A sort of homecoming

Sat, May 5, 2012, 01:00

Tom Murphy’s stark portrayals of emigration and its emotional consequences make a welcome return to the Irish stage, writes SARA KEATING

WHEN TOM MURPHY submitted his first full-length play, A Whistle in the Dark, to the Abbey in 1961, the theatre’s artistic director, Ernest Blythe, refused to produce it. The play was performed in London later that year at the Theatre Royal to controversial acclaim. The critic Kenneth Tynan called it “arguably the most uninhibited display of brutality that the London theatre has ever witnessed”.

The play is a tragedy in the conventional sense, but its portrayal of an Irish emigrant family was a complex vision of the legacy of decades of social and economic delusion. Blythe had rejected A Whistle in the Dark because “there are no such people in Ireland”. And you might say he was right: Ireland had exported its frustrated, rage-filled youth. If you were looking for the Carney brothers, you would find them in the pubs of England and the US.

Murphy came from a family of emigrants, with a lot of older brothers. He was the only one to avoid the fate of his generation, who were fleeing the economically and culturally depressed landscape of the 1950s in their thousands and seeking work abroad. But the success of A Whistle in the Dark inspired him to leave his secure teaching job in his hometown of Tuam, in Co Galway, and move to London to become a full-time playwright.

Murphy wrote his next two plays amid the chaos of a city at the centre of the political and sexual revolution, but he continued to reflect the anxieties of the country he had left behind. By the time those plays were ready for production, the Abbey had entered a new era under the directorship of Tomás MacAnna, who staged the ambitious Brechtian drama Famine and the equally complex dream-play A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer’s Assistant in 1968 and 1969. Murphy moved back to Ireland soon after.

A Whistle in the Dark stands out in Murphy’s canon of works not just because it was so accomplished a debut but because it is the only one of his plays to have been particularly successful abroad.

Where Brian Friel, with whom he is most often linked by generation, theme and social context, has been embraced by the West End, Broadway, even Hollywood, Murphy’s work, with its restless experimentation and complex metaphysical probing, has never achieved much commercial or critical success internationally.

Murphy’s plays present a brooding vision of Ireland that is far from the nostalgic rural Utopia of the emigrant’s dreams. Family values are subverted by violence and dysfunction, Catholicism is “a poxy con”, and society is split divisively between the haves and have-nots, failing its young spectacularly. For Murphy’s disenfranchised characters, Ireland is like “a huge tank. And we’re at the bottom, splashing around all week in their Friday night vomit, clawing at the sides all around.” It is an uncompromising, often unpalatable vision far from the simplistic international stereotypes of the Emerald Isle.

This makes the forthcoming DruidMurphy season, which opens at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway this month before transferring to London, Oxford and Washington, all the more ambitious.

The director of Druid, Garry Hynes, has been astute in her selection of a trilogy of plays – A Whistle in the Dark, Famine and Conversations on a Homecoming – that offer a reflection on Irish history as well as a refraction of contemporary issues. In Dublin, meanwhile, the Abbey Theatre will stage one of Murphy’s more recent works, The House, written in 2000, which has themes that echo the earlier work, but remains a remarkable condemnation of Ireland’s inability to reinvent itself despite prosperity.

Viewed as a whole, these forthcoming productions provide a condensed trajectory through Murphy’s career and a chilling reminder of the cyclical forces of boom and bust in Irish history. As the solicitor Kerrigan in The House puts it: “The state of this country: hypocrisy, discrimination, mediocrity: Disgraceful.”

If this suggests that Murphy is a parochial writer, whose work can be understood only in its relation to Irish social change, that would be to underestimate the psychological depth of his plays, which grapple with existential questions – or, as the quack psychologist JPW King puts it in The Gigli Concert, the matter of what it is to “be alive in time”.

A Whistle in the Dark is set in the misused Coventry home of Michael Carney, eldest brother of the notorious Carney family, and a reluctant host to his rabble of younger brothers, whose petty crimes and tribal riots are an affront to his dreams of progress and assimilation. When their father, Dada, arrives with the youngest brother, Des, two competing versions of home emerge as the myth of family and the idea of self-made happiness are pitted against each other. For the Carneys, neither avenue to happiness is sustainable.

When the play premiered, critics and audiences were shocked by its violence. Over three tense acts the house is gradually ransacked, the brothers narrate various off-stage adventures with chains and knives, and a bottle is broken over someone’s head.

The most shocking moments in A Whistle in the Dark, however, are articulated through a violence of language: the gradual release of stifled emotion as one brother, Harry, repressed by his big-man reputation, spits out a lifetime of held-in hurt, finally rebuffing the myth that “thick lads don’t feel, they can’t be offended”; or the deadening blows of Dada’s final, insistent, futile self-defence in the face of concrete evidence of his failure: “I tried. I did my best.”

A Whistle in the Dark is not just an excoriating examination of the psychological legacy of family dysfunction and emigration but a more universal tragedy of personal failure, closest, perhaps, to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman than to anything else in the Irish canon.

