A Battle Couched in Belief: ‘Freud’s Last Session’ Reviewed

May, 23 2014

by Wesley G. Pippert

freudWhen I went to watch Freud’s Last Session, I thought I’d see a tell-all session on a couch. Indeed, there was a couch. But the 80-minute play, which is being staged at Theater J in Washington, DC was far more than psychoanalysis: it was a duel between the titans of two powerful belief systems, matching Sigmund Freud, in the last days of his life, in a head-to-head, heart-to-heart debate with a recent convert to the Christian faith named C.S. Lewis.

No one impacted the studies of the mind more than Freud (played by Rich Foucheux), who practiced in Vienna and was the son of Jewish parents. As Dr. Elizabeth Fritsch, past president of the Contemporary Freudian Society, has noted, Freud contributed an entire vocabulary to the fieldh—including repression, the Oedipus complex, libido, projection, slips of the tongue and sublimation, just to name a few. Lewis (Todd Scofield), an Oxford don, became perhaps the most winsome and articulate exponent of the Christian faith of the 20th century. His book, Mere Christianity sold literally millions, along with his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.

Of course, the Freud-Lewis encounter did not take place in real life. But playwright Mark St. Germain created the make-believe session to take place in Freud’s study— complete with a couch—in London where he had moved as World War II was erupting. In the play, every so often, an air raid siren would sound. Or, Freud, then 83, would tune the radio and, amid the static, catch the latest war developments. Frequently, Freud’s oral cancer would lead to violent coughing fits.

Freud and Lewis went at it with frankness but utter decency. (The play ought to be required viewing for every partisan zealot in Washington who knows little about civility and practices even less.) What followed was not a tutorial in either Freudian psychology or Christianity—though glimpses into these beliefs did seep into their dialogue sporadically. As they began talking about God, this exchange took place:

LEWIS: We have to begin by accepting that there’s a moral law at work –

FREUD: I don’t accept it. There is no moral law, only our feeble attempts to control chaos.

LEWIS: Moral codes have existed throughout time. Tell me one civilization that admired theft or cowardice. Mankind has never rewarded selfishness. 

FREUD: Selfishness rewards itself.

LEWIS: Then the Nazis are right in their actions? 

Freud says his patron saint is Charles Darwin, whom he said proved that man’s physical self evolves. Lewis replies, quoting Tolkien: “The myth of Christ is God expressing Himself through Himself. What sets it apart is that Christ actually walked the earth among us. His dying transformed myth into truth and transforms the lives of all who believe in him.”

As the discussion turned to the Scriptures:

FREUD: You can’t be saying the Gospels are literal. These are myths and legends.

LEWIS: But does that make them lies?

Later they talk about evil and free will:

LEWIS:  Free will … is the only thing that makes goodness possible. A world filled with choice-less creatures is a world of machines. It’s men, not God, not Lucifer, who created prisons, slavery, bombs. Man’s suffering is the fault of man.

FREUD: Is that your excuse for pain and suffering? Did I bring about my own cancer? Or is killing me God’s revenge?

LEWIS: I don’t know … and I don’t pretend to. It’s the most difficult question of all, isn’t it? If God is good, He would make his creatures perfectly happy. But we aren’t. So God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.

FREUD: We are making progress.

And of course, sex. At one point int he play, Freud takes out a cigar and offers one to Lewis, who declines.

LEWIS: Doesn’t smoking aggravate your mouth?

FREUD: Of course. But I am determined to revel in my only sexual pleasure left. I’ve bid farewell to my phallic and anal stages and regressed to my oral.

LEWIS: Extraordinary.

FREUD: What is? 

LEWIS: That we’ve been talking this long and this is the first mention of sex.

FREUD: Your definition is too narrow. I apply the term ‘sexual’ to all interactions that bring pleasurable feelings…. Sexuality is the font of all happiness.

LEWIS: There’s more to more to happiness than that. Sex is only one of many God-given pleasures, and not the most lasting.

FREUD: Extraordinary. We’ve been talking about sex for less than a minute before you brought God into it.

Given the immutable nature of Freud and Lewis’ beliefs, I wasn’t certain how the play could end in an upbeat way. But indeed it did.

Earlier in the conversation, Freud mentioned that only his wife, not even his doctors, can touch the prosthesis in his mouth. But at the end, Freud begins another violent coughing fit, and the handkerchief he is using is soon soaked with blood. TAKE IT OUT! TAKE IT OUT!  he shouts to Lewis, who wrenches it out as he gasps for breath.

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In the end, each man showed a deep caring, even trust, for the other. It was the bond that triumphed over their differences.

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