Creating Freud’s Study

November 2, 2012

By Chris Haig, Properties Master

In 1885, as a young researcher, Freud attended a dinner at the house of the illustrious Charcot in Paris.  A letter described the scene to his fiancée – the furniture, carpets, tapestries, Indian and Chinese antiques. It was ‘in short – a museum’. Here was a model the penniless student could only admire and envy. But by 1896 his earnings were increasing and in that year he mentioned decorating his study with plaster casts. In 1898 he wrote of buying a Roman figure, which his three-year-old daughter Anna called an “old child”. In August 1899, while writing The Interpretation of Dreams, he wrote of ‘old and grubby gods’ that took part in the work as paperweights. Two years later, he wrote that ‘a fragment of Pompeian wall with a centaur and a faun transports me to my longed-forItaly’. By 1909 a collection existed, but it was still in its initial stages. By 1939, however, Freud had amassed over 2000 objects and the collection encompassed items from the ancient Near East, Egypt, Greece, Rome and China, together with a sprinkling of objects which might be described as ethnographic.
– An excerpt from 20 Maresfield Gardens: A Guide to the Freud Museum London

Director Ian Merrill Peakes and set designer David P. Gordon decided very early on in the design process for Freud’s Last Session that they wanted to recreate Freud’s London study, where the play takes place, as accurately and as detailed as possible. So it was crucial for the props and set dressing to match the items found in photographs of the actual location.

Luckily, Freud’s office in London is now The Freud Museum. It remains in exactly the same arrangement as when Freud worked there. There are two wonderful books (one of which is quoted above) describing in great detail the artifacts, artwork, furniture and décor inside Freud’s home and office. These were critical to our work. We also contacted the curator of The Freud Museum for more detailed information and our Costume Designer, Katherine Fritz, actually had the chance to visit the museum in September and returned with wonderfully detailed and close-up photos from the room. We had a plethora of reference materials to work from while creating our set.

Having the play set in a place and time that actually existed had its benefits and challenges. A benefit was that from day one we knew exactly what we were looking for to recreate the study. We knew we needed a certain desk, couch, chairs, books, artifacts, rugs and curtains. The challenge was the same thing: finding exact replicas of all those things! We knew what we were looking for, just needed to find it. The carpet, for example, that lays over the infamous analysts couch is so specific that we couldn’t settle for one that wasn’t just right. We took a few liberties with the arrangement of furniture to accommodate the playing space, but for the most part, the audience enters into an almost exact replica of Freud’s office.

Freud had over 2000 antiquities in his collection at the time of our play, much kept in storage, but many in display cases and shelves in his study. During an Arden staff meeting in August, I let everyone know that I was on the hunt for artifacts for the set.Leigh Goldenberg, the Arden’s Marketing and PR Manager, is friends with the PR director at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology,Pam Kosty, and thought they might be willing to loan us some things for the show. We were very lucky as the Penn Museum hosted a traveling exhibition of some of Freud’s artifacts several years ago and the museum staff had a working knowledge of what was in his collection. When we arrived for our initial meeting, Chrisso Boulis and Anne Brancati from the museum’s Registrar’s office had already pulled a number of items from their collection that were appropriate to the type of artifacts Freud collected. We took them all! A few weeks before opening we picked up the donated items from the museum and added them to the set.

There are over 200 “artifacts” on the stage of Freud’s Last Session at the Arden. Of those, 18 are from the Penn Museum. The largest bulk of the remaining artifacts were donated by members of the Arden’s Sylvan Society. During that August staff meeting when I asked for help, our Development Director, Angela DuRoss, suggested asking our donors if they would be interested in loaning items to Freud’s collection. We got an amazing response and eventually five Sylvan members loaned over 100 items from their personal collections. We could not have filled the set up without their generosity and faith in the company. The remaining artifacts were bought at flea markets, online and created in the prop shop by myself, our talented production interns, Alyssa Velazquez and Liz Nugent, and several Arden Professional Apprentices.

The Arden’s production of Freud’s Last Session is breathtaking in its detail, from Jorge Cousineau’s authentic 1939 recordings playing on the radio to the wood grain on the display cases recreated in exacting detail by scenic artist Kristina Chadwick. Our intention was never to impress the audience with the artistry it took to recreate this place and time in history so accurately, but to allow them to step inside the inner sanctum of Sigmund Freud and breath the air (however, cigar-smoke-filled it may have been) that he did; to take a seat on his couch and share in the brilliant (however fictional) conversation between himself and C.S. Lewis.

The psychoanalyst like the archaeologist in his excavations must uncover layer after layer of the patient’s psyche before coming to the deepest most valuable treasures.
–Sigmund Freud

Photos from The Freud Museum of Freud’s actual study:

Set Design sketch by David Gordon:

The Arcadia Stage before any set dressing, lighting, or final painting was complete:

The final set with complete stage lighting and dressing. (Photo by Mark Garvin):

2 Responses

  1. sandi foxx jones says:

    loved the show and would love to attend the event at the Penn Museurm

  2. Tamar Adini says:

    Your enclosed information about the background of the play, its director and the props will make the play (for me) much more enjoyable, give me a better understanding of the man Freud and his philosophy.
    I have a personal interest in Freud, since my father studies in Freud classes in the Medical School of the University of Vienna.

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