The Christian on the Psychiatrist’s Couch
In 1938, shortly after the Nazis marched into Vienna, Sigmund Freud fled to England. He settled in the town of Hampstead, not far from Oxford University. The following year, when Freud was 83 and dying slowly and painfully from cancer of the mouth, he was visited by a young Oxford professor.
The identity of the young professor is not known, but on the supposition that it was C.S. Lewis, then on the brink of becoming one of the leading Christian apologists of the 20th century, Mark St. Germain has constructed Freud’s Last Session–a mind-blowing and richly entertaining play currently running at Houston’s Alley Theatre.
Lewis arrives at Freud’s study just as Hitler is overrunning Poland and Britain is about to declare war. At first, Lewis suspects that Freud has invited him to take him to task for satirizing Freud as “Sigismund Enlightenment” in an early Christian fantasy that Lewis wrote called Pilgrim’s Regress. But Freud has set his sights on bigger game. “I wanted to know,” he says belligerently, “how a man of your intellect could suddenly abandon truth and embrace an insidious lie.”
Freud’s challenge sets off a brilliant verbal duel between two men of genius. Lewis was 41 at the time, half Freud’s age and only beginning to make his reputation. But he can more than hold his own against the internationally-famed psychiatrist.
Lewis had embraced Christianity as an adult less than ten years before, and then with great reluctance. Until his conversion, he was even more a confirmed atheist than Freud, who all his life would pepper his letters with expressions like “God’s will,” or “the good Lord,” or “my secret prayer.” One of many amusing moments in the play occurs when Freud tells Lewis, “Psychoanalysis does not profess the arrogance of religion—thank God!”
Lewis tries to persuade Freud that there is a rational basis for his belief in Christianity. Freud insists that all religion is wish fulfillment and myth making. In reply, Lewis tells Freud that he, too, once believed that the Gospels were myths until a friend and colleague of his at Oxford named T.D. Weldon—“one of the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew”—admitted to him one evening that the historical authenticity of the Gospels was surprisingly sound. With that, Lewis read the Gospels for himself and was shattered by what he discovered. As a professor of literature, he was an expert on myth. He was forced to conclude that there was nothing mythic about the Gospels. They were obviously based on eye-witness accounts. And if the Gospels were history and not legend….
Freud dismisses this line of reasoning with a wave of his hand. “Christ was a lunatic,” he says. “Why should I believe his claim to be God any more than the dozen patients I have who claim to be Christ?”
“But,” Lewis persists, “did any of these patients of yours exhibit a concept of reality that was otherwise sound?” What Lewis is getting at is that the Jesus described in the Gospels is too rational a being to be written off as a lunatic. Freud concedes the point.
Lewis is on shakier ground when he tries to answer the eternal question of why a loving God allows pain and evil to exist. He tells Freud, in essence, that evil exists because human beings abuse the free will that God gave them, and pain exists because God is possibly trying to perfect us through suffering.
Freud is incensed by this argument. He points to the tragic deaths of his favorite daughter and her four-year-old son, the sadistic cruelty to which he and his family were subjected by the Nazis and the excruciating torture that he endured through 30 operations on his mouth. “Did I cause my own cancer?” he snarls.
Had he been able to, Freud might have gone further. He might have said that it was easy for Lewis, then a bachelor living the cloistered life of an Oxford don, to believe in a God of love because he had never known real suffering or bereavement. Except in Lewis’ case, this wasn’t true.
Lewis had served in the trenches during the First World War. He had seen his friends blown to pieces and had been gravely wounded himself. If Freud has a metal plate in his mouth to separate his mouth from his nasal cavity, Lewis has a piece of shrapnel in his chest that the medics did not dare remove because it was too close to his heart. Both men have suffered deeply, and yet they have drawn totally opposite conclusions from their suffering.
Mark St. Germain based his play on a book about Lewis and Freud: The Question of God by Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Armand N. Nicholi, Jr. To a great extent, St. Germain has used the actual words of both his protagonists. This makes the play even more compelling; it is as if Freud and Lewis are finally having the debate that they may never have had in life.
Actors James Black (Freud) and Jay Sullivan (Lewis) acquit themselves superbly in their respective roles. Brian Prather’s sumptuous set perfectly evokes the figurine-cluttered study that Freud was able to transport from Vienna to England. Tyler Marchant’s direction is sure; the one-act, 90-minute play is intense, but there’s enough comic relief to allow the audience some needed moments of relaxation.
Freud’s Last Session runs through February 23.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Website: www.ringingwords.com.