Titanic intellects battle in ‘Freud’s Last Session’

‘Freud’s Last Session’

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

An imagined encounter between a dying Sigmund Freud and a young C.S. Lewis frames the brisk and thought-provoking production of “Freud’s Last Session,” by Mark St. Germain, at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in its Studio Theatre.

St. Germain’s script, suggested by Harvard University Professor Dr. Armand Nicholi’s “The Question of God,” smartly explores the realms of science and faith as the father of modern psychotherapy, Freud, debates Lewis, the renowned British novelist who evolved from a youthful atheist to a passionate advocate for Christianity.

 The play, directed nimbly by Michael Evan Haney, features a fictitious face-to-face meeting between Freud (Barry Mulholland) and Lewis (Jim Butz) in Freud’s London study, which his beloved daughter Anna had set up as an exact replica of his offices in Vienna.   The encounter occurs on Sept. 3, 1939, the date on which Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany after Hitler’s army had invaded Poland two days earlier. It would be only 20 days later that Freud would die (committing suicide), having suffered from horribly painful oral cancer.

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As Freud sits in his study listening to BBC radio accounts of the unfolding conflict, in comes the young Clive Staples Lewis, 50 years Freud’s junior. In the course of the 85-minute play, performed without an intermission, Freud and Lewis circle each other like two intellectual wolves trying to get the drop on one another. Freud rails against Jesus, Buddha,  Mohammed and Moses as being either frauds or delusional, while Lewis counters with arguments from respected scholars who maintained that the story of Jesus was based on fact.

What appears on first blush as a clash of two geniuses, however, is belied by the ways that emotive experiences contributed to their religious and world views. The death of Lewis’ mother despite his ardent prayer, followed by early schooling at the hands of an atheist tutor, turned him against Christianity and a belief in God.    After his graduation from Oxford, though, Lewis’s resistance to God began to fade when he joined a circle of writers and essayists, including C. K. Chesterson and J. R. R. Tolkien, who embraced Christianity and greeted science with the same kind of skepticism that Freud had for religion.

One of the formative events in Freud’s life occurred when a group of anti-Semites spat at his father, pushed his hat off into the muddy street and called out an anti-Jewish slur.  The young Freud was humiliated when his father meekly picked up the hat from the mud and placed it quietly on his head without pushing back against his tormentors. Freud’s later indictments of biblical Judaism were by some critics ascribed to this incident, claiming Freud separated himself from his real-life father, whom he regarded as meek, by rejecting God, the ultimate “Father Figure” in the sky.

It is fascinating to observe Lewis and Freud find common ground both intellectually and emotionally. Frequent radio updates on the outbreak of World War II in Europe are sobering to both men who loath Adolf Hitler and the pagan, godless ideology of Nazism.  Both Lewis and Freud appreciate humor.  Freud’s book, “Jokes and Their Relation to the Subconscious” is cited by Lewis, who good-naturedly teases Freud that its jokes are not all that funny, while Freud punches back by noting that the phrase “British humor” is an oxymoron.

Freud’s strict, almost orthodox devotion of absolute rationality causes him to contemplate suicide rather than continue to face the increasing agony of his terminal mouth cancer.  Lewis feels real empathy for his senior colleague and tries to comfort Freud when he is afflicted by painful coughing spells, trying to talk Freud out of the “ultimate sin” of taking the life that God provided to him.

As the play nears its close, the two men have moved closer to a real appreciation and respect for one another’s sincere beliefs and intellectual integrity.  The rationalist Freud shares with Lewis the value of rigorous intellectual discipline.  Lewis causes Freud to take a break from pure reason to enjoy emotional escapes through listening to music and giving his always active mind a rest.

“Freud’s Last Session,” directed adroitly by Michael Evan Hanley, is not only an intellectual treat but a theatrical one as well. A special shout-out is deserved for scenic designers Peter and Margery Spack for their spot-on perfect replication of Sigmund Freud’s famous study, with his shelves groaning with books and his desk displaying small statues of historic and religious figures. The setting contributed mightily to building a realistic backdrop for this imaginary meeting.