Fintan O’Toole: Tom Murphy documented ‘inner history of modern Ireland’

Writer of ‘A Whistle in the Dark’ and ‘Conversations on a Homecoming’ dies at age of 83

Tom Murphy: He gives us a world of broken, displaced people, a culture that cannot cohere. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Tom Murphy: He gives us a world of broken, displaced people, a culture that cannot cohere. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


When Tom Murphy and his friend Noel O’Donoghue stood in the main square in Tuam, Co Galway on a Sunday morning in 1959, they decided to write a play. “What will it be about?”, O’Donoghue asked. “I don’t know”, said Murphy, “but it won’t be set in a kitchen.”

The remarkably accomplished one-act play they created was called On the Outside. It was not set in a kitchen. And it inaugurated one of the greatest playwriting careers of the last 60 years.

Murphy, who died on Tuesday night at the age of 83, didn’t do kitchen-sink drama and he was always a little bit on the outside. But he produced play after play marked by soaring imagination, ferocious honesty, great artistic ambition and unshakable integrity.

Irish theatre, at first, had no place for him. His first full-length play, A Whistle in the Dark, set among Irish exiles in Coventry, was angrily rejected by the Abbey.

When it was produced by Joan Littlewood at her pioneering Stratford East theatre in London in 1961, it made an enormous impact because of its emotional ferocity and disturbing air of violence.

In retrospect, however, it is not a work of kitchen-sink realism but one of the few successful classical tragedies written for the modern stage. For what made Murphy such a distinctive, original and restless presence in the theatre of the last six decades was his ability to evade easy categorization, to bring together the intense exploration of private anguish and the epic treatment of history, politics and myth.

On the one hand, Murphy’s great body of work can be seen as an inner history of modern Ireland.

The legacy of famine and mass emigration haunts his plays, from A Whistle in the Dark, to Famine to Conversations on a Homecoming to The House and The Wake.

He gives us a world of broken, displaced people, a culture that cannot cohere. His characters often feel like they are one half of a lost whole. The historical sweep in Murphy’s body of work takes us from the 1840s all the way to Ireland’s ambivalent process of globalisation and Americanisation.

But it is never about generalities. Murphy always kept his faith in the stage as an arena where human emotions are tested and the inner workings of the personality are given a local habitation and a name.

On the other hand, Murphy, from Tuam, Co Galway, was much more than an Irish playwright. Like all great dramatists, he was in constant dialogue with the history of the form.

His brilliantly imaginative The Gigli Concert, for example, is both the best modern transformation of the Faust myth for the stage and a bold venturing into the terrain where theatre overlaps with opera. (It is also, like so much of his work, wildly funny.)

The Sanctuary Lamp, set among down-at-heel circus performers, occupies a strangely resonant space between Catholic imagery and The Oresteia Greek tragedies.

The Morning After Optimism is a darkly hilarious journey into the words of fairy tale and Jungian archetypes. Above all, Murphy was always in dialogue with the Greeks, seeking ways both to give their tragic vision its due and, somehow, to reach beyond it into the possibility of an unsentimental hope.

The scale of this theatrical ambition has been sustained by an extraordinary mastery of language on stage. The literary play may be under pressure as a form in the 21st century, but Murphy sustained it superbly and new generations will surely go back to him.

As one of his characters in The Gigli Concert put it, he had a delicate ear - an ear for the troubles, confusions, hurts and hopes hidden in our voices and turns of phrase.

His approach to characters was primarily through the sounds they make. Words are woven into intricate duets and trios and ultimately into soaring verbal arias like those of Mommo in his masterpiece Bailegangaire where language becomes a mesmerizing force in itself.

Generations of actors found they could both sink into and find themselves buoyed up and carried along by Murphy’s rich, bold, daring and musical words. Generations more will surely make the same discovery.