Analyze This: On the Eve of World War II, Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis Spar in an Intellectual Boxing Match

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Freud’s Last Session
Marjorie Deane Theater
3 W. 63rd Street
New York, N.Y.

It is September 3, 1939, shortly after Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II and sending all of Europe into trauma.  In his new London apartment, walls lined with books and windows overlooking the street, his patient’s couch on the far side of the stage, psychiatrist Sigmund Freud sits pensively.  He is awaiting a visit from theologian and novelist C.S. Lewis, a professor at Oxford.  Lewis thinks he has been summoned because he poked fun at history’s premier shrink in one of his books, but that is not the reason.

Freud, an energetic atheist, wants to see Lewis to talk about God.  Just after Lewis arrives, an air raid siren goes off and the two men grab gas masks and try to flee the apartment and get to a shelter across the street.  It’s a false alarm, though, and all is safe.  The pair settles down for their historic meeting.

Did the fabled psychiatrist and the famous novelist (Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia series and some religious texts) actually meet?  Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t.  In his book The Question of God, Dr. Armand Nicholl, Jr. suggested that they did.  The alleged meeting is the springboard for Mark St. Germain’s play.

Historians, psychiatrists and anyone who has even been in analysis (or, more famously, fought with their mother) will enjoy the ninety-minute play at the Marjorie Deane Theater in New York, that will run through September.  It is full of humor, from one-line zingers between the two men to a very funny story that ends the drama.  There is strong character development connected to both main characters and solid performances by Martin Rayner as Freud and Mark Dold as Lewis. Rayner’s performance is a gem, beautifully recreating the aging, slow-moving, very sick Freud (who will die just a few months later).  The pair engages in a lengthy and heated debate about the existence of God and, throughout it, throw verbal punches at each other in an intellectual boxing contest.  The apartment set is luscious, the costumes very 1930s and stylish in their look and the dialogue crisp.

The problem with Freud’s Last Session, though, is that the story does not go anywhere.  It is essentially a two-man play in which the pair engages in endless dialogue.  Nothing happens, though.  It is a pity because in the first few minutes, during the air raid, there is a lot of promise for action involving the two men.  That promise was as much a false alarm as the air raid.  The men debate God, Germany, Freud’s daughter Anna, Lewis’s friendship with a dead friend’s mother and, constantly, they listen to the radio for news of the start of the war.

If you like to discuss the existence of God, you will enjoy Freud’s Last Session.  The two men use about every argument ever invented to prove and disprove God’s existence and Freud jokes, to much laughter, that if God doesn’t exist Freud, who is dying, will never know, will he?

In the middle of the play, the conversation between the two men heats up as the talk about God starts to sizzle, but then, fifteen or twenty minutes later, the pace slows down.  You keep enjoying the banter, and the men, but you keep hoping that the plot will somehow turn and the pair will get involved in something more than their intellectual duel.

Freud’s personal history might have made an interesting story here, even if used as the play’s backdrop.  As a Jew, he was terrified when the Nazis took over his native Austria in 1938 (he lived in Vienna).  With help, he managed to sneak out of Austria and make his way to England.  He left behind four sisters, who all died in concentration camps.  There could have been more in the play about the famed psychiatric theories of Freud, criticized as much as they were applauded.

He was, and remains, the most significant figure in psychoanalysis in the world today and that fame should have been explored a bit more in the play.

The novelist Lewis, born in Ireland, was a Christian but fell away from religion. His friend J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) brought him back into Christianity in 1932 and he wrote often about the religion.  Ironically, Lewis’s death in 1963 received little attention because he died on November 22, the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Director Tyler Marchant does a fine job of getting as much action as he can in a two-man play and keeps the story moving along at a nice clip.  He receives a fine performance from Mark Dold as Lewis, half Freud’s age and a man who, at 41, is coming into his own as a literary figure.  Martin Rayner, as Freud, bears an amazing likeness to the psychiatrist and is mesmerizing as moves about the stage, whether in pain or delivering funny lines.

In the end, Freud’s Last Session is a very good intellectual encounter, but not as strong a play as it might have been. German’s script needed more analysis.

PRODUCTION: Producers: Carolyn Rossi Copeland, Robert Stillman, Jack Thomas and the Barrington Stage Company. Set: Brian Prather, Costumes: Mark Mariani, Lighting: Clifton Taylor, Sound: Beth Lake. Directed by Tyler Marchant.

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at

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