‘I loved him’: Tributes to Tom Murphy
The late playwright’s friends, colleagues and admirers remember the man and his work
President Michael D Higgins and Tom Murphy: “I had the pleasure of presenting Tom with the Aosdána torc in his home in 2017, a great acknowledgment by his contemporaries of his outstanding abilities as a writer”
Many people, from those who worked with Tom Murphy or knew him well to those who had more fleeting contact, have paid tribute to his luminescent work and his charm and warmth.
“Tom Murphy has left an unequalable mark on Irish theatre,” said his fellow playwright Enda Walsh. “For my generation his stunning plays were an inspiration. He was the reason why I wanted to be a playwright. He was always incredibly supportive of the work and generous with his time. For those who were lucky enough to know him there was no one more enigmatic and wise than Tom. I loved him.”
The theatre director Garry Hynes, of Druid, which had a decades-long relationship with the playwright, said today: “Our world became a smaller darker place last night. Tom’s death is the departure of a giant from literature and from life, but he has given us a light to guide us through the darkness. His plays, beacons that help us make sense of our existence, will endure forever.
Speaking earlier to RTÉ radio from New York, after hearing of Murphy’s death, she said: “In his work and as a person he was the essence of life, a life force in every possible respect – in the rage with which he wrote about things, in the love with which he wrote about things. The notion of him not being here is simply far too difficult to accept yet.”
She talked about working with him at Druid first in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “We began our professional relationship and friendship then, and he has been at the centre of my life and of Druid’s life, and of anybody who has worked with him, all that time. I feel bereft, and I know my colleagues feel the same. There are Druids performing in Washington DC [in Waiting for Godot], and they are going to ask for a final round of applause for him tonight from the stage.
“The world has gone dark. In the rehearsal room in New York this afternoon, 4pm New York time, a huge storm passed over. It was quite frightening. We all stopped. The world went very dark.” Hynes said she received the news of Murphy’s death a short time later. “It feels like nature is even in sympathy and in protest against his passing. Druid without Tom, our lives as individual artists, actors, is unimaginable without his great gift. There is not a person who works in the Irish theatre, indeed internationally, who hasn’t encountered him and been changed and been changed for the better.”
In 1983, when Druid was starting to make its name, Murphy became its writer-in-residence. “We approached him as a young fledgling company. We knew we needed to become professional. That’s what Tom taught us to do. It marked a huge step for Druid that I’m not sure the company would have been able to take without him.”
The company produced Famine, and premiered Bailegangaire, with Siobhán McKenna, as well as Conversations on a Homecoming, at that time. The relationship culminated in DruidMurphy, a cycle of three of Murphy’s plays that toured internationally in 2014, and a new production of Bailegangaire, with Marie Mullen playing the old woman, Mommo. Druid also produced Bailegangaire’s companion piece, Brigit, Murphy’s final play.
Druid toured Murphy’s work widely in the 1980s, taking these Irish stories to new audiences in the United States and United Kingdom. The director Dominic Dromgoole, who was running Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London, said the productions were “one of the finest examples in the world of a company of actors and director giving particular life to a writer”.
The actor Marie Mullen said: “Tom enriched our company so much when he came to us in 1983, and he went on to enrich our lives and our careers in a profound way. He wrote about what it means for us to be Irish. He wasn’t judgmental, and I think that’s why his work was so well received and widely understood. He made it easy for us as actors by writing so well. He was a great friend and supporter who loved life, and I am feeling the sadness of his loss very deeply today.”
The Irish Times’s Literary Correspondent said: “The first time I went to interview Tom Murphy it didn’t happen. Instead he sang Schubert lieder and, predictably, challenged me. ‘Go on, you must be able to sing.’ Well, he was pretty good and enjoyed performing. It was easier to listen. More than two hours of competitive Schubert analysis followed. The ‘real’ interview took place two days later.
Terribly sad to hear of the death of playwright Tom Murphy. All those incredible plays and magic words. And a plate of curry on Colgan’s head long before it was fashionable. RIP. 😢— Liz Nugent (@lizzienugent) May 15, 2018
RIP Tom Murphy. Radical, truth-teller, inspiration. The greatest of them all.— Tom Creed (@tomcreed1980) May 15, 2018
“Tom Murphy’s love of music was his life support. It was also a wonderful way to push through the barrier he erected between him and the world. Over the years much of the anger faded, allowing his ironic charm to surface. He was sturdy, not very tall and conveyed that essence of small-town Ireland, not a country man but not city either.
“The first play I ever reviewed was A Whistle in the Dark, a revival at the Royal Court in London. Murphy had read the review – and kept it. I was thrilled. He showed me a photograph taken of him on the opening night in 1961. ‘I was only 25 – a lifetime ago.’
“He had been really good-looking in a slightly dangerous way. On leaving the play the night of the revival I had heard an English voice declaring of the Carney family, a Mayo clan transplanted to Coventry, in the English midlands: ‘Those Irish, they’re bloody savages.’ Murphy laughed, adding: ‘Those bloody English, they’re idiots, aren’t they?’
“A Whistle in the Dark is a brilliant play and clearly influenced Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. Murphy was instinctive and always maintained he was most interested in emotions. He shares the sensibility of Tennessee Williams. Much as I love Brian Friel as an artist of language, Murphy is the great Irish playwright who created fraught speech as spoken.
