While Mary Eberstadt has been making headlines with her new and well-received book on religious liberty, It’s Dangerous to Believe, she already has a new project: the stage production of a work of fiction published in 2010 by Ignatius Press. The adaptation of the acclaimed “wickedly witty satire” The Loser Letters will have its world premier at the Catholic University of America’s Hartke Theater in Washington D.C. It is slated for ten performances between September 29th and October 9th. (Visit LoserLettersOnStage.com for more information about the production, dates, tickets, and more.)
Eberstadt is the author of numerous articles and several books on secularism, culture, and religion, including Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution and How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization. She has a knack for turning the secularist question on its head through her critiques of the “new atheism” popularized by ferociously secular writers including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. In It’s Dangerous to Believe, she ponders how secularists who claim tolerance as their chief virtue can treat Christians with hostility while seeking to restrict their religious freedoms. In The Loser Letters, she investigates, in a fictional and popular form, why someone would convert to atheism from Christianity. We’ve all heard plenty of conversion stories that go in the other direction, but what insights can we gain from considering the perspective of someone who has de-converted?
The Loser Letters explores this theme through a fictional epistolary collection from a young, recent convert to atheism to the “new atheists” themselves. A.F. (A Former) Christian, the bubbly, teenage heroine, writes about why she became an atheist and what the greatest obstacles are for people of faith who wish to be irreligious. The result is something a bit like Dante, quite a bit like C.S. Lewis, and yet utterly new at the same time.
Eberstadt spoke recently with CWR about the production:
CWR: The Loser Letters was, first, a book you published in 2010. What inspired you to write it?
Mary Eberstadt: The Loser Letters began in 2008, when the letters appeared as weekly installments serialized at National Review Online thanks to the invitation of editor Kathryn Lopez. At that time, books about the new atheism were riding high on bestseller lists, and others were appearing that took issue with those same arguments.
Watching the debate, it felt as if something were missing—some experiential, as opposed to intellectual, understanding of the roots of unbelief.
After all, humanity in general is theo-tropic: it leans toward God. Unbelief, not belief, is the real historical outlier. So I thought it could be interesting to analyze the appeal of atheism from the perspective of someone drawn to it for reasons having nothing to do with theological argument—and everything to do with the profound desire of one protagonist to be free of Christianity’s rules.
That’s how A.F. Christian came into being: as a character through whom that reality could be explored, an Everygirl of the Facebook age.
CWR: Who is the target audience?
Eberstadt: I hope that everyone can understand the story of A.F., and the twists and turns of the plot. But I gave her the voice of a young woman in the hopes of reaching the same constituency in which the new atheism made such dramatic inroads: the young, and especially those in their teens and twenties.
CWR: Was it your idea to turn into a play?
Eberstadt: Actually no; it was Michael Novak’s.
When Ignatius Press published the book in 2010, Michael kindly hosted an event at the American Enterprise Institute where I spoke about the book. At the time, our daughter Kate Eberstadt—a composer, singer, and actress—was in college, and just a few years younger than the character of A.F. Christian. She read some passages from the book aloud to the audience, in a rendition of A.F’s voice. Michael commented that same night that he thought the book should be adapted for stage.
He repeated that thought from time to time when we saw each other after that, and I kept wondering how such a thing could happen. Then, when I saw that Jeffrey Fiske—who had adapted and directed The Screwtape Letters—was giving a lecture at First Things, I attended and introduced myself, gave Jeff a copy of The Loser Letters; and we started to talk.
It was years before the project found backers; but once it started picking up support, more followed in short order, and eventually, we collaborated on the script. Then, in another unlikely turn, President John Garvey at Catholic University of America generously invited the team to use the Hartke Theater to stage the production, and to give talks and lectures to students about theism and atheism and other themes in the play.
The bottom line is that the whole project has been unlikely from the start, and wholly dependent on the willingness of other people to take risks—beginning with Kathryn Lopez’s enthusiasm for opening NRO to the publishing of fiction in the first place, and next by Fr. Joseph Fessio and Ignatius Press deciding to publish such an odd book in the next place, and followed by many more leaps of kindness by others.
