On 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.
The 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 with 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 Socrates 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.