Tom Murphy’s Eire Force

Drinking and Thinking Through the Dublin Theater Scene

 DUBLIN—"I know what I'd be writing about today if I were a young Irish writer—money and the consequences of money."

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 House—presented in the Abbey's Murphy Season alongside A Whistle in the Dark, The Gigli Concert, Bailegangaire, The Sanctuary Lamp, and The Morning After Optimism—confronts 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.

A Whistle in the Dark: a model for Pinter’s The Homecoming
photo: Amelia Stein
A Whistle in the Dark: a model for Pinter’s The Homecoming

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."

A keen and flexible sense of dramatic structure distinguishes his work from the ramblingly prosy plays that, along with Guinness, have become the nation's trademarks. Beginning each writing day at 4 a.m., Murphy, a devotee of classical music, makes analogies between playwriting and composing. "I construct the story, the rhythm of dialogue, and try to create a score." Though disciplined in the manner common to all virtuosos, he hastens to add that "I don't think a writer is in charge completely. A play has to have its own say."

What was it like to experience five productions of his plays, one written 40 years ago? "I was returning to moments of my life which were moments of striving, of loneliness, of trying for something better than life. Revisiting those years could not be regarded by me as happy. Exciting and a depth of pride, of course. I was proud that a generation later there was a commitment to what I had written."

Commitment is an understatement. Irish Times critic Fintan O'Toole, author of the fine book Tom Murphy: The Politics of Magic, described the Murphy Season as a "homecoming for the most restless, angular and courageous imagination in Irish theatre," a writer who's "neither a naturalist nor an expressionist but a fabulist, a creator of daringly imagined stories." Conall Morrison, who directed Whistle and The House, believes that though both plays "confront the sad fact that Ireland has rarely been able to provide an equable economic existence for its citizens," Murphy's genius lies in the way "his plays take a realistic situation and leap into the realm of metaphysics without being pretentious."

Politics and magic, then. A construction that also encompasses one of the bolder new Irish playwrights, Marina Carr. At an award ceremony at the Abbey, she reminded her audience that she was the only honoree with a womb. Certainly, it's a rare distinction among Emerald Isle dramatists, though Carr speaks of herself foremost as a tragedian, albeit one with a perversely comic female streak. (Mothers, daughters, and wives have, if rarely the last laugh in her plays, always the best.) While sharing a bottle of wine (OK, two) during a New Year's Eve lunch at the Shelbourne Hotel, she spoke of wanting to move away from "the realistic realm," which she finds constrictive and lacking in credibility. Her work since her Blackburn-winning Portia Coughlan has derived inspiration from the Greeks. By the Bog of Cats, her Irish Midlands version of Medea, had a production last September at San Jose Rep starring Holly Hunter, and she's currently reimagining the Iphigenia saga for the Abbey, as well as a play about Chekhov's life for the Gate.

But while Carr has been searching beyond Ireland for archetypal material, other writers have been finding sustenance in quotidian life. Conor McPherson's success with the monologue has launched a thousand-and-one storytellers, particularly those in love with the pub-crawl genre, where alcoholism, impotence, and blundering violence often intersect with ludicrous results. Eugene O'Brien's Eden, which began at the Peacock before moving upstairs to the Abbey last month, is a two-hander set in Edenderry, involving the desperate marriage of a young couple paralyzed at an age when their American counterparts would be investigating mortgages or divorce attorneys. Directed by McPherson, the piece has a cunning vernacular humor and a demythologizing pastoral power, though the inherent limits of the direct-address gab-athon have a quality every bit as claustrophobic as the small-town ethos that drives everyone to binge drink.

Obviously few writers can match Beckett's formal innovation with the monologue or create a dramatic sequence of them in the magisterial manner of Friel's Faith Healer (1979). Two talented voices, however, are giving it a go: Disco Pigs author Enda Walsh, whose Misterman (currently at New York's Irish Arts Center) is a kind of McPherson-esque Krapp's Last Tape; and Michael West, whose Foley, a wry memoir delivered by a figure who can only be described as Protestant Descendancy, exposes the lie of narrative linearity. Though neither playwright is married to the talking-head format, they share what Walsh calls "the bundle of anxieties" of men in their thirties, who are looking at their fathers' failings and wondering how to escape the same soup.

To broaden the reach of Irish playwriting (which can admittedly get caught in garrulous loops), Barnes has brought to the Abbey two administrators with an eye for groundbreaking international talent: Jocelyn Clarke, a former Sunday Tribune critic who has dramaturgical relationships with Anne Bogart and Carl Hancock Rux; and Ali Curran, former director of the Dublin Fringe Festival. Clearly, experiment is high on the National Theatre's agenda.

Cultivating an audience beyond the middlebrow remains the toughest hurdle. Gate Theatre artistic director Michael Colgan has had success in what he calls "eventing," as witnessed by his highly successful Beckett and Pinter festivals. Under way at the Gate are plans for an American Theater Festival, where playwrights like Sam Shepard and David Mamet can receive wider foreign embrace.

Dublin's increasing cultural openness can only galvanize a theater scene that's become a bit snug in its role as world purveyor of English-language fables. Whether the new crop of playwrights are up to the challenge of an era in which national identity is taking on even more complicated global dimensions remains to be seen. Certainly the issues are trickier than "European humanism versus American materialism," a simplistic dichotomy currently in vogue. But in the afterglow of the Tom Murphy Season, truth-telling has the upper hand over blarney.

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