… science vs. religion …
In an imagined encounter between Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis, two intelligent men discuss significant human issues. No sex, no violence. What a relief.
It’s September 3, 1939, Freud, 83 years old, in London having fled the Nazis in Vienna, is suffering dreadfully from the oral cancer which has dogged him since 1922, and has invited the young Lewis, a recent convert to Christian belief, to his book-lined study, not, as Lewis first assumes, to lambaste him for satirizing Freud in a recent book, but for a more touching reason. The aged psychoanalyst, in his profound devotion to science, and near death, is still seeking knowledge: specifically, he wants to understand how an intelligent man can be a Christian believer. Thus the debate between science and religion takes hold between these two, smart men.
They’re well matched in flexible and inventive language, quick repartee, amusing wit and in dug-in commitment to their opposite world views (though Freud gets more good jokes). Surprisingly, the play doesn’t rest on the strength of their opposing arguments — they voice “the usuals” about science and religion and acknowledge their brief encounter isn’t going to settle these essential queries. That, a weakness in the play, is compensated for by the careful charting of the emotional closeness they develop in their short time together, all the while remaining — start to finish — intellectually apart. They become, for the time, like father and son: Lewis, on the spot, helps the ailing Freud in an extremely intimate way that previously only Freud’s daughter, Anna, had been allowed to do. They’re ready to save each other’s life, though their views of life totally differ. That’s powerful.
As a counterpoint to the discussion of two brainy men in the library setting, there’s a momentous, frightening background: September 3, 1939 is the day Prime Minister Chamberlain announced that Hitler had refused to withdraw his troops from Poland, forcing England to declare war on Germany. In the course of the play, Freud periodically dials on the 1930’s style radio, turning it off in the musical interludes, so as not to miss Chamberlain’s anticipated announcement, which we hear, too. We also hear the first words of King George VI’s inspiring speech to the nation which was the thrilling climax of the film, The King’s Speech.
A sudden air raid alarm scares them both — Lewis with his life ahead of him and Freud who, while craving death as release from the torturous pain in his mouth, doesn’t want to die. Lewis makes no more of that than is warranted, to the credit of the playwright. In fact, to escape his unbearable pain, Freud committed suicide with morphine later that September.
Freud avoids music, as on the radio, because — evidence-seeking scientist that he is — if he can’t understand how something gives pleasure, he doesn’t enjoy it. Lewis sees in music’s capacity to affect us without our understanding how as metaphor of religious faith. Freud will have none of it, but after Lewis leaves and Freud’s again alone in his study, he turns on the radio and allows himself to listen to the music, appearing to find comfort. This death-bed conversion doesn’t ring true. Having kept the weights even, the playwright tips the scales at the end but the play has been fun to watch so one almost forgives this intellectual slippage.
No sex, no violence … well not exactly. Through the play, Freud’s prioritization of the sexual drive is a theme and source of humor, and a butal war has begun — that’s nice irony. But, in Freud’s book lined and art filled study, it’s still possible to talk about essential human issues. No wonder this is the longest running play off-Broadway in NYC. It has lots to say.
Freud’s Last Session plays at New World Stages on Manhattan’s west side.