Playwright Mark St Germain

Anthony Hopkins to Star in Freud's Last Session

By: - May 29, 2023

During the summer of 2006, the premiere of Mark St. Germain’s “Freud’s Last Session” was a hit for Barrington Stage Company. Toward the end of the run we met for brunch at Dottie’s a short walk from the theatre in Pittsfield, Mass.

That was the first of many such meetings. Other plays would follow. Noting a special relationship, the smaller of Barrington’s two stages is named for him. Many of the 25 or so plays that he has written have premiered at BSC. 

Through e mails and interviews there has been an ongoing discussion of the creative process as well the turmoil of lives in the arts. It has been insightful to explore how plays come to life in real time. A measure of success is the degree to which they are picked up with productions after a first run at Barrington Stage. 

Although he doesn’t keep track, St. Germain estimates that there have been about a hundred productions of “Becoming Dr. Ruth” and numerous ones for “Dancing Lessons.” His most successful play is “Freud” which has had more than 200 global productions. 

We met for lunch recently to catch up with a new play “The Happiest Man on Earth” this summer for Barrington Stage as well as a film of “Freud” currently being shot in Ireland starring Sir Anthony Hopkins. It has a tentative release date of Christmas. 

Because we live at opposite ends of the Berkshires we meet in the middle. There were a few e mails to confirm date and time, including that morning.

I arrived and waited fifteen minutes before ordering. As I was leaving Mark, who hailed me, was arriving. There had been a mixup on his end. 

A lot has been going on that had him off kilter. In addition to the pressure of a new play and movie he told me that his ex wife had died recently. There were complications from a fall in an assisted living facility. 

The maître d’ was surprised to see me back so soon. Seating us he asked “Are you still hungry?” I had a small soup while Mark ordered lunch. We talked on background before the interview that follows. 

Charles Giuliano You have a new play this summer at Barrington Stage.

Mark St Germain Yes, it’s called “The Happiest Man on Earth.” The book which I base the play on was written by Eddie Jaku. He was a German Jew who was transferred to three different concentration camps ending up at Dachau. He broke out of one as well as another only to sneak back in. When he escaped and tried to get help people shot at him. He realized that he would be killed and it was safer inside the camp. 

It was about having survived those ordeals that he was able to fit his life back together. In the end he called himself “The Happiest Man on Earth.” He came out pretty numb emotionally. He distrusted people and there was no joy in his life. He married a woman he met after the war who was very patient with him. 

He didn’t want to be around people. He avoided any social situation. Eventually, having a son stunned him back into life. Never having talked about his experiences over the years, and never talking about it with his family, he changed and co-founded the Holocaust Museum in Sydney, Australia. He started telling people about his experiences and giving speeches to students. His fame spread starting in Australia. When the book came out now it’s in 13 different languages with very strong sales. He’s become a figure of inspiration. 

Two years ago he died but they did an animatronic version of him which will be in a museum. It will be a robot of Jaku who will sit there and tell a story. It will be able to interact with an audience asking questions. So he can sit there and talk to students.

CG What attracted you to the subject and how did you pitch it to Julie (Julianne Boyd the now retired artistic director of Barrington Stage Company)? 

MSG I didn’t sell it to Julie that was through Alan Paul (the new artistic director). I happened upon a website where people listed their favorite books. When I came upon names I didn’t know I looked them up. When I came on “Happiest Man on Earth” I thought ‘what the hell is this?’ I ordered the book and it was really inspiring. 

I started to write the play and about half way through I offered it to Alan. I wasn’t sure he would do it as he is directing “Cabaret” this summer. Eventually, he decided that he would do it. 

CG You had expressed concerns about regime change at Barrington Stage. The norm is for a new artistic director to bring in their own people and agenda. 

MSG I was convinced that I was out the door. But he is very smart about making a smooth transition. This season Julie will be directing three of her favorite actors. That was a very positive decision. People love Julie so the fact that she is doing a show is terrific for the theatre and for the audience.

(A revival of Faith Healer (August 1-27), a modern classic by Irish playwright Brian Friel (Dancing at LughnasaTranslations), starring BSC Associate Artists Christopher Innvar (BSC: The Importance of Being EarnestA Doll’s House, Part 2Private Lives), Mark H. Dold (BSC: Waiting for GodotHarry ClarkeFreud’s Last Session) and Gretchen Egolf (BSC: A PicassoMuch Ado About NothingPrivate Lives) and directed by Julianne Boyd.)

