Fans of Mark St. Germain's one-act "Freud's Last Session," as well as the Bellevue psychologist acting as adviser to the local production, are drawn to the play's articulate exploration of Freud's thoughts on religion in contrast with the beliefs of C.S. Lewis.
Ready for the spotlight, Sigmund Freud?
Always. The late father of psychoanalysis has had a lot of stage and screen face time over the years.
He recently “co-starred” in the historical film “A Dangerous Method.” And he is one of the two voluble characters in “Freud’s Last Session,” a long-running Off Broadway play about an imagined 1939 encounter between a frail Dr. Freud and the much younger writer-scholar C.S. Lewis. The play has its Seattle debut this week, at Taproot Theatre.
Most depictions of Freud conform to the prevalent image of a brainy, stern, bespectacled and bearded shrink with a thick Austrian accent and a (nonsymbolic) cigar in hand.
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But who was the still-controversial psychiatrist, really? What does playwright Mark St. Germain make of him, in “Freud’s Last Session”?
Daniel Benveniste, a Bellevue clinical psychologist who has studied and often written about Freud’s life and psychoanalytic theories, is an adviser to the actors and director Scott Nolte on the Taproot production.
“Freud was not a dramatic figure in life, in the sense of raising his voice or stomping out of a room,” says Benveniste. “He had a sense of humor, he could laugh, he had a playful spirit at times. But Freud was a very controlled guy — which doesn’t necessarily make for interesting theater.”
What fascinates Benveniste and the many fans of St. Germain’s one-acter, is its articulate exploration of Freud’s thoughts on religion in contrast with the beliefs of Lewis.
Inspired by the best-selling book “The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and The Meaning of Life” by Armand M. Nicholi Jr., the play brings the two intellectual heavyweights together in Freud’s office in London, where he lived after fleeing the Nazi occupation of his native Vienna, Austria. (Such a meeting between the two has been rumored, but never verified.)
The colloquy pits Freud (played here by Nolan Palmer), rooted in his Jewish heritage but an atheist who debunked spirituality, against Lewis (played by Matt Shimkus), a longtime nonbeliever who embraced Christianity in his early 30s. (His faith influenced his best-known writings, including the allegorical opus “The Chronicles of Narnia.”)
“The play gives an opportunity to get a little peek into Freud’s thinking and Lewis’ thinking,” says Benveniste. “Freud was deeply interested in religion and studied it extensively … His Jewishness was in his reverence for ideas, community, humor. But he was not religious himself and came to atheism through extensive reasoning and a study of prehistory, archaeology and cultural evolution.”
According to Benveniste, Freud considered spirituality to be “nothing but psychology projected into the external world.” And he advocated “doing away with magical thinking and illusions.”
Benveniste praises the “creative” premise of St. Germain’s play and says some things in the script “are very true to Freud’s real character.” He also finds the dialogue between the men believable, in part because of Freud’s documented exchanges about religion with a Swiss Protestant pastor, Oskar Pfister.
“They were close friends from 1908 until Freud’s death in 1939. And they debated their different beliefs with such warmth and compassion.” (The Pfister-Freud letters have since been collected, and published.)
The highly eloquent Lewis also gets his say, and his due, in this work praised by New York critics as a lively, provocative and witty “war of words.” (“Freud’s Last Session” is also playing in Chicago, and getting productions in other cities.)
To dig deeper into the philosophies of both men, Taproot is hosting a free panel discussion on April 3 with Benveniste, radio host Dick Staub and the Rev. Earl Palmer. But Benveniste also hopes the play “will stimulate the audience to do their own thinking” about the profound questions it raises.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org