Molly Sweeney by Brian Friel
Directed by Abigail Graham
The Print Room
In the summer of 1992, the man widely considered Ireland’s greatest living playwright learned that he had cataracts in his right eye, and, a year later, Brian Friel underwent two operations to have the cataracts removed. In between the diagnosis and procedural cures, Friel conceived, researched and wrote much of Molly Sweeney. While working on the play, he had to put up with eye pain, bouts of distorted vision and uncertainty over how well he would see in the future. “I’m very uneasy with the new eye,” his diary entry for January 1994 reads. “I don’t seem able to accommodate it.”
Friel’s research included the philosophical meditations of Locke and Berkeley as well as twentieth-century studies by Albert Valvo and Oliver Sacks. In Sight Restoration after Long-Term Blindness (1971), Valvo states that “the number of cases of this kind over the last ten centuries is not more than twenty.” A 1994 essay by Sacks, “To See or Not to See”, tells of a 50-year-old man from Kentucky who had lost his sight at age three. Upon the promptings of his fiancée, the man visited an ophthalmologist who opined that his retinas were not destroyed, as had been previously thought, and suggested that he have surgery to remove his cataracts. “There was nothing to lose – and there might be much to gain” was the view shared by doctor, fiancée and patient.
With so few recorded instances of operations to restore sight to those blind since childhood, the decision to allow their eyes to be operated upon is a journey into the unknown. The brain of the blind patient, trained over the years to learn sequentially through touch, sound and smell, would, if sight were to be successfully restored, need to learn to perceive the world in a wholly different way. The brain would be forced to try to acquire what sighted-people take for granted: the ability in an instant to make sense of space, distance, colours, signs and shapes through eyesight alone. For those with sight, says Sacks, “half the cerebral cortex is given over to visual processing”; whereas, for the blind since early childhood, these parts of the brain remain largely “rudimentary”, or “undeveloped”.
Thus, issues of identity and belief in renewal are at stake for the blind patient who chooses, after so many years, to try sight. Friel adopted a quotation from Denis Diderot as an epigraph to Molly Sweeney: “Learning to see is not like learning another language; it is like learning language for the first time.” In his diary, Friel wondered if his play would be “A medical story that is also offered as a love/spiritual story?” He soon realised that the loves and spiritual quests of three characters would be involved, and that, as in Faith Healer (1979), a series of monologues delivered on a simple stage would tell his story best. For Director Abigail Graham, Molly Sweeney could even be seen to contain four plays: three about three individuals looking back on their lives and one about those three people together.