CG Previously you had told me of coming to a creative dead end so this new play surprises me.

MSG That’s true and who knows what next year will bring. I think we (Alan) and I have developed a relationship but he has brought in a managing director. He had to do it. Julie always did everything. Dealing with staff, numbers. She had an assistant who did negotiations with people. But Julie did everything. The manager who is coming in will take care of business. All Alan will have to do is be artistic director. If there’s a personnel issue he will not be dealing with it. For marketing problems he will be consulted but not responsible. Julie kept her eye on everything. 

CG What are your expectations and challenges for this new play? Where does it situate in your considerable oeuvre. 

MSG I was wondering if we needed another Holocaust inspired play. This was about the time when a rapper was posting anti-Semitic remarks. 

(Rapper Kanye West is the latest anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist to be undone by his own delusions. What began with a few unhinged social-media posts from the artist, who now goes by Ye, culminated in a week-long whirlwind of anti-Semitic invective.)

There has been a rise of anti-Semitism. I realized that there is never going to be enough response so I decided to do it. I’m hoping the play will have an audience but it’s always a guess. 

“Eleanor” only recently got published. It’s a long process. That’s starting to have productions. I’m hoping that it’s a solid as “Dr. Ruth” has been, another one person show. 

CG That must be very attractive to small regional companies with one actor and limited production costs. That would make them economical to produce.

MSG You would think but I’m not so sure with “Eleanor.” It’s worked with “Dr. Ruth.”

CG How many productions have there been of “Dr. Ruth.”

MSG I’m guessing that there have been a hundred. There’s been a lot though I don’t keep track of it. 

CG How many productions have there been of “Freud’s Last Session.”

MSG At least double. “Freud” has been done all around the world. It has again been brought back to South Korea. It’s being done in Buenos Aires. It went through so many theatres, especially regional theatres in this country, that they kind of have all done it. So I don’t expect more productions to result from the release of the film. 

CG Let’s talk about the transition from stage to screen.

MSG I had written a number of screenplays. I realized that to make it work it had to be completely opened up. The time they spend in the house talking had to be supplemented by the world outside. The obvious thing is to show bomb raids, shelters, that kind of thing. There are flashbacks to both of their youths. 

Anna Freud’s story is part of it. (Anna Freud, 3 December 1895 – 9 October 1982, was born in Vienna, the sixth and youngest child of Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays. She followed the path of her father and contributed to the field of psychoanalysis.)

There is her relationship with her father as well as the woman she spent the rest of her life with. It’s contradictory, the homosexuality, and his analysis. Today it is verboten for a therapist to analyze their own family members. 

So it’s a whole different animal, a much different story. The core of it (the play) is still intact. The arguments are intact. There is much of the original dialogue but certainly not all. There are things that are shown rather than talked about. 

In the play, for example, Fraud talks about his father and one of the strongest memories is walking in the street with his father. A group of guys see the Jew passing by and knock his hat off. It’s in the mud. The father picks it up, puts it on, and keeps going without saying anything. Things that are talked about in the play can be visually represented.

There is the relationship between Lewis and Mrs. Moore, the mother of his best friend who got killed in the war. That’s explored. I’m sure that will be jumped on. There are those who believe he had a physical relationship with her and others who don’t. Lewis and his friend made a pact that if either died during the war they would take care of the other’s mother. She lived with him and his brother. 

My guess is that they did have relations as they had adjoining bedrooms with a door in between. 

CG The consensus is that “Freud” has been your most successful play; now becoming a film. Why is that?

MSG It’s unusual to put out there themes that the play explores. What’s the point of existence? Is there an afterlife? God? The nature of man? The importance of sexuality? I don’t think that’s often handled. The play takes two people, diametrically opposed, putting them in a room, and letting them fight it out. 

CG Did it happen in real life?

