Sigmund Says: Analysts Expand Their Horizon By Going Beyond Father Freud

WOODY ALLEN HAD A SESSION BARBARA WALTERS HAD A SESSION ALEC BALDWIN HAD A SESSION JERRY STILLER HAD A SESSION MARCIA GAY HARDEN HAD A SESSION WARNER WOLF HAD A SESSION CELESTE HOLM HAD A SESSION DICK CAVETT HAD A SESSION JOHN CLEESE HAD A SESSION T.R. KNIGHT HAD A SESSION PATRICIA HEATON HAD A SESSION DAN LAURIA HAD A SESSION

So goes the sign out front of the theater where Freud’s Last Session is playing. It is referring to the celebrities who have gone to see the play. Based on The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr., it imagines an encounter between C.S. Lewis and Freud on the day England declared war on Germany, a few weeks before Freud’s death. The two are in Freud’s study in London; Freud provides the comic relief. He talks to a non-complacent dog. He says things like, “Psychoanalysis does not profess the absolutes of religion. Thank God.” As a recurring joke, he answers the phone with a drastically drawn-out Teutonic “Hey-looooo?” When Lewis enters the room for the first time and hesitates before the famous couch in the study, Freud sneers at him and tells him to sit in the chair by his desk. That got a big laugh from the crowd.

“From day one, Freud was a huge magnet to pull people,” said Mark St. Germain, the production’s playwright of the audience-garnering subject.

Psychoanalysis changes along with culture, but Freud stays the same. Analysts and theorists continue to work with him, to build on his foundations, but to much of the American public he remains a cocaine-sniffing, whacky old man, the kind who speaks of an unseen other, buried deep inside us, who really just wants to play house with Mommy. His life’s work, of course, goes deeper than that, and what he created persists—but he remains, as one practicing Freudian called him, “a figure of levity.” For that, Freud is the great patriarch of mental health: both feared and respected, hated and idealized.

Near the beginning of Mr. St. Germain’s play, there is a moment that alludes to a scene from Freud’s childhood that is recounted in Peter Gay’s brilliant biography Freud: A Life for Our Time. His father, Jacob, a feckless wool merchant, was talking to his son about how much life had improved for Austria’s Jews. “When I was a young fellow,” he told Freud, “one Saturday I went for a walk in the streets in your birthplace, beautifully decked out, with a new fur cap on my head. Along comes a Christian, knocks off my cap into the muck with one blow, and shouts, ‘Jew, off the sidewalk!’” Freud asked his father what he did. He said: “I stepped into the road and picked up my cap.” “I don’t know which of them I detested more,” the dying Freud tells Lewis in the play.

It is the one indisputable fact that Freud got right: there’s no living down one’s parents.

mmiller@observer.com