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Faith and Hope

Barry Houlihan

Donal McCann was already reciting an incantation of Welsh and Scottish villages when the stage lights lit up his face for the first time, as the “Fantastic Francis Hardy, Faith Healer. One Night Only”. For the audience of the Abbey Theatre at its Irish premiere in August 1980, the darkness which hid Frank Hardy at the opening of Faith Healer was like a confessional – a shroud around a private moment of exchange where one reveals their transgressions in the hope of finding absolution.

Through clenched eyes and looking skyward McCann intoned a list of “all those dying Welsh villages” – the mesmerism, the sedation of the incantation – “Kinlochbervie, Inverbervie, Inverdruie, Invergorden, Badachroo, Kinlochewe, Ballantree, Inverkeithing…”– a necrology of place names. Kirks in Scottish nomenclature are akin to Irish Cills. They are church names, meeting places defined by faith, spaces which Friel made real in the theatre.

In its four decades since its Irish premiere, the play has created its own folklore, its own varied stories of sedation and spirituality. It is a play about an itinerant mystic, Frank Hardy, his harangued and grieving mistress, Gracie, and Teddy, a cockney stage-manager and fixer of Frank’s performances. As self-displaced exiles, Frank and his supporting cast travel the halls of Scotland and Wales meeting the locals who entrust their own bodily and spiritual restitution to “the man on the tatty banner”.

Fintan O’Toole has previously argued that the reason Faith Healer is so seldom performed is that it is so ingrained in public memory through McCann’s magisterial and hypnotic performance. It is a role ghostly inhabited by McCann to this day. Similarly, with Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire, a powerful play that is also structured through the mode of pure story-telling and the relentless telling and retelling of how the eponymous town got its name. The great Siobhán McKenna ascended to Irish cultural folklore in her role as Mommo, the bed-ridden matriarch of memory whose nightly recitation is an Odyssean journey through local folklore and family memory. First produced by Druid Theatre in 1985, the company did not revisit the play until 2015, when the role was inhabited by Marie Mullen, who had starred opposite McKenna in the original thirty years earlier. The “Fantastic Francis Hardy” in the form of McCann, has achieved a sort of deified memory embodied in the public’s mind. Like those who claimed to have been present when Munster beat the All-Blacks in Limerick’s Thomond Park in 1973, multiples more than ever numerically possible claim to have seen McCann at the Abbey at the play’s opening in 1980. Having played to such supposed numbers of audiences, McCann, unlike Frank Hardy, may actually have performed a miracle.

The lives of Frank, Gracie and Teddy are inextricably intertwined by faith – faith in Frank, faith that they can escape their pasts, faith that they can persevere and survive. They are also driven by the blind hope that only true faith can provide. But what happens when that faith threatens to break?

Frank Hardy can be likened to an early precursor of Don Draper, the anti-hero in the multi-award-winning television series Mad Men. Both men live under fraudulent identifies, are running from their past, lack empathy in their relationships with spouses and family and have more than a penchant for whiskey. The greatest similarity between the two men, however, lies in how crucial the power of their words and the sound of their voice is to their respective successes. Don says that “The timbre of my voice is as important as the content”, while Frank brags of being possessed with a unique and awesome gift, “my God, yes, I’m afraid [I am]”. Both men succeed or fail through acts of verbal persuasion. Though as Frank often suggests “that’s another story”.

The interplay between place, language and identity proved to be fertile territory for Friel in the period of his writing Faith Healer. As Lieutenant Yolland and Maura share a stolen moment in Translations (1980) they pronounce their mutual love through the medium (and barrier) of their respective languages. Yolland cries out to Maura: “Say anything at all. I love the sound of your speech.” In Friel’s Volunteers (1975), which depicted a group of political prisoners working on an archaeological dig in an Irish city, Keeney and Knox are trying to determine how skeletal remains they have unearthed may have met their bodily demise: “KEENEY: Maybe he was a victim of language.”

Faith Healer allows us to see both sides of life, the private and the public. (As Friel also so famously did with Philadelphia, Here I Come! in 1964). From Frank to Teddy to Gracie, we recognise the artifice of our outward facade while in private we construct ourselves from pieces of our memory. The tormented self-questioning by Frank of his abilities belies his outward confidence. He discloses to the audience the (rhetorical) question: “Could my healing be effected without faith? But faith in what? In me? In the possibility? Faith in faith?”

