“Freud’s Last Session,” the off-Broadway play by Mark St. Germain, has become something of sleeper hit in recent months, playing to sold-out audiences and twice extending its performance calendar. Several celebrities have been spotted attending the play, including Woody Allen, who reportedly gave the play a standing ovation.
Neither a musical nor a star-studded production, the play’s popularity is unexpected for a drama of ideas so unashamedly philosophical in its tone. Inspired by the book, The Question of God, by Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., “Freud’s Last Session” depicts a conversation between the young C.S. Lewis and an ailing Sigmund Freud. (Freud is known to have met with a young Oxford professor after his immigration to England.) The play’s drama heightens when viewers find that this encounter between minds takes place on September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war against Germany. The characters pause intermittently in the script, tuning into radio broadcasts for updates on Germany’s occupation of Poland, and even don their gas masks after hearing an air raid siren.
What keeps Mark St. Germain’s play from becoming a philosophical parlor game are the vivid tension of Freud’s advancing cancer, the prospect of falling bombs, and the intellectual weight of the questions the two minds debate. The play opens on Freud’s home office in London, which his daughter Anna has made to resemble his office in Vienna. Straight away, we can see that Freud is a man out of his element, an exile. Supposedly summoned to the elderly Freud because of a shared interest in Paradise Lost, Freud chides Lewis, suggesting Milton gave his best lines to Satan.
Though Mark H. Dold puts on a convincing Lewis, it is Martin Rayner as Freud who gives viewers the notion they may be looking at the great psychoanalyst himself. Surrounded by statues of Greek and Roman gods on his desk, Freud has decided that God does not exist, and yet never gives up on his search. Though the play strives for argumentative balance between the skills of the two minds, the scales do seem to weigh slightly in Lewis’ favor. Lewis reveals he has already changed sides on the matter once already, converting from atheism to Christianity at age 33, leaving the elderly Freud as the play’s more dynamic and unpredictable character.
Viewers familiar with arguments for the existence of God will find the “usual suspects” discussed, and a particular focus on the problem of evil. Freud’s enquiry about a God who allows suffering is deeply underscored by the fact that he suffers throughout the script, bleeding from the mouth due to advanced oral cancer. And the background of the war makes very clear that questions about God and morality are not just intellectual fodder, but ideas that play out in the real world.
St. Germain deftly steers the plot of “Freud’s Last Session” toward the ideas that reveal the most about the two men’s characters. Through the course of the play, we learn a good deal of the biography of Lewis, including what experiences and insights led him to faith in Christ. It was partly his relationship with J.R.R. Tolkien that led the scholar of literature to consider myths in a new light, as humanity’s way of expressing truths that would otherwise remain indescribable.
Most interesting, at least to this viewer, are the play’s forays into the topics of humor and music. Lewis takes notice that Freud turns off the radio after every news report, just as the interlude music begins to play. He suggests, and Freud concedes, that music works on the psyche in a way that is not entirely rational. And so Freud refuses to submit to music, being against on principle the idea that something should move you without your reasoned consent.
In a 2008 essay in The Guardian, British writer Lisa Appignanesi chronicled dubious portrayals of the psychoanalyst in literature. From Virginia Woolf to Nabakov, artists in the past tended to view the field as a sort of “shamanism” plied by practitioners who took the complexities of an individual’s inner life and turned them into case studies. More recently, however, artists have come to see the psychoanalyst as an ally in seeking the underlying truth beneath the surface of things.
Quoting the novelist Hanif Kureishi, Appignanesi writes that psychoanalysts are also “readers of minds and signs.” They work with the “underneath or understory: fantasies, wishes, lies, dreams, nightmares—the world beneath the world, the true stories beneath the false.”
Freud and Lewis take turns throughout “Freud’s Last Session” becoming each other’s patients for psychoanalysis—a pursuit that sometimes leads to frustration, but always clarifies both their motives as they deliver their philosophical arguments. As the arguments of the play move more deeply into the men’s personal biographies, we start to see their commonalities. Indeed, the main satisfaction of the play is the irony of two extraordinary intellects arguing religious belief on rational grounds, at the same time trying to uncover each other’s hidden motives, getting at the “world beneath the world.”
At one point, Lewis remarks that it is madness to think the two could settle such questions in an afternoon. Freud replies that the greater madness would be not to think about such things at all.
“Freud’s Last Session” is currently playing at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater in New York City.
Allison Elliott lives and works in New York City. She is a regular contributor of book reviews to The Adirondack Review.