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Theater Review: Freud’s Last Session

Skeptical Freud
Pious C. S. Lewis

Mark H. Dold as C. S. Lewis (left) & Martin Rayner as Sigmund Freud (right).

In a room easily mistaken for his office in Vienna, Sigmund Freud sits at his desk bathed in light from the picture window behind him.  After listening to a bulletin about Germany’s invasion of Poland, the doctor turns off the radio when musical programing resumes.  A dog offstage barks the arrival of his invited guest, the young writer Clive Staples (C. S.) Lewis.

Inspired by a question that appeared in Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.’s The Question of God, about whether the Oxford professor who would later gain renown for his Chronicles of Narnia ever met the father of psychoanalysis, playwright Mark St. Germain turned the imagined conversation of such an encounter into a full-length play, Freud’s Last Session [2].

As portrayed by Martin Rayner, Freud impresses with his acerbic wit and his stoic attitude toward the cancer that devours his mouth.  Ever conscious of the finite nature of life, especially his own, when Lewis apologizes for arriving late, the doctor counters with a quick retort, “If I wasn’t eighty-three I would say it doesn’t matter.”

Mark H. Dold plays the 41-year-old Lewis as the quite proper Oxford intellectual and recent convert to Christianity.  Summoned by the elder man, he assumes Freud took umbrage at an unpleasant satirization of him in one of his books.  In fact, Freud hadn’t even read the novel and enjoys undermining Lewis’s self-importance by surprising him with that fact.

The doctor had, however, heard about its contents from a colleague and felt the need to personally interrogate a former atheist newly enthralled by God.  Comprising the only action in the play, their dialog ranges widely, punctuated by the BBC’s coverage of the 1939 events leading up to World War II, Freud’s oral cancer and his struggles to adjust his bloody prosthesis, and air raid sirens.

Their exchange takes the form of an intellectual sparring match between two smart and equally self-righteous men about the existence of God.  They sprinkle their remarks with humor and powerful one-liners.  Some favorites:

Lewis:  Doctor, I’ll be the first to admit that the greatest problem
with Christianity are Christians.  But you can’t reduce a faith
to an institution.

Freud:  But Hitler learns from history.  A warrior’s greatest
ally is always God.

Freud:  His followers deified him.  He performed magic trick
miracles.  His strategy was a complete success.

Lewis:  I wouldn’t call any strategy ending with crucifixion a
complete success.

At times it seemed as though the sharp-tongued Freud had the lead, what with the war raging outside and the one threatening his life from within.  Having lost his 27-year-old daughter to the Spanish flu and his grandson to tuberculosis at five, Freud had ample reasons to question God’s beneficence.

Exalting the power and goodness of God, Lewis pins the blame for evil on man’s free choice.  Freud’s angry rejoinder, “Is that your excuse for pain and suffering?  Did I bring about my own cancer?”, garners an admission of ignorance from the now hesitant believer.  Many a survivor of childhood abuse and neglect has similarly hurled accusations at the existence of any god let alone an all-powerful father figure running the show for the benefit of all.

Later in their conversation, after Freud has skewered Lewis with insinuations about his sexual behavior, the writer gets his turn, inquiring about the doctor’s overly close relationship with his daughter, Anna.  Hearing that she had never married, remained devoted to her father, and wrote a paper on sadomasochistic fantasies based on her father’s psychoanalytic treatment of her, Lewis demurs from further questions and reminds Freud of the analyst’s earlier observation, “What people say is less important than what they cannot.”

By the end of the play, each has occupied the famous couch, both literally and figuratively.  Out of the acrimony flying between them has sprouted spontaneous expressions of trust and concern, culminating in a rapprochement based on a shared joke and a mutual acceptance that faith by its very nature does not submit to proof.

Freud’s Last Session [2]
Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater
West Side YMCA
10 West 64th Street
New York, NY 10023