The Irish Times view on Tom Murphy: a fierce imagination

The playwright’s work enriched and ennobled Irish theatre

Even if set within the confines of a pub in Galway or between the stone walls of a church, Tom Murphy’s dramas transcended their own places. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Even if set within the confines of a pub in Galway or between the stone walls of a church, Tom Murphy’s dramas transcended their own places. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

Tom Murphy’s great achievement was to radicalise Irish theatre, to break its inherited boundaries. This he did with a voice, and temperament, that was unexpected when he began writing for the stage 60 years ago. When the world of Irish emigrants that he created in A Whistle in the Dark was rejected by the Abbey and shocked audiences, it marked a first step in the playwright’s search for authenticity. That authenticity has been a hallmark of Murphy’s work ever since.

Although the themes of his plays were placed in a resonantly Irish context – family and community, memory, unfulfilled hopes, famine, the emigrant experience – they were, as President Michael D Higgins pointed out, “universal in their reach”. Even if set within the confines of a pub in Galway or between the stone walls of a church, his dramas transcended their own places.

He became one of the great masters of the language of the stage, harsh and poetic, as if he took to heart what Synge once said about verse: that before it can be human again it “must learn to be brutal”. But there was as well a musicality in the cadences of the words he gave his characters – no surprise in the work of a playwright for whom song and music were an important component.

Murphy’s plays display a fierceness of imagination. His penetrating indictments of the Ireland he was born into come out of what he once described as his rage “against the inequalities, the arrogance of power”. He was utterly unafraid of the capabilities of raw emotions; unafraid too of tackling big themes such as despair and redemption but when doing so could find luminous moments in the “abyss of darkness”.

His work has enriched and ennobled Irish theatre, and will continue to do so. The characters who inhabited his masterpieces – The Gigli Concert, A Whistle in the Dark, Conversations on a Homecoming, The Sanctuary Lamp, Bailegangaire – will stand as among the most memorable on the Irish stage. Above all, Murphy’s integrity as an artist flows through these characters and what they so often had to tell us about ourselves.

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