When the Nazis were invited into Austria in 1938, Sigmund Freud reluctantly left Vienna for London. The 83-year-old Father of psychoanalysis was in no condition to move about freely. Since 1923, a cancer was eating through his mouth and his heart was slowly failing. But as the Gestapo threatened his family, the patriarch found a new home at 20 Maresfield Drive in London, his last residence before assisted suicide on September 23, 1939.
Freud’s famous couch and collection of antiquities from Vienna furnished his London study. The set of Jane Werger’s production of “Freud’s Last Session”, written by Mark St. Germain after a book by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr., appeared a faithful rendition of the room at Maresfield Drive.
Fidelity to biographical truth is one of the play’s strongest qualities. The playwright’s titular “last session” is a fictional one, however: a meeting between Freud and the 41-year-old British author C.S. Lewis, three weeks before the former’s death.
In this tale, Freud calls Lewis to his study for a friendly interrogation. Lewis, a former atheist and supporter of Freud’s theories, is a recent convert to Christianity. The older man, an empirical researcher to the bitter end, desired to question the younger about this transition.
Werger is tasked with presenting us the fictional debate: Freud vs. Lewis, Science vs. Faith, Reason vs. Sensation.
But before the debate, we are introduced to Freud’s beloved Jo-Fi. During the last few years of his life, Freud grew attached to dogs, particularly this pet chow.
The infamous dog, according to Louis Breger, would curl up at the foot of Freud’s couch during a patient’s session and arise as the indicator that the hour had concluded. Jo-Fi also performed other behaviours when the patient was or was not making progress.
Freud’s chow greets Lewis, not a real dog of course, but a bark over mounted speakers to the left and right of Werger’s stage. These speakers were further used for radio broadcasts about the Nazis and, in the middle of our characters’ intense debate, for a test of the air raid siren that sent Lewis and Freud into a panicked frenzy. Regardless of their differing views on God, St. Germain seems to suggest that the instinct to flee from sudden death is ontologically universal.
The chow emerges in discussion later on as well. Freud mentions that his mouth cancer has produced such an odour that even his beloved pet wants nothing to do with him. Thus the analyst lights a cigar, the cause of his cancer, and remarks that it is one of the few pleasures he has left. This was one of the few laughs in an otherwise serious discussion.
To question God and religion had been one of Freud’s preoccupations. The older man and the younger man debate about these topics quite well, although Freud would often get the better of the anxious Lewis. Wyatt Lamoureux as Freud, complete with a German accent, and Michael Valliant-Saunders as Lewis, both provided wonderful deliveries of complex lines and arguments about the (non-)existence of God.
At times the blocking felt a little forced, but to present two men in a room for an hour requires much movement, intensity, and humour to keep audiences’ attention.
Lamoureux, Valliant-Saunders, and Werger kept the audiences in good humour and on the edge of their seats, particularly during Freud’s bloody coughing fit near the end of the hour. As to the content of their debate, and an apparent solution or aporia about the (non-)existence of God, I found it to be less remarkable.
While completing two philosophy degrees, I’ve discovered that to question God is something I have little interest in. On the other hand, I overheard audience members speaking of their own religiosity, thus the play granted its spectators some critical observation and personal reflection.
I would have preferred the play to further explore Freud’s essays on masculinity and what the psychoanalyst called a man’s “passive” and “feminine” attraction to other men. This session with Lewis may have been the perfect setting.
Whether God exists in His heaven or is a fiction created by our libido, the Peterborough Theatre Guild production of “Freud’s Last Session” was a success. If you missed it at the Theatre Guild’s venue, catch the play in a special performance at The Mount Community Centre on November 5.
On October 30, the Theatre Guild premieres their full-length production of Vern Thiessen’s Vimy. The play runs until November 14. www.theatreguild.org.
[For Online publication only:] My review of Jane Werger’s production of Three Sisters: http://trentarthur.ca/review-of-jane-wergers-production-of-anton-chekhovs-three-sisters/