Theater Review: “Freud’s Last Session” — Dramatically Repressed
When it comes to dramatic debate, balanced parry and thrust are paramount; here the argument between the two is not played out fair and square.
Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain, suggested by The Question of God by Armand M. Nicholi, M.D., Jr. Directed by Jim Petosa. Presented by New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, MA, through May 22.
By Ian Thal
London, 1939: Neville Chamberlain’s promise of “peace in our time” has collapsed as Germany blitzkriegs across Poland. The United Kingdom has just entered the war; Londoners are preparing for the aerial bombing to come. Eighty-three year-old Sigmund Freud (Joel Colodner), a recent refugee from the Anschluss (the topic of Israeli playwright Savyon Liebrecht’s A Case Named Freud), awaits a visitor: forty year-old Oxford professor C.S. Lewis (Shelley Bolman). Lewis fears the Viennese psychiatrist has summoned him out of a pique of anger. He had lampooned the father of psychoanalysis in his 1933 allegorical novel The Pilgrim’s Regress. Ironically, Freud is so used to ridicule from sexually repressed moralists and conservatives like Lewis that he took no notice. He is, at least on the surface, simply interested in talking about Lewis’ scholarly work, A Preface to Paradise Lost.
Playwright Mark St. Germain is rushing chronology in terms of bringing the two together. Lewis’ work on Milton would not appear until 1942 — after Freud’s death — but the play’s discussion turns out not to be about Milton’s epic (surprise), but an uninspired retread of the usual debate between atheism and Christianity. Sparks fly, clever jokes are made, arguments are outlined, but these two historical figures are not about to change (no deathbed conversion for Freud to Anglicanism; no sexual liberation for Lewis), so it is hardly a spoiler to note that the play ends not with a psychoanalytic catharsis but with a gentle aporia.
Freud’s Last Session dovetails two marketable trends in the new play sector: the budget-saving single-set two-hander meets the imagined dramatic encounter between well-known historical figures. There’s also some cross-platform media tie-in action, specifically Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.’s 2002 book The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and The Meaning of Life, and the WGBH-produced 2004 television adaption. The biases in the source material that St. Germain relied on are apparent. Nicholi, a psychiatrist formerly affiliated with Harvard Medical School and MGH, was a founding board member of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization that lobbies against LGBT rights, legal abortion, divorce, and pornography.
St. Germain does provide some clever banter for his protagonists, but his attempts at being even-handed come off as silly. Freud is one of the giants of 20th century intellectual history whose influence on scholars continues to be felt across many disciplines — his writings on religion form only a small part of his thinking. In contrast, Lewis, outside of his serious literary studies, is best remembered as the author of Christian apologetics and The Chronicles of Narnia. His religious thinking was aimed at a popular audience: his writing spawned aphorisms fit for public transit advertisements but lacked the intellectual rigor of academic theology.
When it comes to dramatic debate, balanced parry and thrust are paramount; here the argument between the two is not played out fair and square. The play blatantly misrepresents psychoanalysis’ aim, suggesting that it wants to somehow remove the restraining injunctions of the super-ego. Freud set out to modulate unhealthy conflicts — to turn hysterical unhappiness into normal unhappiness. The text also misrepresents Freud’s fascination for the idols of dead religions. Lewis suggests that the attraction is a subconscious yearning for the divine, rather than a clinical interest in how primal urges are sublimated into symbols of civilization. St. Germain does not grant Freud a rebuttal on these points. Given the setting, Lewis’ optimism that good will somehow result from the evils committed by the Nazis rings dangerously hollow when addressed to Freud, who had more than a faint inkling of the impending Holocaust on the continent he had recently fled. Freud was under no illusion that his atheism would protect him from the virulence of European anti-Semitism.
New Rep director Jim Petosa and his actors do their best within the constraints of a script that falls flat. Bolman makes Lewis likable enough; one almost feels sorry that his smug lack of self-reflection blinds him to the obvious fact that he is intellectually out of his league. Colodner portrays a Freud who is mentally and physically full of vigor despite the severe pain caused by a malignant oral cancer; numerous surgeries (thirty-three in total) failed to remove it from his body. If there is any fault in Colodner’s performance it is that he is too energetic. Surely even a man with a mind as active as Freud’s would betray more physical infirmity then what we see here.
Ironically, the best aspects of the production are its design elements. David Remedios has created an impressive a dream-like sound collage that greets the audience as they take their seats: echo-drenched snippets from addresses by King George VI, Chamberlain, and BBC radio announcers, as well as the studio orchestra. One cannot easily decipher much from the sounds, although it does help the audience situate ourselves into a world on the precipice of a six-year long war. This aural cloud reappears in a less distorted form every time Freud turns on the radio. Cristina Todesco’s set design is particularly imaginative. There’s a fairly realistic recreation of Freud’s office with his famous couch and collection of antiquities, flanked on each side by open books and unbound manuscripts. Perhaps these symbolize Freud’s archive? The Freudian volumes the Nazis burnt? Perhaps the books that Lewis would go on to write? But the most striking visuals are some corkscrew arches that suggest the steps of a spiral staircase. Any reader of The Interpretation of Dreams would recognize this image as a symbol of sexual intercourse. Could it be that Todesco is giving Freud the last word in his last session?
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.