Fintan O’Toole, ‘Small is beautiful’, review of Molly Sweeney (Gate 1994),
in ‘Second Opinion’, in The Irish Times [Tuesday] (27th Sept. 1994)

[Source: from cuttings supplied by Christina Hunt Mahony.]

IN the theatre, scale is seldom a matter of numbers. Plays with large casts and lavish productions can be vacuous and stunted. Conversely, the “biggest” plays of the eontemporary Irish theatre - Brian Friel’s Faith Healer and Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert and Bailegangaire - have just three actors zand very little external action. They are big because they evoke whole worlds, arenas in which the great forces of life are brought into play.

Brian Friel’s new play, Molly Sweeney, at the Gate, however, is small in both senses. It has three actors, and a severe style of interwoven monologues in which there is relatively little dramatisation. It does not quite engage with the epic forces that surround its story.

Though at first glance it resembles Faith Healer, it never achieves that great play’s mythic pitch, never quite passes the point where characters take on the resonance of archetypes. Yet, if it is a small play, it is small in the sense that a miniature by a great painter is small: The scale is absent but the touch is that of a master.

The absence of scale in the play has little to do with its themes. As you would expect from Friel, the narrative - the restoration of Molly Sweeney’s sight, the end of the blindness that has been her world for nearly 40 years - is buttressed with philosophy. Locke Molyneaux and Berkeley are threaded through the story. The interplay of seeing and understanding, the folly of our casual use of light and darkness, vision and blindness as metaphors for knowledge and insight, are at the core of the piece.

Likewise, the key concepts of Friel’s bigger plays are a constant presence in Molly Sweeney. Ideas of-exile and of borderlands - Molly fears exile from the sightless world she has inhabited, and ends up in a borderland between the real and imaginary - are central throughout. The play, like Translations, begins with a ritual of naming - in this case Molly’s memory of naming the flowers in her father’s garden every evening. It ends in a manner that is strikingly reminiscent of Friel’s play about emigration, The Loves of Cass Maguire.

These echoes of Friel’s larger, more public plays are not incidental. His late work has been marked by a concern with the collapse of worlds and world-views: the end of a language in Translations, the end of the Gaelic political order in Making History, the implosion of the world of the Mundy family in Dancing at Lughnasa.

Molly Sweeney is an internal version of the same process. By losing her blindness, she loses a whole mental world, a way, not just of sensing, but of interpreting and understanding. The parallels between this private loss and the public losses of other Friel plays make it difficult to avoid the sense that there is, at some level at least, an element of political metaphor at work. This is particularly so because Friel has so often used disability - Sarah’s inability to speak in Translations, or Rose’s mental incapacity in Lughnasa, for instance - as a metaphor for troubles in the public world.

It is particularly tempting to see Molly Sweeney as a pessimistic response to Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy. In Hsaney’s play, the giving up of a physical disabitity festering wound that Philoctetes carries as a defiant badge of his hurt - is a prelude to hope and political change. Molly Sweeney, on the other hand, poses the question of of whether the giving up of a disability is not the surrendering of a whole way of understanding the world

In Heaney’s play, the decision to g the disability is a prelude to embrace whole new future. In Friel’s narrative A loss of her blindness leads her only never-never world where she can neither be her old self nor quite become a new woman.

The very uncertainty of this kind oJ ing of the play is a mark of the ext which it remains elusive and never quite attains the metaphorical richness of Healer. Another way of putting this difficulty is to say that whereas in Faith Healer, the monologues are never undramatic because a riveting conflict is built into the narratives of the speakers, here there is seldom the dramatic tension. Molly is more passiv Frank Hardy, and her internal conflicts carry a much less potent charge.

All of this is merely to say that the play remains for the most part at the level of its primary story, and that this level moves in a lower gear than Friel’s great metaphorical dramas do.

The other side of the equation is that the primary story is handled in a way which constantly reminds you that you are in the of a great writer.

There is the breathtaking deftness with narrative, moving you backwards and forwards across 40 years, and taking you Ballybeg to Cairo, New York, and Ethiopa, while all the time making you feel that you are hearing a simple story that move straight line. There is the wonderul clarity of character which allows Catherine Byrne, T. P. McKenna and Mark Lambert to create imagined people without the usual supports of dialogue, action and props. There is the vividness of Friel’s way with concrete details that makes scenes from Molly’s life live with you for days even though they have been evoked in a few sentences rather than acted out before you. If, in the end, the play remains small, it also affirms that there is nothing small about the imagination and compassion of its author.

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