Theater archives

The Lincoln Center Festival Mounts Three Tom Murphy Plays


For Irish playwright Tom Murphy, home is where the hurt is, an adage underscored in DruidMurphy, a marathon production at the Lincoln Center Festival of three of his plays: Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark, and Famine. Murphy never intended these plays as a trilogy. They are set in various times and places (1970s County Galway, 1960s Coventry, 1840s County Mayo, respectively) and written a couple of decades apart (1985, 1961, 1968). Yet the scripts all center on the subject of emigration.

To see these plays in the course of an afternoon and evening (a little more than nine hours, including intermissions) as performed by the dynamic Druid ensemble is to understand why artistic director Garry Hynes has grouped them. It also suggests that while emigration draws them together, Murphy has concerns other and deeper than travel. Wherever his characters roam or linger, they carry their failure, rage, and regret with them, like so much battered luggage. The title character in an early Murphy play, A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer’s Assistant, articulates this. “It isn’t a case of staying or going,” he says. “We’re half-men here or half-men away, and how can we hope ever to do anything.”

In 2004, Murphy told an interviewer that the concept of home “used to appear in the plays in the literal, geographical way that we understand the term. Now, I see it more as a search for the self, for peace, for harmony.” Yet that internal and always unsuccessful search resonates even in Whistle, his first full-length. Whether he leaves or festers, a Murphy character will find himself miserable. More likely, he won’t find himself at all.

Although Murphy is renowned in his native Ireland and to a lesser extent in the U.K. too, America has never embraced him with the same fervor as his contemporary Brian Friel. DruidMurphy both argues persuasively for embracing Murphy and illustrates starkly the difficulty of doing so. (It would be a very spiky sort of hug.) Friel isn’t precisely a cheery playwright, but he does allow for the limited chance of love, hope, joy, transcendence. Murphy doesn’t. His is a poetry of disillusion—no dream goes unmolested, no succor untainted or untrammeled.

Hynes leads off with Conversations, a script that trades more in melancholy than in absolute despair. Michael (Marty Rea) has returned to County Galway after 10 years in New York as a jobbing actor for an evening’s drink and craic at the White House pub. But he finds his favorite shebeen dingy and failing, his friends old and stultifying, their youthful enthusiasm curdled and calcified.

Of course, Michael hasn’t fared much better. In the course of the evening, he tells the story of a man who stripped at a party, leaped onto a table, and began to cry: “No! No! This isn’t it at all! This kind of—life—isn’t it at all.” That man is Michael. In this painful, poignant drama, which plays out in real time, Murphy neatly balances desolation with comedy, and Hynes ensures the hard words and clanging glasses take on a kind of rough music. (The two-hour show, which requires actors to down myriad pints of liquid, is a paean to thespian bladder control.)

A bleaker tune animates A Whistle in the Dark, a tale of another Michael (Rea again), who has left Ireland for England. But three of his thug brothers have followed him, crowding the small house he shares with his English wife (Eileen Walsh). When his father (Niall Buggy) and youngest brother (Gavin Drea) come to visit, they goad Michael into abandoning his hard-won civility and joining in their brute games. “I don’t want to be what I am,” Michael says. He has fled County Mayo to shake off this savage inheritance. But even a country away, blood tells.

Written at the age of 25, Whistle displays a vigorous, confident structure and a wallop of tragic force. This is a vicious, malcontented world in which relations are a toxin, women a nuisance, morals an annoyance, and work a distraction. Even trees are a danger. “Gas. The trees give it out at night,” Dada says. These lethal family dynamics anticipate Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming even as the play follows The Birthday Party in its depiction of a celebration turned venomous.

In Famine, the longest, most complex, and yet least compelling offering in the cycle, Murphy takes a turn toward the epic, exploring the effects of the potato blight on a small community in West Ireland. With its wide scope and sickened vision of the inequities of power, you might have subbed in Howard Barker’s name on the title page with few the wiser. The play concerns John Connor (Brian Doherty), a village leader, who refuses to emigrate, though staying almost certainly means starvation. He is a man who makes the wrong choice, for all the best and noblest reasons.

While all of Murphy’s plays are talky, only this one feels it, with the political overwhelming the personal in many of the scenes. And here, Hynes, one of the theater’s greatest practitioners of rhythm and tone, submits to her taste for the heavy-handed gesture, as in a scene between priests, politicians, and landowners, in which the famine victims gradually drag themselves in from the wings to slump beneath the speechifying. Still, it’s a broad, brave, angry piece, though the cycle might have benefited from its placement first rather than last.

If Conversation, the most recent play, seems the most placid, don’t believe that age has mellowed Murphy. Judging from recent interviews and actions, the angry young man has merely become an angry old one. He made the papers in 2005 for hurling lamb curry at the director of the Gate Theater, and five years later he gave an interview in which he said: “There is a rage in me, which I think is a natural thing. It was in me when I was 24 or 25, scribbling with my stub of a pencil. And it’s still there in everything I do.” It’s there even in the antiseptic environs of the Gerald W. Lynch Theater. And it is a brutal, forceful, rousing thing to see.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Charles McNulty interviews Tom Murphy.