By Phillip Freeman, MD, DMH
The excerpt below comes from a paper given at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts, on the occasion of its production of the Mark St. Germain play Freud’s Last Session, about an encounter between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis. Following the excerpt is a brief article describing and suggested by the discussion that followed the paper.
An excerpt from “Dramatizing Ideas in Mark St. Germain’s Freud’s Last Session”:
When they asked David Cronenberg about his representation of Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method, he said that he did not wish to destroy or extol his subject, just to “resurrect real people as much as art will let you do that” and to let the audience “react to that reality.” Of course, we have spent time in psychoanalysis, as have our counterparts in every other field in the arts and sciences, pointing out the inevitable subjectivity of such realities. In film, our subject, a historical personage or not, will be constructed out of a few carefully selected strips of spliced cellophane; in theater, out of a handful of lines. Certainly the playwright, St. Germain, and, for that matter, the filmmaker, Cronenberg, do not harbor the illusion that they have “captured” their subjects in all of their complexity. Rather, they offer a certain idea of Freud or C.S. Lewis, or, in the film, of Jung or Spielrein, snapshots at certain moments, with certain emphases and dramatic agendas.
There have been many cinematic and dramatic Freuds. We all have our favorites. It is interesting to speculate about what traits and mannerisms and realized imaginings make them so. Do we prefer the simulation to the original? Charles McGrath, in the New York Times, observed that having seen Meryl Streep play Maggie Thatcher, he found himself suspicious of photos of the actual prime minister. They looked “off,” he said.
And what of the dramatization of theoretical concepts and ideas? Since they can only be represented by way of characters, we have to assume that these presentations of ideas are to some extent similarly stamped by the conscious and unconscious intentions of the dramatist. Sometimes the particular understanding or intention of the dramatist is in the foreground, as when schizophrenia is portrayed in one film as a brain pathology, in another as a consequence of family pathology, and in another as an invention that social groups use to pathologize deviance or creativity.
In Freud’s Last Session, I would suggest that the focus is less on an idiosyncratic picture of Freud, since his presentation as an Enlightenment rationalist would not be controversial to his readers or to himself, or of Lewis, whose portrayal as a man of faith is, likewise, hardly a controversial portrait. Rather, the accent is on the overt clash of worldviews, the scientist versus the deist, and, perhaps, more covertly, on an appreciation, a dramatized insight, that beneath the clash of worldviews lay interesting similarities and shared concerns.
At the Cape Playhouse
I recently had a chance to give a talk (excerpted above) at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts. They were in the middle of a run of an excellent and well-reviewed production of Mark St. Germain’s play Freud’s Last Session. Mark Cuddy, the new producer at the Playhouse, asked for a psychoanalyst to do a special event featuring a discussion of the play, Freud’s life, and psychoanalysis. It is a beautiful theater, the oldest continuously running theater outside New York. The audience sits in church pews. Immediately a hand went up.
“My friend told me about the sexual relationship that Freud had with his daughter. How could he do his work with patients if he was involved that way with his own daughter?”
I paraphrase here. I enjoyed many prolonged and interesting exchanges about psychoanalysis with an engaged group of theater patrons. Still, it can be unsettling to hear what the community, the object of our outreach, is thinking.
The play takes place in 1939. Freud and C.S. Lewis meet for a single conversation at Freud’s invitation just three weeks before his death. Their talk, their debate, about the existence of God and, by implication, the existence of the unconscious, takes place against the backdrop of sirens and radio announcements describing Britain’s entry into war with Germany.
“Was it Freud’s cocaine addiction that gave him the cancer?”
In 1939, at the moment of the Freud-Lewis colloquy imagined by the play, the Cape Playhouse was staging a production of the very successful Thornton Wilder play Our Town. The summer stages were enjoying a robust season that year throughout New England, but it was to be the last uninterrupted run of summer stock for the many war years that followed.
Wilder wrote his play as a contrast to the ubiquitous millionaire-playboy dramas of the day. Kitty Carlisle’s performance at the Playhouse in A Successful Calamity earlier that summer season was a case in point. Wilder called for a sparse set and few props, anticipating the deprivations to come. The Stage Manager who introduces us to the lives and passing of the residents of Grover’s Corners ultimately offers the same conclusions and the same counsel that C.S. Lewis offers to Freud: “Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal; about every human being.”
Lewis also focused on the risk of “losing hold of” his faith, his discovery of God. In St. Germain’s play he tells Freud, “My idea of God; it constantly changes. He shatters it, time and time again. Still, I feel the world is crowded with Him. He is everywhere. Incognito. And His incognito—it’s so hard to penetrate. The real struggle is to keep trying. To come awake. Then stay awake.”
Lewis’s faith is represented as a hard-won discovery, fragile and slippery and ever at risk of being lost again, a victim of the temptation to take things as they are, to fail to appreciate what lies beneath the surface, providing meaning and purpose. He fights to remain awake to the evidence of things unseen when many around him are motivated to question his evidence and his reason. He wants to remain awake to a God that appears incognito, in disguise.
Would Freud speak any differently about the manifestations of a ubiquitous and wily unconscious? An epiphany, a something more, ever present, and ever at risk of dismissal and motivated re-repression? A disguised unconscious that must be rediscovered in clever rationalizations and rooted out from reality-bound hiding places?
“Why didn’t he feel that the Irish could be analyzed?”
Never said it.
“When did Freud and Lewis first become friends?”
They only met once.
“When did he stop being an atheist?”
Is there meaning to such apocrypha, the distortions and misunderstandings that constitute the contemporary grasp of Freud and his work? Perhaps there are fewer opportunities to correct these ideas than there were when Auden wrote his 1939 elegy:
If some traces of the autocratic pose,
the paternal strictness he distrusted, still
clung to his utterance and features,
it was a protective coloration
for one who’d lived among enemies so long:
if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,
to us he is no more a person
now but a whole climate of opinion
under whom we conduct our different lives…
What must it have felt like in 1939, only twenty years since the last war had ended, soldiers like Lewis still nursing their battle traumas, to know that it was all about to begin again? We observe the troubles and forebodings of our own time and reach for what comforts and consolations we might allow. Freud described the tendency toward mysticism during periods of despair and disruption. The play illustrates the resilience of the rationalist and the deist, each in their own fashion.
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