Also propelling the effort has been the shared desire of so many of us to do something out-of-the-box, out of our own comfort zones, heady, different, and (we hope) fun. Thanks to all of those people, and all of those motivations and more, there’s now a show.
CWR: Can you speak about the other people involved in the production?
Eberstadt: There are so many! For starters, of course, there’s Jeff Fiske, who is also serving as Director, and staying at CUA as artist-in-residence for the duration of the performances. Managing Director Christopher White is a writer who also works with Catholic Voices, and writes for Catholic World Report and Crux and other eminent venues; he has been tireless, spirited, and perpetually inventive in keeping the project on track. Without both of them, the stage-play would never have happened.
Many other people are also essential, among them Patrick Truit of CUA’s Theater Department; and several others who have helped from within CUA’s internal structure with many details. Everyone at the university has been generous in welcoming this unorthodox theatrical effort into their home. And then there’s the team of talent that Jeff has assembled: the actresses and crew and more, all enthusiastic and looking forward to working together.
As well, donors to the project also took a big leap of faith in assuming that all these moving parts could be made into a whole; and so did a lot of other people, at CUA and elsewhere.
In retrospect, the whole effort looks spectacularly unlikely. Yet one more idea the whole team shares is that without the assumption of risk, nothing creative ever goes forward —and certainly not a project involving a whole bunch of human beings, all pulling together toward a shared vision of bringing one story to life.
CWR: What were the difficulties, if any, of adapting your book for the stage?
Eberstadt: From the beginning, one obvious challenge was to keep the action moving onstage, given that the book itself is epistolary. How do you bring a character to life who is reading aloud one letter after another?
It was Jeff’s insight to create a character as a foil—the Shadow—one who can respond physically to the mental turbulence and energy of A.F. Christian, and move through the mysterious place where she finds herself in a way that clarifies what’s happening.
That’s one example of how the intrinsic challenge of the text has been addressed. And having Olympic gymnast Chelsie Memmell perform that part of the Shadow seems like sheerest serendipity.
CWR: Can you speak to the influence of the Screwtape Letters and Divine Comedy on your work?
Eberstadt: They’ve both been inspirational of course, but only in the loosest of ways—no pretensions otherwise!
When A.F. Christian was being created, Screwtape intrigued me in part because it goes to show the power of the epistolary form (Dracula is a great example of same). When a single voice is speaking, like A.F., it’s easier to build up the intensity of the narrative; or so it felt, anyway.
As for Dante: A.F. Christian’s story is rooted in the idea that we are journeying toward a supernatural end, and that where exactly we end up depends on details about exactly what we’ve done, and why. That’s what I mean about the loosest inspiration imaginable—though details here and there might be of interest to Dante or C.S. Lewis fans, the narrative itself doesn’t depend on knowing either of those books.
CWR: This work differs from others in its genre—Screwtape Letters, Snakebite Letters, and others—by having a female author, female protagonist, and female-driven cast. Do you think this changes the way the audience will understand the themes of temptation, spiritual warfare, and atheism?
Eberstadt: At a minimum, it’s the hope of the team that the stage-play is a riposte to the notion that all women think alike.
There’s a lot of belligerently anti-religious theater, too; and it’s not exactly a secret that standard contemporary theatrical fare, especially on campuses, is of one mind: i.e., the secularist-progressive one.
The story of A.F. Christian subverts that now-conventional narrative. It’s intended not to confirm the pre-existing opinions of the audience, but instead to raise some big questions, via and throughout the entertainment: Why do people believe what they believe? How much does our own self-delusion, or other deeply felt motivations, play a role in what we profess? Is the world after the sexual revolution one that’s better for a vulnerable young girl—or worse? And more.
These admittedly add weight to A.F. Christian’s shoulders. But it’s the team’s hope that her story will be followed and reflected upon by everyone who sees the play, whatever their own personal leanings, and that the meaning of where she is, and how she got there, will linger on in their thoughts after the show.