EXCLUSIVE: Dr. Freud, Have You Met C.S. Lewis? Actors of Freud's Last Session Sit Down for Analysis

By Kenneth Jones
July 22, 2010

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.

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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.

[AUDIO-LEFT] 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:
C.S. Lewis.
Mark: Now, the big question that I have for you is, has this play changed what you believe in, in any way? Has it forced you to reconsider?

Martin: No, it hasn't. But I'll tell you what it has done. It's made me look at the arguments, the back and forth, and look at both sides much more than I have in recent years in my life. I don't believe there's anything after death. I believe that the miracle of life is here and now, and I treat it as such, so for me the magic is that and not something that I hold onto that might come after. But I have come to understand better and appreciate more the argument on the other side of that, and what it has done is, actually, it's helped my own personal spirituality. Because although it hasn't changed me into thinking I'm going to go to heaven and all of those things, it has made me want to take some of the Christian ideals and bring them more into my life.

Mark: They can be pretty remarkable, can't they?

Martin: Yes. Powerful.

Mark: I feel the same way. Mine's kind of all of the above. I do have a strong spirituality, I think, but for me, I'd like to think that there's something out there, kind of watching over us. I do totally agree with you about the joy of the life that we're living, the joy of the moment, but I also think it would be really nice if there was some meaning behind all of it.

Martin: We could actually have our own debate right here, couldn't we? Just like the play. I think that's what's so wonderful about the play. It seems to me Freud would probably say we're born with parents, [and] therefore we're always looking for some father, mother, something, because it's a difficult world for all the creatures in it. I mean, it's dog eat dog and it's a vicious world in many ways, and nature's beauty is very functional. So I think it's natural for us to look at some nurturing larger force. I think, for me personally, I think of a higher power. It doesn't have [to be] some specific figure, it's just, there must be some intelligence to this somehow. And so I don't go beyond that, I just take the beneficence of that feeling and then get on with the day-to-day. [Laughs].

Mark: You know, one of the interesting things I've come to agree with Lewis is that he didn't necessarily think that religion in and of itself, organized religion, was the world's greatest thing. His issue wasn't the Church so much; it was more just a deeper spirituality than that. One of my favorite lines in the play that Mark has written is, "The greatest problem with Christianity are Christians, but you can't reduce a faith to an institution." I think that's really powerful, because for Lewis, it wasn't about the dogma of the church, necessarily. It was much greater than that, much bigger than that.

Martin: I had a thought about Brian Prather's set. I mean, obviously, it's my abode, as it were, that you come into, but we're both on it as actors and it's important that it's right for both of us. I feel terribly at home there, and I do go around looking at the knick-knacks and there are little favorite things that I have. I mean, I must say that the jar of mummified bandages is one of my favorite things, because we use it in the show, but I often have a look around at the other things. How does it feel for you as an actor?

Mark: I love it. I know many people have talked about the radio being the third character in the play, but I think the set in and of itself is as integral to what's happening as anything else. I think all of our designers have been amazing. Beth Lake, sound design. Clifton Taylor, lighting design. But in particular, Brian Prather's set design, I think, is amazing.

Martin: Well, we've all been on really awkward and difficult sets in our careers, I'm sure, but this one — well, first of all, it fits in the theatre so beautifully. I mean, it seems like an extension of the auditorium, which is wonderful. But it's such a small, real, warm, cozy set.

Mark: But at the same time, I love how kind of skewed and just a little strange it is, because then we have to remember that this meeting may never have happened. There is no real proof that this meeting happened.

Martin: And there is a sort of sense of it spinning in the black abyss of ever after.

Mark: Yes, I love that. It's slightly almost like Dorothy's house in "The Wizard of Oz" just as the storm is about to lift it up off the ground.

Martin: Yes, it is. It also, somehow for me, is very conducive to feeling very connected with the audience. Particularly these New York audiences — it's so wonderful how connected we feel to them. They're right there, and somehow the theatre is very alive that way. You can get a sense of them very quickly. But I feel incredibly at home on this set in this theatre.

Mark: I do, and I felt the same way at Barrington Stage Company…in their Stage 2, their smaller space. I think this show deserves that in a way, deserves this kind of intimacy. It's as if the audience is sitting there with us, as if they're sitting on the couch being analyzed by you.

