Did Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis ever meet in person? This intriguing prospect forms the basis for Mark St. Germain’s play Freud’s Last Session, currently playing off-Broadway at the Marjorie S. Dean Little Theater in New York City. Freud’s Last Session was inspired by the book The Question of God (Free Press, 2003) by Dr. Armand Nicholi, Jr., a psychiatrist who has for many years taught a course at Harvard comparing the philosophies of Freud and Lewis. Nicholi’s book offers a fascinating overview not only of the two men’s work and writing, but also of their lives—the ways in which their experiences shaped their worldviews and the ways in which they lived out their beliefs.
While Nicholi’s book covers the whole of their lives, the scope of Freud’s Last Session is restricted by history to the fifteenth months Freud lived in England (not far from Lewis) before his death on September 23, 1939. St. Germain chose to set his one-act play on September 3, 1939, the day the Nazis invaded Poland, provoking England and France to enter WWII. Freud (Martin Rayner) is 83 and tormented by terminal throat cancer. Lewis (Mark H. Dold) is only 40, with his most important work still ahead of him. In the play, Lewis nervously assumes that Freud is offended by his recent satirization in Lewis’s Pilgrims Regress, but the dying man is more interested in discussing larger topics.
While both Lewis and Freud left ample documentation of their thoughts on God, death, love, and sex (and Nicholi’s book serves as a helpful comparison of these), this play re-animates the men behind these philosophies in a way that an academic discussion cannot. Rather than a thinly-veiled debate between an atheist and a Christian, the play offers warm human interaction between two intelligent men, both convinced of their own positions but interested in the other’s thoughts. Under Tyler Marchant’s direction, this interaction takes place as a real conversation: off to a bumpy start with a tardy Lewis and a cranky Freud, the dialogue then moves tangentially into more important and personal topics, although not without interruptions for phone calls and Freud’s ill health. Some of the interruptions quash a particular discussion before it has time to flower, but the fits and starts mirror the growing sense of impermanence and unease created by the radio bulletins of the invasion of Poland and England’s entrance into the war. Air raid sirens also interrupt them, betraying the fear and tension both men fail to hide. And yet their conversation continues, both as a welcome distraction from the banal horrors of war and a direct engagement with the dangers they face, both from the political landscape and Freud’s cancer. Lewis wants to know why Freud has continued to obsess about the question of God’s existence, despite his atheist claims, and points out that he has filled his office with ancient statues of gods and goddesses. Freud probes Lewis’s relationship with his father, suggesting his desire for God is nothing but subconscious longing for this unsatisfactory relationship.
Both men manage to score strong points for their positions and find some common ground as well, but this play is less an academic exercise or doctrinal polemic than an attempt to recreate real human interaction between two large personalities intersecting at one moment in history. The things left unsaid are perhaps more important than the things said, as both Freud and Lewis suggest at different points in the conversation. Both men speak of experiencing what Lewis calls Joy and Freud calls Sehnsucht. Yet what Lewis understands as a deep longing for God and a life beyond this world, Freud interprets as a displacement of unfulfilled childhood needs. Lewis relates two important conversations with the atheist T. J. Weldon and the Catholic J. R. R. Tolkien that were critical in beginning the shift in thinking that led to his conversion. Freud’s years of psychoanalyzing patients has left him convinced of the power of human neuroses. As their discussion deepens, both men point out ways in which the other seems to be living in contradiction with his own beliefs. Freud tries to explain his dislike of music because he hates to be moved without understanding why. Lewis’s unexpectedly fearful reaction to the false air raid is provoked by flashbacks of his earlier war trauma. An audience member who knows nothing about Freud or Lewis will find their conversation engaging and amusing. And for those familiar with both men, a wealth of detail and nuance is masterfully woven into the 90 minute running time of the play.
The entire play takes place in Freud’s study, masterfully recreated in Brian Prather’s set design. The other production details are equally well done by Mark Mariani (costume design), Clifton Taylor (lighting design), and Beth Lake (sound design).
Martin Rayner’s Freud is disgruntled and world-weary, but we watch him come to life in the impassioned philosophical sparring. His physical portrayal of an ill and elderly man, especially a rather gruesome bit of business with Freud’s malfunctioning and painful prosthetic palate, impresses the audience with the reality of imminent decay and approaching death even as life continues in its shadow.
Mark H. Dold’s Lewis begins as a nervous young professor in awe of Freud’s advanced position, but we quickly sense both his warmth and his conviction as he settles into real discussion and engagement with the older man. While solicitous of Freud’s frailties, it is clear that Lewis understands they are both more interested in good intellectual debate than preserving some imagined niceties.
For an excellent overview of the body of Freud and Lewis’s work, Nicholi’s book is a welcome and recommended guide, but Freud’s Last Session is a compelling reminder that intellectual debate takes place in a human contexts between individuals whose ideas are shaped by specific histories and relationships. Nicholi lays out many of these human details in The Question of God, finding “that a third voice needs to be added to that of their writings, in the form of their biographies. Their arguments can never prove or disprove the existence of God. Their lives, however, offer sharp commentary on the truth, believability, and utility of their views.” Seeing these biographies brought to warm and moving life, even if artfully imagined, drives home the vitality and humanity of these two great minds in ways that words on a page do not; likewise it portrays the complexity and nuance of personal belief in a manner which, I think, Freud and Lewis would recognize and applaud.