By Dr. Roger Karlsson
The San Jose Repertory Theater is currently playing “Freud’s last session” and I had the pleasure to be their consultant. Since I spent five years studying Freud at a psychoanalytic institute and I am a practicing psychoanalyst, I felt I would be the perfect person to illuminate Sigmund Freud’s personal history as well as psychoanalysis. Little did I know! Instead of lecturing for a group of novices I found myself involved in a scholarly dialogue with a group of people who had researched the subject thoroughly. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised; after theater professionals are known for preparing well. For example, J. Michael Flynn, who plays the role of Freud, told me he started to prepare for this role last summer and the director, Stephen Wrentmore, was like a walking encyclopedia about Freud and had read several of his books as inspiration when directing the actors!
I also had the chance to read Mark St. Germain’s script of the play and I was again amazed! Although the meeting between Freud and C.S. Lewis probably never actually occurred, I found the script masterfully weaving together factually correct biographical information about Freud and Freud’s version of psychoanalysis in a dialogue that discusses the eternal questions about the human condition: why do we live, why do we die, how can we live with our personal emotional wounds, is there a God, and if so, why isn’t God doing something about our personal suffering and the global suffering in the world? In fact, I only found one slight error in the script, which I am sure St. Germain did on purpose for some dramatic effect.
Watching the play is an absolute delight. J. Michael Flynn is depicting Freud not only with the iconic grey beard and cigar, but even manages to incorporate Freud’s speech pattern, gestures, and postures. In the play, we meet Freud only three weeks before he ended his life through euthanasia. He was a man marked by his sixteen-year struggle with mouth cancer, in constant pain, but refusing to take analgesics since he was afraid it would prevent him from continuing work on his theory. In fact, Freud died in the midst of writing one of his most important papers, where he discusses how the self, as a consequence of trauma, can as a defensive measure split into experiencing several versions of reality, each one carrying parts of the “truth” but distorted by how we wished things would have unfolded. Freud knows he is dying soon but instead of lying down and waiting for the end he can’t stop seeking the truth of the human condition and engages the deeply religious Lewis in a fiery battle of reason. On stage, you can witness Freud and Lewis vacillating between despair, intense pain, bitterness, sarcastic humor, and joy, but never giving up on trying understanding each other despite their fundamental differences in how to relate to life. In the end these two intellectual giants depart without anyone winning or a losing the debate, but that is not the point, instead through the meeting of the minds both men are different when they say goodbye. After their epic battle of reason, Lewis’ mindset is now a part of Freud and Freud’s mindset is now a part of Lewis – how psychoanalytic is that! Wouldn’t we all wish we had “enemies” that challenged our world view and were willing to engage in a dialogue that forced us to think and think again?
I was very pleased to see a balanced view of Freud on stage, without idealizing him or smearing him. For example, the play isn’t hiding the fact the Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, went in analysis with him, which we today would find to be highly questionable from an ethical point of view, but on the other hand, it also clearly explains that Freud’s definition of sexuality is substantially broader and different from today’s definition of “sex.” Indeed, the play shows masterfully that although Freud died, he is not dead and is still worth reckoning with. I recommend all psychology folk spend an inspirational evening at the theater enjoying this play before it too soon moves to Tucson, Arizona!
Learn more about the play at http://www.sjrep.com/