Writer of music for the spoken voice, arias of social realism
Tom Murphy’s plays pulse with a life that will always draw people towards them
Tom Murphy in 1975: ‘His genius was to be able to create an immediate and vividly detailed social realism but somehow raise it to the heightened levels of the operas he loved so much.’ Photograph: Eddie Kelly/The Irish Times
Tom Murphy was a prolific playwright who thought of himself as writing music for the spoken voice. “When I hear music, I hear an emotion. When I listen to a voice, I hear character,” he told journalist Patsy McGarry in an Irish Times interview in 2001.
Murphy’s writing was grounded in the town of Tuam, Co Galway, and its hinterland. For Murphy growing up – as for many families with feet on both sides of the Irish Sea – the sense of place and of displacement included the British industrial cities, where many went to earn a living. In Tuam, he encountered every type of character that exists among the town’s 5,000 population and has mined them since in his writing. “The only difference is by degrees . . . the blaggard, and the romantic, and whatever you like, they’re all there”, he told journalist Colin Murphy in an interview published in 2006, on the politico.ie website.
The legacy of that mining means that when he died, Tom Murphy left a body of work that is “among the grandest in the English-language theatre of our times”, according to literary critic Fintan O’Toole. “He had a deep understanding of all the dark places of the Irish psyche but he infused it with a European-scale sense of myth. Faust and the Greek heroes rub shoulders with small-town Irish characters.”
“Murphy’s genius was to be able to create an immediate and vividly detailed social realism but somehow raise it to the heightened levels of the operas he loved so much. He could make believable dialogue that still sounds like great arias. There’s a bold, sweeping, ambitious imagination at work in even his most apparently intimate plays and it makes for thrilling theatre. His plays pulse with a life that will always draw people towards them.”
Murphy’s first play to be professionally staged was A Whistle in the Dark. An Irishman living in Coventry opens his home to his brothers who are trying to establish themselves there. A production at the Theatre Royal, in Stratford, east London, in 1961, transferred successfully to the West End. The power of the piece astounded the critics. “Murphy comes close to convincing us that the whole world consists of stupid fighting animals”, said the London Times.
The plot of A Whistle in the Dark held echoes of Murphy’s home life. He was the youngest of 10 children. His elder siblings emigrated one by one to join their father in Birmingham, where he worked. Eventually, Tom was the only one left at home with his mother, the father returning to visit them two or three times a year. The boy attended a local school, and left after the Intermediate Certificate to go to a local technical school. A Christian Brother who had taught him in secondary school warned the boy that the “tech”, as it was known, was an educational scrap-heap, but Murphy enjoyed his time there. He later said he learned much, but would have liked to have gone to a university as well, as his lifelong friend Noel O’Donoghue had done.
Murphy became a metalwork teacher, and was writing in his spare time. “In 1958, my best friend [O’Donoghue] said to me, Why don’t we write a play? I didn’t think it was an unusual question, because in 1958 everyone in Ireland was writing a play”. The writing took place in Murphy’s kitchen on Friday nights. Murphy and O’Donoghue wrote On the Outside, a one-act play about two young men excluded from a dance hall, which won the All-Ireland Amateur Drama Competition in 1960.
The next play was Murphy’s alone. The Iron Man, as it was then called, eventually found its way to the Theatre Royal in Stratford in east London, via the rejected bundle at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, then run by the conservative Ernest Blythe who told Murphy that characters like those he depicted did not exist in real life.
Delight and despair
Ireland’s national theatre would later mend its bridges with Murphy. In 1971 it hosted the premiere of The Morning After Optimism. Irish Times reviewer David Nowlan had this to say about it: “There was another once in a lifetime performance at the Abbey where [the play] seemed to arouse delight and despair in equal proportions among its packed audiences”.
