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Freud’s Last Session

460x-1On Saturday,  my husband and I had the unique experience of attending a two-man play–Freud’s Last Session, based upon a hypothetical meeting between Sigmund Freud–considered the father of psychoanalysis, and C. S. Lewis–the twentieth century atheist turned Christian apologist and theologian.  While it is unlikely these two great intellectuals ever actually met, their writings and philosophies continue to have a profound impact upon modern thought and culture.  Having an opportunity to see them interact in an amiable battle of divergent philosophies was fascinating and thought-provoking.

41wpQBJEgLThe playwright Mark St. Germain, was inspired to write the play after hearing Dr. Armand M. Nicoli, Jr.–the author of The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, speak at a Socrates in the City event in New York City. That talk inspired the playwright to imagine what an actual dialogue between these two great minds might have looked like, especially set against the world-changing events that provide the backdrop of the play.

St. Germain has set the play in London just on the cusp of World War II, where Hitler’s madness has driven the ailing Freud–now exiled from his beloved Vienna.  The historical record states that during his sojourn there and just three weeks before his death, Freud invited an Oxford don to visit him at his home in London. The identity of that don is unknown, but the serendipitous nature of these confluences (Freud being in London, Lewis in Oxford, and the impending declaration of war), make for great literary (albeit fictional) possibility.  And St. Germain uses the possibilities fully.  Lewis and Freud debate the great questions of life and death in a way that reveals the intellectual prowess, penetrating wit, and hard-won positions of these men. In the Santa Monica performance, which  just premiered on January 11, 2013, Tom Cavanagh plays C.S. Lewis.  Cavanagh doesn’t seem to have quite settled into his role as the Oxford professor, and his assumed British accent was at times too affected to project clearly to the audience. Judd Hirsch did a brilliant job portraying Freud, and despite his cantankerous, cynical and curmudgeonly nature, his character is endearing and unforgettable.

Throughout the play Freud is regularly turning the radio on and off for updates on Hitler’s invasion of Poland, which occurred on September 1, 1939.  One disturbing tidbit of broadcast informs BBC listeners that 20,000 Poles have died since the start of the Fuhrer’s invasion, and for a moment both Lewis and Freud sit silently pondering this staggering news.  Details like this, woven into the fabric of a debate on the meaning of life and death, make for a fitting backdrop.

Freud is ill when Lewis visits him, and is in the terminal stages of oral cancer–an extremely painful, debilitating condition.  As the audience, we don’t learn until later how close Freud is to his death, but he candidly shares w51sD2KoN4CL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_ith Lewis that he has arranged with his physician to end his life soon.  He will not tolerate much longer his intolerable condition. He has suffered countless operations, the removal of his palate, most of his jaw and is forced to wear an ill-fitting oral prosthesis that he calls “the monster.”  These details make Freud’s sharp and cynical spars against the existence of God, more wrenching, more poignant. Later, Lewis helps Freud remove his oral prosthesis which is giving him excruciating pain. In the pathos of that moment, pain becomes the great equalizer.  The men are humbled and both are silenced by pain. Freud’s pain, alienation, and impending death becomes a metaphor for the pain, alienation, and impending death of a world about to enter the tragedy of World War II.

After the play, Eric Metaxes, the author of  the brilliant Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, and founder of IMG-20130112-00016Socrates in the City,  moderated a lively discussion between the playwright, the actors and the producer.  It was wonderful to see Eric again after a number of years, (we had met at a C.S. Lewis event in Oxford) and he helped introduce us to a bit of the background story of the play.  I would encourage anyone in the Los Angeles area to make a point to see this work while it is on the West Coast!  This would definitely be something to take your high school students to as well! You can find ticket information here.

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Loving Lincoln’s Laughter

Lincoln enjoying a chat with Union soldiers.
Lincoln enjoying a chat with Union soldiers.

When my son Solomon was studying architecture in Florence during his college years, his homecoming after a year abroad was a much anticipated event for our family.  My most distinctive memory driving up to San Francisco International Airport that day, was my youngest daughter’s comment, “Mom, I can’t wait to hear Sol’s laugh.  I’ve missed it so much.” It struck me then how much we are defined by our laughter or lack thereof.

In Steven Spielberg’s new movie, Lincoln, the director brings out what is a seminal part of Lincoln’s character–his humor.  Previous films have tended to depict the solemn Lincoln bearing the weight of a nation at war upon his shoulders, and while it is true that he did do that, and felt deeply the anguish of that responsibility, it was partly his love of laughter that enabled him to get through that tumultuous time.  What Spielberg does so brilliantly is display the complex and multifaceted character of Lincoln.  It wasn’t as though Lincoln wasn’t grieving with a nation watching the slaughter of tens of thousands of its sons–he was grieving with them because he knew their grief very personally.  Lincoln had buried his beloved Willie (11) during his tenure in office, and had lost his son Edward (4) in 1850. Lincoln bore the nation’s grief and carried their sorrows.

But part of Lincoln’s genius lay in his ability to laugh in times of loss and despair.  Much of Lincoln’s humor was self-deprecating (see an earlier post on this here), and he loved to poke fun at human foibles, contradictions and paradox.  Amidst the strain of countless people vying for a piece of him, Lincoln nearly always found time to spin a yarn, recall a humorous anecdote, or crack a witty joke.  From his cabinet members, to his fellow politicians, his family, and the telegraph boy in the midnight War Office, Lincoln lightened their load just a tad, and thereby bestowed worth and dignity on each individual.

Reinhold Neibuhr–the theologian of the late 19th and early 20th century, said “Humor is a prelude to faith and/ Laughter is the beginning of prayer.”  There is a paradoxical connection between humor and the divine.  Somehow, within our ability to recognize our conflicted natures, find humor in our contradictions, and accept the conundrums of life, there is the mysterious working of grace.  I think Lincoln understood that.

Be sure to see this film.  Take your children to see it. And in 2013 let’s purpose to live with a bit more humor and a lot more grace.  Happy New Year.