On “Freud’s Last Session”

5/8/11:  Last night’s (Saturday’s) choice could not have been more of a study in contrasts:  Unlike the huge Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center, Freud’s Last Session was staged down the street in the tiny Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater, tucked into the back of the Westside YMCA.  I’d actually stayed there on more than one occasion in my college years, when I first began to seek out New York theatre.  So apparently did Bob Hope and Tennessee Williams.  The theater itself is a modern restoration of the 1930’s Little Theater, which saw the premiere of Williams’ Summer and Smoke and the like.

Freud’s Last Session takes place in real time, with no intermission.  It is an hour and a half or so on September 3, 1939, a day signaling the outbreak of  British participation in World War II.  Joan and I easily saw it as a kind of thematic “sequel” to War Horse, still very much on our minds.  But this time the set was the very realistic confines of Sigmund Freud’s personal consulting study in London.  And there was a grand cast of only two wonderfully gifted actors:  Martin Rayner played a convincing Freud, dying of cancer, roughly two weeks before his planned suicide.   Mark H. Dold played the young Oxford professor, C. S. Lewis, who had not yet written his masterworks, The Narnia Chronicles, Mere Christianity, and The Screwtape Letters.    Lewis had come to pay his respects at Freud’s invitation, and to debate the existence of God and the meaning of life.

It is unlikely that such a meeting ever took place.  In his book, The Question of God:  C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, Harvard Professor Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. speculated that since Freud did indeed  meet with some unnamed young don at the time, it COULD have been Lewis.  And playwright Mark St. Germain took it from there.

The Freud of his play simply cannot abide that such a bright young thinker as C. S. Lewis, could possibly have been so foolish at age 33 as to convert from atheism to Christianity.   The play is essentially a conversational dialectic, each trying to persuade the other of the validity of his position.  Sound boring?  No, not a bit.   Both men respect the other, and each is infused with a feisty character and a fine sense of humor.  It’s like eavesdropping on a conversation between two of the greatest minds of the twentieth century.  “What people say is far less important than what they cannot say.” shouts Freud.  At one point, to emphasize a point, he slips out a “Thank God!” … to which Lewis replies, “What was that you said?”  “It’s a bad habit,” retorts Freud.   Lewis is quick to point out that despite his protestations of atheism, Freud is a collector of gods, his desk surrounded by statuettes of the various icons:  Greek, Roman, Norse, Buddhist and Christian.   Perhaps objects are safer than people, responds Freud, the world’s prime dealer in human foible.

Behind the issue of God or no God rests the ever-present threat of war:  radio announcements, and bombers roaring overhead.  As Freud points out in a line that might have come directly from War Horse, “We cannot survive without enemies.  They are as necessary as air.”   Lewis’ descriptions of his World War I battle experience were also for us an echo of the scenes we had witnessed the night before.  Both men carry gas masks, and are quick to use them when despite all the talk they are overcome by fear.  And fear, ultimately, lies ever present behind the whole argument. … Specifically, fear of death, and what Freud would call the fairytales we invent to stave it off.  It sounds odd, coming either from a devoutly religious convert, or from a man comfortable with the thought of his own suicide.  But neither position protects us from that primal fear of what might or might not happen when we die.  And of course that had to be the one thing most on Freud’s mind, since his suicide with the cooperation of his doctor was imminent.  He was suffering with an extremely painful cancer of the jaw, and had little doubt he would make that choice.  This of course incenses Mr. Lewis, with his moralistic sense of sin and right and wrong.  Ironically, the very excellent Mr. Rayner was also diagnosed last year with a possibly incurable cancer of the prostate which has already invaded his lymph system.  The prognosis is grim.  Nonetheless, he continues to invest everything he’s got into his performance as Freud, rendering a whole other layer of empathy.  And no doubt he derives positive health benefits from the effort as well, although running triathlons and a raw food diet are contributing to his extraordinary courage, stamina and spirit.

But enough of substance.   This is not in any way a dry and boring play of ideas.  This is a wonderfully conceived and beautifully acted conversation between two fascinating men who have as many needs and fears as the rest of us.  And ultimately, “thank God,” they have as few answers.  They, as we, use laughter and humor to make our peace with fear of the unknown.  “Humor,” says Freud, “is how we forget.”

P.S.  Given the actors, this would be a terrific Upstage show for Live Arts.  Among others, I can picture Ray Nedzel and Bob Button tearing it up.  I’m ordering the script.

NEXT UP:  Jerusalem

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