BBC Radio 3, 12 September 2010
Written in the late 1970s, Faith Healer ran only twenty performances
on its New York premiere, despite a cast boasting James Mason. Now it is recognized as a modern masterpiece and a formative
influence on modern Irish writing (its monologue structure prefigures Conor MacPherson's The Weir as an example).
The play seems ideal for radio production, with the three protagonists Frances Hardy
(Owen Roe, repeating a role he played on stage in Dublin and Edinburgh in 2009), Grace (Lia Williams), and Teddy (Phil Daniels)
confessing their thoughts direct to listeners in a series of monologues - part-autobiographical, part-confessional, and part-justificatory. Peter
Kavanagh's revival unfolded on two semantic levels: each monologue had a surface meaning (i.e. what each character
wanted us to believe), and an implied meaning (what we understood from their words). For example Frances liked to represent
himself as a jovial Oirishman, whose love of language, as well as his healing powers, made him popular wherever he toured.
In truth he was a profoundly disillusioned personality, who doubted his capacities to heal anyone, and drowned
his sorrows in drink. He was particularly sadistic towards his wife Grace, whom he characterized as his mistress or his
lover. Grace adopted a less ostentatious style of delivery, but she employed a similar strategy, characterizing
herself as the suffering partner who had given up everything to follow Frances round the country - even her family - but received
nothing in return. She never once admitted the real reason why she stayed; she remained hopelessly in love
with her husband.
Radio seems an ideal medium for this form of drama in its ability to create
an intimate atmosphere where the characters talk about themselves in ways that they might not normally adopt in the public
sphere. We were being asked to form an intimate relationship with each of the three characters; to listen to their
speeches and not judge them too harshly.
At another level Kavanagh showed how all the characters were totally devoid
of self-awareness. Each gave their version of what happened; it was only when we had heard all three versions that we
grasped the meaning of certain events - for example, the night that Frances managed to cure ten people in a Welsh village,
or the day when Grace lost her baby in a remote Highland location, or the botched homecoming to Ireland when Frances claimed
he could cure someone of paralysis. The three protagonists were doomed to a life of perpetual poverty - not only material
but also emotional deprivation, as they wilfully refused to understand one another's feelings.
The only way they could compensate for this emotional deficiency was to create fantasy
worlds for themselves. Frances buried himself in the world of faith-healing, where he tried to assume godlike tendencies;
Grace preserved the fiction that she would eventually settle down and start a family; while Teddy harboured Cochranesque dreams
of being a hotshot promoter. Jerome Kern's song "The Way You Look Tonight," which was frequently heard throughout the production
as a refrain, summed up this fantasy-element; the lyrics construct a world where the beloved assumes goddess-like traits.
Bearing this fantasizing tendency in mind, we came to understand that the events
narrated in the characters' speeches were not important in themselves; it was more important to understand how they were interpreted.
Each character used the events to fuel their fictions, as a kind of retreat from emotional engagement. They were all lost
souls; and as they continued to speak - often at great length - we became more and more sympathetic to their plight. Even
at the end, when we learned of Grace's death, we realized that Teddy's and Frances' world-views would never change; if they
did, then both men would perish very quickly.