Sunday 15 September 2019

Dermot Bolger: Tom Murphy's work left nowhere to hide - and helped us understand ourselves better

Playwright Tom Murphy who has died aged 83.
Playwright Tom Murphy who has died aged 83.

Dermot Bolger

By curious coincidence, when a riot occurred in the Abbey Theatre during 'The Plough and the Stars' in 1926, a young Samuel Beckett was among the audience in the stalls, watching and realising that the Irish Free State offered little hope of artistic freedom for him.

Perhaps the closest the Abbey came to a riot in living memory was in 1975, when some audience members strenuously objected to Tom Murphy's brilliant - and brilliantly provocative assault on sanctimonious clericalism - 'The Sanctuary Lamp', in which two outcasts find shelter and friendship in a locked church overnight.

I was in the audience, aged 16, on the night that controversy raged at its height and the then president of Ireland, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, left his seat to mount the Abbey stage after the performance and launch an impassioned defence of Murphy's superb play and of the right of great artists like Murphy to explore the fault-lines of the chasm that existed between the pious shibboleth of Church and State and the actualities of Irish life.

Whereas Beckett felt disillusioned when leaving the Abbey in 1926, as a boy that night in 1975 I felt exhilaration at having my eyes opened by a playwright defiantly challenging the stifling conventions of Irish society - a conservatism so dogmatic that the president who eloquently defended Murphy from the Abbey stage felt left with no option but to resign 12 months later.

While other words like audacity, authenticity, brilliance and daring equally apply to him, I mention Tom Murphy and the word controversy because, from the start, Murphy was unafraid of being a truthsayer, no matter who the truth upset. The Abbey, along with Druid in Galway, eventually became his spiritual home. But initially his home truths were so searingly raw that in 1960 the Abbey's artistic director, Ernest Blythe, not only rejected Murphy's first full-length play, 'A Whistle in the Dark', but vehemently denounced its uncomfortable realities about the Irish emigrant experience in Britain, claiming that such characters simply didn't exist.

In a supreme irony, this most intimately Irish of playwrights needed to see that first play successfully triumph in London before Irish theatres reluctantly confronted his uncompromising work. Indeed, the Abbey continued its initial ostracisation in 1961 by rejecting Murphy's next play - which became 'A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer's Assistant' - with Murphy moving to London to survive as a writer.

Murphy at the Druid Theatre in Galway
Murphy at the Druid Theatre in Galway

After the Abbey was finally prised free of Blythe's stagnant malignancy in 1967, the artistic directors who followed him recognised and supported Murphy, from his harrowing 'Famine' in 1968 to 'The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant' in 2009.

Murphy occupied a similar position to Patrick Kavanagh in being a writer whom Irish people cherish for how they see the unembellished truth about their lives reflected back in works so raw about Ireland that, while deeply respected abroad, perhaps neither writer received the full international acclaim that was their due.

Murphy explained: "There is a rage in me which I think is a natural thing. It was in me when I was 24 or 25, scribbling with my stub of a pencil. And it's still there in everything I do.

"Rage not against the unfairness of life - life is of course unfair - but against the inequalities, the arrogance of power."

As a nation, we were enriched by his rage and his genius and came to understand ourselves better because his works left nowhere to hide. For Murphy, Irish life was lived as much in Coventry as in his native Tuam, because he was a true chronicler of the Irish emigrant experience.

Plays as brilliant as his unforgettable masterpieces, 'Bailegangaire' and 'The Gigli Concert', must have been incredibly demanding to write. They place demands on us as an audience to venture with him into the heart of the human condition, into stories so painful they can barely be told, but also into his affirmation of our ability to rise above sickness and poverty and exile and crushed hopes until - as in the unforgettable climax of 'The Gigli Concert' - we too find that our voices can soar just like that maestro's, we too can find the miracle within us by stripping away the shibboleth we allow our souls to hide behind.

Tom Murphy could not just write but could sing, as anyone who spent time with him discovered.

I was only privileged to be in his company on a few occasions, but every time I walked away as awe-struck and exhilarated as when I saw my first performance of 'The Sanctuary Lamp' as a 16-year-old boy.

Irish Independent

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