Fintan O’Toole on Tom Murphy the Irish Orpheus
This is the text of O’Toole’s eulogy delivered at the service in the Mansion House
“Tom Murphy would have given every one of his great plays for one short hour of that pure, transcendent self-expression.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
We are fortunate that Tom Murphy was not a better singer. He sang beautifully, of course, in that clear lyrical voice so full of tenderness and yearning. But he was no Beniamino Gigli. Yet if he been just a shade better, that is what he would have been.
If he could, he would have chosen that direct, pure, unmediated form of expression. He would have put all his passion and longing, all his pain and joy, into surfing the wave of pure sound, a sound, as JPW King puts it in The Gigli Concert, “to clothe our emotion and aspiration”. As the Irish man in the same play says, “I’d give my life for one short hour to be able to sing like that.”
Maybe Tom Murphy would have given every one of his great plays for one short hour of that pure, transcendent self-expression. But what a loss that would have been to the world. As it was, he had to find another way. He had to become our Irish Orpheus, who takes his music into the underworld and manages somehow to return. He had to be both miner and alchemist.
Every one of Tom Murphy’s plays is a mineshaft sunk deeper and deeper through seam after seam of darkness. He was not afraid of the dark – or perhaps it is more truthful to say that he was afraid of it but went into it anyway:
- Down through all the rage of those who were placed and kept on the outside of a society that had no place for them;
- Down through the hypocrisy of what Mommo in Bailegangaire calls the “jolter-headed gobshites” who monopolised morality and power;
- Down into the worlds of those Mommo calls “the wretched and neglected, dilapidated an’ forlorn, the forgotten an’ tormented, the lonely an’ despairing”;
- Down through the sundering and brokenness of mass emigration;
- Down through the bone and right into the marrow of Irish masculinity, the pain and anger and violence of a sexuality that has been twisted and thwarted;
- Down through the profound inherited traumas of famine and dispossession, the hunger that makes John Connor’s nobility and generosity in Famine into a kind of foolishness that cannot be afforded;
- Down even further into the loneliness of human existence in a godless world, the absurdity that seems to mock our need to create meanings for ourselves.
To step into a Murphy play is to step on to one of those miner’s lifts where the day begins with banter and jokes and humour, with the vivid engagement of the everyday, but we all know that we are being wound downwards into a place where we will need helmets to protect our heads and torches to pierce the darkness.
Is there a more terrifying vision in all of modern theatre than the monstrous Dada at the end of A Whistle in the Dark, standing over one dead son, having destroyed another, disavowing all responsibility? Is there a more savage stripping away of layer after layer of psychological protection than that in Conversations on a Homecoming, where men are not just exposed but flayed alive? And when we experience these moments in the theatre we can only imagine what it cost to create them, how far Tom Murphy had to descend in order to conjure them up for us.
Tom didn’t leave us in the dark
And yet, if there is a single exchange that sums him up it is Maeve’s words at the end of Famine: “we’ll be equal to it yet”. She means that she will be able for the terrible things that the catastrophe has wrought. But Liam tentatively suggests that “maybe it will get better . . . and when it does we’ll be equal to that too.” Tom Murphy’s greatness is not just that he was equal to the darkness, that he could bring us to look right into it without flinching. It is that he was equal to the even harder task of taking the lift back up again. “Mama! Mama!” cries the shattered JPW almost at the end of The Gigli Concert, “Don’t leave me in the dark.” Tom didn’t leave us in the dark. He was equal to the light too.
So yes, he gives us a world of broken, displaced people; a culture – torn apart by mass emigration – that cannot cohere. His characters often feel like they are one half of a lost whole. They fill the void with talk, with drink, with sham fights, with evasions, with illusions. But if they are ever to be healed, those illusions must be stripped away. Tom was not an illusionist – he was a disillusionist. Disillusion is his path to healing. Despair is his way to hope. If we do not despair of the distortions, of the oppressions, of the brave faces we have put on, we will forever be trapped within them. He made, in his very first full-length play, A Whistle in the Dark, a perfect classical tragedy. And having done that astonishing thing he was free to ask: what comes after tragedy? How do we give tragedy and trauma their full and fearful due and yet move beyond them?
Tom took us down the mineshaft in order to find base metal that the alchemist in him could turn to theatrical gold. It is apt that he gave us, in The Gigli Concert, the greatest modern version of the Faust myth, because like Faust was a magician with a hunger to encompass the whole world. Unlike him, though, he never sold his soul. Instead he gave it freely to us.
You could sing all that he evoked for us
His true voice was a breath that could somehow blow on the dark embers of burned-out humanity and make the flames of boundless imagination, of profound compassion and of defiant comedy leap out of them in searing dramatic language. He had an amazing ear for the troubles, confusions, hurts and hopes hidden in the sounds we make. 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, woven into intricate duets and trios and soaring verbal arias that to borrow from Seamus Heaney, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open”.
You could sing all that he evoked for us if you had an air to it but no air could ever be at once so dissonant and so beautiful, so furious and so plaintive, so sorrowful and so full of joy. There is something about the theatre that goes beyond song – the mystery of our presence together, the wonder that “you and I are alive in Time at the same time”. We have been blessed to be alive in Time at the same time as Tom Murphy. Ireland has never felt quite so alive, in all its agonies and all its ecstasies, as it does in those great plays.
In The Sanctuary Lamp Harry imagines that the soul “moves out from the world to take its place in the silent outer wall of eternity. The wall that keeps all those moving mists of time and space together . . . Stack them, softly, like clouds, in a corner of space, where they must wait for a time. Until they are needed.” The wait for Tom Murphy’s great soul will be very short because he is needed now and always. Sing on, maestro, mankind’s delicate ear will always need your perfect pitch.