Fifteen years before Brian Friel wrote Molly Sweeney (a play delivered in three separate monologues with no interaction between the characters), he wrote Faith Healer. The reason I mention Molly Sweeney is that Faith Healer is also a play for three actors and also delivered in three distinct monologues.
The danger with a monologue play where the actors never interact is that it can become monotonous or dull. The weight and task of delivering a 20-minute monologue with no one to help you or prop you up if you stumble is huge. I love the challenge of it: it’s almost like a one-person play, but with several viewpoints and voices.
In Faith Healer, Brian Friel tells the story of Frank (the healer), his wife Grace and his manager Teddy at their last gig. We soon know that something’s gone terribly wrong, but we don’t know what or how. What we see is three people tell their stories of their lives together and of that last night, each from their own perspective.
Friel is a brilliant writer. His play Translations is one of my favourites (I intend revisiting it for this blog soon). In some ways Faith Healer hardly feels like an Irish play: Frank and Grace have been away from Ireland for a long time, their time on the road is through Wales and Scotland, and Teddy is a Cockney. But at the heart of this play is Frank’s gift – or his chicanery – depending on your preference.
FRANK: Faith healer – faith healing. A craft without an apprenticeship, a ministry without responsibility, a vocation without a ministry. How did I get involved? As a young man I chanced to flirt with it and it possessed me. No, no, no, no. no – that’s rhetoric. No; let’s say I did it … because I could do it. That’s accurate enough. And occasionally it worked – oh, yes, occasionally it did work. Oh, yes. And when it did, when I stood before a man and placed my hands on him and watched him become whole in my presence, those were nights of exultation, of consummation – no, not that I was doing good, giving relief, spreading joy – good God, no, nothing at all to do with that; but because the questions that undermined my life then became meaningless and because I knew that for those few hours I had become whole in myself, and perfect in myself, and in a manner of speaking, an aristocrat, if the term doesn’t offend you.
The different viewpoints mean that we hear the same events described in completely different terms. We never whose version is the right one, if any of them are. Frank calls Grace his mistress and says he met her in Yorkshire. Grace tells us she is his wife and that she’s from Ireland. She says that describing her as his mistress is one of Frank’s many ways of putting her down and hurting her. And Teddy tells us that the two fight tooth and nail: “and when I say fighting, I mean really sticking the old knife in and turning it as hard as they could”.
I finished this play and wanted to start it again, to solve for myself some of the intriguing contradictions in testimony. To try to work out how it all went so wrong and ended with a body in the morgue and to find out what really happened in the yard at sunrise.
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Cast: 2M, 1F