Martin: And little did we know it was going to be the longest-running show in Barrington Stage history. It was supposed to be, like, a three-week gig, [five weeks] with rehearsal, and lo and behold, here we are, 70 shows later, in New York, taking bookings until the end of September and beyond.

Mark: How do you feel about the fact that so many people seem to be surprised that Freud took his own life? That's been buried under the carpet a bit.

Martin: Yes, There are icons where that sort of thing is important, like Marilyn Monroe, and there are icons where it's really inconvenient, and I think Freud is one of those. I think he's been a little bit sanitized, because it doesn't really fit the scenario of his life as an icon, I think. But final thoughts are that I'm always having final thoughts about Freud. I mean, he's an endless bucket to delve into as a character to play. I mean, every night, I sort of take him on and find new little things and colors in him, and then I'll go and read something about his life and look at some more photographs and just absorb that, and it seems to be an endless, ongoing process. And I really hope that that will continue, because, you know, as actors we need to be fresh and love to be fresh with the material, and I think by constantly going back to the source and finding new things, it's going to keep us fresh.

Mark: I agree. One of the things that I find personally so engaging about the script, is that here you have these two remarkable men, these two incredibly intelligent men, but the play is just, also, so remarkably funny.

Martin: Funny, funny, funny. It's the best of both worlds, because we've got a very real, good play with wonderful intellectual ideas that plays like a comedy. You have to say it. I mean, there are laughs constantly throughout the show. Some really big ones, and audiences go away not only feeling that they've seen a really great comedy, but also tones of comedy. Wit, sometimes farcical comedy, sometimes physically funny — almost slapstick, you would have to say.

Mark: Did you notice right away that it was funny? Because I did not.

Martin: No. A lot of people want the script after the show, because it's like a piece of complicated music [where] they want to follow the score. And so they hear us and they then want to go home and read the play. But when I read it, I didn't see any humor… Mark: I know. Who would have thought that a play that takes place as England is joining World War II, two weeks before Freud's death, that people would laugh [at it]?

Martin: It took me a while in rehearsal to understand that — though they have great debates and there's a lot of wit and humor — because Freud is frail and ill, there's an aspect of C.S. Lewis' Christianity (and his care and empathy) that perhaps reluctantly Freud begins to accept as he manifests more physical problems during the play. There's a tenderness that C.S. Lewis exhibits towards him and it's really a rather beautiful aspect of the play that develops as the play goes along. Don't you agree?

Mark: I do. I think one of the most fascinating things for me about playing Lewis is that this is a man who's lived on both sides of this coin. He was a believer the second half of his life and back and forth, believing and non-believing, the first half of his life. So I feel like he's got a great deal of understanding and compassion for where Freud is coming from. And I think it gives him — I don't know — his heart's enormous, because he understands and can truly appreciate the struggle that it takes on this journey to spirituality.

Martin: I'm not talking about the real Freud, but in our play, Freud probably is rather reluctant at first to accept this bond, but I think, as the play goes on, he does. It makes for a tenderness between them, I think. Definitely, at the end of the play, when we part, it's the parting of two people who have great respect and real affection for each other. They've been through air raids together, they've been through physical problems that Freud has had. They've been through really bad arguments and throwing mud at each other. They've been through the whole works.

Mark: Well, they've both lived through world wars, they've both lost people they loved desperately. They've both had a great deal happen to them.

Martin: Yes, and they've brought that to each other in some interesting way, so somehow their interaction, it feels like by the end, we've made a very deep bond. I mean, Freud says, "We will meet again, perhaps" and I think he really wants that.

Mark: I think so, too, and I actually think in a strange way, they are more similar than dissimilar, because they both care so deeply about this one subject, this one issue. They are so passionate about it, they've spent the greater majority of their lives researching and thinking, reflecting and searching.

Martin: It's wonderful that you said that word "passion" because I suddenly realize that Freud has a kind of brutal passion and Lewis has a gentle passion. But they're both equally intense, and I think it takes a while for Freud to realize that, that he's really met his match.

Mark: Yeah. Still waters run deep. And I love that about Lewis, too, because I don't think he comes to you with any intention of converting you. That was never his intention. One of the things that I loved in my research that I found out about him, one of the things that I remind myself generally before I go on every night, is that his intention was never to convert anyone. He just wanted people to understand, and if they needed a little bit more of it explained to them, then he laid it out for them. But the choice, for Lewis, is always yours, and I think regardless of where you fall, for Lewis, there was still profound respect and admiration.