those tales tremble. The shared excitement and vulnerability of the two men are touching.
But Reed seems to have fallen in love with his research so, rather than going deeply into one aspect of their relationship, his play ranges widely—while maintaining a kind of journalistic neutrality—and never fully satisfies.
Mostly, Tolkien is concerned with the ways in which friends handle spiritual differences. Lewis falls under the influence of an academic star named Charles Williams. Tolkien is not just jealous—he accuses Lewis of platonic infidelity—he is also suspicious of the enthusiasm with which Williams champions sexual abstinence and he despises imagery in Williams’s writing that Tolkien regards as satanic. But who cares? I’d never heard of Williams before and Reed’s script doesn’t venture a clear guess about who he might have been. Did he conduct satanic rituals in hotel rooms with young women? The answer “Maybe” isn’t much to hold onto. So, although Williams is an irritant in the friendship between the two more famous writers, he remains a vague irritant.
The same is true of a Catholic, Franco-friendly poet named Roy Campbell who shows up. Catholic Tolkien likes him. Anglican Lewis doesn’t. But Reed doesn’t tell us anything definitive about Campbell until it’s too late to matter.
It’s even hard to care about the spiritual differences between Lewis and Tolkien. Lewis is an atheist when he first encounters the linguistic professor and, in real life, Tolkien influenced Lewis’s conversion but, in this play, Lewis’s reclaiming of Christianity barely causes a dramatic ripple. Later, the doctrinal disagreements between the two feel abstract.
Reed has tried to ground the central spiritual conflict in terms of arguments that Lewis and Tolkien have about their jealousies and writing, but, as I’ve said, those jealousies are ill defined and the processes of writing are dramatically elusive.
So we get a lot of talk. White male Christian academics sit around and talk. The play feels stuck in its head, in abstractions. I desperately wanted it to acquire a body.
It’s a shame that the script fails to fulfill its promise because there are some appealing elements in this production. Ian Farthing is understated and persuasively human—as far as the script lets him be—as Lewis. Reed, who both wrote and directed Tolkien, also performed as the title character on opening night, carrying his script because the actor slated to perform the role fell ill. Reed was sometimes hard to hear, mumbling into his pages, but he also filled the role with feeling, which is no small feat, given the circumstances. And Tim Dixon, whom I don’t think I’ve seen before, is drolly witty as Lewis’s brother Warnie.
Physically, the production is awkward, however. Reed has written several locales into the play, so a large crew is always busily setting and striking furniture, which is distracting. And set designer Drew Facey’s (kind of) naturalistic tree, which hovers over the action, is visually clumsy.
Often, Pacific Theatre presents issue of faith engagingly. Not this time.
TOLKIEN Written and directed by Ron Reed. A Pacific Theatre production. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, May 11. Continues until June 9.
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