This week, Galway’s Tony winning Druid Theatre Company will present a mini-retrospective of three of the most accomplished plays of Irish playwright Tom Murphy at Druid Murphy, an exciting festival in his honor that will be staged at Lincoln Center beginning July 5.
Murphy, 77, has famously been described by Colm Toibin as “the writer whom other Irish writers most admire.” While that’s certainly true, Murphy’s plays are perhaps less well known to U.S. audiences, where their darker themes and often biting wit have startled those lucky enough to have seen them here.
For decades Druid, more than any other Irish company, has been at the forefront of the ambitious effort to bring the best contemporary Irish drama to the world stage, and Druid Murphy has been a labor of love for the company and its award winning director Garry Hynes.
Now, thanks to the sponsorship of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, which takes a special interest in the literature and culture of Ireland, the three soaring productions that make up the mini-retrospective of Murphy’s work have come to New York.
Speaking to the Irish Voice from his home in Dublin, Murphy sounds in fighting spirit as he prepares to participate in what will be the most prestigious presentation of his works in the U.S. for over a decade.
On the telephone the pattern of Murphy’s speech is hypnotic because he weighs out every word he says like he’s recording it into a Victorian phonograph.
There’s been a lot of talk in the press in Ireland and Britain about how timely each of the plays themes are, he tells me. Clearly he is having none of it.
“There’s been a lot of commentary about how relevant the Druid Murphy season is, but I don’t write political tracts or sociological pieces. I dig and dig until the play tries to tell me something through the characters,” Murphy says.
“I want to feel what the characters feel, whatever is constant is human nature.”
Plays, people and circumstances, don’t tidily arrange themselves to speak to the news cycle of a particular moment, he reminds me.
“People are greedy, they’re loving, they’re hating, they’re aspiring, and they’re idealistic, all the time.
In Ireland we’re having a recession now, and I believe that if the play Charlie’s Aunt were put on the abstractionists would apply it to the political and sociological positions”
Murphy has a good laugh at the absurdity of it and then reminds me of something that his characters never forget: “Human nature is constant in its greed.”
What could be more Irish, or universal, than a group of people fighting over an inheritance, or fearing dispossession, or being forced by circumstances to make choices they’d rather not make?
Throughout his career Murphy has probed the private cost of personal sacrifice from one generation to the next in a way that digs to the roots of the Irish experience.
In Murphy’s Ireland you’re often only minutes away from a shattering revelation or the unearthing of an explosive secret. That’s what makes his work so electrifying; it’s the way in which they exactly reproduce the Irish society that inspires them. It’s literally impossible to look away.
It always seems to begin innocently enough too, with a bit of witty banter between pals at the bar, or at a family gathering, but all that surface glitter starts to dim as you catch unsettling glimpses of the long simmering anger or resentment lurking just beneath the highly polished words.
Murphy’s most memorable characters are not always the most articulate ones, but then again his characters are capable, when angered or in the throes of a great passion, of the most riveting verbal arias that have the power to pin you to your seat.
“The inarticulate person has always if not fascinated me, interested me, because I can do things with words that perhaps notes can do with music with inarticulate people,” Murphy says. “Reason and logic are not my aim. I aim to recreate the feeling of life, which is emotion.”
If academics think they have the measure of him he has news flash.
“I think that commentaries and criticisms and reviews of plays can put an overemphasis on the intellectual side. The business of a play is not an intellectual exercise. I discover the play in the process of doing it,” Murphy reveals.
No Irish author has charted the legacy of dispossession, famine and emigration on the national psyche with his eloquence and unflinching focus, but when it comes to the writing of his works it’s a surprise to hear how much of it is intuited rather than planned.
“Yes, intuition is big. Thinking is part of life just like anything is, but it is not the only thing,” he says.
“If I stay with the play and the characters more particularly, well, people talk about inspiration, but I think in my experience the play and its characters have to have their say. If a playwright digs and digs and digs then he or she is hoping to know or approach what they are feeling.”
As a young man in the late 1950s and early ‘60s Murphy’s life was defined by one word that came back to him recently -- longing.
“I used to think when I was living in London as an immigrant that that longing was for a geographical place, for home, but as I have aged I realized that perhaps it was a longing for peace, or harmony, or even death.”
Like a lot of young Irish men of his era, Murphy was enraged by the gulf between Ireland’s pious outward face and its private reality. The lack of opportunity, the dole queues, the golden circle that had it all versus the rest of them forced to emigrate.
It was no country for young men, or indeed young women, and it infuriated him. That’s why his toweringly angry early play A Whistle in the Dark startled London critics with its raw power. It was Murphy’s rejection in life and art of the imprisoning gulag of the Catholic Republic that had shaped him.
The question of where had it all gone wrong, for in Ireland then (as now) there was no question that it had all gone wrong, is one the defining considerations of Murphy’s long career. In Famine, which is also being staged at Druid Murphy, that question is more explicit but also harder to pin the blame.
“I found when I researched Famine that European countries had experienced similar calamities at that period. Ireland was by no means the only country that had experienced it,” he says.
“When I started to write the play I started to wonder if I was a student or a victim of the famine. It is said that it takes nine generations before the racial memory of a people is killed.”
Quinnipiac University, under the imaginative guidance of its president John Lahey, recently founded Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in Connecticut, and so the importance of the Druid Murphy season, which explores the Famine’s legacy on generations of the Irish, was self-evident to the festival’s sponsors.
Lahey has understood something so central it merits celebration; he understands that the history of the Irish Famine is not only told though the recorded history that has been handed down to us. It is also told through art.
In fact its enduring impact and legacy are perhaps best told by art, since they can give human scale and dimension to overwhelming fact and figures.
Art can also bring a measure of peace, and peace is something that Murphy realized he might always have been in search of in his work. It’s also something the Irish themselves may have been in search of for longer than any of them may care to admit.
“When I go funerals the phrase that strikes me most of all is, ‘May he or she rest in peace,’” Murphy confides.
“They say she or he is at peace now. At my mother’s funeral a long time ago, and I’m not a great one for institutional religion, when they said may she rest in peace I was struck by it because she wasn’t at peace in her life.”
But the temptation to read all three plays as a trilogy or to identify a thematic arc should be resisted, Murphy counsels.
“Perhaps its in response to people saying I’ve written a sociological history of Ireland in the second half of the 20th century makes me smile. I’m not that smart,” he says.
“Writing can be a refusal. For me to look at reality, maybe writers like myself find a greater truth through refusal.”
Murphy’s refusal of the official story, or to stop what he calls digging and digging, has resulted in the most powerful Irish works for theater seen in the last two quarter centuries. Book your tickets now. For tickets call 212-721-6500.