He called himself a “godless Jew” and spent much of his career trying to demonstrate that religion is an illusion, and religious belief a neurosis. Did Sigmund Freud ever question his own atheism?
In Mark St. Germain’s new play, “Freud’s Last Session,” Freud’s study in the London section of Hampstead becomes the scene of an imaginary meeting between the great Viennese psychoanalyst (Martin Rayner) and the Irish-born Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis (Mark H. Dold), just two weeks before Freud, who is battling mouth cancer, requests a lethal dose of morphine. When the play ran last summer at the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires, Louise Kennedy of the Boston Globe called it “lively, intelligent and engaging.”
The idea of uniting two historical characters who never met in real life is a familiar dramatic device; the most famous example is Friedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart” (revived last year on Broadway), in which Queen Elizabeth has a climactic showdown with Mary Queen of Scots. Similarly, in Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein bump into each other in a bar, and in Jonathan Levi’s “Falling Bodies,” 17th-century astronomer Galileo Galilei enlists 20th-century writer Primo Levi to assist him in his experiments.
St. Germain, who has written many plays and who also wrote for “The Cosby Show,” has a flair for bringing historical characters together in his work. In “Camping with Henry and Tom,” he invented the dialogue that took place during a real-life camping trip taken by Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Warren G. Harding. And in “Ears on a Beatle,” two FBI agents spied on John Lennon to gather information about his opposition to the Vietnam War. “Freud’s Last Session” was inspired by Armand M. Nicholi Jr.’s book, “The Question of God” (adapted into a PBS series), based on the Harvard psychiatry professor’s long-running course in which he contrasts the antithetical worldviews of Freud and Lewis.
The playwright, who describes himself as a “lapsed Catholic,” told The Jewish Week that Freud did meet with a young, unnamed Oxford don at some point after his arrival in London. While it is highly unlikely that it was Lewis, the playwright imagines Freud wanting to know “how anyone with any brains could become such an ardent believer.” In response, Lewis points out that Freud has spent such an enormous amount of time and energy trying to “debunk the existence of God,” that he ironically “talks about God more than most believers.”
St. Germain points out that since Freud grew up with an Orthodox father who read the Torah out loud, and a Catholic nanny who took him to church every week, he “must have been conflicted about religion even as a boy.” While Freud was a “great lover of art,” St. Germain noted, he “tended to shy away from music. He couldn’t understand intellectually why it would move him. It was probably the same with religion.”