Sigmund Freud is, like it or not, part of pop culture from the stereotype of the bearded-German-accented psychiatrist to the mere mention of "penis envy" or Freudian slip. C.S. Lewis has his place in pop culture as well, as part of children's English literature--with a few Narnia novels recently committed to the silver screen. Yet C.S. Lewis was also serious thinker and in "Freud's Last Session," playwright Mark St. Germain constructs a tightly wound polite confrontation between a gloomy atheist of Jewish descent and an optimistic Christian thinker.
Running until 10 February 2013 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, this play is about a meeting that Freud reportedly had with a young Oxford professor. The professor wasn't identified, but what if it had been Lewis? Dr. Armand M. Nicholl Jr., a clinical professor psychiatry at Harvard Medical tackles that possibility in his 2002 book "The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life," and if you (like me) haven't read the book, St. Germain has provided his summation in a lively intellectual sword fight between two great minds of last century. Think of them as the dark knight for atheists and the white knight for Christianity. This isn't a commentary on their race or ethnicity.
The year is 1939 and Europe is already in turmoil. The U.S. won't enter World War II until the very last month of 1941, but Europe was already involved. Italy had invaded Ethiopia (1935), the Spanish Civil War was ending, Japan had invaded China just two years earlier (1937) and continued on into the Soviet Union and Mongolia (1938). On 1 September 1939, Germany (and Slovakia) attacked Poland. Two days later, on 3 September 1939, France, Great Britain (and the British Commonwealth of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Australia) declared war against Germany.
St. Germain chooses this very day for the two men to meet: Freud is 83 years old and is painfully dying of inoperable cancer; Professor Lewis is 40 and converted from atheism less than a decade earlier at 33. Freud's cancer had first been detected in 1923 and was caused by his oral fixation--initially cigarettes and eventually cigars. Although advised to quit, he did not or could not.
By September 1939, the cancer had spread and the pain was nearly unbearable. Judd Hirsch plays Freud as a man whose mind is darkened by physical discomfort and the exile. Since taking control of Germany in 1933, the Nazis had been burning books, including those written by Freud. In 1938 Austria was under Nazi control. Freud and his family left Vienna in stages that year and settled in North London. Not all of Freud's family was able to escape the Nazis. His four sisters would die in the concentration camps.
C.S. Lewis was an Irishman who was born in Belfast to the daughter of an Anglican priest. He went to Oxford University on scholarship in 1916. As an Irishman, coming to England had been a culture shock to him. In 1917, he left college life and volunteered for the British Army and fought in the Somme Valley, France trenches where he lost two friends and was wounded by friendly fire. Lewis had made a pact with a friend--the survivor would care for the other's family. Lewis lived, his friend Paddy Moore, did not. Paddy's mother, Jane, became like a mother to Lewis (his real mother died when he was a child and his father was distant). Some speculated, she was also his lover.
St. Germain sets the tone of the play with Freud listening to the BBC radio transmission in his study. Although we are in North London, the room is a replica of his study in Vienna, courtesy of his daughter Anna. Antiquities clutter the book-filled room. The radio announcer tells us "There is still no official response to the Prime Minister's ultimatum that all troopers be immediately withdrawn from Poland."
Lewis is late due to the relative chaos of trains leaving London to take children and hospital patients to the countryside for safety. Fans of Narnia will find this scenario familiar because if figures in Lewis' first book.
Freud's wife and housekeeper have gone to find canned goods in preparation for the shortages of war. Freud's doctor will be arriving soon, so the two do not have much time together and Freud, due to his health and age, doesn't feel that postponing this little meeting is feasible.
Lewis has come at Freud's request and guesses the topic is his "Pilgrim's Regress" that might have "offended" Freud. Lewis satirizes Freud with Sigismunde, a character of "bombastic self importance." Lewis apologizes quickly if Freud took it as a personal attack, but he can't apologize for "taking issue with your world view that completely contradicts my own."
Yet Freud didn't bother to read Lewis' book; he only received a report from his Cambridge friend. Not the best research methodology and Freud's lack of first-hand knowledge puts Lewis at a distinct disadvantage. He must concede by explaining himself to Freud whereas Lewis has read Freud and is already equipped with an informed opinion--Lewis makes a quick joke about it. Freud the reveals he has read Lewis' essay on "Paradise Lost" and acknowledges it was "quite well written with many original observations."
I don't know where you might stand on matters of religion. I am religious and believe in a God and found comfort during dark times by listening to Lewis' tales of Narnia even though I am not Christian. Unlike Lewis' fellow Inkling, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis gave prominent roles to women, even if his characterizations also had a slightly dated view of them and there's more than a hint of racism involved in his Chronicles of Narnia. I am not a fan of Freud and feel he had a troubling view of women. Penis envy? Really? When women are more likely to be multi-orgastic?
Yet both men had questionable relationships with women. With Freud, he seemed closer to his daughter Anna than to his wife and Anna would, as the smart daughter, devote her life to her father. Lewis had a curious relationship with his deceased friend's mother but would much later marry a woman quite a bit younger than himself. St. Germain touches on Lewis and Mrs. Moore in the play but Lewis plays the gentleman so the conversation doesn't get down and dirty.
I've always pictured Lewis as a fatherly or almost grandfatherly figure based on his Narnia books. He was 5-foot-10 3/4 and 180 when he was inducted into the military in 1917. Tom Cavanagh is a bit taller and about the right age (49). Judd Hirsch is six-foot and younger than Freud at 77. Sigmund Freud was only 5-foot-8.
Hirsch's Freud seems to be oppressed by the formality of his clothes--he wears a heavy dark three-piece suit. His Freud's attempts at humor fail. Cavanagh's Lewis stands taller than Freud, with an open stance and his pale face shines like a hopeful light set against the gloom of both war and a battle of faith against atheism.
St. Germain doesn't give clear victory to either side and both men thrust and parry without resorting to strong language or violence and director Tyler Marchant respects this balance. Considering the showboating that could occur with Hirsch, Tyler modulates the personalities on stage and I was left with the distinct impression that Hirsch was considerably shorter than Cavanagh, which is, at least according to IMDB, not the case. They are the same height. The extent of Freud's illness is a mitigating factor in Lewis' attack and we see this clearly in Cavanagh's portrayal. They both feel the threat of the coming war although Freud doesn't seem aware of the possibility of post-traumatic stress syndrome in Lewis, what was called shell shock at the time. But this seems to inform Cavanagh's performance.
St. Germain leaves us with the darkening future of both Europe and Freud. The play ends with Freud listening to the BBB radio broadcast of King George announcing Great Britain's entry into war and asking for God's blessing. Freud then listens to the BBC Orchestra playing Percy Whitlock's "Ballet of the Wood Creatures," something he might not have done before his conversation with Lewis. This had an added poignancy; Whitlock would only survive the war by one year, dying in 1946, but the very title of his composition should suggest Narnia to Lewis fans.
In real life, Freud requested an overdose of morphine from his fellow doctor and friend Max Schur and on 22 September 1939, he was dead.
"Freud's Last Session" is not light fare, but for those interested in either man or in the issues of love, science and religion, St. Germain's play is given a powerful production and in its west coast premiere, Cavanagh and Hirsch give revealing, nuanced performances that are a special rare treat. "Freud's Last Session" continues until 10 February at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.