Thursday 19 September 2019

Tom Murphy: A champion of the unsung men who were armed with nothing but Irish bravado

TOM MURPHY 1935 – 2018: Playwright Tom Murphy, who died this week, will be best remembered for carving out a space in Irish theatre for savage heroes, writes Katy Hayes

A national voice: Murphy, despite an early rejection, had a long-standing relationship with the Abbey Theatre
A national voice: Murphy, despite an early rejection, had a long-standing relationship with the Abbey Theatre

Tom Murphy's first full-length play, A Whistle in the Dark (1961), was an exercise in truth-telling, something we are still very uneasy about in this country. Having been rejected by Ernest Blythe at the Abbey, it was first produced in London at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East, where it made a considerable impact.

The play is about an Irish family group, the Carneys, five brothers and their Dada, who emigrate to Coventry and bring their faction-fighting spirit with them, feuding with a rival family, the Mulryans. There was a general sense that Murphy was making a show of us abroad, perpetuating the stereotype of the fighting Irish. But Murphy wasn't in the business of stereotypes, or even less of piously correcting stereotypes. He was writing the script for these traumatised men who belonged to a post-traumatised nation.

Murphy was only 25 at the time this was written, and it contains the seeds of everything else he would write. It is full of anger; the Carney men were prisoners. It contains the desperate desire of the eldest son, Michael, to liberate the youngest brother Des from the violence of the past. Michael fails in this aspirational struggle. But this form of transcendental success would be later achieved, by the Irishman in the play The Gigli Concert (1983). The Irishman reaches transcendence when he achieves his goal of learning to sing like Gigli. When my generation first saw A Whistle in the Dark in the 1986 production, directed by Garry Hynes on the Abbey stage, it explained so much. This was all our uncles who emigrated to London in the 1950s and 60s, armed with nothing but Irish bravado. These forgotten and unsung men were now duking it out in front of us on the stage of the National Theatre. It was a sobering concept.

Aside from the early rejection, Murphy, in due course, had a long and fruitful relationship with the Abbey Theatre, starting with the world premiere of Famine (1968). This play was first seen by my generation in Garry Hynes' 1993 production at the Abbey, starring Seán McGinley as John Connor, the man who struggles to retain his dignity in the midst of the horrors the potato famine inflicts on his people. Twenty five years later, I can still recall the curve of McGinley's back as he stood, a broken man, on the Abbey stage. The Abbey produced world premieres of 19 of Murphy's plays and adaptations over 50 years, as well as countless revivals, and a Murphy Season of six plays in 2001.

The other big Dublin producing venue where you might have expected to find Murphy plays was the Gate theatre, run by Michael Colgan from 1984 until 2017.

Murphy never submitted a play to Colgan. He may have instinctively felt that his rough aesthetic might not sit well with the Gate's plush seating. He may never have felt welcome or invited. Murphy had offered Colgan The Gigli Concert in 1983, before his Gate sojourn, when Colgan was director of the Dublin Theatre Festival. Murphy then withdrew it. Colgan surmised the withdrawal occurred when Joe Dowling, artistic director of the Abbey, agreed to put the play on the main stage rather than in the Peacock. This may have contributed to the cool atmosphere between the two men. Famously, Murphy had a row with Colgan, dumping lamb korma on his head at a party in Colm Tóibín's house in 2005. The Gate finally did a hugely successful production of The Gigli Concert in 2015.

The most significant creative relationship Murphy had was with director Garry Hynes. Both in her time as artistic director and visiting director at the Abbey, and in her role as artistic director of Druid Theatre Company, Hynes engaged with Murphy's work at a profound level, and with him cultured a significant sense of a regional aesthetic. The Abbey established Murphy as a national voice. Druid reminded the nation that he was from Galway, contributing to the Galway company's upending of the Irish theatrical landscape, challenging the theatrical centrality of Dublin.

Part of Murphy's legacy is to be found in Druid's new writing policy: in grooming writers like Martin McDonagh and Enda Walsh, they were seeking to not so much replace Murphy, as to replicate him in another generation. McDonagh's 'Leenane Trilogy' (1996/7), with its mother-daughter cruelties and warring brothers, is full of the raw family dissonance of Murphy; Enda Walsh's The Walworth Farce (2006), is a direct descendent from A Whistle in the Dark: the father and sons in London exile playing out their dark, ingrown exile, imprisoned by family and Irishness.

Murphy's primary inheritor, though, is Marina Carr. She too had significant input at a crucial point in her career from Hynes, who commissioned the recently revived On Raftery's Hill for a Druid/Royal Court production in 2000. Carr has the same raging aversion to any sort of cuddly aesthetic as Murphy demonstrates; the same instinctive distrust of the urbane; the same cold sense of the farrow biting back. In 2014, what was to be Murphy's last play, Brigit, was produced by Druid in Galway and came to Dublin's Olympia for the Dublin Theatre Festival that year. It was produced alongside a revival of Bailegangaire, for which the new play provides backstory. In Brigit, Mommo the bedridden storytelling grandmother of Bailegangaire, is shown here as a younger woman and the two granddaughters, who grow up to be the troubled young women in the earlier play, are played by children.

Brigit is about a carpenter who is commissioned to create a statue of St Brigit for a local convent. It is a homage to Murphy's father who worked as a carpenter. When his father retired back to Ireland after working in England, Murphy soon left home. Shortly after, his father died. A neighbour suggested to him that he killed his father. The play Brigit was him "trying to [make] redress".

Murphy never had the big hit abroad. His plays didn't have the glossy side that broke through national barriers and landed the likes of Brian Friel on Broadway, or the ruthless commercial vision of a younger writer like Martin McDonagh. But he has changed Irish theatre irrevocably, carving out a writer's space for the pugnacious and passionate, filling Irish stages with savage heroes, like the carpenter Seamus in Brigit, who creates a dignified statue from rough material that emerged out of a bog.

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