Tom Murphy interview: 'A play always becomes tired of the writer'
Tom Murphy at his home in Dublin in 2014 .Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/ The Irish Times
From the archives: Murphy on his first experience of theatre, writing his first play, and Galway hurling
It was the evening before pessimism. Hours later, the US was attacked. Our conversation on the previous day's All-Ireland was more becoming of a world since trivialised. Our primary concern was the loss of another double.
The day before, Galway had lost the All-Ireland hurling final and with it the chance of becoming the first county in the west, ever, to win both the hurling and football All-Irelands in one year.
Tom Murphy had bet on Galway to do so, more out of sentiment than sense, he now feels. And he was glad he wasn't in Croke Park to see another dream vanquished on that field where so many generations of westerners have watched less ambitious hopes disintegrate. He had tried to get a ticket but was unable to do so.
From Tuam, football capital of Galway, he was never any good at the game. Perhaps it is why he became so interested in theatre at such a young age.
He and the late Noel O'Donoghue.
They were neighbours. They attended school together. They were in the boy scouts together. And though separated when Noel went to university and Tom to the sugar factory, they were life-long friends until Noel's death in 1996. "Intelligence marked Noel, from first to last," he comments. He had "a healthily greedy mind".
Noel O'Donoghue studied law and later became state solicitor for Galway, based at the family practice in Tuam.
It was Noel O'Donoghue who introduced him to the work of George Orwell and words like "angst". Who explained to him first what "scenario" meant. "Noel, Mary Grogan (later Noel's wife) and myself fancied ourselves as the left-wing of Tuam's thespians," he recalls.
It was the late 1950s then and Ireland was in a deep sleep. He was the youngest of 10. His father was in England, where he spent most of his adult life, sending money home, visiting the family a couple of times a year.
His first experience of theatre was with his mother. He must have been very young because he remembers his surprise that it was dark when they left the hall afterwards.
He remembers that, and the silence of the audience before what was happening on stage. It was a "holy" experience. He hopes the word doesn't sound pretentious. But that sacred something left a deep impression. It was "holy theatre". The play was The Black Stranger by Gerard Healy.
There was a strong tradition of drama in Tuam, with the Theatre Guild and the Little Theatre Guild. He began acting at a young age. At 16 he played 80-year-old Denis in Synge's Shadow of the Glen.
He won medals for acting in Irish plays staged at a schools' competition in Galway's Taidhbhearc theatre. One was called An Fear as Buenos Aires. And yet he was a shy youngster. "Acting," he said, recalling the late Frank Dermody's observation, "is the shy person's revenge." Yet he never considered acting as a career. At the time, it never crossed his mind.
"It was an indication of the poverty of the small town at the time. Being an actor didn't come into the equation, no more than being a singer or a film star - at least in my case - acting never occurred to me as a place I could get to."
On the other hand: "it was very easy to be a writer". All you needed was a pen and paper. Besides: "I think everyone in the country was writing a play at the time." He remembers a Dublin Opinion cartoon from 1958. The woman of the house was calling to her husband, who was following a plough through a field. "Seβn (their son) will be out to help you as soon as he finishes his new play," she said.
So he and Noel O'Donoghue decided to write a play and one not set in a kitchen. The result was On the Outside, a one-act piece set in 1958, written in 1959, and about two penniless townies trying to get into a dance in a country dancehall. It won the 15 guinea prize at the All-Ireland amateur drama festival in Athlone. At 24, Tom Murphy was on the way.
He was teaching metalwork in Mountbellew then. After three years at the Christian Brothers in Tuam, where he and four others out of a class of 42 had scraped an Inter Cert, he went to the Tech. "If you go to the Tech you can go to hell," was how one Brother reacted when informed.
It was "a terrific education" at the Tech. He enjoyed the variety of subjects, in particular Rural Science. "I loved that subject."
Were he not a writer, one of the alternatives he would have liked to pursue in life would be something to do with horticulture. When he was a child, he and his brothers looked after the garden. "I enjoyed it," he recalls. And it introduced a new vocabulary, as did metalwork, and woodwork with its dove-tail joints and its calipers.
But he "loves" writing, "What else would I do?" Yes, there is agony, but he considers it "a beautiful thing. As there is night, so there is day". He feels he cannot deal with reality as such but that at least the creation of a theatrical situation is bearable, even if agony has to be endured to get there.
The initial "honeymoon bit" doesn't last through the first draft. "No rules are being imposed. You are pursuing shadows and writing speeches on the way. It's a very extravagant time."
But "the full stops are terrible. Beckett didn't have to write the line 'I can't go on'.
Possibly because of that sort of declaration, perhaps a humility emerges when the play comes in and says 'there's what to do' and usually it's the obvious."
"A play always becomes tired of the writer" and soon, as he recalls of working on Famine (1968), you become "a writer in pursuit of what the play is trying to do. I didn't want John Connor to be the principal character. He wasn't grand enough. But it insisted. And early in the play I promised Malachy a young woman, but the play and Malachy refused."
For Murphy, the process of writing a work begins with a mood. "It gets the spirit by the short and curlies. Then something has to trigger the play out of mood into an action . . . into writing." With Famine, it was the Cecil Woodham Smith book on that great catastrophe which triggered the mood. With The Sanctuary Lamp, in 1976, it was a series of freak deaths in Tuam clustered together, including his last three uncles, who suddenly became more present in their absence. He was "very depressed at the time".
With A Whistle in the Dark, his first full play staged in London in 1961, it was a story from one of his brothers about a man who was said to carry around with him, in a matchbox, part of another man's ear.
Murphy describes playwriting as "discovery in the process of doing". If it begins with a mood, it is "a strange adventure and a nightmare getting there.
