It’s possible, though far from certain, that the committed Anglican author C.S. Lewis met the celebrated psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in London just before the outbreak of the second world war. No matter, they meet here all right, in the King’s Head revival of Mark St Germain’s Broadway hit, Freud’s Last Session.
The place is 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead, where Freud had come to live with his wife and youngest daughter Anna after escaping the Nazi occupation of his native Austria. Today that house is the Freud Museum, a kind of secular shrine to the so-called father of psychoanalysis.
No matter whether the young Oxford academic who visited Freud here was or was not the eventual author of the Narnia chronicles. Such details become properly irrelevant to the author’s purpose – a confrontation between seeming embodiments of religious faith and the absence of it. There is a third, unseen, presence, Freud’s dog, described by him as “my emotional barometer.”
There is also a bracing lack of conversational foreplay, and we are soon into such questions as whether the murder of Moses forced the Israelites to bury their guilt under the cover of God, and why John Milton’s Paradise Lost gave Satan the best poetry.
Mortality hangs heavy in the air, not only in the form of the Germans’ imminent bombing raids, but also, just as pressingly, the agonising cancer mounting its own lethal assaults from within Freud’s mouth.
“My illness,” he proclaims to his visitor with a doomed defiance, “is irrelevant. I want to learn how a man of your intelligence could abandon truth and embrace an insidious lie.”
Although St. Germain has his two protagonists countering one another’s arguments with their own conflicting certainties, there remains a mutual curiosity, as if each is truly interested in how the other has reached his convictions. Fathers, inevitably, come under the hammer; particularly Freud’s, whom, the psychoanalyst declares, with a sudden and explosive passion, he absolutely hated.
He, with the playwright’s assistance, gives the strong impression of having transferred his patricidal urges from the human version to the supposedly divine. In one of several colourful and atheistic rants, he asks why he (Freud) should take seriously Christ’s claim to be God any more seriously than he should take his patients’ claims to be
Christ. “Love thy neighbour?” he spits as contemptuously as his failing health permits. “Turn the other cheek? With Hitler? I have two words for you, Professor Lewis. Grow up.”
In this confrontation, of course, Freud is the significantly older man, and St. Germain loses no opportunities for pointing up the irony of the supposed father of psychoanalysis being debunked by someone half his age with a fervent belief in the narratives of the Old Testament. Making a regular appearance in their passionate and articulate discussions of music and emotion is Freud’s observation – one not contested by Lewis – that “what people (i.e. patients) tell me is less important than what they do not tell me.”
When, nearing the end of the play – and the limits of Freud’s physical endurance – Lewis asks him sternly, “Where is your joy?”, the analyst slumps, coming to rest on the item of furniture forever associated with his process – the patient’s couch. Moments earlier, defenceless against his own decline, he had commanded Lewis to “Look into my mouth. You will see that hell has already arrived.”
This opens the door to a strange, lasting break from their wrangling, and presents a touching, soundless exchange between a dying shrink and a fervent Christian young enough to be his son. Well, not quite soundless since we hear all too clearly Freud’s screams as Lewis helps him with the medical device that has been inserted into his mouth to alleviate his condition. When silence does come, it is short-lived and replaced by the sound of aircraft overhead, dark and heavy-winged as some avenging angel.
Under Peter Darney’s direction, Sean Browne gives a touchingly humane performance as the not quite pious Lewis, with Julian Bird drawing profitably on his own experience as a psychiatrist to portray the daddy of them all.
Review by Alan Franks
The first of September, 1939. Sigmund Freud, the world-renowned psychoanalyst awaits the visit of soon to be legendary author C.S. Lewis on the day World War 2 is declared. Lewis, a former atheist turned Christian is expecting to be taken to task for his recent satirisation of Freud in a book. However, the impending war and Freud’s failing health catalyses a far deeper conversation as they clash about the existence of God, love, sex, and the meaning of life – only two weeks before Freud, with his doctor’s help, takes his own.
Through an imagined conversation between a psychiatrist on the brink and the academic who would go on to write books steeped in theology, the play gives a heightened tension to the age-old questions of faith, love, sex and existence itself.
Writer Mark St. Germain
Director Peter Darney
Set and Costume Designer Brad Caleb Lee
Sound design by Sam Glossop
Doctor Julian Bird and Sean Browne
18 January – 12 February 2022
King’s Head Theatre, 115, Upper Street, London N1 1QN