Published in Arthur, issue 8
When the Nazis were invited into Austria in 1938, Sigmund Freud reluctantly left Vienna for London. The 83-year-old Father of psychoanalysis was in no condition to move about freely. Since 1923, a cancer was eating through his mouth and his heart was slowly failing. But as the Gestapo threatened his family, the patriarch found a new home at 20 Maresfield Drive in London, his last residence before assisted suicide on September 23rd, 1939.
Freud’s famous couch and collection of antiquities from Vienna furnished his London study. The set of Jane Werger’s production of Freud’s Last Session, written by Mark St. Germain after a book by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr., appeared a faithful rendition of the room at Maresfield Drive.
Fidelity to biographical truth is one of the play’s strongest qualities. The playwright’s titular “last session” is a fictional one, however: a meeting between Freud and the 41-year-old British author C.S. Lewis, three weeks before the former’s death.
In this tale, Freud calls Lewis to his study for a friendly interrogation. Lewis, a former atheist and supporter of Freud’s theories, is a recent convert to Christianity. The older man, an empirical researcher to the bitter end, desired to question the younger about this transition. Werger is tasked with presenting us the fictional debate: Freud vs. Lewis, Science vs. Faith, Reason vs. Sensation.
But before the debate, we are introduced to Freud’s beloved Jo-Fi. During the last few years of his life, Freud grew attached to dogs, particularly this pet chow. The infamous dog, according to Louis Breger, would curl up at the foot of Freud’s couch during a patient’s session and arise as the indicator that the hour had concluded. Jo-Fi also performed other behaviours when the patient was or was not making progress.
Freud’s chow greets Lewis, not a real dog of course, but a bark over mounted speakers to the left and right of Werger’s stage. These speakers were further used for radio broadcasts about the Nazis and, in the middle of our characters’ intense debate, for a test of the air raid siren that sent Lewis and Freud into a panicked frenzy. Regardless of their differing views on God, St. Germain seems to suggest that the instinct to flee from sudden death is ontologically universal.
The chow emerges in discussion later on as well. Freud mentions that his mouth cancer has produced such an odor that even his much loved pet wants nothing to do with him. Thus the analyst lights a cigar, that cause of his cancer, and remarks that it is one of the few pleasures he last left. This was one of the few laughs in an otherwise serious discussion.
To question God and religion had been one of Freud’s preoccupations. The older man and the younger man debate about these topics quite well, although Freud would often get the better of the anxious Lewis. Wyatt Lamoureux as Freud, complete with German accent, and Michael Valliant-Saunders as Lewis, both provided wonderful deliveries of complex lines and arguments about the (non-)existence of God. At times the blocking felt a little forced, but to present two men in a room for an hour requires much movement, intensity, and humor to keep audiences’ attention.
Lamoureux, Valliant-Saunders, and Werger kept the audiences in good humor and on the edge of their seats, particularly during Freud’s bloody coughing fit near the end of the hour. As to the content of their debate, and an apparent solution or aporia about the (non-)existence of God, I found it to be less remarkable.
While completing two philosophy degrees, I’ve discovered that to question God is something I have little interest in. On the other hand, I overheard audience members speaking of their own religiosity, thus the play granted its spectators some critical observation and personal reflection. I would have preferred the play to further explore Freud’s essays on masculinity and what the psychoanalyst called a man’s “passive” and “feminine” attraction to other men. This session with Lewis may have been the perfect setting.
Whether God exists in His heaven or is a fiction created by our libido, the Peterborough Theatre Guild production of Freud’s Last Session was a success. If you missed it at the Theatre Guild’s venue, catch the play in a special performance at The Mount Community Centre on November 5th.
On October 30th, the Theatre Guild premieres their full-length production of Vern Thiessen’sVimy. The play runs until November 14th. http://www.theatreguild.org.
For Jane Werger’s production of Three Sisters read here: http://trentarthur.ca/review-of-jane-wergers-production-of-anton-chekhovs-three-sisters/
The Philanderer Speaks to the Contemporary Moment
- Written by Bernard Shaw
- Directed by Lisa Peterson
- Starring Gord Rand, Moya O’Connell, Marla McLean, Ric Reid, Michael Ball
- Company The Shaw Festival
- Venue Festival Theatre
- City Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
- Runs Until Sunday, October 12, 2014
Lisa Peterson’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s The Philanderer (1893) begins with a horizontal screen. The screen, which hangs over the stage, displays the first lines of the author’s written text: “A lady and gentleman are making love to one another….” In the darkness we hear the sounds of sexual pleasure and realize this is a rather brash introduction, especially once we learn that the man and woman are not yet wed.
The two lovers are Leonard Charteris (Gord Rand) and Grace Tranfield (Marla McLean). Charteris and Grace, at this juncture, both wish to wed if the former can be rid of his current lover, Julia Craven (Moya O’Connell). As the story progresses, after frequent remarks about the encroaching “advanced ideas,” namely, the “new woman” (read: independent and intellectual), Grace turns Charteris away. However, fearing he may fall prey to Julia’s advances again, Charteris sets up the conditions for a young doctor to seduce and propose to Julia.
The success of this marriage between Dr. Paramore (Jeff Meadows) and Julia is measured by years: in the play’s final act, some four years later, the Doctor has grown tired of Julia and has found a new love in none other than Grace. Divorce is near impossible given the “pigheaded laws” of England at the time, thus the third act is a rampant and undisguised criticism of government intervention in the beds of citizens. The final scene also reunites Charteris and Julia in a passionate and foolish embrace, an embrace that leads down a path which, we hope, will not end in wedlock. We know that even if the divorce from Paramore is successful, the same fate awaits Julia with her next husband.
There is much to love about Peterson’s production. John Law has articulated this well in his review. Peterson, however, underestimates the play’s applicability to the contemporary moment. In her “Director’s Notes” she writes that we no longer suffer from the same silly laws regarding divorce, but the plight of Shaw’s characters is similarly ours, I would suggest, albeit framed with contemporary “advanced ideas.” There has not yet been a review to address this point. Law, J. Kelly Nestruck, and Richard Ouzounian fail to mention the play’s modern applicability.
Our current social and cultural problem is less the law than it is norms. Marriage rates have plummeted due, in part, to differing forms and structures of romantic relationships. Shaw was keenly aware of changes in romantic relationships and sought to depict them in his play. The playwright’s emphasis was not the divorce laws, though they were bad and Shaw was clearly not fond of them; rather, Shaw was interested in the pressures individuals face when the experiences of their own romantic lives conflict with the narratives of contemporary mores.
Today we are more accepting of various forms of sexual and intimate contact. We are increasingly positive about singlehood, promiscuity, open relationships, non-monogamous relationships, and polyamorous relationships with multiple live-in partners. Shaw’s characters are met with resistance from older generations in their efforts to secure personal happiness with alternatives to long-term marriage – the same is true today, thus Peterson’s production of The Philanderer arrives in a moment of comparable intensity. Despite openness about new romances, we are still in a state of ambiguity and conflict about whether the “advanced ideas” will destroy the moral fabric of society or, as history has demonstrated, will be assimilated into popular morality in due course.
Grace and Julia’s fathers (played by the twin-like Michael Ball and Ric Reid) sensed that the old ways were deteriorating. While they do not condone divorce (Immoral! they say), the future appeared inevitable, and so they pool their resources to aid Paramore and Julia in their fight for romantic freedom. This is the lesson we must learn from The Philanderer: advanced ideas about love, sex, and gender are here and they are here to stay.
I’m in here.
I’m in here.
This seems pretty great. Erin Manning is the keynote speaker.