Freud’s Last Session
Encounters between world-historical figures have been popular for some time; e.g., "Insignificance," which takes as its jumping-off point the legendary tryst Albert Einstein had with Marilyn Monroe in New York. More seriously, plays like "Copenhagen" have Big Issues written all over them just by the nature of the real-life people involved.
"Significance" is written all over Mark St. Germain’s two-hander. The title, Freud’s Last Session, however, is the first inaccuracy. The action, which consists of a lengthy one-act conversation between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, is not a psychoanalytic session at all. In fact, it’s not clear exactly what it is.
St. Germain takes off from a sentence in a book called "The Question of God", by Armand Nicholi, Jr., who wonders if the young Oxford University professor who visited Freud after his forced immigration to London wasn’t Lewis.
If this seems like a fairly slender thread to hang an entire evening in the theater, you’re right. Freud, who by this time was dying of cancer (accurately depicted here), was extremely pessimistic about the human condition. Certainly understandable for anyone living in the late 1930s, let alone a Jew in late ’30s Vienna.
It was Freud’s great good friend and disciple, Ernest Jones, who managed to get Freud and his immediate family out of Vienna just in time. Jones is one of at least two people whose presence in the play would have livened up the (non-)action. The other would probably be Freud’s daughter Anna, who stayed in England (and whom Freud greatly feared had fallen in love with Ernst).
As it is, we get this curious visit. Under the guise of chatting with such a famous personage, Lewis has an ulterior motive of trying to get one of the world’s most famous atheists to accept the existence of God -- and Christ as well.
Good luck. Freud dodges all of Lewis’ arguments, which sound pretty jejune in St. Germain’s retelling. I admit I’m not familiar with Lewis’ theological writings, but I do know that he was the most widely read Christian apologist of his time, so he must have had more profound arguments than the ones expounded here.
For his part, Freud uses that razor-sharp intellect, leavened with wit and rueful observations about the nature of mankind, to deflect Lewis’ forays. As played by Martin Rayner, Freud is a dying man whose pessimistic view of civilization is pretty justified by what is going on around him. Raynor does a heroic job with his part (although I can’t imagine Freud, alone with his dog, speaking anything but German).
As Lewis, Mark H. Dold seems a bit stiff in his Englishness, which may accurately reflect the "Brideshead Revisited" starchiness of the British chattering class of the time. But I wish St. Germain had allowed him really to let his guard down at least once. After all, what’s the point in showing British reserve if not to puncture it?
The conversation is as rambling as "My Dinner With Andre", interrupted by air raid sirens and periodic radio programming related to the upcoming war. (Interesting pop-culture aside: The show uses the actual "King’s Speech" of King George VI that was the basis for the hit film of the same name.)
What’s missing from all this talk is any real bloodletting. St. Germain lets the one possibility for piercing Lewis’ reserve slip by. When he talks about how he is living with and taking care of, the mother of his comrade slain in the First War, Freud intimates that the two might be having a "relationship."
Lewis scholars have gone back and forth about how close and in what way Lewis was to Jane King Moore. But most recent biographies have followed Moore’s daughter in assuming that the two had an affair. Would the man who coined "Oedipus complex" really have let that slip by with a few offhand remarks?
I also had trouble with Freud going into detail about a novelty act he saw in Paris -- a man who farted whole symphonies, apparently. Having waded through Peter Gay’s biography not that long ago, I took away the image of Freud as personally very prim and Victorian. Not a man who may write about farts but would never be glib in conversation about it.
Even with its lack of action, I have to give St. Germain credit for creating a very interesting Platonic dialogue between two intellects. Even if I was never quite moved to Aristotelian pity and fear, I was certainly always engaged. If you’re a fan of cerebral works that make the play of words and ideas the action, you would do no worse than to sit in on these two men ever-so-politely having at it.
Notwithstanding, "Freud’s Last Session" has been an international hit. It has played in New York at another venue for over a year and has seen productions in cities as diverse as Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, and Palm Beach.