As an infant in 1977, I appeared in my first Tom Murphy play
The playwright Tom Murphy was, and always will be, my hero, writes Lisa Tierney-Keogh
Tom Murphy in 2008: “Watching his plays was like going to church for me. I was inspired, in awe, grateful, and instilled with a sense of hope and purpose for the kind of playwright I wanted to be.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
A strange storm passed through New York on Tuesday night. Large, looming puffs of deep, grey clouds clustered over the city, threatening menace. I sat on my bed, working on a new play, trying to accomplish that elusive thing: to write a great play. Within minutes, the clouds burst. Lightning rods shot down, sharp, some tinged with pink. When it passed, a great, white light lit up the whole town. It turned to orange and faded to dusk. I’ve seen many great sunsets here, but nothing like this.
I put my daughter to bed and opened my computer again. It was dark outside now. I felt my chest hold and skip a beat as I read the sad news that Tom Murphy, the greatest playwright ever (in my humble opinion) had passed away. I first read the news from Olwen Fouere, a woman I have known and admired all my life. She was in the 1977 production of Tom Murphy’s play Famine. And so was my father. And so was I. Well, sort of. I lay in a Moses basket, an infant, in the rehearsal room. My mother was involved in the production as well. This was my first time in a theatre. And every time I saw Tom Murphy, he would joyfully remind me of this story.
In 1985, as I was turning eight, I was on stage at the Abbey Theatre in his play, A Thief Of A Christmas. My dad was in the production, as was every other actor in the country, it felt like. I remember the experience vividly. I was given a line that I delivered to the late Mick Lally. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing but I knew enough to know that something important was happening on that stage.
Over the years, I watched my father in productions of Tom’s plays. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were seeping in to my psyche, teaching me things I didn’t yet understand. By the time I saw the Druid production of Whistle In The Dark at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2012, I was deep in the throes of writing a play that was heavily influenced by him. He was, and always will be, my hero.
In the closing monologue of The Last Days Of a Reluctant Tyrant, he pulled my heart from its place and showed me what great theatrical writing can be. Watching his plays was like going to church for me. I was inspired, in awe, grateful, and instilled with a sense of hope and purpose for the kind of playwright I wanted to be. I learned from Tom that ferocious truth was what was beckoning me to theatre.
Every time I met him, socially, he would tell me the story about me in the Moses basket and we would laugh. In 2012, when I was six months pregnant, we sat in a bar in New York and shared a drink. I told him I was awaiting a big decision about a play I had delivered to the Abbey. I was feeling hopeful, excited and sure that I would receive good news. Tom turned and looked at me, in his inimitable way, and told me, “be so deep at work at something new so that when it comes, it won’t matter”. When bad news did come, and my play was rejected, I was devastated. It was the single biggest rejection of my career to date and I couldn’t understand it. It knocked the wind out of me. And then those words came into my head. I heard Tom’s wisdom bouncing around my brain. And I found a way to be alright again.
We go to the theatre to feel. And when you see a Tom Murphy play, you feel a rawness, a fierce honesty, truth, darkness, hope. His writing had an authenticity I have yet to see replicated on any stage. The humanity, the realness of what he could make you feel with one devastating line, was astonishing. His talent was unmatched.
I will likely spend the rest of my playwriting life trying to hone the kind of authentic voice that Tom Murphy mastered. He has left us with works of art that can teach us so much about ourselves. Tom’s plays are a gift. And we are lucky to have them.
When the light of the sky shifted from grey plume to bright white, something inside me took notice. The rest of me got on with making dinner, bathing my daughter, folding laundry, saving edits to my new play. But a small voice told me to look up, to pay attention to this light. It was trying to tell me something. So I did. I stood by my window and watched the luminous show dancing across New York City. And I knew in that moment that I had never seen anything like it before. And I never will again.