I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
In Ireland in the 1980s, when I was starting to write, there was a relationship between the Irish theater and its audience that was raw, visceral, and immediate. As new plays came—by Brian Friel, or Billy Roche, or Frank McGuinness (and later by Marina Carr, Sebastian Barry, Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson, Enda Walsh, and Mark O’Rowe)—there was a sense of real expectation and excitement. And as older classic Irish plays were performed by a new generation of Irish actors, that excitement was also there. Two of this period’s central figures entered our spirit and transformed the country in ways both clear and mysterious: the playwright Tom Murphy, who was born in Tuam in the west of Ireland in 1935, and the director Garry Hynes, almost 20 years younger than Murphy. The two began to work together in the mid-1980s and have come together again to revive three of Murphy’s plays: A Whistle in the Dark, Conversations on a Homecoming, and Famine.
I will never forget the opening nights of other plays by Murphy, such as The Gigli Concert (1983), about a man who wants to sing like Gigli, the writing filled with magic and sour wit and soaring language, and Bailegangaire (1985), where the great actress Siobhán McKenna played an old woman who has a story to tell which she cannot finish, whose ending will liberate her, those around her, and, by implication, the audience too. I will never forget a revival in the Abbey Theatre, directed by Hynes, of Murphy’s first play, A Whistle in the Dark, which had been a West End hit in the early 1960s. Or the first production of Conversations on a Homecoming, in Galway, in 1985, with the brilliant young actors from Druid Theatre doing committed and exemplary work. Or the epic production of Murphy’s playFamine, also in the mid-1980s in Galway, also directed by Hynes. Murphy’s restless imagination, something both soaring and uncompromising in his spirit as an artist, and his belief in the image and in the struggle to achieve raw perfection, make him an example to all of us. He is the writer whom other Irish writers most admire.
— Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín I wanted to ask you about theatrical language and about the idea of rhythm. This is something anybody going to your plays or reading them notices—that there is a very particular rhythm at the root of them, which of course in one way is the rhythm of speech, but it’s also the rhythm of theatrical speech.
Tom Murphy First of all, I think that conversational speech—everyday speech—has rhythm, everything has a rhythm. I don’t think that that particular rhythm is stageworthy as such. It has to be adjusted. Obviously, the individual characters have speech patterns, and it’s a way of conveying character on stage. Back to ordinary, everyday conversational stuff: I’ve noticed all through my life that very few people leave a rhythm unfinished in a sentence. I’ve noticed pigeons doing this. I was in the Canaries a few weeks ago, and the pigeons have a different language. “Da-duh, da-duh, the day is fucked.” (laughter) We were having a laugh at that, but here the only animal life that does not complete a rhythm is the Irish pigeon. It goes, “Da-duh da-duh, da-duh da-duh, da-duh da-duh, da.” Which doesn’t make sense. All art aspires toward music, so I try, as far as I can, to make a symphony out of the language. If there is a very dominant central character, then I suppose it would be a concerto.
CT I think what is notable about your plays is the way that they move and are structured emotionally, so that at certain times the music in them is minimalist, the music is muted, and it’s clipped. And that seems sometimes designed to allow space for it to soar at a given moment when you’re ready for that. Would you say that’s correct?
TM It’s correct, there has to be contrast.
CT Yes, but it’s not exactly contrast. It’s trying to actually lift language up—not only trying to give it color, but trying to get language to do something more than it normally does.
TM Yes, although ordinary people in ordinary conversations are fulfilling the rhythm of a sentence, most people are inarticulate. And I frequently write inarticulate people. But they still have to fulfill the unspoken rules of drama: they have to fulfill rhythm, balance, and contrast—architectural stuff.
CT What about language then lifting? If you get someone inarticulate to speak, you can get a sour poetry out of that.
TM This might be the answer to your question: Feeling interests me more than anything, to create the feeling of life, or to recreate it; and if it’s feeling, it frequently isn’t linear or logical or reasonable. If we’re back to aspiring to the condition of music, 17 things can happen simultaneously in a phrase of music. It’s not so much know-how as something inherent in me that I can make the inarticulate sing with feeling.
