Theater

Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain, Barrington Stage Company

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Mark H. Dold and Martin Rayner in Freud's Last Session by Mark St. Germain, photo Kevin Sprague
Mark H. Dold and Martin Rayner in Freud's Last Session by Mark St. Germain, photo Kevin Sprague

June 10 through July 3 at BSC’s Stage 2

Freud’s Last Session
by Mark St. Germain
(suggested by Dr. Armand Nicholi’s The Question of God, which was presented as a two-part PBS television presentation in 2004.)
directed by Tyler Marchant

Mark H. Dold – C. S. Lewis
Martin Rayner – Sigmund Freud

Mark St. Germain’s Freud’s Last Session, which is receiving its permiere at the Barrington Stage Company this month was inspired by Armand Nicholi’s valuable little book, The Question of God (2002). Dr. Nicholi, a practising psychiatrist, teaches at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital and has also taught an undergraduate course on Freud for many years at Harvard College. Written in very simple, clear prose and taking nothing for granted in the reader, even that the reader knows who Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis were, he compares their thinking on the existence of God and other related matters, in such a way as to suggest a debate, between the two. Lewis, a generation younger than Freud, was influenced by him during the earlier part of his life, when he professed atheistic beliefs. In The Question of God, which I did not know before seeing this production and which is readable by almost anybody, Dr. Nicholi accomplishes an extremely important task with unparalleled success: he demonstrates that it is by no means necessary to believe in God, but that it is necessary to define one’s beliefs and to think about them in a rational way. This book is packaged in such a way, that the buyer might take it for a run-of-the-mill book on faith and religion without being necessarily drawn in by the names Lewis or Freud. However, seeing that it resulted in a PBS documentary, it may ultimately have succeeded only in preaching to the converted. How can a mere book strike a wedge into the uncritical beliefs of evangelicals or the Christian Right?

Almost as a whigmaleery, Nicholi mentions a story about an unidentified Oxford don who visited Dr. Freud shortly before his death and speculates whether that don might have been C. S. Lewis. He has his own ideas about how the father of psychiatry and the scholar of English medieval and renaissance literature might have had a fruitful conversation. Lewis published such a wide range of writing, that everyone has his own concept of  Lewis. Therefore there will be many different surmises about what was said in Freud’s office in the unlikely event that such a meeting actually did take place. I have my own ideas. Nicholi stresses that Lewis was deeply influenced by Freud at a time when his theories were all the rage in British intellectual circles. At this time Lewis and his “second best friend,” Owen Barfield, were in constant contact at Oxford, both at the beginning of academic/literary careers, and in constant debate about questions of God and human consciousness. The nature and function of Coleridgian Imagination, mentioned by Nicholi without much explanation, was crucial in the good-natured, but intense discussions between the two Inklings. Freud, through his studies of levels of human consciousness, on the one hand, and his studies of the history of religion on the other, became in essence an archaeologist of the human mind, or consciousness. Similarly, Owen Barfield studied the history of consciousness through the history of words and poetic language. Lewis resisted the Teutonic idealism behind Barfield’s method, which eventually brought Barfield into the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, but in the end he had to credit Barfield for the sense of history he gained from their discussions. This awareness that words and ideas were generated in long-past, but still powerful historical contexts became crucial to his mature critical thought, as in The Discarded Image, Studies in Words, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. In this way Freud’s and Lewis’ methods as spiritual archaeology had an almost organic affinity, and, if either of them chose to admit it, they could have had a rich, ongoing conversation, just as voluminous as his conversations with Barfield and others, as they walked, copies of the Iliad or some other classical text tucked in their pockets, from pub to pub, all around the environs of Oxford.

Another interesting aspect of a Freud/Lewis relationship is the extent to which Lewis was a maker of his own reality, either through debate with colleagues and students, or through his popular writings on religious belief, in which he set forth a basic system of Christian belief, rather like a basic minimal vocabulary of the English language. In this way, Lewis was ripe for psychoanalysis. If Freud had analyzed him, of course, we can only hope that he would have published it. Otherwise, we have to do our own work, following the example of an equally great critic, Lionel Trilling, or others of his persuasion

In Freud’s Last Session, Mark St. Germain decided to take Dr. Nicholi’s speculation literally. Cobbling together passages of The Question of God, and other quotations from the two interlocutors, he managed to create a egregiously crude and maddeningly tedious entertainment, which nonetheless held one’s interest beyond the half-way point, until the endless wrangling, often degenerating into ill-mannered (and improbable) shouting matches, became as painfully irritating as the prosthesis in Dr. Freud’s mouth. The problem is that the St. Germain failed to understand or was simply uninterested in the fact that the contrast of ideas and methods in Nicholi’s book had some real purpose. In his treatment, it becomes an empty tangle of unordered assertions. Their dialogue reminded me of a shell game, in which there is really nothing under any of the walnut shells. The operator may look under one or the other and smile archly, conning us into believing that there is something valuable somewhere. The play becomes infuriating, once we realize the deception.

The production did about the best one possibly can with this weak material. The set was evocative, handsome, and for the most part convincing, although all too much of Freud’s renowned collection looked as if it had been borrowed from the thrift store down North Street. Martin Rayner gave a masterful performance as Freud. He looked right, and his intensity was absorbing, although the script made him shout and bluster far too much. Mark H. Dold seized and kept our attention as C. S. Lewis, but he was not nearly as convincing. Mr. Rayner clearly studied  his model in some depth, as many actors do, when they play a historical figure, but Mr. Dold neither looked nor behaved like Lewis in any recognizable way. Odd, considering that recordings and many photographs and memoirs of Lewis survive. His Lewis is more the generic young, well-bred English intellectual you might see in a PBS mini-series. At one point Freud refers to Lewis as an Englishman, which he most certainly was not. He was born in Belfast of Welsh and Scottish parents, a point Nicholi stresses, since Lewis’ early school years were extremely unpleasant and led to an intense hatred of England and the English. It has been said that Lewis retained a slight Irish accent all his life.

St. Germain brings on the usual dramatic devices to make his hodge-podge dramatic and suspenseful. We hear Chamberlain’s declaration of war on the radio, a false air raid warning, etc. etc. The visceral aspects of Freud’s illness and his suffering are made repulsively vivid. We might feel more sympathy and involvement if we were spared some of the physical details.

Have you ever noticed that in successful plays and films about matters of belief, God is not mentioned directly all that often? Not so here. For all that, Lewis seemed pretty consistently to come out second best, as if for him, as well as for Freud, who points it out, God were no more than a manner of speaking, a bad habit.

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