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Sitting in his graceful study with wine glass in hand, cigarette ashes flicked into the glowing fireplace, Tom Murphy reflects on the Abbey Theatre's recent retrospective of his plays, which have done more to enrich the national soil in the last generation than anyone, save perhaps his close friend and better-known contemporary Brian Friel. Murphy's latest work, The Housepresented in the Abbey's Murphy Season alongside A Whistle in the Dark, The Gigli Concert, Bailegangaire, The Sanctuary Lamp, and The Morning After Optimismconfronts the corruptive force of newfound wealth. Set in the lonely era of 1950s emigration, the action centers on a young man's return to his native Ireland to buy the house of his dreams with a cash envelope of questionable taint and tragic consequences. "The character of Christy is a precursor of the type of ruthlessness that prevails today," Murphy says. "Many Irish have become vastly affluent, though I don't think this has aided in their search for home"a search that has been, for all its political baggage, multi-dimensionally fraught in Irish drama.
The Celtic Tiger may have faltered with the burst of the tech bubble, but Dublin remains posher than it's ever been. Rich in cuisine, costume, and increasingly even skin color, the urban scene has a confidence that rivals the most sophisticated of euro-spending cities. Yet the question of what it means to call Ireland home has taken on new significance in an era marked by globalization on the one hand and nationalist backlash on the other.
Deconstructing doily-wrapped Irish clichés has become the first order of business, something that the new crop of Irish dramatists, most notably Conor McPherson and the British-born Martin McDonagh, have been doing with wrecking-ball glee. But long before it became faddish, Murphy was surveying Ireland's myths, digging for forlorn truths with a grittiness matched by a rare tenderness.
Abbey artistic director Ben Barnes put it best in an Irish Times interview: "If Brian Friel speaks to the heart of Ireland, Tom Murphy speaks to our souls. Or, more accurately, to the trouble in our souls." No doubt that the anti-romantic darkness of Murphy's vision has made it less readily exportable than Friel's more consoling autumnal elegies. For a time, though, even the Abbey was resistant to Murphy's unflattering portraits. His first major play, A Whistle in the Dark (1961), was rejected for all the wrong reasons in Dublin and celebrated for all the wrong reasons in London, where it confirmed prejudices for those unwilling to look beyond the violent veneer into the stifled longing of economically enforced exile.
A naturalistic tragedy involving a family of Mayo emigrants festering with frustration in Coventry, the play was famously described by Kenneth Tynan as "arguably the most uninhibited display of brutality that the London theatre has ever witnessed." (This from a critic who claimed to have a soft spot for Titus Andronicus!) The reviewers had a field day riding the Irishman-as-hooligan hobbyhorse. One went so far as to write that "if there's a single Irishman who has not been deported from England by next weekend I shall write to the Home Secretary." All of this, naturally, resulted in packed houses. In New York, the reception was less atavistic, more attuned to the patriarchal oppression driving the catastrophe. Then-Voice critic John Lahr was one of the first to recognize the play as a model for Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, noting the way the visceral family tension "transcends with its fury the limits of naturalism."
Murphy failed to follow up this qualified success with more of the same, which accounts in part for his muted reputation in the States. No two of his plays are alike, and to frame any discussion of his oeuvre in an explicitly political way is merely a journalistic convenience. Murphy's changing dramaturgy mirrors his characters' restless souls. Take his second-best-known play, The Gigli Concert (1983), which is a pas de trois of unanswerable existential longing, involving a quack-guru, his lover, and a businessman who yearns to sing like the tenor Beniamino Gigli. Or Bailegangaire (1985), a thatched-cottage drama about a senile grandmother prodded by her two disappointed adult granddaughters to finish the endlessly started tale of how the town came to be named "the place without laughter." Set in the same period as Whistle, The House (2000) explores the other side of emigration, refracting the inevitable catastrophe of those left behind through a spacious Chekhovian lens that can't help taking in the fictional aspect of the term "home."
Murphy: metaphysical realism
(photo: Paul McCarthy)
What connects these plays (a few of which are rumored to be coming to New York next year) has less to do with local history than the precisely crafted Irish contexts may suggest. "My plays attempt to translate the mystery of being alive into a theatrical form," Murphy says, shaking his head modestly at his own statement. "It is on the stage that you not only have the license but the right to give expression to the kinds of theatrical emotions that, if you've ever put a child to bed, you know inhere in us all."