Tom Murphy: ‘How do you write a play? I don’t know’

Murphy gave the Irish canon a series of masterpieces. Peter Crawley assesses his drama

In 2006, during a public interview, Tom Murphy enumerated the three most common questions asked of a playwright: How do you write a play? What's your play about? Where did you get the idea?

In his meticulous manner of speaking, lending unhurried emphasis to each word, he chose to answer the list in reverse.

“Where did you get the idea?” he began. “I think you might as well say, ‘Somewhere between heaven and Woolworths.’ Which is quite true. What’s the play about? I’d say a reasonable answer is to say, ‘My life.’ It’s not just an autobiographical thing, but it’s how I would apprehend life and in the course of creating a play to transcend that self and move it into art.”

He turned again to the first question – How do you write a play? – and answered, without a trace of flippancy, “I don’t know.”

Over the course of his long and distinguished career, one that gave the Irish canon a series of masterpieces, Murphy found a different answer to the question each time. "The most distinctive, the most restless, the most obsessive imagination at work in the Irish theatre today is Tom Murphy's," said Brian Friel, in 1980, before Murphy's career had reached its midpoint, and the achievements of these two distinctly different artists became comparable.

Departure and loss

Murphy's imagination was darker and less gentle than Friel's, his dramaturgy more rough-edged and complex. The 10th child of a Tuam carpenter, Jack, who emigrated during Murphy's boyhood, followed soon after by all of his brothers, the playwright returned constantly to considerations of departure and loss, violence and grief, emotionally incomplete souls in a sundered nation.

A critic of the church but a champion of the spirit, Murphy created characters yearning for succour or transcendence, which they might pursue through intoxicants, music or miracles (on his stage, which could seem naturalistic, stylised, surreal, or all of the above, it was hard to tell them apart).

That, together with his uncommonly cerebral dialogues, allowed ample room for heady debate, acrid humour and devastating consequences. But the plays are poised exquisitely between despair and hope.

The irony of his first major success, A Whistle in the Dark, from 1961, is that it was rejected in Dublin and praised in London for the precisely the same reason. The Abbey's famously reactionary Ernest Blythe rejected the play's depiction of a violent clan of Mayo men in Coventry because "such people did not exist in Ireland".

When the play opened in London, produced by Joan Littlewood, the famously progressive critic Kenneth Tynan insisted the opposite: such menacing Irish people existed in England. "Thomas Murphy is the kind of playwright one would hate to meet in a dark theatre," Tynan began, going on to describe this debut as "the most uninhibited display of brutality the London theatre has ever witnessed."

If neither response was adequate, it's because Whistle is a more nuanced tragedy about family and displacement than any confirmation of people's worst fears. Here was a motherless family, idolising a destructive tyrant, clinging to bogus ideas of a tribal past and annihilating their future.

When, in the late 1960s, Murphy turned his attentions to Famine (1968), he admitted, "When I started to write the play I started to wonder if I was a student or a victim of the Famine." Concluding it was the latter – "It is said that it takes nine generations before the racial memory of a people is killed" – he wrote in vivid terms, folding the details of 1847, a crisis exacerbated by colonial politics, with the hardships of his contemporary nation in a style close to Brechtian epic theatre.

Latin Mass

In one surprising distinction of his CV, Murphy soon became a script adviser to God. Invited to contribute to the International Commission on the Use of English in the Liturgy, he advised on rendering the Latin Mass into the vernacular.

“I was sick to death of talking about what they did to us and thought of trying something constructive,” he recalled several years later. “I had a naive belief that I might find some sort of salvation.”

The experience propelled him towards writing The Sanctuary Lamp (1976), a meditative piece whose three characters – a bereaved former circus strongman, his guilty fiend and a sheltering teenager who has lost a child – are seeking absolution in a place where "the constant presence" of God is as vulnerable as a candle flame.

Some of the same concern shines through The Gigli Concert, whose comically deteriorating quack therapist admits his movement has lost its own spiritual guru: "I do not even know if we are still in existence." In his depressed client – a property developer who desires to sing like the opera star Beniamino Gigli – he finds something of a mirror image, one of a number of split figures in Murphy who, to quote Conversations on a Homecoming, "might make up one decent man".

The reconciliation within The Gigli Concert works like a fugue, pushing beyond language and prayer to achieve the impossible. Murphy was fond of Walter Pater's aphorism, "All art constantly aspires to the condition of music." Its attraction is clear in the taut structure of Murphy's work, where characters search for a sense of wholeness; harmony over dissonance, rhythm over divergence.

Tellingly, the drama of Bailegangáire, his astonishing play from 1985, involves characters pushing towards the conclusion of a long unresolved story. Here, two adult granddaughters of the senile Mommo – given a legendary performance by Siobhan McKenna in Druid's original production, taken up by her co-star Marie Mullen 30 years later – struggle to reconcile their haunted past and the old woman's jagged storytelling with the torments of their present.

Their trauma subtly echoed that of the nation, with “fields haunted by infants”, and a laughing competition fuelled by “the misfortunes”. Only when the depths have been exposed and explored does a future seem possible.

Psychic scars

Murphy returned to the psychic scars of emigration and ruptured families with the magnificent Conversations on a Homecoming (1985), The Wake (1998), and The House (2001), the last of which he considered his best work. But the story he returned to most frequently was the laughing competition within Bailegangáire, which he dramatised for the Abbey as A Thief of a Christmas (which he delightedly considered his worst play), and finally in his last play, Brigit (2014).

That sparing work was, to some extent, a depiction of Mommo’s backstory, but it was also influenced by Murphy’s own father, a man he never knew, an artisan carpenter who, Murphy was proud to learn, once boycotted the local church when they short-changed him for a job.

Shortly before Brigit opened, Murphy believed he had finally resolved his own story. "There's a sense of it not being possible to go any further," he said. "It's satisfying when you reach the top of the mountain, because you never dreamed of getting past the first few hundred feet."