Volume 20, Number 38 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | February 2 — 8, 2011
FREUD’S LAST SESSION
Written by Mark St. Germain
Directed by Tyler Marchant
At the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater (10 W. 64th St.)
Tues. at 7pm, Wed.-Fri. at 8pm. Sat. at 2 & 8pm. Sun. at 3 & 7pm.
For tickets ($65), call 212-352-3101
Photo by Kevin Sprague
L to R: Mark H. Dold as C.S. Lewis and Martin Rayner as Sigmund Freud.
Lewis & Freud team up, for takes on God
Play sees icons spar over the ultimate question
BY JERRY TALLMER
It just slipped out. A Freudian slip, you might say.
“Psychoanalysis doesn’t profess the arrogance of religion, thank God.” — declares the bearded 79-year-old free-thinking pattern-smasher who will lose his own long, frightful battle with oral cancer before the Luftwaffe’s bombs stop falling on hapless Poland.
“What did you say?” asks Professor Sigmund Freud’s visitor, 41-year-old writer C.S. Lewis, who has fought and lost (or won, depending upon how you look at it) a long battle of another kind: with God.
“A bad habit,” confesses Dr. Freud. “I’ve tried to break it all my life. ‘Thank God.’ ‘With God’s grace.’ ‘God help us.’ I was raised by a devout Roman Catholic nanny who dragged me to church every Sunday. I learned to genuflect, make the sign of the cross, all the obsessional neuroses.”
It is at this point, early in the evening, that we realize we’re in for a sparkling fencing match — a debate over the existence or non-existence of God — by way of “Freud’s Last Session,” a play that has returned for an open-ended engagement at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater (where it sold out all last season).
Mark St. Germain has set this imagined event in Freud’s study, Hampstead, London, on September 3, 1939 — two days after Hitler’s invasion of Poland and 26 days before Freud’s death on September 29 of that year.
Want a further taste of the rapier’s give and take?
LEWIS: The wish that God doesn’t exist can be just as powerful as the belief He does. I’d even say choosing to disbelieve may be stronger evidence for His existence, since you have to be aware of what you’re denying.
FREUD: I deny the existence of Unicorns. Therefore, they exist?
If you can take that in without laughing out loud, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.
Playwright St. Germain — a husky, genial and thoughtful man in his mid-50s (bearded, not like Freud, but like Santa Claus) found his inspiration for this two-character clash of beliefs in a book called “The Question of God” (Simon & Schuster, 2003), by a Harvard Medical School professor named Armand M. Nicholi Jr. It drew upon the separate writings of Freud and Lewis on God, sex, existence, and other such matters.
“I don’t think the two men ever met in real life,” says St. Germain. “It was a dreadful time for Freud. Himself near death. The start of World War II.”
Why not bring the two men face to face on stage? T’aint what you do, it’s the way that you do it.
FREUD: I’m convinced. Christ was a lunatic.
LEWIS: That was my first option….
FREUD: Which of Christ’s “teachings” are even realistic? Love our neighbor as ourselves? It’s a foolish impossibility! Turn the other cheek? Should Poland turn the other cheek to Hitler?
To this auditor, St. Germain’s dramatization comes down a bit more on Freud’s side than Lewis’s. May one ask, sir, if you were raised in any particular faith?
“Sure,” says the playwright. “I was raised Roman Catholic, but I no longer have anything to do with the Church.”
If, Mr. St. Germain, you met — had ever met — C.S. Lewis, would you argue with him?
A nod that says Yes. After a moment: “I’d argue with both of them. I think Freud really liked to stir people up. When he first fled Germany for England, people thought of him as this lovable old man. But then he wrote ‘Moses and Monotheism’ — in which Moses is murdered by the Jews in their religiosity — and people said: ‘Don’t publish it.’ “
But Freud did. It came out the year he died and caused a commotion.
May one further ask a playwright if he’s ever been shrunk?
Seen a psychiatrist.
“Oh, sure. A number of times. I wouldn’t say I’m a strict Freudian, but….”
The play “raises issues,” St. Germain feels, “that you don’t normally think about until something enormous happens in your own life.”
“When my wife and I were first married, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. Fortunately, Maggi came through it — we’ve been married 30 years this year — but that was something that forced me to do a lot of thinking about life and values.”
And when there is no happy ending?
FREUD: My daughter Sophie died of Spanish Flu at twenty-seven. A mother, a wife, snatched from her family! But this was God’s plan if only I was smart enough to understand it? My grandson Heinele was killed by tuberculosis at five years old! Five! What a brilliant plan of God’s to murder him! I wish cancer attacked my brain instead. Then, perhaps, I could hallucinate there is a God and seek vengeance.
Well, old Sigmund, you have your vengeance here and now, in an Off-Broadway theater in a YMCA on West 64th Street, New York City.
“Freud’s Last Session” had a world premiere by the Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in June 2009. It became the longest running show in that company’s history.
“People came either through word of mouth or because of their fascination with Freud. We got one letter from a young couple who had seen the show, gone to dinner and during dinner had switched sides. Before that evening the wife had believed in God.”
The play opened here at the Marjorie S. Deane on July 22 of last year, and had to go on hiatus in November only because of a prior booking at that
venue. It is now back, in an open-ended run directed by Tyler Marchant, with the same two actors as always: Mark H. Dold as C.S. Lewis and Martin Rayner as Sigmund Freud.
“Every time we do the play, they bring something new to it,” says Mark St. Germain. Also something that may change a mind or two.