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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 the living room of a small house in Coventry, England. In Garry Hynes’s production for the Druid Theatre Company, we can even see the dreaded kitchen behind it. Conversations, first produced by Hynes herself in 1985, likewise has a single set—this time the other Irish cliché, the pub. Behan’s taunt about the Abbey might even be applied. The brilliant ensemble is certainly well-fed and even more generously doused in drink: tea, sandwiches, whiskey, and (genuine) pints of Guinness are consumed throughout the action of both plays.

Yet these plots give no idea of the dizzying, gut-wrenching effect of the plays. If they were in fact the relatively domestic and sociological pieces that they seem at the outset, the inclusion of the third play in the cycle would be jarring to the point of absurdity. Famine, premiered by the Abbey in 1968, is an epic unfolding of the great catastrophe of modern Irish history: the potato famine of 1845–1850, in which the population shrank from 8.5 million to 6.6 million. Thematically, Famine may fit naturally with the other two plays, since it was the “great hunger” that triggered the mass exodus that embedded emigration within Irish culture.

Theatrically, though, it ought to feel utterly out of place in this cycle. It deals with an enormous event, albeit largely through the story of one community and its leader, John Connor. In contrast to the single, mundane settings of the other two plays, Famine’s twelve scenes move between different locations. The apparent slice-of-life approach in the first two plays is replaced by stark poetry and rapid shifts of perspective. It opens with a formal lament for a dead girl—“cold and silent is now her bed”—and each of its scenes is structured as a miniature drama with its own conflict and resolution. Where the other plays are exuberant and anarchic, Famine, because of its terrible subject, has the air of a ritual of mourning.

Here, then, is the basic question to be asked of this whole project: How can these plays go together? The broad theme of emigration provides an intellectual coherence, but a cycle of plays that unfolds (for those who choose to see it in one day) over more than seven hours must grip the viewer at an altogether more visceral level. The plays, after all, do not form a natural trilogy—they were written at different times over a period of twenty-five years. They are, moreover, played in reverse order of the times in which they are set, beginning with the early 1970s of Conversations, moving back to 1960 for A Whistle, and then to 1846 for Famine.

It probably doesn’t help audiences unfamiliar with Murphy that his work in general is not easy to categorize and that he has no secure place in the order of contemporary theatrical reputations. He has written twenty-five plays in a career that has lasted for more than half a century. (Murphy was born in Tuam in County Galway in 1935.) Most of them are of a very high order, and at least half a dozen are electrifying. Yet he is hard to place.

He is not easily aligned with the post-war European avant-garde. There is, for example, an obvious parallel between Famine and Peter Brook’s later project The Ik (1975). Brook’s piece explores the implosion of a Ugandan tribe under the pressure of hunger, just as Murphy’s enacts the breakdown of trust, generosity, and community under the weight of slow starvation. But these parallels serve only to highlight the vast gulf between the two plays. Brook’s involved white Europeans playing at being African tribespeople. Murphy is confronting his own culture and his own history. Famine is important precisely because it is a very rare phenomenon: a Western exploration of starvation that is not external but internal, not an outsider’s pitying gaze but an insider’s telling of a story that is imprinted in his very bones. In the Druid production, the 1840s Irish villagers are dressed in contemporary clothes and the anachronism makes complete sense: the terror of the play for a Western audience is that the starving are not, as with The Ik, Them. They are Us. The great hunger belongs as much to the history of New York, where so many of its refugees ended up, as of Ireland.

Murphy’s singularity often leaves critics struggling to find a familiar hook to hang him on. When A Whistle in the Dark took London by storm in 1961 (after it was indignantly rejected by the Abbey, whose director, Ernest Blythe, remarked that “I never saw such rubbish in all my life”2), the obvious comparison to reach for was with Brendan Behan. Kenneth Tynan’s review projected onto Murphy himself the drunken savagery of the play’s characters:

Thomas Murphy…is the kind of playwright one would hate to meet in a dark theater…. I have not met Mr. Murphy, but something whispers that he might unnerve me—me who never flinched from meeting Brendan Behan, even when his shirt was unbuttoned.3

In fact, Murphy has nothing beyond nationality in common with Behan. A contemporary audience, on the other hand, may be more inclined to reach for Harold Pinter’s combination of domestic banality and existential threat as a point of reference for A Whistle, in which the sense of menace is certainly palpable from the start. A Whistle undoubtedly has uncanny similarities to The Homecoming. But Pinter’s play opened almost four years after Murphy’s. (Pinter denied having either seen or read Murphy’s play.)

