The Great Debate: Freud’s Last Session



They were two of the greatest minds of the 20th century: the Jewish atheist psychologist from Vienna, and the Christian scholar and author from Great Britain. Their worldviews were poles apart but each influenced the world in ways still being felt today. That influence led to a perennially popular Harvard seminar taught by Dr. Armand Nicholi, Jr., that compares and contrasts Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis. Teaching that seminar eventually led Nicholi to write a book titled The Question of God: Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. And the book, in turn, inspired a PBS special. Then playwright Mark St. Germain went a step further and asked: What if the two men had actually met?

The idea isn’t outside the realm of possibility. Freud and his family settled in England in 1938, after escaping the Nazi invasion of Austria, and he spent the rest of his life there. There’s no evidence he ever met Lewis, but hearing Nicholi deliver a lecture at a “Socrates in the City” event in New York sparked St. Germain’s imagination. The germ of an idea grew into a critically acclaimed and highly successful off-Broadway play called Freud’s Last Session. It ran for two years in New York City, winning an Off Broadway Alliance Award for Best New Play, and a new production recently opened in Chicago. Freud’s Last Session attracted the attention of VIPs from the arts, psychology, academia, the media, and more (the show’s website lists just a few of them).

What’s the big attraction in watching these two long-dead figures come to life onstage? I had the chance to find out last year when I saw the play. As it begins, we learn that the 83-year-old Freud has invited Lewis, a 40-year-old, still-obscure professor at Oxford, to his home in Hampstead, Northwest London. The date is September 3, 1939—the day war began between Britain and Germany. That event will factor significantly into the meeting  between the two men.

Lewis is initially nervous and apologetic, believing Freud wants to take him to task for satirizing Freud’s views in his book The Pilgrim’s Regress. In fact, Freud wants much more than that.

FREUD: I want to learn why a man of your intellect, one who shared my convictions, could suddenly abandon truth and embrace an insidious lie.

LEWIS: What if it isn’t a lie? Have you considered how terrifying it might be to realize that you are wrong?

For an enthralling, no-holds-barred 75 minutes, the two men pummel each other on every subject from God to sex to war to how to tell a joke properly. No punches are pulled, no uncomfortable or personal topics avoided. Each man scores several direct hits—reflected by the laughter and cheers coming from different sections of the audience at different points.

In fact, the play was one of the more interactive experiences I’ve had in a theater. Though the action onstage is set in 1939, the argument feels urgent and contemporary, the stakes higher than ever. These are issues we grapple with every day, issues that were obviously deeply important to most, if not all, members of the play’s audience.

FREUD: We speak different languages. You believe in revelation. I believe in science, the dictatorship of reason. There is no common ground.

LEWIS: There’s also a dictatorship of pride. It builds walls that make common ground impossible. Why is it religion makes room for science, but science refuses to make room for religion?

FREUD: How roomy was Galileo’s cell when he told the Pope the sun did not move around the earth?

One of the great strengths of the play is its ability to appeal to many people with many widely differing beliefs. It gives a viewer, religious or not, a chance to see his or her own side both represented and challenged in a setting far enough removed from the present day to allow said viewer to be a little more objective than usual. Though a Christian himself, and therefore a man with a dog in this fight, the playwright is scrupulously fair about allowing both Freud and Lewis to have their say. It’s safe to say the play wouldn’t be nearly as beloved or successful if he hadn’t been.

It’s noteworthy, however, that Lewis twice gets a chance to demonstrate faith in action. First during an air raid siren and then when Freud faces a medical emergency, Lewis overcomes his own obvious fear and acts with courage and selflessness. What inspires his behavior is never spelled out, but it’s not hard to discern. And it adds something subtle but important to Lewis’s characterization, and thus to his argument.

The debate ends more or less in a draw, yet there are signs that each man has been given plenty to think about. As Freud’s Last Session draws to a close with King George VI delivering a famous address on the radio (giving the play an interesting connection with The King’s Speech), we see that Freud, in particular, may have been more affected by Lewis’s words than even he realizes. The scene is all the more poignant since the date is just weeks before the real-life Freud would commit suicide.

Freud’s Last Session is a powerful reminder of just how greatly art can influence, move, and even change us. Its success suggests there will be more productions and many more people will have a chance to see it. Even if you don’t get to do that, you can buy a copy of the play to read, and I highly recommend it. ■



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