The playwright TC Murray, who was born 150 years ago on January 17th, may not be much remembered now but his plays were mainstays of the Abbey Theatre in the first half of the 20th century and influenced no less a theatrical luminary than Eugene O’Neill.
Thomas Cornelius Murray was the seventh of the 11 children of Cornelius Murray and Honora Kelleher who ran a general-provisions shop in Macroom, Co Cork. Following attendance at his local national school, he went on a scholarship to train as a teacher at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin. He spent his early teaching years in Cork, where a fellow teacher, Daniel Corkery, encouraged him to become a playwright. In 1900, he was appointed principal teacher at Rathduff national school, near Blarney, and in 1903 he married Christina Moylan, with whom he had five children.
From a young age, he had contributed to Cork newspapers and in 1909, at Corkery’s prompting, he wrote his first play, The Wheel of Fortune; it was a matchmaking comedy and was staged at the Little Theatre, Cork, which Murray had cofounded with Corkery, Con O’Leary and Terence MacSwiney. The following year he submitted a two-act tragedy, Birthright, to the Abbey Theatre and it was accepted. For most of the next 40 years, his plays were to be a significant part of the backbone of the Abbey’s repertory.
Anthony Roche, who wrote the entry on Murray in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, said that while he was in many ways a natural successor to JM Synge, he was also markedly different from him. “Murray’s profoundly Catholic sensibility brought him into natural sympathy with the country people of whom he wrote. But his religious faith was matched with a no less profound tragic sense of fate operating in people’s lives.” This was evident in Birthright, where the father’s wish that his younger son inherit the farm leads to a tragic fight to the death between the two brothers.
During the Abbey company’s first American tour in 1911, Birthright was performed along with plays by Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory. Eugene O’Neill, then a 33-year-old playwright starting out, saw the play in New York and thought very highly of it. Anthony Roche pointed to the “uncanny similarity” between Murray’s Autumn Fire and O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, both written and performed in 1924 and both featuring a situation where an older widower’s young wife falls in love with his son, resulting in tragedy.
Maurice Harte, Murray’s next play after Birthright, is even more tragically intense. It concerns a young man who has lost his vocation to the priesthood but who sticks at it to please his mother at the terrible cost to himself of a nervous breakdown. His 1917 play, The Briery Gap, sympathetically portrays the position of a young unmarried woman who becomes pregnant. He wanted the author to be anonymous, fearing the implications for his teaching career, but Yeats at the Abbey contended that the play couldn’t be defended against objections raised if the author were unknown. It wasn’t staged until 1948.
Murray had moved to Dublin in 1915 as headmaster of the Model Schools at Inchicore. In Dublin, he befriended Richard Holloway, an inveterate theatregoer who kept a voluminous diary which contains a detailed account of Murray. His 1920 play, The Serf, is based on his teaching years in Rathduff and focuses on the battle between a dedicated, idealistic teacher and a rigid priest who is his school patron. It lacks Murray’s usual objectivity, according to Anthony Roche, in that the priest character is painted as too dark, but it certainly shows how Murray must have felt stymied in his profession.
Anthony Roche considers Autumn Fire (written in 1924 and referred to above) his “tragic masterpiece”. While not as explicit or extreme as O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, “its beautifully paced development, as the old man loses his health and comes to realise how his daughter’s dire prophecies about his marriage have come true, show Murray operating successfully in the three-act form”.
His 1930 play, A Flutter of Wings, a satire on modern Ireland, was rejected by the Abbey. This was a disappointment to him, especially as his plays had contributed so much to the theatre’s success, but he didn’t follow the example of Sean O’Casey who, when the Abbey rejected his The Silver Tassie in 1928, cut all links with it.
He took early retirement from teaching in 1932 and worked on a detailed autobiographical novel but found novel writing a more difficult challenge than writing plays; nevertheless, Spring Horizon was published in 1937.
He held significant positions in his latter years in the Authors’ Guild of Ireland, the Irish Academy of Letters and the Irish Playwrights’ Association and was awarded an honorary D Litt by the National University of Ireland in 1949. He died on March 7th, 1959.