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Fintan O’Toole on Brian Friel’s Broadway flop-turned-Dublin triumph

Book review: Fintan O’Toole on Rehearsal Diary (Faith Healer, 1979) by Brian Friel

Rehearsal Diary (Faith Healer, 1979)
Author: Brian Friel, edited by Peter Fallon
ISBN-13: 978 1 91133 841 3
Publisher: Gallery Press
Guideline Price: €17.50
The Mundy Scheme
Author: Brian Friel
ISBN-13: 978 1 85235 561 6
Publisher: Gallery Press
Guideline Price: €12.95

Brian Friel’s great play Faith Healer is, among other things, a study in self-doubt that haunts those who stand or fall by the vagaries of live performance. The titular character, Frank Hardy, cannot quite decide whether he is a miracle-worker or a charlatan.

“Am I,” he agonises, “endowed with a unique and awesome gift? My God, yes, I’m afraid so. And I suppose the other extreme was, Am I a conman? — which of course was nonsense, I think. And between those absurd exaggerations the possibilities were legion. Was it all chance? — or skill? — or illusion? — or delusion? Precisely what power did I possess? Could I summon it? When and how?”

The when and how for Faith Healer were April 1979 and a glamorous Broadway premiere with a genuine movie star, James Mason, playing Hardy. And there and then the answer to that tormented question, “Could I summon it?”, was definitively negative.

The opening paragraph of the crucial New York Times Review (by Richard Eder) includes an acknowledgment that Faith Healer is “an intriguing and sometimes powerful piece of writing”, before adding, “but it doesn’t seem well suited to the stage”. According to Eder, the four monologues that make up the play, “grow stagnant and tedious”.

It is doubtful whether many prospective New York theatregoers bothered to read on. Such words are, for a commercial play in need of a mass audience, a death sentence.

This was, as Friel’s terse but gripping diary of the woefully troubled rehearsals and tryouts make all too clear, really a mercy killing.

His first entry, written on the flight from Dublin to New York on January 31st, is cheery: “Now to N.Y. + Faith Healer, Mason + [famed director José] Quintero. On one level I can’t see it failing.”

With Friel, though, there is always more than one level. He adds: “That doesn’t mean it must be a success”.

The following day, at the first read-through, Friel notes his positive impression of Mason’s “intelligent reading”. But he adds: “Then she. And my heart sank; not because she was so bad, but because I couldn’t see how she might improve.”

“She” was Clarissa Kaye, Mason’s Australian wife, who was playing Hardy’s long-suffering partner Grace, the emotional heart of the drama. Kaye, whose career had been almost entirely in film, was cast at Mason’s insistence in a role that demands full control of a dense and richly textured 12-page monologue. She could not master it.

Within a few days of rehearsals, Friel has concluded: “At best, Miss Kaye will stagger through on some level of tolerance/acceptability. At worst the Broadway machine will move against her + she will be dropped — with all the consequent resignation + hair tearings.”

Kaye was not dropped, though at one stage she seemed set on walking out. By Eder’s account in his review, her performance was ultimately not far from the “bathos” that Friel feared it might arrive at: “She goes from gleaming exultation to a sobbing despair and back again, and does it so regularly that it becomes inert.”

It is easy to blame Kaye for the failure of the Broadway production. Yet there were other portents of doom. Friel goes drinking after the first day of rehearsals with Ed Flanders, who was playing the third character in the play, Hardy’s Cockney manager Teddy.

Next day, Flanders doesn’t turn up for work. “Flanders called me tonight: ‘flu’. I said ‘hangover’.” It is obvious from Friel’s growing anxiety that Flanders, though a much more accomplished stage actor than Kaye, was also struggling with the emotional complexity of the text.

After the pre-Broadway tryout in Boston he walked out, to be replaced at short notice by Donal Donnelly. Flanders blamed Kaye’s inadequacy but it is obvious he was having his own struggles.

Perhaps, indeed, the real problem was Mason — not because he was less than excellent (Friel seems deeply impressed by his work), but because Faith Healer would not have been produced on Broadway without him as the star attraction.

And perhaps it should not have been. It is an exquisite chamber piece — a string quartet rather than a grand opera.

As Friel acknowledges, briefly, late in the increasingly fraught process, “the play is ... almost entirely without concession to a casual hearing”. That’s not a recommendation I’d want to put up in lights on a Broadway marquee.

The Faith Healer diary gives us glimpses — all the more impressive for being so compressed — of the devastation wrought on Friel by the very public disaster that theatre can inflict on a dramatist

The consequent pain produces, however, a far more interesting diary than a roaring triumph might have done. What makes Peter Fallon’s elegantly produced edition so worthwhile, for all the slimness of the contents, is the way the diary echoes the suffering explored in the play itself.

It captures, as few theatrical records have done, the tortuous hovering between the possibility that wonders might somehow happen and the likelihood of abject failure. We glimpse Kaye’s distress, the anguish of knowing that she was not up to the job made deeper by her need (at Mason’s urging) to carry on trying to do it.

But the main affliction here is, of course, Friel’s own. There’s a genuine poignancy to his situation. He knows that he has written “a work of art” and is “nervous — because of its theme — that it is a swansong”.

Yet he is watching it all fall apart. His artistic swan song might be turning into a cacophony, his bons mots distorted into bum notes.

As anyone who knew him would have sensed, Friel was already so harsh on himself that the last thing he needed was the experience of failure to bring him back to Earth. Alongside the diary, Gallery has published Friel’s 1970 satire The Mundy Scheme, a dark farce in which the Irish government, having run out of money, tries to flog the country to Americans as a romantic place to be buried.

It is not by any means a masterwork, but it is both intriguing in itself and of great interest as an element in his body of work. Yet Friel took its failure so badly that it was excluded, at his insistence, from Gallery’s otherwise definitive multi-volume Collected Plays of 2016. Fallon is quite right to restore it to his oeuvre now.

The Faith Healer diary gives us glimpses — all the more impressive for being so compressed — of the devastation wrought on Friel by the very public disaster that theatre can inflict on a dramatist. As audiences walk out of a preview in Boston, he writes: “I can’t see people listening + responding + saying Yes. Fuck them. I don’t want to write any more.”

The experience is summed up: “It was all so shattering. The worst ever, I think ... Anyhow, I’m done.”

Happily, he was not. Joe Dowling, then the new artistic director of the Abbey, persuaded Friel — against his and almost everyone else’s better judgment — to allow him to stage Faith Healer in Dublin in August 1980. With Kate Flynn as Grace, John Kavanagh as Teddy and Donal McCann giving a mesmerising performance that branded itself on the brains of so many of those of us who saw it, it revealed itself as a masterpiece.

Whatever that mysterious force may be, it could be summoned after all. The wound of Faith Healer’s failure was itself miraculously healed.