This was an amazing play that really does take us into the heart of everything that the twentieth century was about. T.S. Eliot speaks about modern life as one where we are all “distracted from distraction by distraction”. We have seen how Gerard Manley Hopkins challenges the destructiveness, the distractedness of his times as, in “God’s Grandeur” he speaks of the “Generations [who] have trod, have trod, have trod” who have “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil” all the natural beauties of the world. Hopkins puts next to this distracted, destructiveness his vision of the counterbalancing moments of connection with a totally different energy in the world:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives a dearest freshness deep down things….
Just like the grass tree (Xanthorrhoea Australis) bursts into life after a ravaging bush fire showing the underlying life force that bursts through the worst destruction.
So what does this have to do with Brian Friel? His play Faith Healer is about three characters who, for good or for ill are caught in the complex circumstances of their lives which from some perspectives could be seen as tragic. All three try to survive the difficulties of their circumstances by talking their way into the stories that give some kind of shape and meaning to their lives. But it seems to me that it is only when the stories temporarily drop away that a glimpse of a truer meaning appears. The most memorable moment for me was when Ted describes the events in the pub at Ballybeg where, he says, he spent “the whole of that night just watching them. Mr and Mrs Frank Hardy.” And then Ted describes this amazing moment in his life:
And then I looks over at Frank- I mean I just happen to look over, you know the way you do – and there he is, gazing across at me. And the way he’s gazing at me and the look he has on his face is exactly the way he looks into somebody he knows he’s going to cure. I don’t know- it’s a hard thing to explain if you’ve never see it. It’s a very serious look and its a very compassionate look. It’s a look that says two things. It says: No need to speak- I know exactly what the trouble is. And at the same time it says: I am now going to cure you of that trouble. That’s the look he gave me. He held my in that look for – what?- thirty seconds. And then he turned away from me and looked at her – sort of directed his look towards her so that I had to look at her too. And suddenly she is this terrific woman that of course I love very much, married to this man that I lover very much – love maybe even more. But that’s all. Nothing more. That’s all. And that’s enough.
This is an utterly amazing speech that brings into focus how, in the midst of squalor, disorder, pain, difficulty of all kinds there can arise such a moment of purifying, transformative love that changes everything in the world, for a split second. “And that’s enough”. It is a moment of a deep freedom that opens the heart to all around, beyond all the strife and struggle. And there is something of this quality also in the very last lines of the play where Frank says:
Then for the first time there was no atrophying terror; and the maddening questions were silent.
At long last I was renouncing chance.
There is a wonderful, albeit mysterious sense of profound wisdom that arises from these last lines. These moments remind me of that extraordinary moment in Eric Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front where Paul, when he is back in his home town on leave for a short time speaks to acquaintances in the pub (it is indeed amazing how much wisdom is discovered in the pubs of the world!). This is Paul’s wisdom:
They just talk too much. They have problems, goals, desires that I can’t see in the same way as they do. Sometimes I sit with one of them in the little garden of the pub and try to get the point across that this is everything- just sitting in the quiet. Of course they understand, they agree, they think the same way, but it’s only talk, only talk, that’s the point- they do feel it, but always only with half of their being, a part of them is always thinking of something else. They are so fragmented, no one feels it with his whole life; anyway, it is impossible for me to put what I mean into proper words.
Brien Friel’s play, like Remarque’s work, like Hopkins’ work, like Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad and George Orwell, has got a profound respect for those moments of life that capture and express the deep freedom that is momentarily possible from all the chaos and stupidity that we are all both subject to and that we are guilty of. Thank you to all these authors for giving us glimpses of truth!
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