MSG No. They were contemporaries and it’s possible that Freud read Lewis. The book that inspired the play is “The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life” (2003 by Armand Nicholi). I saw the book on sale and looked at the cover thinking these guys have nothing in common. That prompted the idea of what if they had met? Freud was dying and still fighting with the idea of God. Having them meet on the first day of the war jacked it up a bit. It was a matter of finding a way in which they could meet.

Never in a million years did I think it would take off in the way that it did. When it started to sell tickets I was amazed by it as was Julie. Then trying to get it done in New York was a huge fight which the producer, Carolyn Rossi Copeland, took on. 

She fought hard to raise the money ($400,000). Every producer who was approached asked ‘why would people pay money to want to see this?’ They can go see a musical why would they want this? People did and told other people that they thought it would be interesting. That didn’t mean it would catch on but it ran for two years. 

It started at the little theatre in the West Side Y, a jewel box. They had a contract for three months and it was selling out. At the end of which they doubled or tripled the rent and Carolyn said no. The production moved to a larger off Broadway venue New World Stages. The cast was Martin Rayner (Freud) and Mark Dold (Lewis) who originated the roles for Barrington Stage. It moved to Chicago (with Rayner and Dold). 

CG How many plays have you written.

MSG Someone from Barrington said the other day “You know, we’ve now done 18 of your plays.” I don’t think it’s 18, maybe 16. There are some they haven’t done like “Relativity” and ones that I’ve done for Great Barrington Public Theatre. Things I’ve done before I met you. (2006)

CG So perhaps 30 plays.

MSG More likely 25.

CG To do these plays you dumpster dive into research. You have described having piles of books on potential subjects. So you have a series of areas of deep knowledge. Where is the through line that connects the dots and creates an intellect? Or are you puddle hopping these platforms of research.

MSG Puddle hopping. This has given me a great knowledge of trivia in certain areas. It’s all about message. 

CG From all that research you have to find an angle or hook.

MSG It’s about finding an entry point into the story. I was totally stymied by the “Eleanor” play. (Barrington Stage, 2021, starring Harriet Harris) I read somewhere that she went to the cemetery to think and I thought ‘That’s it.’ I’ll have her come in as a ghost and she can talk about anything. 

It’s a lot easier adapting from a book. With this one (“Happiest Man on Earth”) something he was very worried about was speaking at his son’s synagogue. And telling his story which he hadn’t done a lot. The entry to this that the actor will greet some people coming in, stand up, and say “My wife suggested that this is a good idea tomorrow. I thought it would be best to talk to friends first and you are my friends.” 

CG What happens when a play dead ends?

MSG I came back from the memorial service. (His ex-wife’s recent funeral.) I’m cleaning out things. There’s a box of stuff including plays that dead ended. I looked at one and on the cover is “The Plug.” It’s about a family having to decide to pull the plug. I don’t even remember writing it but I did in the past half year. I got up to about 15 pages and it dead ended. 

CG You had problems with Richard Dreyfuss in “Relativity” (2016, TheatreWorks in Hartford. The actor did not stick to the script and was difficult in rehearsals. The play had a successful run that was extended.) Did that production dead end?

MSG No it had other productions but was no way near as successful as my other plays. It’s had about a dozen productions. In Chicago it was very successful and sold out the entire run. But that was entirely due to Mike Nussbaum who played Einstein. It’s never been done here (Barrington) and I doubt that it will be. Obviously people weren’t interested in it. 

Freud as a personality was far more interesting to people than Einstein. People think they know Freud though they really don’t. 

CG Soon to be a major motion picture. Sony!

MSG Yes, they’re the distributor. Matthew Brown is the director. The producer who got Brown interested is Allen Greisman. That happened because my daughter, Kate, is a friend of his son. They’re best friends in New York. His father was in town so we invited him to dinner. He knew I wrote plays and said “Have you written screenplays?” I told

him about some of the ones I did. Then he said “Do you have anything?” I had written the “Freud” screenplay. I thought it was worth doing because the play was being done around the world. So it was worth a shot. I had done enough research to expand it.

CG How do you go from a play to a screenplay? 

MSG I don’t know if one is easier than the other as they are very different. It’s the difference between baseball and basketball. The hardest thing to write was a novel “The Mirror Man: A Thriller” because my mind doesn’t work that way. I can do images for film because it’s a visual medium. Describing the images bores me. 

CG You’ve taken “Freud” out of the room.

