Dr. Freud, Have You Met C.S. Lewis?

By Kenneth Jones
22 Jul 2010

Martin Rayner and Mark H. Dold
Martin Rayner and Mark H. Dold
Photo by Kevin Sprague

With no couch in sight, actors Martin Rayner and Mark H. Dold — currently playing psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and author C.S. Lewis, respectively, in Off-Broadway's Freud's Last Session — discuss playing major figures in modern thought. VIDEO added!

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Dold and Rayner created their roles in the world premiere of the Mark St. Germain play in June 2009 for Barrington Stage Company's Stage 2 in Massachusetts. A sold-out run led to three return engagements in Pittsfield, MA (two in late summer 2009 and one in spring 2010). Commercial producers in New York City plucked up the "what-if?" play, a fictional meeting between atheist Freud and Christian writer C.S. Lewis. Their encounter in 1939 comes weeks before Freud's death and years before Lewis was internationally known for his spirituality essays and "Chronicles of Narnia" parables.

Actors Dold and Rayner sat down to discuss the play — now at The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side Y at 10 W. 64th Street at Central Park West in Manhattan — and Playbill.com eavesdropped, putting their larger questions in boldface type.

Mark H. Dold: Martin, last year when you first found out that you were going to play Freud in the Barrington Stage Company premiere, did the name Sigmund Freud intimidate you somehow? There's so much baggage attached to that name and that character.



Martin Rayner: Well, no, not really. I had played Sigmund Freud about 20 years ago, a younger version of Sigmund Freud, so I had done quite a bit of research then and sort of gotten over my intimidation at that point. And then this time around, he's much older, he's 83 and feisty and funny, and so I really kind of felt it was really fun to go back to him. And I went onto YouTube and I watched some very interesting footage of him walking around doing various things and read some of his books and really started to immerse myself into him and began to have quite a lot of fun quite quickly.

Mark: So would you say, this time around or generally, are you an actor who does quite a great deal of research or would you say that most of what you use comes from the text itself?

Martin: I would have to say, probably the text, ultimately. I do the research that I know I need to do, but it comes to a point where you're really playing the text and you're really playing the structure of the play, which may have taken liberties with reality and may have embellished it, so with the director and writer — and with you — and my own research, there's a lot of discussion that happens early in rehearsal. There are a lot of things that you need to know — or find out that you need to know — as you go through rehearsal. So I did not spend a lot of time [researching]. I spent a lot of time thinking about becoming Freud, but not so much the academic.

Mark: And with the little bit of research you went back to do, were there any fun facts about Freud that you had forgotten?

Martin: Well, what was fun about him was that he was a flawed character, I thought, in a way. His use of drugs, not only nicotine but [also] cocaine and so on, and the people that he actually analyzed early on were a particular demographic. They were a rather — what's the word? — rarefied demographic. So he wasn't getting, necessarily, typical results from his analysis, and I think he was very subjective in his work. But in playing him, that's what makes me have fun with his rather cantankerous, funny, quirky nature.

Actors Mark H. Dold and Martin Rayner talk about creating the characters of C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud for Freud's Last Session.
Martin: Let me ask you something, Mark. Did you know the writings of C.S. Lewis before this play, the fiction or the writings on Christianity and faith? I think you actually stopped looking at his works from the age that you play him. Is that right?

Mark: Right, yeah. I didn't set out thinking this, but as I started my research, I decided to stop at Sept. 3, 1939, which is the date this play takes place. Frankly, there's just so much, I could still be reading now, nine months later. I was familiar with "The Chronicles of Narnia," of course, but that takes place after this play, [plus] "Mere Christianity" and "A Grief Observed" — I think that's it. …I have to admit that my knowledge of the man was pretty general. I knew those writings, but his biography, that information, I was not aware of. So I went back to a book that I found called "Surprised By Joy," which is Lewis' younger life, and I found that to be really, really informative.

Martin: What other preparation? I mean, we're both using different accents than our own. How does that feel?

Mark: Well, the funny thing is that he's an Irishman. His family is Welsh, originally. He grew up in Ireland, but he has this English accent, which I found interesting. When we started rehearsal, I was sure he should have an Irish accent, but of course he spent most of his life in England.

Martin: Some of those Dubliners speak better English than the English.

Mark: Yeah, you would probably know more about that than me. I've never been there. Ask me again?

Martin: Just [what was] your preparation? I had to look at the physical [aspects of Freud] a great deal, because I had somebody very specific — an icon that everybody would recognize — so I was very much interested in that.

Mark: No, I didn't have that problem. And I remember going to Mark St. Germain and Tyler Marchant, our director, saying, "Should I be doing more of this? Because we're putting this energy and this effort into Freud, should we be doing the exact same thing with C.S. Lewis?" But I guess I got off a little bit easy there, because people don't really have that iconic image of C.S. Lewis burned into their brains the same way they do [with] Freud. So I didn't have to go on YouTube, as you did, and see if I could find him walking or talking.

 

Sigmund Freud

Martin: But you did go on a vacation to London and ended up at his house.

Mark: That was amazing. Between the second and third time we did this show — 'cause this is the fifth incarnation, believe it or not. We did it four times at Barrington Stage [in] Pittsfield, MA. I had this trip to London planned, just coincidentally, and I actually got to go to the Freud Museum, this house in London where our play takes place, and walk into the room and breathe the air and see that couch and his desk and all the artifacts, and it's quite a stunning place. I'm sure I was hit by it more because I was living this play simultaneously, but it's quite an amazing, eccentric room and anybody who has the opportunity to go there, I would suggest that you take it.

Martin: And how ironic that you saw my home and I haven't seen it. [Laughs].

Mark: Yeah, if I could have bottled the air up and brought it back to you, I would have. And you know, what was actually surprising about it for me, in particular, is that the street is remarkably beautiful and the home is really quite large and airy and bright, and I don't know why I expected Freud's house to somehow be tight and dark and severe. It's none of those things.

Martin: I think that may be because he was lifted out of that dangerous environment [Nazi Europe] and taken probably somewhere that they got for him, I imagine. I'm not sure if he would have picked it out.

Mark: And I've only seen the Vienna home in books, but of course, that would be nice to have a journey there as well, too.

Martin: Did you feel like I did, that when you read the script, you didn't understand how funny and witty and, in a way, gripping it was? I certainly didn't, when I first read the script.

Mark: When I first read the script, I didn't understand it. [Laughs]. I had to go back and re-read it a number of times. I think one can make the mistake of having this be a purely intellectual exercise, an intellectual argument, and I found that I was falling into that, and when you begin to look underneath at just these men, and what's brought them to these points in their lives, and why they're talking about what they're talking about and why they believe in what they believe in, then it all really began to make sense to me.

Martin: And another aspect of that for me is that, obviously there's humor in the script, but I think we as actors brought a lot of humor and comedy to the roles as part of our contribution.

Mark: I agree. But don't you think it's interesting that it seems to be funnier, for some reason, here in New York? Just a little bit more than it was in Massachusetts, and I can't quite understand it. It must be the people who are seeing it.

Martin: Yes, I agree. We've had a lot of Upper West Side people of the Jewish persuasion, and I think that they're very astute audiences. They're very quick to laugh. I think that this play could be done rather dryly, and I think that the fun we've had in rehearsal is finding little moments that really are nothing to do with the script. Just little nuances that are human and fun.

Video highlights from Freud's Last Session:  Continued...