Session 12C: Romantic Revivals in Ireland

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12C. Romantic Revivals in Ireland

Guinn Batten (Washington U-St. Louis): "'Of Death and the Special Powers': Romantic Revivals in Contemporary Irish Poetry"
Maureen O'Connor (Claremont): "Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray as an Irish National Tale"
Bruce Wyse (Northern British Columbia): "Traumatic Healing, Romanticism and Sacrifice in Brian Friel's Faith Healer"

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"Traumatic Healing, Romanticism and Sacrifice in Brian Friel's Faith Healer"
Bruce Wyse
University of Northern British Columbia

The Irish playwright Brian Friel's "Faith Healer" (1979) is a cumulative and dialectical sequence of four monologues by three characters, an itinerant faith healer, his wife, and his manager, providing variously inflected, divergent, and, at times, discrepant reports on their life on the road in rural Wales and Scotland. As such it throws into relief the life projects of the three, demonstrating how events are subjectively incorporated or put to use in narrative self- constitution, while also disclosing the bad faith and blind spots of the characters, their defensive fantasies, self-delusions, and self-objectifications. At the same time it is a figurative dramatization of the function, the position and the status of "the Romantic artist" in the late twentieth century, self-reflexively performing variations on familiar Romantic motifs. In Friel's parabolic mutation, the high vocation of the true poet as Keats's "physician to all men" is debased into that of a faithless faith healer of the desperate and hopeless.

Although several different incidents and moments of personal insight are recapitulated by the three interdependent characters, framed and highlighted in accordance with their past and present concerns and desires, the inexplicable phenomenon of Frank Hardy's healing power figures pivotally as the very reason for their life together. The antiphonal account of the essentially secular Frank's bitterness and ambivalence towards his "unique gift" and his worsening self-destructiveness can be approached as an inquest into the outworn and disparaged Romantic conception of the tormented artistic genius and the continuing depletion of that conception in the second half of the twentieth century. The drama exposes the interpersonal and social consequences of the solipsism and nihilism of the decadent Romantic artist, and also ironically, bathetically situates the vestiges of the Romantic sublime within the most banal commercialization, the world of vaudeville, of trained pigeons and bagpipe-playing dogs. And yet, the text's displaced variations on several central principles, aspirations, and concerns of English Romanticism, from Shelley's views on the uncontrollable and unpredictable nature of poetic inspiration, to Coleridge and Wordsworth's thoughts on the incompatibility of self- conscious analytic rationality and unselfconscious imagination, arguably help rehabilitate and resurrect the figure of the Romantic artist.

In its explicit deployment of the reversible metaphor of the faith healer as artist, and healing and the routine accompanying it as performance, Faith Healer also thematizes the relations of artist and audience. Operating in a world of "abandoned rituals," at the margins of the modern, in one small church or meeting hall after another, the faithless, cynical, self- lacerating, alcoholic Frank, the uncommitted faith healer, at war with his accursed, unreliable gift, goes through the motions night after night, affecting or assuming a trance state, passing amongst the halt and the lame with his evocative gaze, waiting for something to happen. "Abject," "abased," "despairing people" come to the faith healer as a last resort, resentful, suspicious, and hostile towards him. Interestingly, though, in this cynical late-modern world, they do not come with any faith, or with any hope in a restoration of health or wholeness, or in any regeneration of body or spirit; they come, instead, to have the faith healer put an end to hope, to give their hopelessness certainty, "to seal their anguish, for the content of a finality." What's more, they sceptically defy the charlatan, the mountebank to accomplish even this much. When, against all odds, against all expectations, the "miracle . . . happen[s]," the audience experiences sudden "panic . . . [and] the explosion of their careful calculations[, t]he sudden flooding of dreadful, hopeless hope." This physical transformation of healing figures the aesthetically, emotionally, intellectually transformative experience of art (and more specifically successful theatre). The play, then, ironically comments on a late twentieth-century distrust of theatre and a scepticism towards art. The audience, eager for a consummation of disillusionment, have minimal and ironic expectations of the artist, regarded as, in all probability, a fraud who cannot deliver on his or her implicit promise to affect us, to alter our consciousness, to change our perception of ourselves, or to tran scend our conditions. The peripheral social function of the artist is, instead, to show that art is ineffectual, irrelevant, to prove that there is nothing to it. "Faith Healer" then reconfigures successful aesthetic, literary and theatrical engagement, not as a "willing suspension of disbelief," but as an unwilling, sudden displacement of the obstacle of disbelief, not as a simple affirmation, but as a negation of negation. Theatre (and by extension art) here does not so much succeed as it fails to fail as predicted. In a post-Romantic world, where transcendence is not just suspect and anachronistic, but virtually a categorical impossibility, the epiphanic is charged with Dionysian force. As reserve is exploded, and the defences and security of self-conception are broken down, unsettling possibilities open up in a painful flood of released affect. This painful psychic dismemberment, however, is repaired, recuperated in an Apollonian after-effect, in the bestowal of what the text identifies as "wholeness" and a sense of "content." The paper argues that Friel revitalizes certain tendencies in a presently devalued and discounted Romanticism, by emphasizing its now historically determined antithetical status, and by reconnecting it with some of the original impulses of Western theatre.

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Last updated June 7, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell