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Gerald Carpenter: Freud, Lewis Go Head to Head in Center Stage Play

The DIJO production of Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain starts the second half of its run at the Center Stage Theater, with four performances left to go. The play is directed by Jerry Oshinsky and stars Ed Giron as Sigmund Freud and Justin Stark as C.S. (Clive Staples) Lewis.

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

Freud’s Last Session was "suggested" by the book The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Armand Nicholi Jr. The conversation dramatized in the play almost certainly never took place, although it was not an impossibility. It is, moreover, completely plausible.

The two characters — Freud and Lewis — were within 50 miles of each other on the day in question: Sept. 1, 1939. Lewis was certainly aware of Freud, having written satirically about him in a recent book, and it's possible, though not certain, that Freud was aware of Lewis.

Nicholi, a professor at Harvard, constructs the debate by cutting and pasting from the writings of the two men, having each address some point the other had made. So convincing was Nicholi's editing that his book became a four-part PBS series with the same name. Once he had read it, St. Germain no doubt found it inevitable that he put the dialogs on stage.

It's conceivable that, nowadays, Lewis (1898-1963) — Oxford medievalist, fantasy author and Christian apologist — is better-known to readers than Freud (1856-1939), neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis. Children everywhere have grown up loving Lewis' epic fantasy, The Chronicles of Narnia, and many intelligent adult pilgrims have been brought to faith by Lewis' books, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain and many others; and, while Freud's achievement as a therapist, author and philosopher remains huge and immortal, he is not the day-to-day force in psychotherapy that he once was. His ideas and methods have been largely superseded — especially in the United States — by prescription drugs.

Freud was born a Jew, but in matters of religion, was a lifelong atheist. As a psychologist, however, he was fascinated by religion, and often wrote about it. His fullest statement on the matter was in his 1927 essay, The Future of an Illusion, in which he focused on religion as a system of moral coercion, a way of making men do the right thing. He had become convinced that, to maintain civilization, some sort of coercion would always be necessary, because of the facts "that men are not spontaneously fond of work, and that arguments are of no avail against their passions."

Lewis was born a Christian, but he, too, spent years of his youth as an atheist. Yet he always wrote about religion as a believer, not a detached observer. And wrote as a lay theologian, not a priest. His deepest thoughts were expressed plainly, with sympathy and insight.

In <I>Mere Christianity</i>, for instance, he says: "The most dangerous thing you can do is take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials 'for the sake of humanity,' and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man."

Freud had some blind spots. He stayed in Vienna for several months after the "anschluss" the made Austria part of the Third Reich, under the mistaken impression that he was too well-known for the Nazis to arrest and kill. Eventually, his grandson and a sympathetic official managed to get him, his wife and daughter, out of the country and to England, where he was able to die when he thought the time was right, not the Nazis.

C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis

The play takes place a couple of weeks before Freud, 83 and suffering from inoperable cancer of the jaw, took his own life.

Freud himself has been a character in several films — he was played by Montgomery Clift  in John Huston's Freud; by Viggo Mortensen in A Dangerous Method; by David Suchet in the BBC mini-series Freud; and by Alan Arkin in Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Percent Solution, to cite only the ones I have seen. Lewis was played — decisively — by Joss Ackland, in the BBC film of William Nicholson's brilliant play, Shadowlands (so decisively that when the same play was made into a expensive motion picture with Anthony Hopkins as Lewis, I didn't bother to see it).

What makes Freud's Last Session work is that both Freud and Lewis were not only great talkers — articulate, witty and insightful — but good listeners as well.

Freud's Last Session plays at 8 p.m. this Wednesday through Friday and Sunday in the Center Stage Theater (Paseo Nuevo Mall). All seating is general admission, and tickets are $20. Due to the design of the theater, late seating is problematic and unlikely. Be on time. Tickets are available at the door, by phone at 805.963.0408 or online by clicking here.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected].

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