If the failure of heroism is at stake in A Whistle in the Dark, Murphy’s next play, Famine, from 1968, finds heroism in the most ordinary guise. Set in 1846 and 1847, against the backdrop of the Great Famine, the play is the drama of John Connor, a family man forced to defend the very idea of home when he is offered the opportunity to emigrate to Canada.

Famine is perhaps the least performed and most under-rated of Murphy’s plays. With a cast of 19 and a chorus of extras, it is a huge undertaking for any theatre (the original production had a cast of 32).

In its form, however, Famine is a demanding play, closer to the episodic epic style of a Brechtian drama than the accessible fluidity of realism. It is also uncompromisingly bleak – epitomised by its final scene – and the play ends in 1847, when the worst of the Famine is yet to come.

But Famine is not just a historical drama. For Murphy, the historical lens was a way of engaging with pressing issues of the fraught present in Ireland as well; between 1951 and 1961 more than 400,000 people left Ireland for economic reasons. Nor is it an exclusively Irish play; the blight in Famine is a spiritual one too.

And as Murphy wrote in the introduction to his first collection of plays: “What about other ‘poverties’ that attend famine? A hungry and demoralised people becomes silent. People emigrate in great numbers and leave spaces that cannot be filled. Intelligence becomes cunning. There is poverty of thought and expression. Womanhood becomes harsh. Love, tenderness, loyalty, generosity go out the door in the struggle for survival. Men fester in vicarious dreams of destruction. The natural exuberance and extravagance of youth is repressed.”

The particular historical circumstances in Famine are a means by which Murphy can interrogate a more universal moral and spiritual conundrum: how to do right in extreme circumstances.

Conversations on a Homecoming, the final instalment of DruidMurphy, was first performed in 1983, but its origins lie much earlier in Murphy’s career. A version of the play was performed as The White House in 1972. The play extends Murphy’s examination of emigration, as a group of friends reunite on the night of one of their gang’s return from the US. It pits the blind dogged optimism of Michael, who left Ireland, against the bitterness of those who stayed, but Conversations is about the failure of the American dream as much as it is about the failure of Irish society to provide for its youth. The work is haunted by the spirit of the absent landlord JJ Kilkelly, a figure of inspiration gone to seed, and also by the death of JJ’s hero, JFK, whose assassination spelled the end of many an Irish-American dream.

Read now, you could say that Conversations reflects the crisis of Ireland’s new diaspora, but it also provides a critique of the American capitalist values adopted during the Celtic Tiger era too, as Ireland moved closer to Boston than to Berlin. As the disillusioned Tom puts it: “We are such a ridiculous race that even our choice of assumed images is quite arbitrary.”

Murphy’s work since the 1980s has resisted easy categorisation. It has ranged from a musical adaptation of 19th-century melodrama, with The Drunkard, to the meditative two-woman chamber piece of Alice Trilogy. Murphy’s 2000 play The House, which will have its first revival at the Abbey in June, returned to the defining issues of his earlier plays, providing an extension of Murphy’s explorations of emigration as well as a critique of our materialist obsession with property.

The House is a play driven by longing – a returned emigrant’s desire to belong somewhere: to a house, a family, a place, a country – and as such it offers a prescient examination of the psychology of emigration and the natural existential yearning of a lonely man. As the solicitor Kerrigan tells Murphy’s antihero Christy: “Ye belong nowhere. Ye belong to nobody.”

And the same might be said of Murphy’s plays, which, for all their cultural specificity, offer profound meditations on the human condition.

Play rights: Druid versus the Abbey?

The beginning of Fiach Mac Chonghail’s tenure as artistic director of the Abbey Theatre was marked by a public spat with Garry Hynes about rights to the plays of Seán O’Casey; both the Abbey and Druid had plans for staging a large-scale season of the playwright’s work, but neither theatre company could get full access to the plays that it wanted. (The Abbey has since produced The Plough and the Stars and Juno and the Paycock, while Druid has performed The Silver Tassie).

Both sides had equal arguments for supremacy: the Abbey was the seat of the original productions of O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy and remains at the centre of the Dublin streets where the plays are set, while Hynes produced what is often cited as the most important production of O’Casey’s work since the 1920s in her 1991 production of The Plough and the Stars – also, as it happens, at the Abbey.

Both companies can also be said to have a long history with Murphy (who appeared on a stamp in 2009; left). Although the Abbey rejected A Whistle in the Dark in 1961, it has since premiered 18 of his plays, while Hynes directed the original productions of some of Murphy’s best plays – Bailegangaire, The Gigli Concert and Conversations on a Homecoming – with Druid in the early 1980s.

The new stagings don’t necessarily make the theatres competitors, however. DruidMurphy doesn’t come to Dublin until October, by which time The House will have ended its run.


DruidMurphy opens at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway on May 24th, then tours; druidtheatre.com. The House is at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, from June 7th to July 14th; abbeytheatre.ie