Imagine a meeting between Sigmund Freud, who is within sight of the end of his life after nearly a half-century of practicing, promulgating, and vigorously defending psychoanalysis; and C. S. Lewis, a literary scholar based at first Oxford and then Cambridge, novelist, and arguably the 20th Century's most important Christian apologist.
It should be a battle royal between two irreconcilable views of human motivation: the unconscious mind driven by repression vs. a reason-based belief in God.
Computer simulations can give us all manner of impossible confrontations: Jack Dempsey vs. Muhammad Ali, the 1927 New York Yankees vs. the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, Caruso vs. Pavarotti. But a stage play could be even more exciting: A one-night journey of self-discovery through either psychoanalysis or spiritual revelation, each mode scraped against the same touchstone, interspersed with newscasts of Hitler's attack on Poland and England's entry into World War II.
Joyful, or tedious?
This is the conceit of Freud's Last Session. In Mark St. Germain's imaginary meeting, Freud, having fled Germany for England, summons Lewis to his study to hear for himself Lewis's challenge to Freud's idea of the unconscious as the driver of personality and our ability to live in the world. Lewis offers an alternative recipe: "Joy," his most succinct summation of God.
Ian Merrill Peakes, who originated the part of Lewis in this work's premiere in New Hampshire in 2010, expected it to be "tedious" when he was first invited to play in it. He found it otherwise, and in fact has gone on to direct the Arden's current production, his directing debut at this theater.
But tedious it is, even inert— but not because of Peakes's direction, nor David Howey's portrayal of Freud, convincingly dying of oral cancer while equally convincingly defending the scientific basis of psychoanalysis. And not because of Todd Scofield, whose animated Lewis rolls out his dearly earned rational explanations for his Christian beliefs.
Rather, Freud's Last Session is merely a predictable series of thrusts and parries, zingers about the role of the couch or the sexual significance of cigars (which Freud, suffering from oral cancer, insists on smoking) or how the jokes in Freud's Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious are not funny or how Lewis's acceptance of God came to him as he rode a sidecar on the way to a zoo.
The arguments don't cohere or build; they simply retaliate.
Nor do they illuminate the characters, who fail to grow on the audience, leaving a devastating empty center for a play. (I felt more affinity for the C. S. Lewis created by Anthony Lawton in The Great Divorce, another idea-based fantasy, produced by the Lantern Theater Company earlier this year.)
What about Newtown?
Consequently, the play's high-flown ideas failed to matter. I sensed this reaction also in the audience generally, who exited this short production with little animation.
Sadly, last weekend's audience didn't need the start of World War II to test the ideas we were hearing. We had a more immediate tragedy by which to measure them: the killings in Newtown, Connecticut.
Did God fail us, there, too? How would C.S. Lewis have explained the horrors of Newtown to the parents of the dead six-year-olds? How, for that matter, would Freud have dealt with a nation's psychosis? Now, that would have made a gripping drama. ♦
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.