Armand Nicholi’s book The Question of God is a comparison of the thought of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis. Mark St. Germain’s play Freud’s Last Session is an imagined meeting between the two men in London in 1939, inspired by Nicholi’s book. During their encounter, they debate topics ranging from sexuality to the existence of God. A lesser production of this play could easily turn into “talking heads”, but director Robert Mandel, actors Martin Rayner and Martyn Stanbridge (and the rest of the crew & designers, of course), have made this a fast-moving, engaging 80 minutes.
While the book offers a deeper more sustained look at the contrasting views of the two men, what makes Freud’s Last Session valuable is experiencing these arguments as more than intellectual sparring. In an era of anonymous argument-by-meme, it almost brought tears to my eyes to watch an actual “point/counterpoint” done in good faith. This is face-to-face, two humans talking and listening, with all their foibles and humanity, front and center. Freud is in the last, painful stages of cancer, and Lewis struggles with PTSD (he served on the Western Front) at the opening of World War II. They even catch glimpses of the skeletons in each others’ closets. So, as in real life, their arguments take place in an emotional context and are very much developments of their personal histories. As many people have pointed out, we don’t necessarily believe what we believe for purely intellectual reasons, and the play does a great job of manifesting this. Perhaps best of all, both are at times willing to say something only honest and intelligent people are able to say: I don’t know.
If titans like these didn’t have it all ironed out, then there’s small chance you or I will (speaking for myself – maybe you’re a titan), but honestly wrestling with these questions is a huge part of being human – even if we’ve forgotten that in our calcified cultural moment. If you wanna see how it could be done, Freud’s Last Session is a good bet.
(At Odyssey Theatre Ensemble through March 3 – get tickets here.)
If, after seeing the play and reading the book (both of which you will do, right? RIGHT?), check out the PBS website on this series. There are tons of cool extras, and though the video links are inactive, you can YouTube the hell out of it.