CT Does the Irish repertoire mean anything to you? I mean, what W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory did, or what J. M. Synge did, or what Seán O’Casey did?
TM It didn’t at the start because anything Irish was a pain in the ass to me. I was trying to escape that. In fact, it was through Federico García Lorca that I discovered Synge, and of course Lorca was greatly influenced by Synge. But Synge means an awful lot to me—I like his extravagance, the generosity of his writing. I like to watch good actors, or good Syngean actors playing Synge. Nobody with a tight, little mouth can play Synge. It has to be a generous sound or a generous mix of sounds.
Yeats is another thing to me—I don’t like his plays. I like Purgatory, which is probably the best play by Yeats that I’ve seen, in my opinion—and maybe On Baile’s Strand and The Only Jealousy of Emer.
CT Your impulse as a playwright seems essentially poetic. Your images seem hard-won, what came after a struggle.
TM I don’t fancy myself as a brain—as I say, feeling and emotion are top of the scale, the intellectual comes in much later—but you have to put the time in, two years, for instance, day after day, and go through despair, giving up temporarily, saying, “I can’t do it.” Maybe the higher authority, which could be the play itself, enters—sometimes it’s called inspiration. But the play has to have its own say so that the writer is in pursuit of the play, not in the ascendancy. But you cannot get a play to have its own say if you are only going to spend a few months on the thing. This is my experience, and for better or worse, I have transcended my own little head by tenacity, concentration, and staying with it over a long period. I am one thing—the writer. The subject is another. But the play, the play has something of a life too.
CT Lincoln Center is going to put on this production of three plays: Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark, and Famine. You can’t call them a trilogy. Nonetheless, if you looked at all three of them together, and, taking Whistle in the Dark first, let me ask you about the images of illusion and disillusion—
TM —I agree that you couldn’t call them a trilogy, but there is a thread to do with emigration. In A Whistle in the Dark, you have a family uprooted, at war with the adopted country, and, eventually, at war with themselves. I don’t know so much about emigration nowadays, but the types I was trying to get at in A Whistle in the Dark didn’t belong anyplace. They didn’t belong in England; they didn’t belong at home. People were praying for them at home; but in England they were free of the constraints of church, family, neighbors, etcetera, so they went a bit wild, a lot of them.
CT And you saw them going, those people. One of the annual, or biannual, sights in Tuam was the departure or the arrival home.
TM Yes. I’ve said it elsewhere that my times of greatest expectation and despair were on the railway platform in Tuam. I come from a very big family, and eventually there was just my mother and myself left—everyone else had emigrated. It was just the beginning of the Second World War. I remember my eldest brother leaving—we didn’t see him for 20 years, and so he became a mythic figure in my imagination. But nearly everybody’s family in the west of Ireland was decimated by emigration. In Conversations on a Homecoming, a returning emigrant comes home for refuge, but he doesn’t find it. I think it’s a hopeful play because he has lost some false illusions that he had about the place.
CT Yes, but the picture of the society in Conversations is one of immense paralysis. The people who’ve stayed at home are utterly unable to function except in relation to petty snobbery or their own particular self-delusions.
TM Yes, it was a post-Kennedy thing. We all got a big lift out of JFK. We didn’t get a big lift out of Macmillan or de Gaulle or Khrushchev. (laughter) Kennedy was like one of ourselves who had become a film star or something else—his broad smile and the stories that proliferated about him. You know, we celebrated those. Instead of people trying to look like Robert Mitchum—they were trying to look like Kennedy.
CT And so the first version of Conversations on a Homecoming is called The White House.
TM The White House, yes. But despite the camouflage and the falseness of the Kennedy era, it was a very hopeful era. In Conversations, somebody says to tell the guy that looks like Kennedy (but never appears)—“Tell him I love him.” That’s the last line in the play. Against that, you have bitterness, futility, stagnation.