The monologue structure allows each speaker in the play a chance to speak, to pitch their story and experience of faith. As Lydia R Cooper has demonstrated, these monologues mimic the gospel accounts of Christ, recounting and interpreting Frank’s ministry, death, and message. And like those accounts, they contradict one another in many specifics. Each of Frank, Teddy, and Gracie believes steadfastly in their own version of events. So much so, it becomes difficult to unravel where one truth begins and another lie ends.

Faith Healer had its world premiere at the Longacre Theatre in New York in April 1979. The cast comprised James Mason as Frank, Clarissa Kaye as Gracie and Donal Donnelly as Teddy, directed by José Quintero. The play closed after just twenty performances. One reason at least for the poor opening run can be attributed to casting. While he was an internationally celebrated film actor, James Mason was seventy-one when he played Frank Hardy in New York. Donal McCann was thirty-seven when he took on the role. Ralph Fiennes was forty-three. Brian Friel commented on this question in an interview ahead of the Abbey’s premiere in 1980: “Mason did a kind of retrospective on his [Hardy’s] life. He told his story in retrospect and McCann in some way is telling his story as if it’s in the present.” While the play is about the conjuring of memory and exorcism of the past, it very much about the present and the life and act of not just the artist, but the universal experience of isolation.

Faith Healer today comes at a complex moment, socially and politically, for Ireland and speaks to contemporary times. The productions at the Abbey, in 1980 and now in 2020, have been bookended by papal visits to Ireland. The 1980 production would anticipate events throughout the subsequent decade which would see the beginning of an alteration of the “special relationship” between Ireland and the Catholic Church.

When Faith Healer opened in Dublin, the power the church wielded over the moral conscience of the majority was still great, buoyed by the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979. Over one million people turned out to greet the pope in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. Three hundred thousand turned out for a Youth Mass at Ballybrit in Galway, with thousands more at the various other official papal events. At Ballybrit, an energetic crowd listened to orations from Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary. Patsy McGarry, later religious affairs correspondent for The Irish Times, was present at the Youth Mass in 1979. On stage in Ballybrit was a trio of monologues on faith of a different kind. With the pope flanked on either side by Casey and Cleary, McGarry described the staging of the event by commenting that “even Christ was crucified between two thieves”.

The 1980s also was the decade which saw hunger strikes at the Maze Prison, the insertion of the eighth amendment into the Irish Constitution, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the “Gregory Deal” and other defining moments of social and political change. The summer of 1985 also saw the curious happenings at over thirty reported miraculous sites of moving statues, from Ballinspittle in Co Cork to Donegal. Thousands turned out in faith, hope, or superstition.

Ireland today also finds itself in a reckoning with its own past, its hidden secrets and its future identity as an increasingly secular State. In 2019, the visit of Pope Francis to Ireland to mark the World Meeting of the Family was marked by a gala event in Croke Park, itself a spiritual site in Irish nationalist and sporting history. Live television footage revealed large swathes of the stadium laying empty. The turnout at the Phoenix Park (on an albeit inclement day) was less than 200,000 people.

In 2006, Faith Healer was revived at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, directed by Jonathon Kent and featured Hollywood star Ralph Fiennes in the role of Frank, with Ingrid Craigie and Ian McDiarmid as Gracie and Teddy. The play was destined for Broadway, where it would transfer to the Booth Theatre (with Cherry Jones in the role of Gracie) and it received four Tony Award nominations and won the Best Featured Actor in a Play for McDiarmid.

The play’s opening in Dublin attracted huge public and media attention, not least of all for the celebrity of Fiennes in the lead role. It was the first time in the Gate’s history that a production sold out in full before its opening.

During its run at the Gate and the in the middle of the final climactic monologue, a mobile phone rang in the front row, and continued to ring, and ring, until Fiennes broke character, marched to the front of the stage and shouted “Turn that f***ing thing off!” Fiennes later met the offending party post-show and quipped that he would heal her later. Again, contemporary Ireland had come to bear in the production of Friel’s classic. It was symptomatic of Celtic Tiger Ireland and its worst excesses. Not even at a moment of artistic transcendence such as Frank’s closing monologue could we be freed from the ring tones of our Nokias.

