'Molly Sweeney' lives in the four corners of Friel

 

CULTURE SHOCK:ONE OF Brian Friel’s best short stories is called The Diviner. It is a clipped, elliptical account of the search for the body of a drowned man.

When all else fails, some of the locals send for a man the parish priest dismisses as “a fake! A quack! A charlatan!” The outsider goes on to the lake. The body lies “in twenty feet of water directly below the diviner’s quivering twig”. The story is laconic and simple. It does not ask to be read as a metaphor.

But such figures recur throughout Friel’s work as a playwright as avatars of the artist. The diviner is a forerunner of Frank Hardy in Faith Healer, the perpetual outsider who may well be a fake and a charlatan but who sometimes achieves moments of inexplicable transcendence.

The alcoholic surgeon Mr Rice in Molly Sweeney, which opened at the Gate this week in an elegant production by Patrick Mason, is another such figure. He has his moment when, on the basis of nothing more than his need for a miracle, he operates on the blind Molly and the miracle comes: “The terrible darkness lifted . . . the shaft of light glanced off me again.”

Old Hugh in Translations, which also opened this week at the Abbey, has his own version of this moment of transcendence, marching out to take part in the 1798 Rising.

Being Friel, of course, these moments do not last: Rice’s miracle turns into a curse; Hugh makes it only as far as a pub; Frank Hardy is forever haunted by whatever power he had on the night of his miracle cures but cannot find again. But their very evanescence makes these sudden shafts of light all the more precious. They may be illusions, but they are the mirages that keep the human spirit trudging across the deserts of disappointment.

A diviner’s rod, of course, will twitch only above a certain stretch of ground. This is the way Friel’s imagination works. There are vast areas of imaginative territory that fail to shake “the diviner’s quivering twig”. Some artists are explorers, ranging vastly over wild and inhospitable continents. Others – and Friel is one – are excavators, digging again and again into the sediments that lie beneath the same field. Or passing over it, time and again, waiting for the diviner’s Y-shaped rod to tremble.

So what is Friel’s field? One of the fascinations of Molly Sweeney is that it is a small, contained play. (Incidentally, it is also a perfect illustration of the truth that scale in the theatre has nothing much to do with the number of actors on stage. Molly Sweeney and Faith Healerhave similar forms and casts. But the one is contained and cerebral, the other vast and visceral.) It acts as a lovely microcosm of Friel’s work as a whole. What you can see in Molly Sweeneyare the four corners of Friel’s field.

The first of these is exile. From The Enemy Withinand Philadelphia, Here I Come!onwards, exile has been one of Friel’s shaping concerns. This concern is rooted, of course, in the physical reality of Irish emigration. But it becomes a state in itself, a human condition. Molly Sweeneyis a brilliant reinvention of the familiar theme: Molly is expelled from her own familiar world of blindness into the “very foreign world” of the sighted. Like Friel’s Cass McGuire – and in some ways Molly Sweeneycan be seen as a rewriting of The Loves of Cass McGuire– she ends up in a twilight zone, in neither the old world nor the new.

The second corner of the field is language. Friel’s perennial concern with language is not that it is a means of communication but that it becomes a code in which we are imprisoned. The imagery of blindness and sight in Molly Sweeneyis another way of moving over this ground. The printed version of the play has an epigraph from Denis Diderot: “Learning to see is not learning a new language. It’s learning language for the first time.”

The third corner is play. Rice talks of his magical moment as he operates on Molly as combining “a feeling of mastery and . . . a sense of playfulness”, which could be a description of Friel’s own work. But playfulness in Friel isn’t pure and innocent pleasure. It rubs up against another social fact that shapes his imagination: borders. Molly comes to inhabit “the borderline country” between fantasy and reality, memory and existence. It is the country of which so many of Friel’s protagonists are citizens.

And the last corner is the end of theworld, the apocalypse. This may seem a large notion to attach to a delicate play like Molly Sweeney, but even here the apocalyptic note that sounds beneath so much of Friel’s drama is especially resonant. One of the things Molly Sweeneyshares with Translations is that both can be experienced as images of the fateful moments when indigenous peoples come into contact with invading cultures. (The imagery of invasive animal species is threaded through the monologues of Molly’s husband, Frank.)

In the theatre, the end of a world – the world that has been conjured from nothing by the actors – feels like the end of the world. Friel specialises in worlds that are hovering on the brink of their own extinction – in this case, the blind world that Molly has conjured for herself.

This is where the mastery lies. Few writers can continually invent new ways of moving over the same ground in the way that Friel has done for so long. Even fewer could thread so many of their large obsessions into a play as small and simple as Molly Sweeney. If Translationsis a vast historical canvas, Molly Sweeneyis an exquisite miniature.