I gave in, and admitted that God Is God …perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. From CS Lewis Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life
(1955) chapter XIV
During the winter meetings of the APsaA in January this year, I saw with psychoanalyst friends from other cities in USA, a new play by Mark St. Germain, Freud’s Last Session. This play immediately became a sellout sensation at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side YMCA, 10 West 64th Street (at Central Park West) last year. The play, directed by Tyler Marchant and produced by Carolyn Rossi Copeland, starred Mark H. Dold as C.S. Lewis and Martin Rayner as Sigmund Freud. This Off-Broadway show left the audience riveted to their seats. And what a ride it was.
The playwright located his play in London on September 3, 1939 and placed two of the most influential minds of the last two centuries in the same room, Freud’s London office. Unfortunately, in actuality, Lewis trailed Freud by a generation, so that Freud never had the chance to rebut Lewis’ responses to Freud’s arguments. Yet St. Germain realized that if their arguments were placed side by side, he could imagine a debate to emerge, because both thought carefully about the flaws and alternatives to their positions, and each considered the other’s views.
In his play, upon a summons from a dying Freud, C. S. Lewis, a young Oxford professor, expects to be reprimanded for his jabs at Freud. However, to his surprise what ensues is a discussion about the meaning of life between the godless Jew, Freud, and the newly converted Christian, Lewis– “you believe in revelation, I believe in science, dictatorship of reason”. As they are sparring, with great wit I may add, what comes to fore is an extraordinary devotion to ideas dealing with discovery and preservation of what’s best about humanity. Their arguments can never prove or disprove the existence of God. Their lives, however, offer acute commentary on the actuality, believability, and effectiveness of their views. What does it take to be a moral and ethical person, to love thy neighbor? Is all this by accident or intelligent design? They argue their points intellectually but involve the audience directly and emotionally.
Freud proclaims C.S. Lewis’s definition of sex too narrow, because it omits the pleasure of relationships. Lewis accuses Freud of a preoccupation with sex as the source of pleasure and of not including other sources of happiness created by God. To paraphrase: Freud would say that he includes in sex all interactions that bring pleasurable feelings, not just genital contact – such as an infant’s sucking at its mothers breast and a four-year-old girl sitting on her father’s knee. Lewis would counter that there is more to happiness than sex; that sex is one among God’s given pleasures. Freud would reply – “How extraordinary! We have been talking about sex for one minute and you bring God into it.”
As Freud and C.S. Lewis deal with Prime Minister Chamberlain’s radio speech declaring the war against Germany, and the first ear piercing alarm sounds the incoming bombing, they become curiously protective of each other. Freud is bleeding from his mouth, three weeks away from his death due to the cancer. As they struggle to reach for gas masks, C. S. Lewis remembers WWI and, presumably, his roommate’s death on a battlefield. They had both lived through terror before. C.S Lewis as a thirteen year old was sent to England to Malvern, famous as a health resort upon developing serious respiratory difficulties. One can imagine that he lived among those dying of tuberculosis, often by bleeding to death. Freud evokes Nazi terror, the Anschluss of Austria and barely escaping to England with a help of friends.
Amidst bantering about their philosophies of life, they take care of each other. Begrudgingly, they place and find each other symbolically and concretely on the couch, and the audience sees that they resonate with each other. When Freud exclaims– “Psychoanalysis, does not profess the arrogance of religion, thank God!” – S.C. Lewis confronts Freud with his slip, only to hear a story of Freud’s relationship with his nanny, a devout Roman Catholic, whose influence he still remembers in phrases like “thank God.”
Mark St. Germain, the playwright, Mr. Merchant, the director, and the actors who played Freud’s and Lewis’ meeting, imagined their discourse with words that touched profoundly. The play is a tour de force exploring the body and mind in conflict, with conflicted relationships, and even the world in conflict.