This performance and production was strikingly different from its original in 1980. This was Faith Healer for a different Ireland – a new Ireland that was not seeking absolution from its past, but rather was unashamedly displaying its present excesses, and could care less. It was Faith Healer for Celtic Tiger Ireland. Fiennes cut a more brash, narcissistic and extrovert Frank Hardy, not so much “the man on the tatty banner”, more a shameless huckster peddling false promises, who, instead of spiritual healing, was offering metaphorical apartments in Bulgaria. Fiennes’s performance is digitally preserved within the Gate Theatre Archive at the Hardiman Library in NUI Galway. The video recording shows how his gaunt frame wore the costume of an ill-fitting suit, the jacket of which Fiennes nonchalantly swings behind his hips as he swaggers through his stories.

MacCann’s performance is also digitally preserved in the Abbey Theatre archive at NUI Galway. It is today still an otherworldly experience to witness him as Frank Hardy grasp at the illusion of wholeness. The genius in his performance lies in the physicality which he brought to the monologue role. Though a solitary figure on stage, dressed in a dark suit, worn thread-thin by travel, before a scattering of empty chairs, Frank holds the stage and audience in every movement of his hands, which are the tools after all, of the craft of faith healing. “When I placed my hands on him and watched him become whole in my presence, those were nights of exultation, of consummation.” Seeing this performance today still feels like a miraculous presence on screen.

Within the play, both Gracie and Frank counsel themselves in their private incantations, often sitting, alone, hunched and rocking on the balls of their feet, consumed in their recitation. A private keening. The role of Gracie is challenging, as her relationship to Frank is so complex. She admits to suffering “humiliation” at the hands (and words) of Frank but also feels dependent on him. Gracie was traumatised by the memory of her and Frank’s stillborn child. While Frank’s performances, and indeed livelihood, depend on the gravitas of ceremony and miraculous recovery, so too does Gracie and Teddy’s devotion to Frank. The resulting and tragic irony is that when Gracie gave birth at the side of the road, the stillborn infant was unceremoniously buried in unmarked ground: “Kinlochbervie is where the baby’s buried, two miles south of the village, in a field on the left side of the road as you go north.”

The burial site looks across to the Isle of Lewis, the largest island of the Western Isles or Outer Hebrides archipelago in Scotland. It is a site of monastic isolation, a theme Friel addressed in his 1968 play The Enemy Within, which told the story of the sixth century Ulster saint Columba, on the island of Iona, south of the Isle of Lewis. Frank’s journeying northward, to a sense of spiritual and physical wholeness, is never completed. He later instead returns to Friel’s Donegal heartland of Ballybeg.

The stillborn child metaphorically receives three burials as we are repeatedly told by Gracie of the child’s burial site: “in Kinlochbervie, in Sutherland, in the north of Scotland”. This is also a precursor to tragic events made possible by a patriarchal and stigmatising public morality of 1980s Ireland. The unimaginable isolation in death of Anne Lovett in 1984, the wrongful arrest of Joanne Hayes and the “Kerry Babies” case of the same year, culminating in the gendered silences of our histories. Many men, like Frank, have chosen to tell a different story and create new identities while women were vilified as “fallen women” in sin.

In his writing Friel was undoubtedly an internationalist. His plays captured the nuances of Irish society, its present as well as its pasts, but also looked outward. In works from Volunteers to Translations to his later adaptions of Turgenev and Chekhov, Friel mined the intricate contours of language, gesture and identity that are the base elements of his drama. He immersed himself in the world beyond Ireland and made it local. Writing in 1976 to his friend and fellow playwright Tom Kilroy, he wrote: “Nothing is happening in the theatre here. But one thing we must do – and that is determine what form we are going to borrow from.” Friel constantly looked out over borders, not to mimic or derive, but to invent anew.

In 2020 Ireland again faces into new futures. In the aftermath of the closest-run general election in decades and the resulting and historic shift into new cross-party coalitions, the ongoing fall-out of the Covid19 pandemic, the uncertainty of Brexit, the continuing decline in influence (and relevance?) of the Catholic church in Irish society and the emergence of a new generation emphatically signalling change, Ireland is again about to pivot in new directions. But that’s another story.

1/10/2020

Dr Barry Houlihan works at NUI Galway and is editor of Navigating Ireland Theatre Archive: Theory, Practice, Performance (Peter Lang Press). His monograph Theatre and Archival Memory is forthcoming from Palgrave MacMillan.

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