Monday, May 9, 2011
I wrote this feature for the May 22, 2011 issue of the Living Church magazine.
Sigmund Freud waits excitedly in his book-lined London office, eager for his visitor to arrive. He’s geared up for a different kind of analysis today, the chance to tear to shreds the faith of his guest, an on-the-rise Oxford professor named C.S. Lewis. But the atheist father of psychoanalysis soon learns the Christian convert can hold his own just fine in their fast-paced debates about the existence of God, the joy of love, the purpose of sex and the meaning of life.
Did these two influential thinkers of the 20th century ever really meet? Probably not, says Mark St. Germain, the man who has brought them together now in Freud’s Last Session, an Off-Broadway hit that has become the longest-running play of the season. This success follows its world premiere in June 2009 at Massachusetts’s Barrington Stage Company, where it was extended twice and brought back by popular demand for two subsequent encore engagements. It holds the record as the longest-running play in Barrington Stage’s history.
“People said, ‘It’s not a good idea. Who’s going to see it?’” St. Germain said. The 56-year-old playwright, dressed in jeans, a navy shirt and gray tweed sports jacket, has come to his producer’s Times Square office on a sunny spring afternoon to discuss the play that has turned conventional theatre wisdom on its head.
“Producers said it will never run a day in New York: ‘A play that involves God and is a serious play? The press will kill you.’”
Naysayers were wrong on that one. Reviews have been good and audiences are spreading the news. One poll found that 80 percent came because of word-of-mouth. Still, the show’s producers aren’t taking any chances, running catchy newspaper ads like “Woody Allen had a session with Freud” and others that name Barbara Walters and Alec Baldwin.
The playwright in St. Germain saw the possibility for a juicy new play while reading Harvard professor Armand M. Nicholi Jr.’s best-selling book The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, which mentioned that a young Oxford professor visited Freud at the start of World War II after Freud had settled in London to escape the Nazis. St. Germain’s creative speculation that it could have been Lewis makes for dramatic and witty entertainment.
“I knew right away that it had to be a play,” he said. “The two of them were such extreme opposites. It was a fun thing to do dramatically.”
He secured permission from Nicholi and went to work.
“I thought it wouldn’t be that tough to research,” he said, but found that while he could distinguish the two men’s philosophies easily enough, getting to the heart of them as people was going to take time. He spent two years reading biographies, then wrote the 75-minute, two-character play in three months.
St. Germain says he’s surprised “in a way” by the show’s reception, although he did sense its possibilities when, in its developmental stage, readings began drawing packed houses. Then and in its early performances the playwright paid careful attention to audience reactions and then expanded or condensed the arguments in his rewrites.
“I didn’t want to create icons,” he said. “You’re dealing with two geniuses, so the level of conversation is elegant, but they must be human. We have to get to know them as people.”
Still, a discussion of religion could really bomb theatrically without the right ingredients. St. Germain has that in his actors, both of whom have been with the show from the beginning — Mark H. Dold as Lewis and Martin Rayner as Freud — and in director Tyler Marchant. Brian Prather’s outstanding set creates the atmosphere — Freud’s book- and artifact-filled London study, with its dark furniture, Victorian lamps, Oriental rugs and, oh, yes, that infamous therapeutic couch.
Freud’s Last Session is set on Sept. 3, 1939, the day England entered the war against Germany. Freud, dying of oral cancer, would have been 83 and Lewis 41. (Freud died of doctor-assisted suicide less than three weeks later.) The two men interrupt their discussions frequently to listen to (authentic) BBC reports on Hitler’s aggression in Poland, which certainly give credence to Freud’s claim that the notion of a loving God is “an insidious lie.”
But Lewis holds his own, and even turns the psychiatric table on Freud. Pointing to the assortment of figurines on the doctor’s desk, Lewis asks, “What do you call a man whose desk is dominated by gods and goddesses?” Freud quickly replies, “A collector.”
It is that kind of fast-paced exchange and St. Germain’s balanced theological arguments that keep the play from falling into preachiness or dogmatism.
“I did a lot of whittling down to get the delicate balance,” he says. “I was trying to present ideas in a way that was theatrical and not didactic.”
St. Germain is used to finding that balance. Besides several straight plays, he’s also co-written musicals and has solid TV credits, including that of writer and creative consultant for The Cosby Show. He directed and co-produced the documentary "My Dog: An Unconditional Love Story," featuring Richard Gere, Glenn Close, Isaac Mizrahi, Edward Albee and many others, and wrote the children’s book Three Cups. His newest play, The Best of Enemies, is about the friendship between black activist Ann Atwater and ex-Klansman C.P. Ellis. It will premiere at the Barrington Stage Company in July.
The opening of the new play will keep St. Germain from attending the Lewis Institute’s reading of Freud’s Last Session this summer at Oxford University. But he’ll have other opportunities to see his little-engine-that-could play in other locales as touring companies launch productions in Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Mexico City and Rio. And the Off-Broadway run continues at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater. St. Germain thinks it’s filling an unmet need.
“It’s unlike anything in New York,” he says. “People like to be challenged to think about their beliefs. It’s not something they do everyday. It’s usually an event or a crisis that makes you examine your beliefs.”
St. Germain won’t discuss his own beliefs, concerned that people will read a bias into the play. He did say he grew up Roman Catholic but no longer follows that tradition.
Asked why Lewis’s work has remained popular while Freud’s has fallen out of favor, St. Germain pauses before answering. He thinks many people first discover Lewis through the Chronicles of Narnia and are then compelled to search out more of his work.
“I never felt Lewis was didactic,” he says. “It always seemed like he’s writing to you like writing to a friend. People identify with him. His writing is accessible.”
Both men became accessible to St. Germain as they came to life while he was writing.
“I listened to them,” he says. “They were certainly good company. They were constantly thinking and talking about things that were important.”