For those who lament over the state of modern conversation (myself included), do not despair. There is a remedy. Get thee to the Marjorie S. Deane Theater, where Mark St. Germain’s play Freud’s Last Session presents a brisk, sharp and thought-provoking conversation between two of the great minds of the 20th century. Set on September 3, 1939, the play presents an imagined meeting between famed psychoanalyist Sigmund Freud and the recently converted Christian writer C.S. Lewis. There is no evidence this meeting ever took place, but the idea of the two men – one a devout Christian and the other a determined atheist – is ripe for dramatic appeal. The threat of war hovers in the background of the heated conversation between the two; September 3rd is the day that Britain and France declared on Germany.
Freud and Lewis could not be more different. Freud, played by Martin Rayner, is a short, stooped German suffering from throat cancer who analyzes statements with fact and experience. Mark H. Dold’s Lewis is tall and stately, soft-spoken and a fervent Christian. Freud had summoned Lewis to his office in London without explanation, and Lewis mistakenly thinks it is because he had mocked Freud in one of his recent publications. That was not the reason, as Freud claims he is not bothered by public ridicule The two then engage in a spirited discussion about all the topics of the day, including but not limited to war, sex, death, and, of course, the existence of God. As they converse and pace about the beautiful set – a replica or Freud’s office – they approach, avoid and eventually lie on the famed couch.
The conversation becomes the most heated when it turns to God. Freud is an adamant non-believer, and Lewis is a recent convert to Christianity. The two both defend their beliefs, or lack of, with skill and passion. Lewis explains how he came to believe, and Freud explains why he continues not to. Neither seem to expect the other to change his mind, but they continue to debate with vigor. Why would God want me to suffer like this? Freud asks at one point, after he asks Lewis to remove his prosthetic jaw (a particularly cringe-inducing scene during an otherwise peaceful play). He also shares his plan to eventually commit suicide, news that Lewis receives with shock and horror.
The discussion, and the play, eventually come to a close when Lewis leaves Freud’s office to return to his home, neither having apparently made much of a difference in the other’s opinions. Dold and Rayner give exceptionally fine performances, inhabiting their characters fully. Dold’s gruff answering of the phone is one of the show’s lighter moments, and several double entendre jokes pass between the men in good humor. There is no real conflict in the show other than the differences in the two men’s beliefs. But when the beliefs are this interesting, well-articulated and timeless, that is enough.