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Francis Huster on stage as a priest: just wow

June 17, 2014 5 comments

Mass Appeal by Bill C Davis. 1980. French title: L’affrontement

Disclaimer: This billet is about religion, but not only about religion. If I inadvertently hurt your feelings or beliefs, that was not my purpose.

I’ve been to the theatre again to see a marvellous play, Mass Appeal by Bill C Davis, adapted into French by Jean Piat and Dominique Piat.

AffrontementThe play starts in a catholic church where Father Tim Farley is telling his Sunday sermon. He’s a well-respected priest in a well-off community, his bishop likes him enough to go on holiday with him and his parishioners spoil him with good bottles. He has easy-going manners and gives unchallenging but entertaining sermons every Sunday. That day, as he casually brushes aside the idea that women should be allowed to priesthood, the young seminarian Mark Dolson dares to contradict him. The older man is outraged and intrigued by the younger one. Farley is later asked to take Dolson under his wing in order to instil a bit of Catholic Church good sense into him. In other words, Dolson must not say that women should be allowed to become priest or that homosexual relationships are respectable or challenge his superiors in any way. Farley’s place in the local community is such that he was assigned to the task. Mark Dolson lacks diplomacy and Farley has it in spades. Farley has to teach him just that, diplomacy.

The play is made of scenes corresponding to lessons given by Farley to Dolson. As the two men confront each other, their personalities are revealed. Father Farley is glued in his comfort. He feels lonely and wants his parishioners’ affection. He’s ready to adjust his speech to keep that affection, to receive good whisky bottles and live in peace. He plays by the Church’s rules, abides to its hierarchy and smothers any thought wandering out of the official path. He has lost his enthusiasm, he ditributes comforting words like an automatic dispenser, writes his sermons on auto-pilot and changes their course in the middle of telling them if he hears his audience getting bored. And how does he hear it? People cough abundantly and drop their prayer books when they’re bored. Mark Dolson is young, untamed, honest to the point it disserves him. Diplomacy is capitulation to him, white lies are hypocrisy and blunt honesty is his choice. In that, Dolson is like Alceste in The Misanthropist by Molière. He challenges Farley like nobody else and the older man is picked and eventually moved.

The play has two or maybe three trains of thoughts. The obvious one is meant to challenge the position of the Catholic Church on the ordination of women as priests. The arguments are well brought up. I don’t know if they’re convincing, as far as I’m concerned, Mark Dolson was preaching a believer. I’ll never understand why a community can neglect fifty per cent of their forces, just because these fifty per cent happen to be women. This statement is valid for professions, the right of vote and the right to become priests. This play was written in 1980 and it’s still painfully accurate. I’m an atheist but I’ve been raised a Catholic. If I were to turn to a church again, I would not go back to the catholic one. I find it mummified in old habits and it needs a real change. I dislike their position on contraception, marriage, homosexuality and the place of women. This play shows very well how the hierarchy destroys in the nest any challenging personality. They want sheep, they get priests who sheepishly yield to the inevitable. Mark Dolson states that the Catholic Church is destroying itself by not following the evolution of society. It sure showed an ugly face during the discussions for the law to allow same sex marriage in France. Where were the moderate Catholics? Why do they let the extremists speak in their name while they say nothing?

This play addresses this issue and fundamentally raises the eternal question about leading changes. The plays portrays the games of power and how church moguls –supposedly closer to sainthood than us, which makes their attitude harder to swallow than for common people—are willing to let go a talented priest to retain their power. Because, as the conversations between the two men go on, the audience understands that Mark would be a wonderful priest if he ever got the chance. He’s compassionate, honest and he believes in mankind. Once he tells Farley that he wants to challenge the parishioners because he thinks they’re capable of much more than what they do.

The underlying question is: what’s the best method to change an institution, to lead a revolution? Do you get in, play by the rules and try to change it from inside to the risk to lose yourself in the process? How do you draw the line between using the rules in order to later promote your cause and becoming part of the system yourself? Or do you fight it from outside? Is leading a revolution the best way? This question is asked here for the reform of the Catholic Church but it could be a political party, a political regime or a company. Where’s the best position to honestly conduct changes?

The last train of thoughts is the opposition between the young and the older man. I liked Mark’s rebellion. I’m not too keen on imposed hierarchy myself. Put me under a boss I respect, I’ll be a good soldier. Put me under one I consider incompetent and I’ll rebel or leave. Mark is ardent, his faith is genuine, untainted. He wants to do good deeds. He wants to heal and comfort people who suffer. He wants to live by his faith. The more he reveals about himself, the more we understand he’d be an excellent priest. He’s a mirror to Farley and the image he gives back is that of an old priest who used to be as enthusiastic about his calling but gave up along the way. He played by the rules and the rules played him. He’s the shadow of the young man he used to be and when Mark is ostracised by their bishop, Farley must make a choice. Will he speak up in favour of Mark or will he look away? This part of the play reminds us of the ideals we abandon along the way when we get older. It’s called wisdom but isn’t it a nice soothing wrap for renunciation?

As you’ve probably understood by now, this was an excellent play for a lot of reasons. The text is deep and thought-provoking on two universal topics: power and our submission to it and age and its toll on our dreams and ideals. It’s also extremely lively and funny. It deals with serious topics in a light tone and the audience was enraptured. The play was adapted into French by Jean Piat and Dominique Piat. The production I’ve seen was directed by Steve Suissa who picked great decors and a fantastic soundtrack. Francis Huster played Father Farley and Davy Sardou was Mark Dolson. Both were marvellous on stage; I’m more than happy to have seen Francis Huster. They play as if they were casually discussing in their kitchen. Nothing is overdone, they speak with total clarity. Both were convincing in their role. Nothing compares to live performances when they’re good.

What a treat! Or, as we say in French: Quel plaisir!

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