Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Saturday 21 September 2019

Murphy was a great visionary who wrote for everyone

Murphy with President Michael D Higgins last year. Photo: Maxwells
Murphy with President Michael D Higgins last year. Photo: Maxwells

Maggie Armstrong

The first Tom Murphy play I ever saw had only one person in the audience: me.

It was Druid's 2013 revival of Murphy's breakthrough play, 'A Whistle in the Dark', and they let a journalist in to rehearsals to watch the fight scenes.

Set within a family of brothers emigrated from Mayo to Coventry, 'Whistle' was famed for its brutality when it hit the London stage in 1961. Murphy wrote the play with "clenched jaws", he once said.

Born in Tuam in 1935, emigration had "decimated" his own family and he often spoke of the "rage" he felt at his circumstances. But in that room, as these blocky actors lurched around with glass bottles, their voices booming, I thought, is this for me?

We go to the theatre to see a little piece of ourselves. In my 20s, I was growing weary of that lineage of great Irish male playwrights. Tom Murphy seemed comfortably perched in the canon of Irish greatness, among Synge, Friel and McGuinness, all fine tragedarians in the literary tradition.

But greatness can dwarf us. I wondered, does this venerable male playwright speak to me, a female in her 20s? Where do our worlds meet?

During that revival of three Murphy plays, 'A Whistle in the Dark', 'Conversations on a Homecoming' and 'Famine', a younger generation got to watch Tom Murphy's plays for the first time. And boy, we were in for a treat.

For many, Tom Murphy brings to mind not darkness and tragedy, but sparkling laughter. The opening night of 'The Gigli Concert' at The Gate was turbulently exciting. At age 80, this was a belated debut at the Dublin theatre Murphy had famously slated as a "museum".

He was there, smiling shyly as he linked arms with his wife, actor Jane Brennan, up the steps. Everyone was dressed their best, and the flash bulbs popped through the foyer.

The more of his plays I watched, the more I understood: Tom Murphy was not just a spectre of Irish male greatness. He wrote female characters locked into patriarchy who are nonetheless fiercely intelligent and dangerously alive. Through his plays, he transcended one man's narrow circumstances and wrote for everybody, from pimps to barmaids to property developers and new-age quacks.

With his passing, the world has lost a great visionary. That is, a writer who knows the past and sees the future.

Tom Murphy rest in peace, but may your plays rage on.

Irish Independent

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