CT Whistle in the Dark seems ferocious, angry, the images in it are of pure violence and hatred, and people really don’t belong, whereas Conversations seems a gentler and funnier play.
TM Yes, yes. Whistle in the Dark I wrote on Friday and Saturday nights with my feet up in the kitchen—I used to notice that my jaw was frequently clenched—there was some sort of rage within me, and I had found a form of therapy to deal with it, which was trying to write a play. Rather than observing the rigid class system and the hypocrisy of churchmen and politicians, I was absorbing that and it was filling me with rage. Like any young man, I had been fed illusions, and these illusions were collapsing and falling away—
CT —And these illusions were that brave people had fought for Irish independence, which we had won, and we’re all living and basking in that freedom, while those who went to England were merely earning bread to send home out of a spirit of altruism and that it was all fine, or—
TM —Well, not quite. I had written a speech in a play called The Morning After Optimism: Once upon a time there was a boy as there was always and as there always will be, and he was given a dream, his life. His mother told him, “Do not be naughty, nobody’s naughty.” And there would be a lovely girl for him someday, and she would have blue eyes and golden hair. His father taught him honesty, to stand direct and be sincere—like every other person in the world. And on the stroke of 12 on his 21st birthday, he would become a man, and he would not be afraid to have his appendix out. And the teachers and the church told him that there was a devil but he wasn’t alive, really. And the kindest stork with a great red beak would take care of any works and pomps. Everyone was made like God, even the little boy himself.
The balloons that were given to us—and I was gullible, obviously, maybe more gullible than most, and more pious than most—the balloons lifted me above the ground so that I didn’t have to walk a step anywhere. Until one of them burst. And one beautiful balloon after another burst. Illusions that are fed by the church, fairy tales that you believe, and maybe I was a slow developer, but … why did I start with that?
CT I suppose because I was feeding you more concrete social ills, and what you were doing was moving it away from that to more spiritual, transcendent ills. What’s remarkable about Whistle in the Dark is that you were not working with a group of actors as you wrote, or you weren’t thinking of a group of actors. You were in your early twenties and living in a remote place. Could you tell us what happened to the play and what you did once you had a finished play?
TM I certainly stopped act two and I thought, I can’t go on. I threw it into a corner, and a month later I picked it up and wrote the third act in a night. It was seven pages of a school exercise book. And then I rewrote it. I knew I had a beginning, middle, and end, and it had to be fleshed out, the characters needed developing, they needed to be distinguished from each other. But I submitted it to an amateur competition and it won, but the prize was withheld on the grounds, they said, that it would never be produced. The prize was 15 guineas. But then Godfrey Quigley, a great Irish actor, had read it at some amateur drama fest somewhere and told me he wanted to do it. So it was meant to have been produced by the Dublin Theatre Festival, but Godfrey had to emigrate. He took it with him to London and gave it to somebody else there.
CT And it was turned down by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the national theater of Ireland, in the meantime?
TM Yes, it wasn’t just turned down. (laughter) I got an offensive letter from Mr. Blythe, the managing director, who said, “This was rubbish, and no such characters as these existed.” He didn’t wish me well or anything like that.
CT So it went on in London in what year?
TM 1961. It may be of interest that the play I produced after Whistle in the Dark took seven years, and I’m proud of myself that I stayed with it. By 1985, I was associated with the Druid Theatre in Galway, and whatever I produced I felt that they would present. One feature of my association with Druid is that the actors and the director were all 20 years younger than me. I think in mixing with such talented young people, I achieved a rejuvenation because there is tremendous energy in Conversations. And indeed there is great energy and storytelling in Bailegangaire.
CT To go back to Famine—the play you wrote after A Whistle in the Dark—it would have been easy in those seven years to have written a play which would have really put it up to the English, and what they did. It would have been set in [Sir Charles] Trevelyan’s office, and would have had the starving Irish dying, and would have had the English as loud, arrogant, and filled with colonial dispassion or cruelty. Well, you didn’t do that.
