Interview: Tom Murphy – ‘longing is common to everyone’

1st October 2001

Playing out the Irish drama

Despite being little known in Britain, Tom Murphy is one of Ireland’s most important living playwrights. First published in the Daily Telegraph, 01 Oct 2001

MENTION the name Tom Murphy to Ben Barnes, the artistic director of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and you’ll hear the kind of praise that would make the most overweening writer blush. “In Ireland,” he explains, “we regard him as one of our most accomplished and important playwrights. He has had a huge influence on Irish theatre over the last 30 years. Every new Tom Murphy play is greeted with great excitement.”

How, one wonders, can a dramatist be held in such high esteem on one side of the Irish Sea and have such a low profile on the other? A handful of Murphy’s plays have found their way over to London during the past decade, but that is a fraction of his prodigious output. Such neglect is strange given the seemingly enormous appetite that theatre-goers have for anything that hails from the Emerald Isle – or, in the case of London-based Martin McDonagh, purports to originate there.

Over the next fortnight, there is a golden opportunity for those who have missed out on Murphy’s plays to date to gorge themselves on six of his best – the only proviso being that you will have to go to Dublin, and the Abbey, to do so. According to Barnes, part of the intention behind his theatre’s retrospective season is to raise Murphy’s profile internationally, with the implicit hope that some of the productions will have a further life abroad.

It’s ironic that British interest in him should be courted thus when it was, in fact, in London that Murphy made his name, aged 26, with A Whistle in the Dark, a visceral domestic drama in which a sensitive, successful young Irishman living in Coventry is provoked past endurance by his visiting father and brothers, a snarling pack of ne’er-do-wells.

The 1961 Theatre Royal Stratford East production swiftly transferred to the West End and made the erstwhile metalwork teacher a man of the moment: “The most uninhibited display of brutality the London theatre has ever witnessed,” declared Kenneth Tynan approvingly. The Abbey had turned the play down on the grounds that no such people existed.

Musing in an eloquent, lyrical way over a cup of coffee and the first of many cigarettes, Murphy, now an agile-looking 66, happily concedes that London played a crucial role in his career. He stayed on there until 1970. After his upbringing in Tuam, County Galway, the epitome of smalltown Ireland, he was in no hurry to go back. “The aspiration of the culture I’d come out of can be described in one word, ‘respectability’, and that is the most hated word for me. It means docility and toeing the line, no matter how dirty that line is. I was free of that, and I had money in my pocket.”

His social life blossomed, too. “I became a bit of an afternoon man for a time,” he says, “there was lots of partying, and getting up late.” Out of this “honeymoon period’ came marriage to an Englishwoman (now over) and children. Equally importantly, as far as his writing was concerned, he imbibed multifarious theatrical influences and acquired an outsider’s perspective on his homeland.

His second play, Famine, a historical drama about the Great Hunger of the mid-1840s, would, he insists, “have been purely local and merely emotional” if he had stayed in Ireland. “Instead, I began to think of my own times, the 1950s, the harshness of the culture I grew up in, and what had created it. I noticed in retrospect that the Irish mentality had become quite twisted by the hardship of those famine years.”

As the mid-19th century was, the 1950s was a time of mass emigration. The youngest of 10 children, Murphy was often left alone with his mother, while his carpenter father, brothers and sisters sought work in Birmingham. “My greatest moments of despair and hope as a child were spent in the local railway station, seeing my father off, or waiting for him to come home.”

From the vantage point that London afforded, Murphy was able to weave his heartfelt experience of the “should one stay or should one go” dilemma into the epic fabric of Famine. The elusive search for a true home has cropped up repeatedly as a motif in his work since then, but shorn of any overt autobiography or sentimentality.

A playwright who gazed with a critical eye on his own people might not have expected to find favour with the same theatre that had spurned A Whistle in the Dark as calumnious invention, but Famine marked the beginning of a rapprochement with Ireland’s national theatre. Since 1968, the Abbey has premiered 14 of Murphy’s plays, championing the iconoclast that it once shied away from.

So why was it not possible for the anglophile Murphy to enjoy celebrity in Britain once he returned home to Ireland? In part because he disliked self-promotion, he believes, and refused to act a part. “I think that Brendan Behan had set a precedent around the world of what an Irish playwright should be. The generation that preceded me, Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien, were very much ‘characters’. My generation wasn’t into personalities. I was supposed to arrive at a party and cause trouble – and I wanted to get away from that kind of thing.”

He has also been fiendishly hard to categorise. “After A Whistle in the Dark, the expectation was that I was going to go on writing plays about Irish paddies fighting each other in England.” That he didn’t is borne out by the extraordinary diversity of Abbey Theatre’s festival selection, which takes in the fairytale whimsy of The Morning After Optimism; the anti-religious chamber piece The Sanctuary Lamp; the rambling storytelling session Bailegangaire; and The Gigli Concert, a tragicomedy about a messed-up millionaire who wants to learn to sing like the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli.

In The Gigli Concert, Murphy makes explicit his quest to write dialogue that has the purity and intensity of music. The characters talk in sharp counterpoint or burst into long spoken digressive arias. He describes his work in terms of organising chaotic emotions into a harmonic structure. The idea of offering an easily digestible “point” or meaning appals him. “I admit that my plays are dense, difficult, and not readily achievable,” he says, “but in their search for harmony, they all express a longing for something, whether it be God, or home, or peace – and I think that longing is common to everyone.”

Will there be an audience for wall-to-wall Murphy? He lets out a hearty laugh. “I’ve looked in on a few rehearsal rooms recently, and, Jesus, I would have to be in my health to go and see even a couple of my plays in a week! If I were tired after a day, I wouldn’t necessarily be rushing, you know?” It’s no small mercy that, blessed with modesty on this scale, Tom Murphy has the likes of Ben Barnes at the Abbey to champion his cause.

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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