The Theatre of Tom Murphy by Nicholas Grene review: An impressive overview
Scholars and critics will use this fine book as the diving board from which to plunge into the fascinating depths of the great Irish playwright
Tom Murphy: his daring imagination has found its varied embodiments on the stage. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
The Theatre of Tom Murphy
Bloomsbury Methuen Drama
Next year, it will be 60 years since Tom Murphy and his friend Noel O’Donoghue, waiting in the square in Tuam for the pubs to open on a Sunday morning, decided to write a play. They submitted On the Outside, an astonishingly accomplished enactment of youthful rage, to the one-act play competition at the All-Ireland amateur drama festival in Athlone, where it won first prize of 15 guineas. As Nicholas Grene reminds us in his splendid overview of Murphy’s 20 original plays and seven stage adaptations, On the Outside was submitted under a pseudonym: Aeschylus. In 1961 Murphy submitted his first full-length play, The Iron Men, to Athlone under another pseudonym, Dionysus.
There is, of course, a glorious kind of cheek in a Tuam sham adopting the names of one of the great founders of western drama and of the Greek god under whose aegis the original theatre festivals were organised. But in retrospect these gestures seem to derive from something deeper than youthful impudence. Aeschylus’s work is severe, pure, almost ascetic in its form. Dionysus, on the other hand, is the god of wine and fertility and of ritual madness. The two pseudonyms are comic nods in different directions – on the one side, toward a kind of dramatic stringency and, on the other, toward the wild and dark impulses that drive us beyond the edge of reason. This doubleness foreshadows the unique nature of Murphy’s achievement, his highly distinctive combination of classical form and romantic content, his ability both to let the dark forces loose and to contain them aesthetically.
The pleasure of Nicholas Grene’s account of Murphy’s career is that it is always sensitive to this internal dynamism.
Murphy’s career is not easy to write about as a whole, not just because of its extraordinary length but because of its remarkable breadth. His great Irish contemporary and admirer Brian Friel provides a useful point of contrast. Friel is an excavator, returning again and again to the same patch of ground, the same obsessions and mysteries, and digging ever deeper into them. But Murphy is an explorer. He ranges restlessly across the universe. Almost everything you might want to say about him is equally true. He can be seen as a ferocious social realist in work like A Whistle in the Dark (which The Iron Men became) or Conversations on a Homecoming; as a fabulist in The Morning After Optimism and Bailegangaire; as a mythmaker in The Sanctuary Lamp and The Gigli Concert.
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Fusion of forms
Ironically, this imaginative range works against his reputation: people outside of Ireland are never quite sure what to make of him, where to place him. He was the big new thing in London in 1961 when Kenneth Tynan hailed A Whistle as “arguably the most uninhibited display of brutality that the London theatre has ever witnessed”. (One wonders if he had ever seen the Jacobeans.) He could, it seemed, be understood as a rambunctious successor to Brendan Behan and an Irish version of the angry young man. Or, as it happened, not. The plays he wrote immediately afterwards, A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer’s Assistant and The Morning After Optimism are, respectively, a bittersweet dreamlike social comedy and a Jungian phantasmagoria in which a pimp and a prostitute meet fairytale versions of themselves in a forest. Neither play was produced in London – they saw the light only when Murphy eventually returned to Dublin at the end of the 1960s and was given a theatrical home in the Abbey.
And yet, the real point of Murphy’s career is not even this tendency to shift forms from play to play. It is, rather, the fusion of forms within the plays. It is no good for the critic to merely sort his plays by type – the metaphysical over here, the social over there, the brutality in this stream, the dreams in that one. At his very best – a state he achieves with a regularity rare in this most unsteady of artistic professions – Murphy’s plays are not either/or but both/and. They are richly layered. The Gigli Concert, for example, is highly political: the Irishman is a stunning embodiment of a figure that haunts not just Irish dreams but Irish nightmares – the property developer. But it is also the most ambitious, daring and successful version of that core myth of European modernity, the tale of Faust. It is, meanwhile, both highly contained and mind-blowingly wild – Aeschylus at the service of Dionysus. And the same is true of so many plays: Murphy’s leaps into the great beyond are from solid and carefully mapped social ground, and his social realism is never inclined to forget that human reality includes fantasy, aspiration and an implacable yearning for the impossible.
The pleasure of Nicholas Grene’s account of Murphy’s career is that it is always sensitive to this internal dynamism. He imposes enough of a structure for the book to be admirably clear and accessible. But he eschews the mechanics of a purely chronological account. He groups his discussion of the plays in chapters, largely in pairs or triads, some of them obvious enough (The Wake with The House), some more provocative (The Alice Trilogy with the cluster of dramas that centres on Bailegangaire). He makes judicious use of the Murphy papers in Trinity College library, drawing out the genesis and development of scripts without ever falling into the pedantry that can too often accompany such exercises. He is, crucially, always ready to illuminate these individual discussions with references back and forward to other parts of Murphy’s work. The result is an impressive combination of critical coherence with a fluidity that honours the quicksilver qualities of the playwright’s inspirations.
Murphy is a great playwright and we have been fortunate to be (to borrow a phrase from The Gigli Concert) “alive in time at the same time” as his daring imagination has found its varied embodiments on the stage. This book is not, and does not want to be, the last word on an achievement that has yet to be fully fathomed. But it is the best and most complete that anyone has yet produced and all future scholars and critics will use it is as the diving board from which to plunge into Murphy’s deep and turbulent waters.
Fintan O’Toole’s latest book is Judging Shaw