Freud is known as the man who founded modern psychoanalysis and is famous for his startling assertions, telling the world that we all want to have sex with our moms and murder our dads. C.S. Lewis captivated innumerable imaginations by creating the world of Narnia wrought with Lions, Witches and one magical wardrobe. The play at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater called Freud’s Last Session, attempts to pit these two great minds against each other when an elderly Freud summons a young C.S. Lewis to his office in England. Unfortunately the resulting play is dismally lacking in any type of intellectual insight or creativity the likes of which its two constituent characters are famous for.
The year is 1939 and the famous Sigmund Freud has summoned the not-yet-known professor C.S. Lewis to his study to discuss Lewis’s sudden change in religious beliefs. Freud is troubled that Lewis, once an atheist like himself, suddenly “abandoned truth” and converted to Christianity. Lewis, expecting to be ridiculed for satirizing Freud in his recent book, is taken by surprise at Freud’s choice of topic. Their discussion of the nature of god ushers in a Pandora’s box of hot topics such as love, the human experience, war, and sex. The two intellectuals spin out ideas of atheism and faith in a serious conversation sprinkled carefully (and often cleverly) with comic tidbits.
But Freud’s Last Session is ultimately an exposition. The characters’ relationship is purely one between two schools of ideas and not between two people. Freud and Lewis become archetypal mascots for their intellectual parties – their conversation deriving its intrigue simply from the juxtaposition of these two philosophies and never from the fact that there are two humans in the same room with these ideas. They move like chess pieces – strategically stepping around a board of god, sex, war, and human emotion, but remain as incessantly wooden as pawns when examined outside of their dialectic.
This is not to say the human component of these characters was ignored, in fact it is quite central to their conversation, but the effort to breath life into these people feels perfunctory at best and remains relentlessly subordinate to the intellectual mission of the playwright. It was not helped by Martin Rayner‘s caricature portrayal of grumpy old Freud and Mark H. Dold‘s soap opera take on Lewis.
However, all this ain’t a deal breaker! I’m totally down for two people (albeit somewhat cardboard people) to get up and unwind a purely idea driven spectacle, as long as the ideas are expounded cleverly and given meaning by the way the playwright decides to pull them out of his back pocket and lay them out. I guess what I mean is this: If you write a play that essentially is going to be a scripted debate, then the form of that debate, the way the ideas emerge and what they emerge out of better be pretty clever and add another layer of meaning to the conversation. Anyone can transcribe a dorm room conversation about the existence of god, but it takes a skilled writer to organize these ideas into a medley that is worth having two actors get up and perform.
And for a play that puts so much stock in its intellectual exposition Freud’s Last Session falls short yet again. Rather than the more diplomatic summary given above consider this, more terse (and arguably more accurate) synopsis: Spiritually enlightened intellectual C.S. Lewis visits crotchety, cancer-ridden, atheist Freud to do him the favor of revealing to him how rationality does not preclude religiosity. I have to say it would be equally dissatisfying, if not downright uncomfortable, to have a senior Freud beating up a younger, wide-eyed and converted C.S. Lewis with ideas of neurosis and infantile religious belief, but prospective audience members of Freud’s Last Session should make sure to do their Freud reading before attending the play. Sans any prior acquaintance with Freud’s actual texts, audience members may walk away with a skewed idea of what the man actually stood for.
The play paints the father of psychoanalysis as a man obstinate and fixed in his ideas, interested in examining everyone’s inner thoughts but his own, and bitter from the hardship the world has shown him. Conversely C.S. Lewis is a bright young professor committed to rational analytical thinking and yet open minded enough to question his own beliefs, admit he was wrong in his atheism, and be patient enough to indulge this bitter old intellectual in his bullying and (lamentably fruitless) questioning. The play exposes some of Freud’s more shocking ideas (the sexual dynamic of a young girl sitting on her father’s lap) in a lamentably half-formed context and doesn’t afford nearly enough time for C.S. Lewis to form satisfying whole thoughts.
Perhaps my dissatisfaction with Freud’s Last Session is because the premise is so promising. It an extremely interesting mission for a play to embark on, but one sits in the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater and seems to wait for ninety minutes for Freud and Lewis to really “get into it.” They scratch the surface of many really interesting questions, but then seem to move on to new territory before exploring them to any satisfying degree. The effect is a sort of appetizer sampler of tantalizing philosophic tidbits, but by the end of the play you are still hungry and feel like you’ve been gypped an entrée.
The theater is a great space. It is perfectly intimate and has the feel of a decked-out living room, which makes it a joy to see a play of the scale of Freud’s Last Session in. The set design was also admirable; many cleverly placed and meaningful trinkets adorn Freud’s office – worldly art, figurines of ancient gods and spiritual leaders.
Ultimately, if you are interested in the nature of god, his existence, or what the origin of our romantic impulses are, you are better off getting yourself a local Sunday school teacher and a Nietzsche-crazed 16 year old together to chat– it’ll be just as fulfilling and a much less expensive.