November 19, 2019

Jewish Atheist Versus Christian Believer

Mark St. Germain’s play “Freud’s Last Session,” envisions a fictional debate over the existence of God between atheist Sigmund Freud, known as the father of psychoanalysis, and author C.S. Lewis, a former atheist who became an ardent convert to Christianity. The play enjoyed a successful two-year run off-Broadway, beginning in 2010, and is now being staged through March 4 at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles.

Although the meeting between the two men never actually took place, St. Germain was inspired to create the scenario by the book “The Question of God,” in which Harvard psychiatrist Armand Nicholi places the arguments of the two opponents side by side. St. Germain recalled seeing both men on the book’s cover. “Their contrasting views were immediately apparent for me, and I thought they would be fascinating in a dramatic situation,” St. Germain, who lives in Woodstock, N.Y., said in a telephone interview.

The beginning of the play is set on Sept. 3, 1939, a year after Freud (Martin Rayner), who was Jewish and living in Vienna, escaped the Nazis and found refuge in England. Many of his family members also fled, but his four sisters couldn’t get exit visas and died in concentration camps.

Meanwhile, Lewis (Martyn Stanbridge) has written his 1933 allegorical novel, “Pilgrim’s Regress,” in which he satirizes a character based on Freud. Freud maintains that he has never read Lewis’ book but has been told about it by colleagues.

“He says in the play that he’s invited C.S. Lewis to see him to see why someone who [once] agreed with Freud … then converted to Christianity and a belief in Christ,” director Robert Mandel said. In the play, Lewis tells Freud that his conversion was instantaneous — like being struck by lightning — as he was riding in the sidecar of his brother’s motorbike some time ago. He started the ride as an atheist and ended it as a believer.

As the discussion unfolds, we learn that both men loathed their fathers. Freud uses Lewis’ hatred to dissect the man’s need for God to exist. “There is a portion of the play where Freud, in a brief analysis of Lewis, wants Lewis to reach the conclusion that his love of God was his eternal search for a father figure.”

As the discussion unfolds, we learn that both men loathed their fathers. Freud uses Lewis’ hatred to dissect the man’s need for God to exist.

While the play is essentially a dialogue between two men bent on justifying their world views, St. Germain has added elements that infuse the proceedings with a sense of urgency. Freud has undergone several surgeries for oral cancer and wears a painful prosthesis in his mouth. In one scene, he begins choking on his prosthesis and Lewis has to pull it out of his mouth. His death, which he knows is imminent, hovers over the action, and we learn that he has made a pact with his doctor to help him die and avoid needless suffering. Freud did actually die two weeks after the date of this imaginary meeting. Sept 3, 1939 is also the date that England entered World War II; we hear a radio announcement to that effect by King George VI.

When sirens sound, in a false alarm, Lewis is reminded of his terrifying experiences in World War I and suffers a bout of post-traumatic stress disorder. Freud helps him get through the painful episode.

Mandel observed that, while the characters eventually admit that they have not solved the question of whether God exists, they have developed a deep respect for each other.

“The encounter opens them both up more as people and forces them to
think deeply about their beliefs,” St. Germain said.

He hopes the characters will prompt viewers to “take time out to think about their beliefs and their lives — questions we usually don’t ask ourselves until we find ourselves in dire situations.”

“Freud’s Last Session,” Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Through March 4. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.; Feb. 21, 8 p.m.; Feb. 8 and March 1, 8 p.m. (310) 477-2055, ext. 2.