As you settle in for what is a brisk evening in the theater at Theater J’s production of Mark St. Germain’s “Freud’s Last Session,” it seems an odd place to be in these times, these days in the 21st century.
We’re in London, in a not-so-merry England, just as the nation and the world are about to embark on what will be World War II as Great Britain, its prime minister and king, will go on the radio air to announce a declaration of war on Nazi Germany after its invasion of Poland in 1939.
We’re in the study of Sigmund Freud, the great psychoanalyst who fled to London from Austria after the Nazi takeover. Freud was the man who ushered in the age of the couch, obsessions with dreams, buried memories and psycho-therapy with his revolutionary writings. He’s receiving an evening guest, the English writer C.S. Lewis, intellectual heavyweight and member of the Inklings, an Oxford literary group of the time that included J.R.R. Tolkien.
With war clouds—actually—overhead, Lewis and Freud embark upon what can be construed as a theological discussion: is there a God? It is that timeless question which even today is being constantly polled in terms of whether people believe in God or are a part of organized religion. To Freud, the profoundly atheistic professorial great man in history, the answer was always been a determined “no.” Lewis, who became an atheist or a disillusioned non-believer after the death from cancer of his first wife at an early age, has come full circle and is now a converted believer. He is in some ways a gentle fantasist whose belief in faith resounds nicely in his own literary works as in “The Chronicles of Narnia,” which enjoyed a recent comeback of popularity when his books were turned into movie box-office hits, beginning in 2005.
This is not a didactic debate. It is a clash, not warlike, but a clash, nevertheless—of different personalities, tastes, sensibilities and styles. Freud—as played brilliantly by the gifted Rick Foucheux—comes across as combative and impatient, stubborn and even arrogant, even as evidence of his battles with mouth cancer emerge, while Lewis, played with soft upper lip and erudition by Todd Scofield is seen as almost a classic Englishman of the period, intellectual, compassionate, a convert who never wavers.
The setting seems, in one sense, long ago. World War II seems ever more long ago, especially in an English setting, and a drawing room of books is less commonplace today in atmospheric terms. While the conversation is more in the nature of a debate, involving sentences that come almost in paragraph form, it is a rarity in today’s age of texting and twittering.
Yet, the talk is serious, it’s seen as a clash between sensibility and a kind of sensitivity and it also seems urgent. Freud, who is Jewish and dying, has an inkling of what is coming, and Lewis is sensitive to that, but neither really knows or can imagine the dimensions of the disaster that has been launched, the scope of the destruction and the breadth of death.
With all of that, the play is often funny, sometimes in sly fashion, sometimes in the telling of jokes, some of which fall flat, others which elicit genuine laughter in the audience. For instance, when Lewis arrives, he asks if should perhaps sit on the omni-present couch. Freud offers a chair instead.
This is a play about two human beings, creative as well as pragmatic men, talking about what it is to be human. Both in a way are experts—Freud through his ground-breaking examinations of the human psyche and human dreams, Lewis with his story-telling that shines not only with adventure but with a landscape full of roads and places, where moral decisions and issues of faith abound.
Periodically, aside from this debate, something happens. An air raid siren which sees Lewis armed with a gas mask and after-shocks from his World War I experience. Freud gruesomely and bloodily almost choking on his prosthetic for his cancerous mouth. News comes on the radio—the prime minister’s announcement of a declaration of war, the famous king’s speech. Lewis asks why Freud never listens to music for pleasure as a soothing salve for the grim world. Freud’s answer is that he cannot stand to listen to something that he does not understand, the hows and whys of creation.
These are not the sort of people, and the sort of conversation we hear today, almost anywhere except perhaps in a seminary or a literary book club. More’s the pity.
“Freud’s Last Session” runs through June 29.