Uniquely Irish tragedy

IN 2005, Galway theatre company, Druid, revived six works by the Irish playwright JM Synge.

The huge production, DruidSynge, enjoyed enormous success and was a thrilling re-evaluation of Synge.

DruidMurphy, the company’s revival of three Tom Murphy plays, may be a similar retrospective for the venerable Tuam writer, who is perhaps Ireland’s greatest living dramatist.

The ambitious project, featuring a large ensemble cast that includes Marie Mullen and Aaron Monaghan, begins in Galway Town Hall this week, the start of a five-month tour encompassing London and the Aran Islands. (The Abbey theatre’s revival of Murphy’s 2000 play, The House, opens on June 7.)

The ties between Druid and Murphy run deep. In the 1980s, they staged pivotal revivals of Murphy’s work and premiered two of his greatest plays, Conversations on a Homecoming and Bailegangaire.

“Working with Tom is always fire and blood,” says Druid’s director, Garry Hynes. “But all the best relationships are like that. He speaks to me in a deeper way than a lot of writers do. The world of Tom Murphy, in all its complexity and difficulty, is a place I want to be.”

The three works in DruidMurphy are A Whistle in the Dark, Murphy’s first full-length play, which electrified English theatregoers when it premiered in London in 1961; Famine, a Brechtian portrayal of a starving village in 1840s Ireland; and Conversations on a Homecoming, Murphy’s bar-room dissection of ideals going to seed in 1980s Ireland.

The common thread in the three plays, and the one Hynes is exploring, is the weight of emigration on the Irish psyche. A Whistle in the Dark is a fierce tragedy about a clan of hardened Mayo men in Birmingham undone by a brutal tribal identity. In Famine, the prospect of emigration haunts a village whose social order is withering. Finally, Conversations hinges on a returned emigrant who finds the source of his past idealism has vanished.

Murphy, says Hynes, is the playwright who most comprehensively addresses the spectre of emigration in Irish life.

“Emigration affects not just those who go away, but also those who are left behind and the society as a whole,” she says. “And what Tom gets at is not just the fact of it, but the actual psychological and sociological implications it has.”

DruidMurphy will officially open in London next month as part of the Cultural Olympiad, a series of cultural events programmed in conjunction with the Olympics. After that, it travels to the US.

“The international element was critical to the project,” says Hynes. “The sad fact is that Tom’s plays are less well-known outside Ireland than plays by other Irish writers, such as Brian Friel.

“So part of the drive behind it was that the project would play outside Ireland. To open it as part of the Cultural Olympiad, which is basically a celebration of global communities, is fantastic, as is to take it to Washington and New York.”

International audiences have not always been receptive to the dark Ireland that Murphy espies — one reason, no doubt, why his renown abroad is not what it should be. A Whistle in the Dark, in particular, still strikes horror in the Irish communities in Britain and the US. Murphy, 77, recalls a letter he received from the secretary of an Irish organisation in London, after it was revived there in 2002.

“He had been instructed by his committee to let me know that the sentiments in the play were false and were derisory of the Irish people,” he says. “So I am not expecting a 100% response of celebration on this occasion, either.”

Emigration is the theme in DruidMurphy, and it is a huge thread in Murphy’s work, but it hardly exhausts his vast array of concerns.

“I think emigration is the ‘face’ of the plays,” says the Galway man. “But what I’ve always tried to write about is people and their longing. If I could bring it down to one word, at this stage of my life, everybody seems to be longing. Longing for what? I used to think it was longing for home as a geographical place, but, I think, equally, it can be a longing for harmony, for peace, a longing to belong.”

AS a child, Murphy, the youngest of ten children, watched his siblings move to England for work. In 1962, with A Whistle in the Dark a huge and controversial hit in London, the young playwright, too, took flight there, leaving a teaching job behind. He spent most of the 1960s in London, before returning to Ireland, where he enjoyed great success at the Abbey theatre in the 1970s. (He retains a strong affiliation with Ireland’s national theatre.)

It was during the 1970s, in plays such as The Sanctuary Lamp and The Gigli Concert, that Murphy began to tease out the possibility of redemption, however meagre, for the troubled characters in his work.

Murphy’s redemption lies in man’s sensitivity. If Murphy’s plays do anything, they salute man’s capacity to feel. Even Harry, the most uncouth character in A Whistle in the Dark, rages because his own capacity to feel has never been respected. Via man’s essential affectivity, then, Murphy bestows a frail dignity on even his most bruised characters and, without ever lapsing into sentimentality, locates hope.

“Well, I try,” says the playwright. “There’s an affirmative attitude that I arrive at. Certainly, in Famine, when Maeve cries it is the last action in the play. She is a 16-year-old girl who has, at times, behaved like a bitter old hag. But the fact that she can cry is — to be ‘romantic’ about it — like a virgin spring that wells up.”

Murphy gives a hearty laugh, perhaps to reproach himself for invoking such a romantic image, perhaps in recognition of his own romantic nature. Not that anyone should mistake that romanticism for naivety. In Murphy’s plays, romanticism is only ever a few swift jolts away from outright cynicism.

“Yes, I’ve long felt that the harshest characters in my plays are perhaps the most idealistic and romantic,” says Murphy. “They have swallowed the promise that wasn’t fulfilled. Harry in A Whistle in the Dark is embarrassed to say it, but he wanted to be a priest, and to dedicate himself to others. But we don’t need to be reminded in Ireland today — between the Church and the State — how disenchanted idealism can become.”

And yet, in Murphy’s plays, a lurch toward hope remains. “Yes,” says Murphy. “That’s been there a long time. At this stage of my life, I can’t say it’s totally black.”

* DruidMurphy runs in Galway Town Hall, May 25 — Jun 9, before an extensive tour. For details, see www.druid.ie

More in this section

IE Logo


Your guide to staying at home

Discover the

Install our free app today

Available on