MSG Oh yes. 

CG When we see plays as films they often still feel like plays. I’m thinking of August Wilson’s “Fences” for example. 

MSG I’m thinking of “The Whale.” (2023 Oscar winner for actor Brendan Frayser.) In the play it all takes place in his apartment. How did they open it up? They did apparently but not that much. I haven’t seen the film yet.

There are some plays that adapt easily. I could readily adapt “Dancing Lessons.” I would if all of a sudden I had an agent. 

CG How did Anthony Hopkins (as Freud) come about?

MSG It took several years of working with Matt Brown trying to make a film. We had Christopher Plummer as Freud but producers kept saying “He’s not a big enough name.” Which is ridiculous. He would have been wonderful.

We both figured it was dead. It was a coincidence when a theatre company in California said “We’re doing ‘Freud’ ” They asked if they could film it? I figured, well, it’s never going to be a movie, so let me think about it. 

The next day Matt called and said “You won’t believe it but I just got a call from Anthony Hopkins.” He had it in a pile, picked it up, read it, called Matt and said “I want to do it.”

CG You went to Dublin where it’s being filmed. 

MSG If you’ve been on a set you know that it’s agonizingly slow. I just wanted to go over and meet Matt having talked with him for five years on the phone. 

I got the chance to see a couple of scenes being filmed. It was wonderful to meet the two actors, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Matthew Goode.

Once the filming is done, which is fairly soon, it goes to the editor to be put together. Based on just a couple of scenes it’s hard to get an appreciation of what it will be like.

CG Already there’s Oscar buzz.

MSG That’s only because of a Variety article and speculation. The only reason they’re speculating is because Anthony Hopkins is in it.

CG You’ve said that you think that Hopkins is playing a different Freud than other performances of the role.

MSG I think so. Because I just saw two scenes I can’t be definitive. But in reality the Freud of the play or movie could not have existed because of the timing. The action of the drama takes place on the day that England embarked on WWII. Freud was then in bed and dying so there is no way he could have been active.

CG He died of cancer of the mouth from smoking cigars.

MSG They can’t have helped. He never stopped smoking even when they removed the roof of his mouth and he wore a prosthetic.

I think that Hopkins is showing more of the physical pain of Freud and the condition he was in. So that will be different from a one-set sparing match. 

CG How does it feel to have a master at that level interpreting your work?

MSG It’s really that he liked the script and picked it up out of a pile. That was thrilling whether he did the movie or not. And actually having it happen is hard to accept. It still is. I didn’t believe it would happen until the day they started filming. There are so many things that can go wrong. So when they started filming I was just stunned. 

They sent me an image of the set they had built for his office and it was very elaborate. So, all of a sudden I thought, this thing is really going to happen.

Now it’s just a waiting game. I’m told it might be released on Christmas Day. That would mean a lot of fast editing. It’s possible but tight. 

CG You have implied stepping back from the filming with only one brief visit to the set. That implies leaving your baby at the orphanage.

MSG The fact that I was on set is very, very rare as writers are generally kept away at all costs. The fact that Matt welcomed me to visit was very unusual. Writers are a pain in the ass. He took the chance of me showing up, watching a scene, then saying to Anthony Hopkins, “You know, what I would do is…” 

Writers I have talked to are amazed that I was there. There’s nothing you can do but distance yourself. With theatre there’s a personal involvement and the most important thing is that not a word can be changed. 

CG Although you’ve had experiences of that. 

MSG (laughing) Yes. I have and that’s brutal. It happens and you say, wait a minute, I’m in the wrong medium again. In television and film anything goes…

CG One thinks of James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause.” The scene when he confronts his father wearing an apron is totally off script. Similarly, Coppola directing Brando in “Apocolypse Now” the scene in the cave is pure Brando.  Or, the opening scene of “Apocalypse” when Martin Sheen is actually drunk and smashes a mirror. During the press lunch I attended Sheen discussed how rather then get first aide Coppola kept filming and captured a brilliant performance. Method acting allows that latitude. 

Why not allow for that on stage?

MSG I don’t use improv at all. I wouldn’t work that way in theatre and probably would concentrate on books. It’s unfair in several ways. The intentions of the writer can be wiped out in seconds. Then secondly, if the actors were improvising things that the audience liked, then, they are the writers or co-writers. 