"The gods of our time do not allow for devices such as the deus ex machina or interference by such as Athene. Today if resolution is to be found it must be in life affirmation. In hope and soul."
He likes to think of himself as "writing music for the spoken voice" as "an aspirant composer of music". This analogy with music crops up frequently in the conversation. "When I hear music, I hear an emotion. When I listen to a voice, I hear character," he says.
"It is very exciting to try to find a pattern, rhythm, constraints, to find a symphony.
"If seeking to recreate a mood, obviously the rhythm of what is being said has to complement that, but the problem is that punctuation is so sparse - a semi-colon (for instance) is ridiculous in a play - as against musical notation."
His "nightmares" in writing revolve around two basic rhythms. "One is very slow and very circular. It is terrifying. The other is jagged, very fast, but not as terrifying. It is just a fact."
This "casting of words together" according to rhythm meant that "until very recent times I could recite a play of my own from start to finish . . . because it was like a musical score". He would also "deliberately, frequently, mix tenses to try to ensure a line is energised; that the actor has to change gears and animate the line".
The Morning After Optimism (1971), he says, "was pretty close to an attempt to create something whereby one listens to the wonders of the spoken word and their differing rhythms. Perhaps it doesn't do what I would like to achieve". It puzzles him why people see it as a pessimistic play. "I don't think so."
Prose, however, is something he doesn't find easy. "English has long been a mystery to me," he says. "I haven't constructed a proper sentence syntactically since we started talking, and perhaps you haven't either."
He has little time for those who load a playwright with political, philosophical, sociological expectations. While agreeing he writes in his time and of his times - "my private world even"- he is being neither political, philosophical, sociological, or private. He is an artist.
Van Gogh can produce The Tortured Tree and it is seen as painting the human condition. Séamus Heaney can write about putting his hand to his father's spade and it is celebrated. But if a playwright did such things it would be seen "as masturbation or something". These "false expectations" of plays had "grown out of academe", he believes, and frequently has resulted in "the placing of a formula against a work of art", in the process diminishing it.
He has been tempted to drop words such as "Thatcherism" or "Haugheyism" into some of his work, knowing full well that would result in critics looking on it "as something to be written about very seriously and in depth". But, he feels, "it would be a very cheap device".
He has suffered the outrages of fortune. A Whistle in the Dark was rejected by Ernest Blythe at the Abbey in 1961 because he said such people as the Carney brothers (the main characters in the play) didn't exist in Ireland. It is now regarded as one of Tom Murphy's most powerful works. That experience established something of a template where many of his plays are concerned.
A Whistle in the Dark created a sensation when staged in London in 1961. He remarks that if some of the things written by critics then were written now, they would be described as racist. He says it is a play about "the violence of the bloodknot". It is intense, emotional violence, rather than physical violence, he feels.
Then came The Orphans (1968), an"awful shit of a play, a terrible play", which he doesn't want done again. He was trying to write Chekhov, Strindberg, Ibsen. It was so bad he remembers buying all newspapers at a news vendors on Grafton Street to stop fellow customers in the Bailey pub from reading the reviews.
The Blue Macushla (1980) was another which wasn't well received, but he believes it is a good play. He has been helped in coping with disappointments by the simple fact that he was usually already working on another project by the time they happened. That "softened the blow greatly". In 1976, however, he gave it all up for two years and three months, after The J. Arthur Maginnis Story and The Sanctuary Lamp.
He was exhausted, particularly following The Sanctuary Lamp. "I didn't want to let myself in for that process again." He had bought a period house in Rathfarnham on 17 acres, with a stream, paddocks, and walled garden. He turned to nature and horticulture, returning to theatre in 1979 with Epitaph under Ether, a compilation from Synge.
He is looking forward to the season of six plays in the Abbey next month. He is himself directing Bailegangaire (1986) and had just come in from rehearsal when we met earlier this week.
He has deep respect for actors, believing that, "in the evolution of drama, actors came first". He is "providing the score", "the theory". If they didn't incarnate the roles, he says, bringing their individual personas and energies to it, he might as well just sit onstage and read it.
If writing was the initial stage of seeing an autobiographical mood transform into art, then "to see that script become embodied by the actor is another stage in transcending the script", he says.
It is very exciting and very flattering that the plays are being directed by people a generation younger than himself, says Murphy, and involving casts who are younger again. Murphy says he is gratified they feel sufficiently interested to do so and is very pleased this younger generation also consider him one of their more important influences.
He expresses some surprise that our younger writers have not yet tackled "serious money at what cost" type of plays. He is commenting in the context of a recent Newsweek front page story which asked "Can Ireland be Happy - If Irish Arts Thrive on Misery, How Are They Doing in Boom Times?" It suggested young Irish artists were still turning to the past for inspiration.
But the Newsweek question, he implies, misses the point. Irish/human misery, whether in boom or bust, is based on the eternal truth of "longing", whether in the 19th century Famine or the living Ireland of 2001. "People can count their earnings in millions but I think they are still longing. Even if they are racing so fast there is some degree of numbness of the skull, ideas of being alive are still a mystery," he says.
Every generation has its influences. In his own case they would have included Synge, Lorca, Tennessee Williams, but not Beckett. "I find his plays very difficult to clue into," he says. But he is "a great admirer" of Beckett's prose.
He is not writing currently, but has just completed an adaptation of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, which will probably be staged at the Abbey next year. He had hoped to complete the adaptation in two months. It took eight. The more he delved, the more he found there, proving to him again just what a great writer Chekhov is.
The directors of the plays in the Murphy season discuss producing his work, on the arts page on Monday week