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Review of 'Freud's Last Session'

My father studied under Bruno Bettelheim. My uncle is a psychoanalyst. These two facts alone have contributed toward my fascination with Freud. Unsurprisingly then, when I saw that Freud’s Last Session was being performed in New York, I was compelled to look no further.

The play conceives of a fictional meeting between Sigmund Freud, the champion of the unconscious, and C. S. Lewis. Although for many of us Lewis is simply the man who has provided us with the magic of Narnia, he spent much time writing on religion in real, more overtly philosophical terms. It was the writing of Pilgrim’s Regress, the reworking of John Bunyan’s 17th century Pilgrim’s Progress, which triggers Freud to invite Lewis for a confrontation.

Freud, a fervent atheist, comes together with Lewis, an ordained man of God. Although we may expect a clash of personalities and principles, the meeting is in fact rather respectful. Beyond the one outburst where Freud yells at Lewis, “Grow Up!”, the give and take is rather balanced and subtle. There is a Socratic style to the exchange where we, as the audience, feel a resolution may yet be found. The thrust of the play is more in the free flowing of ideas than the clash of characters, although the characters—Freud’s most definitely—come through.

Set in 1939, the play features the sounds of the War in its backdrop. The meeting between Lewis and Freud is hounded by constant interruptions: first the barking of a dog in the hallway, then the Prime Minister’s speech on the radio, then an air raid siren, then the loud roaring of planes, then Freud’s relentless cough. The audience is made to feel as if this meeting has been uncomfortably inserted into a reality that objects to it.

Martin Rayner plays a wonderful Freud; so much so that after the performance it was hard to remember that one wasn’t lining for the autograph of Freud himself. His quirky Austrian accent and his authentic dulling of the quite explicit pain of cancer, gave us the presence of a man of conviction and cynicism. A young Lewis is convincingly played by Mark Dold; we are offered a fidgety professor, eager in his ideas, reverent in his posture. And the interplay between these two characters feels sincere and convincing.

The two initially meet off-stage, in Freud’s hallway, where the topic is Lewis’ lateness. The conversation moves from God to sexuality to humor and war, to fear and dreams, joy and lust. We feel goaded by the remarks, lost in the conversation. The script is full of surprises, and one rarely feels that a line was predictable or a statement stale. One is made to laugh time and again, and, of course, to think.

The set is small and simple: it is Freud’s office in London. There is a desk, walls covered in books, small collectibles spread around the room, and of course, the item which almost sticks out into the audience – the Couch. After minutes of avoiding the topic, Lewis eventually remarks that the couch is inescapable to all of us, only to be goaded by Freud to sit and speak.As a university student, I found this evening to be most uplifting. The texts I have read came alive; disorganised, but remarkably accurate. The ideas felt real, attached to people, to human beings rather than books. The pages that fill our bags and the pdfs that fill our screens became less distant and, in some ways, more urgent, more meaningful. It is an odd feeling to watch the humanizing of ideas, the way in which ideas that seem so concrete and taken for granted in classes become so frail and desperate, so feeble and fallible. One leaves with a sense of duty to defend or defeat ideas; to write that next paper and challenge that text.

As a Yeshiva University student the evening was even more compelling. This exchange is not just about bridging ideas, but bridging ideals; it is not only how we read, but how we chose to live. A heavy presence sits on the newly painted 185th street, and we are asked to traverse it daily, to define our journey and strike our own balance. We are charged to find comfort in our convictions and hold tight to our values, while at the same time, being asked to challenge our assumptions and be creative in our outlook. Seeing bodies of text defending themselves, and changing themselves, allows one to leave stirred and stimulated. It was an evening to remember.


Freud’s Last Session is being performed at the New World Stages at 50th Street. See to purchase tickets.