Playwright of genius could excavate our soul in all its darkness and made no excuse for it
Sitting over a pint in The Flowing Tide pub, Tom Murphy leaned back expansively as he discussed "the dhrink".
He liked, he said, to keep a case of Champagne in the house, because "It's handy if someone drops by on a Sunday". On other occasions, he would refer to himself as being "just a plain boy from Tuam". In other words, Tom Murphy was a divil, and also a highly sophisticated man of the world.
Above all, he was a playwright of genius, an angry observer and analyst of the Irish psyche, and an excavator of the soul who made you understand the depths of the grave in which we bury ourselves, often before our time.
Born in Tuam, Co Galway, the youngest of 10 children, all of whom emigrated save for himself, the shadow of emigration hangs over all his work. His characters are dispossessed, sometimes from the reality of homeland, and always from the peace of a tranquil soul. The result, in most of his work, is a scenario of blood-curdling savagery that never tries to make excuses for itself. Murphy never sentimentally excused the Irish character, or tried to paint it in "justifiable" victimhood.
In The Morning After Optimism, first staged in 1971 at the Abbey, a surreal fairytale of the search for innocence, the central character, a retired pimp, says he believes in ignorance, and it should never be confused with innocence. That's what hypocrites do, he says. And in one searing speech, the author debunks a great deal of Irish writing which so heavily leans towards the identification of the two with each other, just as deprivation is confused with spirituality, that sure-fire essence of fascism everywhere.
Tom Murphy's first play was On the Outside - a prophetic title: he remained an outsider who did not identify with the Irish self-identification with innate nobility of soul. He saw our violent ugliness and made no excuses for it.
It is much quoted that the Abbey turned down his first major play - A Whistle in the Dark - in 1961. It depicted an Irish emigrant family in Coventry, where with the arrival of the paterfamilias from the homeland, the vicious hatreds and predatory greed simmering below the surface break out and end in tragedy. The play is unrelentingly cruel and hate-filled. It was certainly not part of the pattern of Irish writing which presented the uneducated Irish abroad as put-upon and discriminated against merely for their race. In the context of policy at the time, where the national theatre was seen as the cultural arm of the civil service, charged with presenting a desirable image of our character and society, humbly content to be free, unworldly and deeply spiritual, A Whistle was heresy.
It electrified London when staged by Joan Littlewood at Stratford East, and the heretic was on his way.
Seven years later, he took on the great tragedy which sears our national consciousness to this day. Murphy was now an internationally acclaimed playwright, his work the subject of academic criticism as well as popular interrogation.
Were it not for his unyielding integrity, one might have said that Famine was written almost impishly. It ran against the semi-official Irish narrative of deliberate starvation of a captive people by a brutish imperial power.
The play denies none of the historical facts as it gives us a single family at the centre of the horror. But they are at the centre of a vortex of bureaucratic incompetence rather than an attempt at near-genocide. And (the heretic again) equally complicit and possibly more blameworthy are the snivelling Irish of the gombeen class, exploiting their fellow countrymen to line their own pockets.
Conversations on a Homecoming - arguably Murphy's most popular play, with its theme of blighted hopes in an encroaching darkness of the soul - originally had a companion piece: the overall title was The White House, again staged at the Abbey, with the second piece portraying the disillusioned characters when they were still full of exuberant joy, encouraged by the local publican who bore a passing resemblance to John F Kennedy, and in whom the young people saw an obvious heroic leader. But leaders are fallible, as Murphy devastatingly showed.
Tom Murphy had many successes, some of them more muted than others as he continued his surgeon's work on the Irish psyche. But it was to his roots that he returned for his final play. Brigit, a commission for Druid with whom he had a long and fruitful association, is a prequel to Bailegangaire, and its central character mirrored the experience endured by Murphy's own father: denied work in a sanctimonious community due to his anti-clericalism, he finds his own salvation in the pride of craft: the carving of a statue of St Brigid, only to have it destroyed verbally by the callousness of the local nuns.
We could not wish Tom Murphy back: he had been ill for several years, looked after devotedly by his wife Jane Brennan.
With her own soaring acting talent, theirs was a match made in theatrical heaven, and the world to which Tom gave so much enrichment joins her in mourning the loss of a colossus.