‘It’s all about language, he said to me. The play, I asked? The theatre? The whole thing, he said.’ – Stephen Rae on Brian Friel
Born Catholic in County Omagh, Northern Ireland in 1929, Brian Friel’s understanding of both his country and his own identity was shaped by being, as he termed it, a member of the minority.
‘I certainly think we’re a maimed people in this country,’ Friel once said. ‘We’re a maimed people to the extent that there was once a language in use in this country; this language is gone. When we say we’re trying to identify ourselves, I’m not quite saying that we’re trying to identify a national identity, that’s a different kind of thing. When you talk about a national identity, I’m not quite sure what that means. But when you’re trying to identify yourself, that means you’ve got to produce documents, you’ve got to produce sounds, you’ve got to produce images that are going to make you distinctive in some way. If there’s a sense of decline in this country, it’s because we can’t readily produce these identification marks.’
Written in the midst of the Troubles, Faith Healer (1979) is in part a complex study of identity and sense of place. All three characters are outsiders, itinerants: Frank Hardy the faith healer; Grace his wife, or perhaps mistress; and Teddy, Frank’s cockney manager. As they trawl the dying Welsh and Scottish villages of the Celtic fringe of Britain in search of audiences, Teddy refrains: ‘We are going to make a killing this time, dear hearts.’ We meet them later, isolated, haunted by anguished memories, searching for reconciliation with the past, for an understanding of the lives they once shared and who or what they might be. But the characters’ control over their lives is fragile.
‘I think, when the possibility of being able to control, or determine what you should do, or what you must do, is no longer in your hands and can no longer be summoned, I think in that case death occurs. Maybe not necessarily a physical death but a spiritual death occurs.’ Brian Friel on Faith Healer.
These issues of identity, of the importance of a sense of place, of foreign conquest, and of the damage done when one’s destiny is out of one’s control – all strike a familiar and profound note beyond the shores of Ireland. Faith Healer could be described as a memory play: ‘while memory is about what has happened in the past, it’s also about what might have happened but never did.’ That the characters’ troubled memories are often in conflict is unsurprising – we remember differently, sometimes what we need to remember, to create a coherent narrative for ourselves perhaps; at times, perhaps, to hide.
Ballybeg, Friel’s imagined town, is a place of haunting memory that often appears in his plays, notably in Dancing at Lughnasa. Irish writer, Frank McGuinness, once said about the fictional town: ‘Most Irish people would love to live in Ballybeg, for there is one extraordinary characteristic about this small Donegal town: in Brian’s plays it is always very good weather. In fact, it is almost Mediterranean weather – volcanic weather. Because he does see it as a place of passion, and he does see it as a place of revelation; brilliant light.’
So, as August yields to September, Frank Hardy makes his fateful journey to Ballybeg. Autumn: harvest season, time of reapers, time of offerings. This is not a simple play; another quote from Friel may be helpful: ‘I gave up my study for the priesthood out of conflict with my belief in paganism.’
Brian Friel died on 2 October, 2015. His great friend, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, had evocatively described the spirit of this great dramatist a few years before: ‘What I remember best, I suppose, about the seventies, is the visits in the summertime up to Donegal. First of all to Brian’s own house in Moft, just outside Derry, but particularly the summer visits to his house in Mollyduft. I associate those summers with the light coming off the sea, with big windows, with a great freshness, with a sense of being in the Gaeltacht almost, in the ‘old dream Ireland’. This lighthouse, a house full of sea light, full of conversation, full of energy, full of irony. It was displaced and elsewhere, and Brian was at the centre of it as a focus and a stimulus.’
Judy Davis directs Belvoir’s production of Faith Healer, playing at Southbank Theatre from 4 March.
S. Rea, ‘Stephen Rea’s tribute to Brian Friel: a shy man and a showman’, The Irish Times, 2nd October 2015
‘Brian Friel’, RTÉ, 2000
B. Nightingale. ‘Brian Friel, Playwright Called the Irish Chekhov, Dies at 86’, The New York Times, 2nd October 2015