Sigmund Freud begins one of his last books, Civilization and its Discontents (1930), by reflecting on the fact that the problem of the source of religious sentiment causes him “no small difficulty.” Observing that the source of religious feeling (whether or not it is attached to a particular faith or belief) is “a sensation of ‘eternity,’ a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded — as it were, ‘oceanic,'” he goes on to confess, “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself.” The admission is unsurprising to anyone who has read even a smidgeon of Freud’s work (in particular, The Future of an Illusion (1927)), but it is bracing nonetheless, reminding us not only of the experiential gulf that estranged Freud from his culture and thus likely enabled his structural analysis of the human psyche, but also of the difference between the feelings we may (or may not) experience and the belief systems and institutional structures that take them up, order them, and render them meaningful to us. [I’d write something here about the use of religion and religious feelings in the current political campaign but not only would that send my writing train far off the track but it would also be dangerous to my blood pressure, so I’ll just leave it to my dear reader’s imagination].
One imagines Freud would have been fascinated by the phenomenon of a person who came to believe in God from a position of non-belief — after all, lacking the sensation himself, he’d certainly be interested in knowing how a person could come to acquire it as an adult (his theory, as sketched out in Civilization and its Discontents, was that the ‘oceanic’ feeling was due to a persistence of the infantile ego-feeling of oneness with the external world — a stage that should be superseded as the individual matures). Certainly the playwright Mark St. Germain has imagined that Freud would be interested in such an individual: the premise of Freud’s Last Session is that Freud has invited C. S. Lewis to meet with him in his London office because of Lewis’s recent and sudden conversion from atheism to Christianity. In the conversation that ensues, each man elaborates his positon on the existence of God, the meaning of life, the purpose of suffering and evil — y’know, the small stuff — punctuated by radio broadcasts announcing England’s entry into WWII, telephone calls to and from Freud’s daughter Anna, and several coughing and choking fits on the part of Freud.
St. Germain has a deft hand with dialogue, and the characters’ humor and intelligence are the play’s great strengths. He gives Freud, in particular, a dry and cutting wit, and if one is inclined, as I am, to be sympathetic to Freud’s worldview, his goodnatured but skeptically acerbic interrogation of Lewis’s sudden embrace of religion feels like a refreshing, almost giddying, breath of rational cool air. St. Germain gives Freud some great one-liners and rejoinders, but his Lewis is no dope, either, and occasionally gives as good as he gets. Indeed, a chief pleasure of watching this play lies in seeing two smart people of strong conviction really take each other on and, in the course of the argument, grow to respect and care for each other in spite of (and maybe because of?) the profound differences that separate them. We don’t see enough of that kind of thing in the great dumbing down of discourse we have as a public arena … but I digress. As much as I enjoyed the verbal sparring, the play’s focus on opposing Freud and Lewis’s worldviews ultimately left me a bit dissatisfied, partly because the argument over the existence of God is (as the play admits in its final moments) unresolvable, but mainly because the deck felt so stacked in Freud’s favor, given that the argument was taking place on his turf, both literally (in his office) and figuratively (in terms of reason and logic rather than faith). Moreover (and I know this is an unfair criticism of the play, but I’m going to put it out there anyway), given what we know about Freud’s curiosity about the source of religious feeling, I would have loved to have seen St. Germain put more of his imaginative talents towards having Freud figure out where Lewis’s sudden belief in God came from — after all, it seems to be why St. Germain’s Freud invited St. Germain’s Lewis to visit in the first place.
In playing Freud, David Wohl has the challenging task of assuming a British-inflected Austrian accent impeded by a prosthetic upper palate (necessitated by Freud’s oral cancer, and the cause of the above-mentioned coughing and choking fits) — this accent work is, unfortunately, uneven, and tends to flatten his affect, particularly in the first third of the play. In the performance I saw (the press opening on March 8) it took some time before Wohl seemed to fully inhabit the role physically, but by the latter half of the play he was making Freud’s frailty and increasing pain palpable, and his inability to bear his ill-fitting prosthesis towards the end of the play is wrenching. Jonathan Crombie brings emotional truth to the role of C.S. Lewis, and the discomfiting scene in which he helps Freud with his problem dental work and then politely looks away as the great man deals with the shame of his failing, rotting body is the one that has stayed with me most from the evening. Whether we believe there is a higher being or not, it’s hard to face the fact of our own eventual mortality, and it’s the mystery of that end — the never knowing which of these men was right, but knowing that both cannot be — that makes the play’s final stakes of interest.