“Half-actor, half-revolutionary leader, he had a likable swagger and a soft, emphatic way of speaking. He was fun and sent me notes about his reading. He asked me to read his novel, The Seduction of Morality, which later shaped his play The Wake.
“At Seamus Heaney’s funeral he asked if he could lean on me. His tremor had become noticeable, and his hands seemed small in mine. ‘You should be building walls with them.’ Then, in all seriousness, he said of Heaney: ‘He was four years younger than me, more. Life goes quickly, so quickly.’ ”
Nicholas Grene, emeritus professor of English literature at Trinity College Dublin and author of The Theatre of Tom Murphy, which was published last year, said: “It was the daring of Tom Murphy’s imagination that was outstanding for me, his willingness to follow wherever the the idea took him – a man who insanely wants to sing like the tenor Beniamino Gigli, a senile woman telling over and over an unfinished story about a laughing contest. Who but Tom Murphy could even have thought of such a subject for a play, much less turn them into two of the theatrical masterpieces of our time? Not only a great talent but a man of immense charm. We will miss him sorely.”
The poet and publisher Peter Fallon said: “The decision to publish a play by Tom Murphy in 1976 led to a list of almost 100 plays published by the Gallery Press, including nine plays by Tom. To recite their names – On the Outside (with Noel O’Donoghue), On the Inside, Famine, A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer’s Assistant, The Sanctuary Lamp, The Gigli Concert, A Whistle in the Dark, Conversations on a Homecoming and Bailegangaire – is to sing his praise. We mourn his death and send condolences to Jane, Mary, Bennan, Johnny and Nell.”
Paul Fahy, director of Galway International Arts Festival, which has presented and produced Murphy’s work, said: “Tom Murphy’s contribution to Irish theatre is unmeasurable. He was our Chekhov. An amazing man, full of life and light, so smart and so funny. We will miss him hugely, and our thoughts are with his wife, Jane Brennan, and his family.”
Michael D Higgins
President Michael D Higgins also paid tribute to Tom Murphy, calling his contribution to Irish theatre immeasurable and outstanding. “We have had no greater use of language for the stage than in the body of work produced by Tom Murphy since his earliest work in the 1960s. His themes were not only those which had influenced the very essence of Irishness, immigration, famine and loss – they were universal in their reach.”
The President said that from the very beginnings of his writings, in Tuam, Murphy produced “a unique and often provocative body of work”. “He was above all the great playwright of the emigrant, more than anyone capturing, in a poignant, creative way, the transience that is at the heart of the emigrant experience.”
The President said it was “such a joy to meet Tom so many times over the years, and a particular pleasure for any of us who have been privileged to call him our friend. I had the pleasure of presenting Tom with the Aosdána torc in his home in 2017, a great acknowledgment by his contemporaries of his outstanding abilities as a writer.”
Graham McLaren and Neil Murray
The Abbey Theatre said it mourns the loss of a titan of Irish theatre. “His contribution to his national theatre was immeasurable and his guidance to our organisation as playwright, colleague, board member and generous friend was incomparable.
Graham McLaren and Neil Murray said: “Today is a day we all remember him. Tom was particularly generous to us in our time here as joint directors of the Abbey Theatre. Many of the staff here have had far longer long working relationships with Tom. Our team are fondly remembering Tom’s beautiful tenor voice, sing-songs and fun late into the night in the Abbey bar. We are marvelling at the musicality and muscularity of Tom’s work. The score of his text was so precise. Every comma, ellipses and pause had intent. The craftsmanship of his work was beyond phenomenal.”
Murphy had “an intimate understanding of Irish identity, tackling themes of religion, emigration and redemption. His plays are imbued with a unique juxtaposition between violence and dark humour, yearning and rage. Tom was ever daring, pushing the boundaries of Irish theatre, and challenging us with disturbing images of Irish life.
“Everyone at the Abbey Theatre wishes to express our sincere and heartfelt condolences to his wife, Jane, to Mary, Bennan, Johnny, Nell, and to Tom’s extended family and friends. He will be greatly missed.”
As news of Murphy’s death spread, tributes flowed on social media.
Loughlin Deegan, director of Lir, the National Academy of Dramatic Art, posted on Facebook: “Tom Murphy was an inspiration to us all. He showed us how powerful the theatre can be. His focus was the sharpest, his gaze the most piercing. His writing railed against injustice and forced us to look again with compassion on what we thought we already knew. Evenings spent in his company were the most memorable because of his brilliant wit, intelligence and charm. We have lost a great source of energy but we will never stop going back to the deep well of masterful works that he has left behind. May he rest in peace.”
Shortly after the news broke the artistic director of Dublin Theatre Festival, Willie White, wrote on Facebook: “I remember, or imagine I remember, an interview with Tom Murphy in the Sunday Tribune years ago, where he was sitting in his home facing a window with the blind down and he opened it to ‘face the darkness’. RIP Tom Murphy, codladh sámh.”
The novelist tweeted: “Terribly sad to hear of the death of playwright Tom Murphy. All those incredible plays and magic words. And a plate of curry on Colgan’s head long before it was fashionable. RIP.” She was referring to a notorious incident at a party thrown by the novelist Colm Tóibín, when, after an argument, Murphy tipped lamb curry over the director of the Gate Theatre.