Nowlan went on to say that Murphy’s play “may turn out to be one of the most important and original works ever presented at the Dublin theatre festival.” He singled out Colin Blakely’s performance as the “prancing ponce”. Nowlan was clearly a big fan of Murphy, but here he is warning his readers that his work can be challenging.
In 1975, the Abbey premiere of The Sanctuary Lamp was attacked for being anti-Catholic, though the then president Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh called it one of the great Irish dramas, alongside Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World and O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. The plot involved three travellers seeking sanctuary in a church. There is violence, swearing, sexual innuendo, and drunkenness. The Daily Telegraph reviewer said it was “fiercely anti-clerical but deeply religious”. Following its run in the Dublin Theatre Festival, Murphy stopped writing for a while. He later produced a revised version.
In the Sunday Tribune in 2008, reviewer Colin Murphy argued that its first audience had misunderstood what the playwright intended. “Murphy rails against the institutional church but celebrates the spiritual one. And the play itself is a homage to the architectural church – to the physical and artistic legacy of Christianity. Today the revised version of The Sanctuary Lamp is recognised as one of Murphy’s finest achievements.
Another Tom Murphy play to have its premiere performance at the Abbey was The Gigli Concert in 1983. The play did not conclude until 11.30pm and critics complained about this.
Even though David Nowlan’s Irish Times review said: “This is an evening which should not be missed. An exciting script has been magnificently served”, he was not spared the lash of the angry playwright’s tongue.
Murphy appeared at a Dublin Theatre Festival press conference the morning after the play opened, and angrily attacked the critics of the daily papers. He deplored hastily written reviews, saying they were begrudging, condescending; and the tyranny of the “two-hour play” which he said was stifling creativity. Murphy’s fantastic tale of a “quack” doctor and his demons, amorous and alcoholic, and his patient who is delusional about singing like the great Italian tenor, is now seen as one of his best. Disagreements about audiences missing the last bus are forgotten.
In 1984, Murphy began a very fruitful collaboration with Galway’s innovative Druid theatre company. First off Druid produced Famine and On the Outside. Famine had been produced for the first time at the previous year’s Dublin Theatre Festival, but had been overshadowed by The Gigli Concert. Major works lay ahead. Conversations on a Homecoming, in which a returned emigrant visits the pub of his youth and the lives and disappointments of the drinking buddies are laid out in real time.
Bailegangaire – with at its centre a towering performance by veteran actress Siobhán McKenna as Mommo, a senile matriarch, telling the same story over and over again, showed Murphy extending his range yet again. His lengthy collaboration with Druid cemented his reputation as a fine dramatist.
In 2001, the Abbey Theatre honoured Tom Murphy with a six-play retrospective season. Overall, his output included more than 20 original plays and half as many adaptations for stage, along with acting and some directing. His plays have been produced throughout the world including the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, Austria, Hungary and Portugal.
Latterly, he also directed celebrated productions of Bailegangaire, the Alice Trilogy and The Sanctuary Lamp. Latterly, he directed productions of his own works. A novel, The Seduction of Morality, appeared in 2004. He received many awards, including honorary doctorates from Trinity College, Dublin and National University of Ireland – Galway. He was a member of Aosdána and the Irish Academy of Letters.
Murphy admitted that he found writing difficult , but said that he had no choice in the matter: “Probably the reason I’m still writing, is trying to [find] something to satisfy myself in that, rather than in all the petty things we do, like getting sick, and getting cured, and going to the dentist.” He said in 2006: “I do regret my neglect of loved ones but – I don’t give a fuck what people say – I don’t think I’d much choice,” he told Colin Murphy.
He dedicated the 2001 Abbey Theatre retrospective of his work to his first wife, Mary Hippisley. “I couldn’t have written those plays without her support”, he said in her presence. An English woman, he had met her in London during the first rehearsals for A Whistle in the Dark. They married in 1966 and had two sons and a daughter.
He married his long-time partner, actor Jane Brennan, in 2012. She and his children, Bennan, Johnny and Nell, survive him.