Tom Murphy, playwright
Born February 23 1935; died May 15 2018
Tom Murphy, who has died aged 83, was a towering figure in Irish theatre. His plays were fired by a rage that influenced a younger generation of writers such as Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh, who perhaps recognised a kindred spirit in a man regarded by many as Ireland’s greatest playwright on a par with Brian Friel.
While Murphy didn’t attract as much attention as his near contemporary, he blazed a fiercely individual trail over more than half a century. The tone was set from the controversy caused by his second play, A Whistle in the Dark, a volatile look at an Irish family in exile. Kenneth Tynan declared the play “arguably the most uninhibited display of brutality London theatre has ever witnessed.” Over more than twenty plays and a sole novel, The Seduction of Morality, published in 1994, Murphy filled the imagined lives of his characters with compassion, even as they roared and howled at the world that had left them in the state they were in.
For all a similar brutality rippled through many of Murphy’s plays, they were leavened by a dark humour, told in a unique and fearless voice. This resulted in plays that were deeply personal, but which quaked with universal righteousness on themes of emigration, identity, displacement, and a form of home that wasn’t always reachable.
Tom Murphy was born in Tuam, County Galway, the last of ten children to Jack, a carpenter, and Winnifred. With his siblings gradually emigrating to Birmingham in England, Murphy was eventually left to live alone with his mother. He attended a Christian Brothers school, where he had religion beaten out of him, and then a local technical college. This led to him working as a metalwork teacher before moving to London. Here he found a liberation of sorts through the success of his second play, A Whistle in the Dark. Having begun writing while still in Ireland, the play was initially rejected by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, on the grounds that its characters weren’t realistic.
Championed by Joan Littlewood, A Whistle in the Dark’s portrayal of an Irish family living in Coventry was a huge success in 1961 at the Theatre Royal Stratford East and then on the West End, announcing the arrival of the then 25-year-old Murphy onto a world stage which wouldn’t always appreciate his fervour. In his plays that followed, Murphy never stuck to a formula, but instead played with form and style with an over-riding lyricism that gave voice to characters emboldened into a raw but impassioned articulacy.
In Famine, Murphy looked to history and the roots of Irish emigration. The Sanctuary Lamp was an anti-clerical tale of circus folk, which saw walk-outs and pious denouncements when it premiered at the Abbey. The play was born out of Murphy’s experience of being invited by a Catholic church committee to attempt to update liturgical language. Murphy’s suggestion that the word ‘God’ be deleted didn’t go down well. The hostility The Sanctuary Lamp attracted caused Murphy to turn away from writing to become a farmer for several years. On his return to the fray in the 1980s, The Gigli Concert charted the relationship between a self-help therapist and a millionaire who wants to sing like Italian opera singer Benjamin Gigli.
While reconciled with the Abbey since Ireland’s national theatre premiered Famine in 1968, Murphy formed a strong association with the Galway-based Druid Theatre. He became the company’s writer-in-residence in 1983, and with them premiered On the Outside in 1984, and Conversations on A Homecoming and the remarkable Bailegangaire the following year.
Bailegangaire featured Siobhan McKenna in her final role as the senile and bed-bound Mommo. Nightly the old woman tells her grand-daughter what may well be an endless story about how the ‘town without laughter’ of the title came by its name. Through this, Mommo unleashes a torrent of words which, like so much of Murphy’s work, circles around the fractures of community and family, with a secular humanism at its heart.
Two of Murphy’s plays, The Wake and Too Late for Logic, were seen at Edinburgh International Festival in productions by Patrick Mason in 1999 and 2001 respectively. In 2008, current director of the Tron Theatre Andy Arnold directed Bailegangaire as his final production for the Arches, the now closed Glasgow venue he founded seventeen years earlier.
2001 also saw a six-play retrospective at the Abbey, which, despite the initial rejection of A Whistle in the Dark, produced 19 world premieres by Murphy over the last fifty years, as well as numerous remounts, the most recent of which was a revival of The Wake in 2016.
Other Dublin institutions never fully embraced him, and it was only after Murphy poured a plate-load of curry over Michael Colgan, the then artistic director of the Gate Theatre, that Murphy eventually saw The Gigli Concert produced there.
In 2012, DruidMurphy saw Druid put together a triple bill of Murphy’s plays. Seen in one sitting, Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark and Famine charted several generations of Murphy’s work, which became a panoramic epic on a sector of society riven with dysfunction and the scars of endless displacement.
In 2014, Druid put together a remarkable and more obviously linked double bill by Murphy which they took to the Dublin Theatre Festival. The company’s revival of Bailegangaire, featuring an astonishing performance by Marie Mullen, would have been worth the ticket price alone. Paired with a new work, Brigit, which looked at some of the characters from Bailegangaire thirty years earlier, the production became a major event. So much so that when it opened at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, there were queues around the block, with Irish president Michael D Higgins in attendance.
Brigit, which was about the handyman husband of a young Mommo and his commission to carve a statue of St Brigid for the local church in 1950s Ireland, turned out to be Murphy’s final play. For all its seriousness, the play possessed a lightness of touch which suggested that, through a prodigal’s acceptance of where he’d come from, Murphy’s rage might have found a moment of peace.
Murphy is survived by his wife Jane, his children from his first marriage to Mary Hamilton-Hippisley, Bennan, Nell and Johnny, and his grand-daughter, Molly.
The Herald, May 22nd 2018