Freud’s Last Session

Simon Smart on how play Freud's Last Session models the sort of conversation we need today.

In the same week that a packed Sydney Town Hall hosted a debate between atheist physicist Professor Lawrence Krauss and Christian apologist and philosopher Dr William Lane Craig, the Theatre Royal opened its doors to Freud’s Last Session, a play that creates an imagined conversation between an aged Sigmund Freud, and a young C.S. Lewis.

Freud of course had little time for religion, while Lewis famously became the apologist of his generation for a Christian faith he had abandoned as a teenager, only to re-convert as a 33 year-old, “the most reluctant convert in all of England.”

Mark St Germain wrote the play after reading Armand M. Nicholi’s book The Question of God which speculated that an unnamed young Oxford professor who visited Freud late in his life could possibly have been Lewis. This tantalizing thought sparked the idea for the play and the interaction between these towering figures of the 19th and 20th centuries. Set in London on the day Britain declared war on Germany the looming shadow of what’s about to descend on Europe forms the canvas onto which St Germain weaves the dialogue. But the spectre of death takes on a personal note, as Freud, suffering from cancer of the mouth, will soon take his life via morphine injected by his doctor friend and fellow refugee, Max Schur.

Would the crowd at the Krauss v Craig debate get value from this dreamt up meeting between Lewis and Freud? I believe they would. Science has made astonishing progress since 1939. We know much about the universe and DNA but the underlying questions remain the same—how could there be a God when there is so much suffering in the world? What does it mean to be a human being? Are we alone in the universe and if so where do we find meaning? Can science solve the problems of the human condition? A serious assessment of these questions remains as vital today as it ever did.

The extended conversation between Freud and Lewis represents a timeless clashing of worldviews made explicit in the mouths of famously forthright and intelligent characters—Freud the clinical scientist with a passionate, ironically obsessive distaste for religion; Lewis the writer of fantasy, who nonetheless champions Christian faith as rational and intellectually formidable.

The narrative arc skilfully weaves together aspects of the protagonists’ personal experiences and complex lives. Freud attributes Lewis’s faith to the need for comfort in light of irretrievable loss after the death of Lewis’s mother at a young age and a toxic relationship with his father. Freud’s own struggles—the loss of his daughter and a grandchild, his flight from Austria, and his excruciating pain from cancer lead him to rage against a god he doesn’t believe in.

All the great questions make an appearance: God as mere wish fulfilment, the problem of suffering, the reliability of the gospels, sex, music and death. It’s an even-handed treatment of both men’s positions. Fans of Lewis will be glad that plenty of his classical arguments get an airing: If pleasure is God’s whisper, pain is His megaphone and suffering is the necessary function of a world where humans have free will. Echoing Tolkien, Lewis argues that the difference between Christianity and other myths is that in the Christ story God actually turns up and walks the earth in recorded history. The choice is simply whether to believe in him or not. Jesus is either mad, bad or indeed the Lord. Freud is unimpressed. How can Lewis, a man of such intelligence abandon his intellect for such an insidious lie, he asks?

The rendition of this exchange is full of humanity, pathos and heart. The two opponents not only express their views without timidity, but also listen to each other in the process. That’s what’s often missing these days when atheists and the faithful clash. Freud’s Last Session not only takes us back to a time when serious arguments counted more than sound bites, but also offers a picture of the sort of conversation we desperately need today.

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity