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Freud, Fiction, and God

A new play uses history and fiction to argue about faith

Mark St. Germain could have created a fictional psychoanalyst and a fictional Oxford professor. He could have put those characters in a fictional British estate on the eve of World War II and had them debate life, death, and religion.

But he didn’t. Instead, he chose to dramatize real people in his play Freud’s Last Session, which is enjoying a popular and well-reviewed run at Off Broadway’s Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater after becoming the longest-running play in the history of Massachusetts’ Barrington Stage Company.

St. Germain imagines a visit between Sigmund Freud and a young C.S. Lewis in Freud’s British home. As air raid sirens wail outside and Freud battles the oral cancer that took his life, the two great men debate the purpose and existence of God.

For some, their arguments will resonate because they’re rooted in reality. “I think most people go through most of their lives not thinking about the issues that are raised here,” says St. Germain. “Someone dies, you go to a funeral, you ponder your own mortality, and then you go to the reception, go home, and that’s the end of it.

But these people, [Freud and Lewis], thought about big issues. And when you have someone as close to death as Freud was, two weeks away from the start of the war, then you have the additional pressure, the additional dramatic immediacy.”

In other words, the play’s arguments about God and faith may seem more personal and less academic if we know that the people spouting them actually existed. If we’re familiar with Lewis, we may get an extra charge from his character because we know that eventually, he’ll write theological works like The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia. If we know our Freud, we may nod with recognition when he decries religion.

St. Germain says, “It’s funny—and it’s happened here and at Barrington, too—because you’ll have people who will come in and see it, and they’re already predisposed to Freud or Lewis. And afterward, they’ll say, ‘Oh, Freud just devastated him’ or ‘Oh, Lewis devastated Freud.’”

It’s no accident that people can leave the play with different ideas about who won the debate. Despite being rooted in actual history—and despite using history to engage the audience—Freud’s Last Session is carefully structured fiction, and St. Germain strives to serve both points of view.

“I don’t want to take sides,” he says. “Dramatically, it would show on the play. To me, in the most dramatic plays, both sides have to be right. Antigone: Creon’s right. So is Antigone. And here, they both have to think they’re right all the time. In their minds, they are.”

Asked how he struck this intellectual balance, St. Germain says, “It took a lot more research than I anticipated. I thought, ‘This will be totally easy. I’ll just take their arguments and put them together.’ Of course, that was totally foolish. I had to read an awful lot and really try to get to know them on a personal level. And then it’s just really putting yourself inside each head and believing each argument as you write it.”

There’s something of a paradox, then: The playwright has to know history to create fiction that will make the audience feel like they’re seeing history.

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor

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2 comments

1 Alan Miller { 09.06.10 at 9:00 am }

I thought that both Freud’s Last Session and The Screwtape Letters were greatly overrated (as I discussed at some length in reviews on my blog http://aseatontheaisle.blogspot.com). To be sure, the acting, direction and set design in both plays were exemplary and I do not fault those shows’ performers for the plays’ shortcomings. But I felt that the philosophical-theological discussions in both plays were more on the level of a college bull session than what one might expect of the supposed leading lights of the intellectual firmament of that time and the lack of true dramatic interplay, let alone any real conflict, left me feeling shortchanged by both productions.

2 Stephen Sossaman { 03.07.12 at 7:53 am }

Having written three plays using historical figures, I can mention another benefit to doing so: the intellectually invigorating reminder that ideas and ideologies are not so pure that they are not in part products of their era and the personal experiences of their proponents. We are all children of our own time, like it or not, struggle as we might to rise above it. I applaud Mark St. Germain for his insistence on not taking sides, on working to make sure that we in the audience do not reject an idea simply because we reject the character who utters it.

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