TM Yes, there was one draft of Famine, in which I prefaced and suffixed, if that is the right word, each scene with a speech by Trevelyan.
CT Did you?
TM Yes. So I was very conscious of the political thing, which generally bores me to death. But Famine started with Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger and that was 1962, and it was quite an event in the publishing world. I read that eagerly, and I expected half a dozen plays to emerge about the Irish famine. But they didn’t, and two years later, in ’64, I started into it, researching. I read The Great Famine, written by a gaggle of very good Irish academics. But I wanted to look further afield, and I came across a book that was written about the Eskimos, a famine that they underwent in the middle of the 19th century. Then I was reading about a famine that was said to be raging in Bihar, in India. I went back to the Irish and read William Carleton—
CT Oh yes.
TM —Traits and Stories of Irish Peasantry, a wonderful social study, and a novel of his called The Black Prophet, which was about a famine that existed in Ireland in 1821. So I did an awful lot of research, indeed I remember saying to myself, I have to stop researching, because research can be in lieu of the work.
CT Were there any theatrical models in the research?
TM No. I started to read The Weavers by Gerhart Hauptmann, and three or four pages into the book it seemed to be moving into famine and I put it away. Bertolt Brecht was very big in London in the ’60s, and I saw various plays, so without my knowing they had a big effect on me. I’d say that The Crucible had an effect on me, though I disagree with Arthur Miller’s moralizing. But even my central character is called John Connor; the central character in The Crucible is John Proctor, so they’re pretty close. I was seeing an awful lot of plays; there were wonderful world seasons that a man named Peter Daubeny had at the Aldwych Theatre. So I saw Greek companies doing possibly one of the most boring plays in the Greek canon, from the classical, great period, called The Persians. And it was stunning—the movement, the sweep, the epic nature. I saw Hedda Gabler directed by Ingmar Bergman. I saw The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, directed by Peter Brook—a wonderful play. I saw companies from all over the world while I was in England—I was now serving my apprenticeship by watching and absorbing.
CT When did you come back to Ireland?
TM In 1970. After a year or so of working on Famine, and the usual despair of “I can’t go on” and so on, my phone rang in London and the voice said, “Mr. Murphy?” “Yes?” “Mr. Murphy, the interior decorator?” (laughter) And for two seconds I considered, Why am I in this lunatic business? I can paint a wall. I could even hang wallpaper.
After I had done all this research on famine, and it was a heavy sack on my back, I had to ask myself, Am I a student of famine, or am I a victim of it? That thought propelled me to write the play Famine, because I wanted to write about the private me and my times.
CT Using a theatrical system that seemed public?
TM I think we all use it—how to write about the private self and conceal the privacy. So Famine was a good way to write about poverty in the 1950s and the poverty of thought.
CT Anyone who would see these three plays could have the right to feel, on the way home, that they knew you. But if one saw instead The Gigli Concert or Bailegangaire, one would get a very different version of you.
TM I suppose.
CT In other words, the soaring use of the language of prayer, the language of transcendence, becomes dominant in The Gigli Concert and Bailegangaire; that language becomes the body of the plays.
TM Well, I had chosen to write plays rather than novels or poetry because there was no necessity for grammar. You can talk backwards in dialogue, which is very exciting.
CT Wait, just give me more of that. What do you mean by that?
TM I felt I could never write prose. I knew that I couldn’t go into film because it was too remote. But with plays, I didn’t have to know grammar or syntax or any rules to write the way that people spoke. Even the earlier plays—A Whistle in the Dark, On the Outside—are very well constructed, I must say. How? I don’t know. I love writing dialogue, but dialogue never made a play. You have to stop yourself and consider other things.
CT Such as?
TM Integration of characters, development of plot—where to start, where to finish. Sometimes the middle seems to be the start as the action is in motion, but by starting in the middle you’re using all the ammunition you have.
