VICTORIA WHITE: Murphy plays were conversations with all of us about being Irish

Tom Murphy in Dublin around the time of his play 'The Morning After Optimism'. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The characters in ‘Whistle’ and ‘Conversations’ strike home to my era of emigration and every era since, writes Victoria White.

TOM Murphy changed my life. No, that seems trite.

What I want to say is that Tom Murphy, who died on Tuesday, rearranged the architecture of my brain.

His plays became important reference points for coping with life. The experience of watching his plays became foundational experiences.

My husband and I often jokingly address each other with the word, “Fella!”, implying insult and ignorance.

It’s one of the catchphrases of the dark and dreadful Liam in Murphy’s 1985 play, Conversations on a Homecoming, which portrays an emigrant coming home to a rural town and meeting his former friends and acquaintances.

Liam is a local success, a sinister and ignorant bully, of the sort that Murphy feared was building modern Ireland. He understands how much the emigrant Michael has failed and he exposes him brutally.

Murphy is portraying an experience of emigration from an era previous to my own.

My mother’s eyes would blaze with excitement, as she remembered seeing Whistle in the Dark when it premiered in London in 1961. She was closer to the emigrant era it portrayed, having lived in London in the 1950s, when, as she said, her English neighbours expected her to be keeping pigs in the kitchen.

Yet, how the characters in Whistle and Conversations strike home to my era of emigration and of every era since! How they echo through the decades!

I have certainly been Michael, attempting to “big” my life abroad, needing to look well on my return, and to seem successful. Michael’s exposure seems to expose us all. He looms large over any conversations I have on homecomings.

Libraries of history and sociology textbooks couldn’t come close to these plays in showing how this society worked in the mid-20th century: By exporting vast numbers of people, so that a smaller number of older people could enjoy a bigger slice of the cake.

The perpetual adolescence of the young men and women of rural Ireland, whose society denied them the tools of adulthood, is exposed in Homecoming’s savage portrayal of the teacher, Tom, who is still living with his mother, and the life-long fiance, Peggy, whom he secretly hates. I will never get over the first time I heard him tell her to go home as fast as her “fat little legs” could carry her.

Murphy plays were conversations with all of us about being Irish

Yet, perhaps Murphy’s greatest portrayal of the sacrifice of the young to the old is in his magnificent Bailegangaire (1985), first produced by Druid with Siobhan McKenna playing the ancient and demented Mommo, who lies raving in a huge bed for the entire performance: “A laughing competition there would be…” Her daughter, Mary, is a familiar Irish character, the ambitious, successful London nurse, who has come home to care for her mother.

But this is not the simple story of a young life wasted. Mary has, as they say, “her own issues”, which she is resolving through hatred and sorrow, in her own way, at Mommo’s bedside.

When Mary’s sister, Dolly, confides she is pregnant, God knows by whom, the play’s redemptive final words are given to Mommo: “....in the year 1984, it was decided to give that - fambly… of strangers another chance, and a brand new baby to gladden their home.” I remember straining off my seat in the gods in the Gaiety Theatre, with my heart turning inside out and tears streaming down my face. It was a moment of life-changing transcendence.

Of course, 1984 was the year in which at least two babies were not so fulsomely welcomed by their communities, that of Joanne Hayes and that of Ann Lovett. Murphy’s plays are far above and beyond the topical, in that their ‘topic’ is the vast canvass of human experience.

He did, however, have an acute sense of the historical and political.

I saw his early play, Famine, first produced in the Peacock Theatre in 1968, in its 1993 incarnation at the Abbey, directed by Garry Hynes.

I would be lying if I said I remembered any more than the set, a wide, dark stretch of desolation created by designer, Frank Conway. It often comes to mind when I visualise the massive ‘punctuation mark’ that is the Great Famine in our history. The Famine and the other starvations of the nineteenth century are surely behind the 20th century traumas of poverty and fear and emigration which Murphy portrays, and it is significant that Hynes chose Famine with Whistle in the Dark and Conversations on a Homecoming for her trilogy of performances, DruidMurphy (2012).

It is notoriously difficult to create characters, when trying to evoke a tragedy that dehumanises people. Hynes followed Murphy in deliberately making the characters secondary to the horror. In this production might lie the seeds of her magnificent 2010 staging of Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie, set during the First World War.

Murphy’s awareness of gombeen politics was acute. Some time during the early 1990s, he contacted me to help him research his novel, The Seduction of Morality, which, at the time, he wanted to set in the so-called GUBU (Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre, Unprecedented) era of the 1980s.

The character, just called ‘Man’, in his sublime 1983 work, The Gigli Concert, is a classic gombeen in his sane incarnation, dealing with “the itinerants” close to his property by brute force and rejoicing in the beauty of nature, because it provides “fine sites for development.” But, in truth, he is a broken man. He wants to soar above the mundanity of his existence on the wings of song.

He visits a quack alcoholic healer, called JPW, because he wants to sing like the Italian opera singer, Beniamino Gigli.

I SIMPLY don’t understand how anyone could come up with a story that original. I do know Murphy found it deep in his own darknesses and his own passions, one of which was opera. He described how he used to lie on the floor for hours, letting the music wash over him.

His struggles gave us our masterpiece.

For me, The Gigli Concert is the greatest Irish play ever and certainly one of the greatest in our language. When I said Murphy created the architecture of my brain, I mean he created lows, in lines like The Man’s vicious response to his wife’s gentle entreaty, “Fuck you!”; and highs, like JPW’s “The truth is, Beniamino, we have become fast friends”.

Living in Ireland through the 1980s and 1990s had its challenges, but it was a big compensation to have been going to the theatre when Murphy was writing his finest plays.

“That’s it.. That’s it… sing on forever…” says JPW, as the music of Gigli blares out the window at the close of The Gigli Concert. Murphy’s words will sing on, too, through the windows of the world.


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