An Irish Genius in New York

DruidMurphy: Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark, Famine

by Tom Murphy, directed by Garry Hynes
Lincoln Center Festival at John Jay College, New York City, July 2012
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Stephanie Berger
Michael Glenn Murphy (Justice of the Peace), Frank O’Sullivan (Brian O’Riordan), Gavin Drea (Liam Dougan), and John Olohan (Dan O’Dea) in Garry Hynes’s production of Tom Murphy’s Famine, the third part of the DruidMurphy cycle, New York City, July 2012

Tom Murphy’s body of work is as rich and potent as that of any living playwright, but it began with a rather desultory conversation. On a Sunday morning in 1959, in the market square of the small West of Ireland town of Tuam, Murphy and his friend Noel O’Donoghue leaned against a wall, waiting for the pubs to open. “Why,” asked O’Donoghue out of the blue, “don’t we write a play?” It was not as odd a question then as it might now seem, for, as Murphy later recalled, “everyone in the country in 1959 was writing a play.” What, Murphy asked, would they write about? “One thing is sure,” O’Donoghue replied. “It’s not going to be set in a kitchen.”1

This declaration of intent was not just a matter of physical setting. The kitchen had come to symbolize the social and imaginative limits of Irish theater. Brendan Behan remarked that the actors at the national theater, the Abbey, must constitute the best-fed group of players in Europe because, at the moment of crisis in the domestic comedies that had become their staple fare, someone would inevitably say, “Musha, will ye be putting on a pan of rashers.” But as the thrilling DruidMurphy cycle makes clear, Murphy has no interest in the kind of play where a crisis is resolved by putting on a pan of rashers. A Murphy drama may sometimes look small on the surface—some of his most daring pieces are three-handers—but his work is always vast. Big, wild forces of history, myth, and deep psychology howl in the wings and constantly threaten to overwhelm the apparent order of the stage.

Two of the three plays in the cycle have apparently banal settings and look, at first, like sociological dramas about one of the perennial Irish themes: emigration. Emigration and its discontents are a constant of Irish writing, and the plots of these two dramas are its two basic narratives, exile and return. A Whistle in the Dark is set among the exiles: Michael Carney, in his mid-thirties, has left County Mayo to make a new life for himself in industrial England, with a normal factory job and a nice English wife, Betty. His brothers and his father arrive from Ireland with very different aspirations. Conversations on a Homecoming reverses the flow: another Michael, also in his thirties, comes home to small-town Ireland from America and meets his old friends in a decrepit bar called the White House that was once supposed to be a center of culture and rebellion but is now just another shabby saloon. His first full-length work, the searing A Whistle, written in 1960, takes place entirely in …

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  1. 1

    Murphy recounts the story in his introduction to On the Outside/On the Inside (Gallery Press, 1976). For a wider discussion of Murphy’s origins and career, see Fintan O’Toole, Tom Murphy: The Politics of Magic (New Island/Nick Hern Books, 1994).