CT Ireland is almost an open society if you are an artist, a place that has no, say, Wall Street or Hollywood or aristocracy. There’s a sort of emptiness here, or rawness. And the actors, in the way they’re not RADA trained [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] or their voices are not worked through a system, can have a much rawer or a much sharper effect on an audience here in Ireland. There’s a sort of absolute connection sometimes between an Irish performance and an Irish audience. Is that true?
TM I don’t know. I’m so self-centered, (laughter) in myself. I watch audiences react, and I’m welcoming of a good reaction. But I think what you say of the comparative vacuum here is a bonus because you’re left to discover yourself.
CT If I said the word Catholicism, what would you say?
TM I’d say it’s a very positive background. (laughter)
CT I mean the idea of the word being used for the purposes of transubstantiation.
TM For a long time, I thought that this is a huge fairy tale.
CT Can you give us an account of your own relationship with the vernacular, with the English Mass coming to replace the Latin Mass.
TM Well, I was involved in it. An advisory committee to the bishops was meeting in Dublin, and they saw one of my plays. Somebody had the idea that I could make a contribution to their work. This was an organization called ICEL—International Commission on English in the Liturgy; they asked me to join them. I wrote back and thanked them for the offer, but I said, in case they had an expectation which I couldn’t fulfill, that I wouldn’t wish my Catholic background on anyone. I’m glad that I have the background, which is another subject. But I got a reply back, officially, that thanked me and asked if I would come as an observer to the next meeting, which was in London. There was a handwritten note that said, “Dear Tom, We all have our problems.” (laughter) So I went to London. It was the translation of the whole of the missal. The first job the committee, which I became part of, was dealing with was the Communion prayer and the post-Communion prayer. We met in different parts of the world—London, Washington, Toronto, Sydney. So after two years of privileged conversation and privileged company, I became close to a few bishops and learned a lot. We met once a year with the bishops and a cardinal or two, and it was wonderful to hear them talking shop. I felt eventually that it wasn’t right for me to be fashioning prayers for others, which I didn’t believe in myself.
CT And were you there when “And so, Father, we bring you these gifts. We ask you to make them holy by the power of your Spirit” was being created?
TM Yes, yes, but I don’t remember that. I was promoting the term Father. I asked a few people, “If you are praying, then what would you pray for?” And they said, “Father. Heaven.” And I was promoting the idea of addressing “Father” rather than almighty, ever-living, all-powerful God.
CT Underlying the plays is a sense of music. I don’t just mean music as a set of raw emotions or soaring moments, but a set of things structured that release all that energy. How important has that been? I know your own singing voice is beautiful, but what about the idea of structuring things in the way that music is structured?
TM I listen to a lot of music—I’m jealous of composers and, years ago, I used to be jealous of singers. Transcending the self as a composer, transcending the self as a playwright—maybe that’s what I was talking about earlier with the business of tenacity and concentration—you’re rewarded eventually by writing above yourself. The play takes off, and it’s a transcendence of the self.
I’m not saying they’re good, bad, or indifferent, but I don’t know where aspects of the plays came from. They couldn’t have come from a conscious effort. I was dipping into a book last year, The Age of Absurdity, where it said, “If a playwright sets out to be original, the best he can expect is to be avant-garde,” which I thought was wonderful. It sort of gets at this thing of letting the subconscious overcome the conscious, you know, the talk about inspiration. I’m repeating myself, but if you set out to be deep, I don’t think you can be—unless you’re a genius.
CT So you mean there are times when you’re working out of an absolute space where you don’t know, where something is coming and you’re letting it come?
TM Yes. I’ve said it before—I think it was Jerome Hynes who was doing a census on happiness, asking various people, “What is happiness to you?” When he asked me, I said, “Happiness is when I look at the clock and it’s ten past seven, and when I look at the clock the next time, it’s ten till two.” It’s stepping out of time.
CT A self-forgetfulness.
TM Yes, stepping out of this boring thing of time. That’s happiness.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee