Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Freudian Psychology

The Failed "Bromance" Between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung

A review of "Vienna," a two-person play.

Key points

  • A portrayal of the bromance gone bad between Freud and Jung, in the formative years of psychoanalysis
  • Just about all theories are subject to the sands of time
  • Freud and Jung were theorists of the mind, with each given to his own speculations
  • Don't get caught in the cross-fire of intellectual giants
Vienna, the play, fair use
Vienna, early 20th C.
Source: Vienna, the play, fair use

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have been considered to be among the most influential (Western) thinkers of the 20th century. Nowadays, however, they are mostly known and of interest to a diminishing number of people, primarily academics and a niche group of psychiatrists and psychologists, mostly over 50, educated, white, and privileged. My, how quickly psychological theorists of the mind disappear “…down the foggy ruins of time.”

Stories, however, are timeless.

The play "Vienna," which premiered on YouTube, tells the story of the seven-year platonic bromance between these intellectual and societal giants. Their friendship began with a 13-hour, non-stop conversation (perhaps replicated by the play's non-stop dialogue). Freud was more than twice Jung’s age, and already disseminating his theories, but to a wary and resistant medical community. They continued to communicate through enough letters (handwritten and mailed) to fill a book.

Do all good things come to an end? This friendship did—perhaps in a way that was more tragic than contentious. Both were pitched from the comfort(s) of their attachment into a dark aloneness, no stranger to their hearts, as the script discloses. No matter, that their inner yearnings were surrounded by the glitter of their quests—to reveal the mysteries of our minds.

"Vienna" is a two-person play (in two acts), qua film. We view Freud and Jung on a split-screen, from the waist to their face, facing the camera, in non-stop repartee. Their respective background "stage" sets, ironically (I imagine), are utterly identical consulting rooms, replete with the same shelves of books and wall hangings. The viewer only escapes their often self-absorbed dialogue by occasional, monochrome photographs portraying the Vienna of their times, with its horse buggies, male gatherings of psychoanalysts, and the rise of Hitler, with his armored vehicles, book burnings, and the unfolding inhumanities against the Jews.

What led to this parting of the seas of psychoanalysis? What spawned the quite immiscible camps of Freudian and Jungian schools of thought?

Freud proclaims that Jung, early in their friendship and his career, had promised the Professor, his mentor and champion, unwavering support and obeisance to Freud’s theories of the mind. Freud is betrayed by Jung going his own way and fashioning his own ideas, including the collective unconscious, a near relative of spirituality. Jung had reneged on his promise. Hell also hath no fury than a bigger-than-life man scorned.

Jung, as the play portrays, returns fire. He unleashes, in an all-so-proper dialogue, that he no longer believes (based on his own clinical and speculative work) Freud’s theories. Jung implies they are preposterous, especially infantile sexuality, which the Professor held as central to his discoveries of the mind, and the “revolution” he had created. The battlefield on the split-screen continues, as Freud alleges that Jung slept with his patients—stole from them, too. Their bromance has been torched, never again to see the light of day.

We have here a fine story but curiously told. We are listening in on a conversation, rather than witnessing a major earthquake in Western culture and ideology. There are words, but no action; simply the ceaseless dialogue between these two iconic and self-absorbed old men. The actors, Harris Yulin (Freud) and Stacey Keach (Jung), who also was the director, must make do, for 90 minutes, with a static set dominated by full-frontal images of the men (but for the photos punctuating the play).

As a psychiatrist, I trained in an era when Freudian psychology was in command of my field. I spent six years on the “couch,” four times a week, in Freudian Psychoanalysis. My analyst was a former president of the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute. But I did not train to be a psychoanalyst. I could not sit still long enough to spend my workdays that way.

Thus, I am personally familiar with Freudian psychoanalysis, but do not hold to many of its theories, including the tripartite structure of the mind, with its id, ego, and superego; the life and death instincts; and psychosexual development, which posited infantile sexuality and the Oedipal concept. But I do hew to both Sigmund and Anna Freud’s (his daughter) concepts of the mind’s mechanisms of defense, and to the unconscious, but blended with a collective unconscious. I recall reading Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1889) and left wondrous—not so much by its literal interpretations, but by the Professor’s opening wide a door to our minds.

I say all this because I am neither friend nor foe to psychoanalysis, merely a clinician who forages about everywhere, including analysis, to better my craft. I am, as well, a reviewer who approaches this play's story and lead characters with humility, though perhaps not always achieving that virtue. I admire and respect the demands of good acting, and the hard work of writing a story. I also teach that non-fiction essays (including reviews) should have a POV (Point of View),

That said, could this tale of a friendship gone bad between two towering intellects of the 20th century be told in an audio podcast of 20 minutes? Yes, I think, paradoxically allowing for more of the story’s meaning to be told. Such a rendering would be much more digestible to those whose intellect and curiosity exist outside the psychoanalytic edifice. For those who might want to travel back to a formative era of psychological theory and practice—imagine how "heady" those times must have been.


Psychoanalysis: Journeying Into Therapy,…

More from Lloyd I Sederer M.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Lloyd I Sederer M.D.
More from Psychology Today