CG You did briefly meet Sir Anthony.

MSG I did and he was an ebullient personality. We talked about this film being in the same studio as the first film he did “Lion in Winter” which was written by James Goldman who I came to know and became a friend of. I always looked up to him because he did film, television and books. 

CG You told me that regarding famous people you would rather not meet them.

MSG I try to avoid it. I’ve had a couple of times when I have met famous people and my attitude toward them subsequently dropped dramatically. On the other hand, I will never again meet anyone like Nelson Mandela. I had done a rewrite on a movie they were making about him “Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom.” The producer decided that I needed to meet him. They flew me to Johannesburg and I was really nervous about meeting him. He was probably the only one I was really nervous about.

I was sitting in his outer office with no guards or anybody. The door opened and out walked Muhammad Ali shadow boxing with Mandela. I didn’t know what to do. Then Ali went and Mandela said “Oh, come in.” He sat on a couch and I was in a chair. I said to him “I’m going to ask questions about your marriage which you are probably not going to want to answer.” 

He said “My hearing is not so good, could you sit next to me.” So, all of a sudden, you’re side-by-side in a forced intimacy. He glowed; the man just glowed with personality. He was brilliant about how he handled it.

I would say, for instance, “When you got out of jail, with Winnie I thought that…” He told me “I’m not going to be commenting directly about what you’re writing.” I said “OK. I was thinking about you and Winnie that…” He would say “I would continue to think in that direction.” Or, he would say “There’s another way you can look at it.” 

Without answering anything directly, he really pointed the way. He was everything you would ever hope for. 

CG Overall, how did you find Anthony?

MSG I would have been glad to sit with him for hours and talk. But he was just taking a break. He wandered away from the shooting area stretching his legs. He just wanted some exercise walking around the church. I did not intend to meet him but he came upon us and asked who we were.

He was very well spoken and very interesting to listen to. We talked about “Lion in Winter.”

CG Did you feel he was receptive to you?

MSG Believe it or not, he was honestly pleased to meet me. The director had not told him that anybody was coming. He said how much he was enjoying it.

CG Why did they shoot in Ireland?

MSG Taxes. They gave them a good deal. It was economically smarter. The action takes place in Freud’s house in London and originally they were going to film there. When they went to Ireland they replicated the interior and had a shot outside the house. It’s not exactly like it but most people won’t notice.

CG It seems like an inexpensive film to make with a limited set and small cast with no elaborate special effects. 

MSG There’s a battle scene from WWI that’s a flash back for Lewis. It’s pretty challenging to do.

CG Do you like Freud? 

MSG Do I like him? Hmm, that’s a good question. Would I like to have dinner with him and ask a bunch of questions? Sure. I think he did acknowledge when he was wrong sometimes. But I don’t know if I like him or not. Personally. I find him very interesting.

CG How about Lewis?

MSG Six of one. He’s a much warmer personality because that’s the way he’s described. He would be good to have a pint at a pub with. But that’s not going to happen. I would have liked to have met Eddie Jaku the man I’m writing about now. He had a love of life that’s infectious. I met Dr. Ruth, of course, and am still close with her. I met with her just a couple of days ago. Sometimes when you do meet people it’s wonderful. Ruth was one of those people. Richard Gere was very surprising.

CG What was that occasion?

MSG I had been with Gere during a rewrite of a movie of his. We were in his kitchen talking and he’s a very serious guy. His dog came in and he was wrestling with it. The minute the dog came in he was a different person. He was much more open and alive. The same thing happened with Glenn Close. I thought, you know, there’s a thing about the relation of these people and their dogs. 

So I did a movie “My Dog: An Unconditional Love Story” (2009). The designer Isaac Mizrahi told me that he and his dogs were nuns in the 17th century. There were about 15 people: Edward Albee, Lynn Redgrave, Edie Falco, Richard Belzer, Richard Gere, Glenn Close, Greg Louganis…

Lynn Redgrave got the dog because she had cancer. She wanted to have a reason to get up and go outside every day. Greg Louganis was suicidal and decided he wanted to get into dog training.

CG I well recall your great canine pal Sarge. For now it’s time to say woof.