We’re suckers for a good match up: Frazier versus Ali, Lincoln versus Douglas, Celtics versus Lakers . . . C. S. Lewis versus Sigmund Freud? The latter would surprise many of us, who would never think to put the evangelical Christian Lewis in the same room with the fiercely atheistic father of psychoanalysis. (History did not think of it, either.)
But playwright Mark St. Germain (Camping with Henry and Tom, Forgiving Typhoid Mary) has done the unthinkable – or the unimagined – by pairing these two ideological giants in a delightful stage battle of wits, courtesy of Freud’s study, where the ideas and action of Freud’s Last Session take flight. While St. Germain wasn’t the first to imagine Lewis and Freud squaring off – that distinction goes to Harvard psychiatrist Armand Nicholi, whose 2002 book The Question of God inspired Freud’s Last Session – St. Germain first had the idea to put the two men and their contrasting viewpoints onstage together.
“What really attracted me was the idea of putting two figures onstage who believed totally opposite things,” St. Germain says of Freud, who famously attacked religious belief as a delusion, and Lewis, who used his considerable intellectual and literary talents to defend orthodox Christianity. “The conflict was already there, but the challenge was to put two living, breathing human beings onstage, instead of two sets of ideas.”
St. Germain stumbled upon Nicholi’s book (which also inspired a PBS series) after a lecture and knew he had found great subject matter for a play. Although he had read some of the works of both Freud and Lewis, the playwright knew that much more research would be needed to bring the famous thinkers to life in a way that was both nuanced and believable. “I knew what they thought, but who they were – that took time to discover,” St. Germain says.
That discovery was essential for the two actors (Rick Foucheux as Freud and Todd Scofield as Lewis) and for Serge Seiden, who directs the production of Freud’s Last Session currently running at Theater J. “What’s been interesting for all of us is to have these figures who are so well known – everybody has an idea in their head of who Freud and Lewis are – and then to try to turn them into real, complex, psychologically alive people onstage,” Seiden reflects. “That’s been one of the great pleasures of working on this. It’s only when doing something like a two-character play that you have time to really work on all the details, to discover the little things in the text that give it texture.”
Like St. Germain, Seiden went back to the original source material, in his case, learning about Christianity and attempting a serious reading of the Bible. “I read a little bit and just gave up,” laughs Seiden, who comes from a Jewish cultural background, but has been not observant. “I knew I needed more background and someone to guide me through it.” He found that guidance in a series of online lectures about the Bible from Yale University. Eventually, Seiden became so “hooked” on the lectures that he would stay up until “two or three in the morning” listening to them. In the end, Seiden recognized that, although he had learned a great deal, he had not answered for himself a fundamental question asked in the play, as to whether God – or belief in God – really matters.
“I had a lot more knowledge, but I was no closer to knowing whether I should care about it or not,” Seiden acknowledges. “I felt like I had a better approach to the subject. I wasn’t avoiding it anymore, and that’s a first step.” Seiden compares his own experience to one of the arguments Lewis makes in the play, namely, that for non-believers like Freud, the desire to prove God does not exist is as strong and revealing as the desire to prove he does. Something is afoot.
Seiden and St. Germain agree that part of the success of Freud’s Last Session – it had a long off-Broadway run from 2010-2012 and is now playing around the country and overseas – is due to the fact that people want to wrestle with the big questions about God, faith, and the meaning of life, but often feel inhibited about doing so.
“There’s definitely a hunger to talk about these things,” Seiden says, “but it’s kind of taboo, maybe because religion is so charged these days.”
Veteran Washington actor Rick Foucheux, who plays Freud, didn’t initially recognize how much questions about God entered into the psychoanalyst’s work. “The bottom line is that the material in the play and in [Nicholi’s] book and the associated reading proves to me again that the question of God is a highly personal one,” Foucheux says. “I’d be hard pressed to put into conversation, ‘I’m certain that God exists.’ We learn to accept what we can’t know.”
For his part, playwright St. Germain suggests that relatively few of us are forced to confront such big questions, except in the most extreme situations. “I think that’s why the show has caught on,” he says. “It sparks discussions that don’t occur every day.”
Freud and Lewis are themselves in an extreme situation in Freud’s Last Session. Their meeting – Freud has invited Lewis to visit him at his London home, ostensibly to talk about literature – occurs on the day that Britain enters World War II. Air raid sirens go off; Lewis carries a gas mask. Meanwhile, the ailing, 83-year-old Freud reveals that he is dying of oral cancer. (Freud did, in fact, die three weeks later.) The audience discovers that neither Lewis the believer nor Freud the hardened atheist is secure from attacks of panic and fear of death. When Freud accuses Lewis of being smug about his beliefs, the young Oxford don responds, “I question my beliefs daily.” It is their honesty with one another and their acknowledgement of a shared humanity – particularly in their weaknesses – that brings the two men together.
“The idea that reasonable people can disagree, and that questioning one’s deeply held beliefs is not a bad thing, is important,” says Todd Scofield, who plays Lewis, at the time of the imagined meeting decades younger than the elderly Freud. “It may be even more important to learn about someone else’s deeply held beliefs. The more you understand how someone differs from you, the harder it is to dismiss them.”
While occasionally heated, the debate between Lewis and Freud – which ranges from the existence of God to the nature of sex and the meaning of life – is polite, witty, and often humorous. They speak as two men who know more about themselves than they care to let on.
Closes June 29, 2014
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
1 hour, 20 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $45 – $65
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Both of the twentieth century intellectual giants were familiar to actors Foucheux and Scofield. Foucheux, who was raised Roman Catholic, spent time in psychotherapy years ago and found it very helpful, both as an actor and as a person. “It allowed me to be more open to myself, to my own humanity, and to that of those around me,” he reflects. Scofield was raised in a nondenominational Christian home and considered himself a fan of Lewis’ before first playing the Oxford don at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre Company in 2012.
“I definitely identify with him,” Scofield says, noting that he shares the primary tenets of Lewis’ faith outlook, including the writer’s inclusiveness and his willingness to submit his beliefs to examination. “He reminds me to keep questioning and not to be afraid of the questions or even the doubts.”
What ultimately strikes an audience member about the two characters in Freud’s Last Session is their willingness to listen to each other, even if they disagree about some of life’s most important questions. Freud may be cantankerous and egocentric, by disposition incapable of understanding things that cannot be measured and quantified, but he willingly shares his home and his humor with the devout Lewis. For his part, Lewis is quick to show compassion for the ailing doctor and to proffer ready aid when Freud’s cancer manifests itself in painful, bloody ways. For 80 minutes on a stage, amid air raid sirens and radio broadcasts of impending conflict, these intellectual giants prove again that talking is always better than fighting.