Likewise, audiences unfamiliar with Murphy may be tempted, while watching Famine, to seize on moments that are reminiscent of either Brecht or Beckett. There is, for example, a scene in which the local powers (a merchant, a landlord, a land agent, and a parish priest) discuss their response to the famine. Each is presented in the Brechtian manner as representative of a social force. Conversely, John Connor’s erection of a wall of disconnected talk as his last shield against the futility of his fight against annihilation is reminiscent of those Beckett characters who keep talking through the apocalypse.

Such momentary resemblances can be striking, but they are largely misleading. For both Brecht and Beckett are, in their very different ways, cool. Brecht’s aesthetic is one of disengaged appraisal, Beckett’s of ironic minimalism. Murphy is anything but cool. His work is vivid, visceral, and violent. Especially in Hynes’s relentless staging it has a ferocious and explosive urgency. Murphy has to be taken on his own terms, without the safety net of familiar comparisons. The terms are blunt: he demands the right to be epic and intimate, wild and orderly, plausible and fantastical—all at the same time.

Audiences get a sense of this about halfway through the first play in the cycle, Conversations. The action has proceeded as it very well might do in a country pub where old friends have reassembled, with all their old affections and resentments, all their contested memories, gradually coming to the surface. Their failures are laid bare: Tom, who was supposed to become a writer, is still teaching school; Michael’s acting career in America is obviously far from stellar. Junior, their amiable younger sidekick, even lays out the proper course for the drinking bout: “We’ve had the complimenting stage, let that be an end to the insulting stage, and we’ll get on to the singing stage.” But Liam, the creepy real estate agent who will be the ultimate inheritor of all their dreams, suddenly breaks into a long, hysterical, drunkenly incoherent rant about “Truth and Faith and Faith and Truth inex—inextricably bound. And-And!—cultural heritage…”

The speech is very funny and it is beautifully played by Aaron Monaghan, whose performances across all three plays are prodigious. But it also marks a shift in the tone and mood of the play, followed as it is by similar outbursts of linguistic bravura from Tom. The characters, who begin with mundane, banal small talk (the opening line of the play is the greeting “Well, bollix!”), end up on a completely different level of heightened language, formal speech-making, and self-conscious performance, as in Tom’s comic jeremiad on

the country-and-western system itself… Unyielding, uncompromising in its drive for total sentimentality…an unholy herd of Sierra Sues, sad-eyed inquisitors, sentimental Nazis….

Similarly, in A Whistle, Michael Carney’s father, Dada, arrives near the start of the play as a polite, self-effacing sixty-year-old gentleman: “I hope we aren’t too much trouble, inconvenience,” he tells Betty. By the end of the drama, he will be standing on a chair, ranting at the whole world and overseeing a terrible act of violence. This is the movement of a Murphy play: from the familiar and ordinary into the strange and terrifying. Murphy writes as if there is no point at all to a play if it does not propel its characters, and thus its audience, into the no-man’s-land where nothing is a given and everything is at stake.

And he does this the hard way. The easy way is to break the frame of realistic action, to move the actors into a different kind of space where they can tell us their dreams and fantasies and everything can be acceptably surreal. What’s distinctive—and challenging—about Murphy is that these great shifts happen without breaking the frame. He demands of his actors that they keep one foot in a banal, everyday, plausible reality while the other is planted in a world of extremes: violent action, baroque language, the exploration of myths and archetypes. Murphy constructs well-made plays and then exposes them to storms of language, emotion, and violence. Behind each of his dramas, there is another drama: the tension between his sturdy stagecraft and the rage and tempestuous force that threaten to burst it asunder. Hynes and her actors succeed because they can do justice at once to these two sides of Murphy’s work—the punctilious literary playwright on the one side and the conjurer of anarchic demons on the other.

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Catherine Ashmore
Aaron Monaghan (Harry) and Garrett Lombard (Hugo) in Tom Murphy’s A Whistle in the Dark, New York City, July 2012

The punctilious side of Murphy is that he is arguably the finest classicist among contemporary playwrights. The three pieces on show in New York feel so raw and brutal that it is easy to miss the classical nature of their forms. A Whistle is a very rare thing in contemporary theater: a proper tragedy. This is true of its form: a single plot, a single set, more or less a single day. But it is also true of its content. Tragedy occurs when a character is caught between two irreconcilable worlds. In the case of the Greeks, the worlds are those of the gods and of men. For Murphy’s Michael, they are the tribal family that has pursued him like Furies from Ireland and the normal, respectable, domestic modernity he is attempting to inhabit in England.

Each of these has its own rules. His father and brothers insist on pre-modern codes of honor. They have been challenged to a fight by another emigrant Irish family, the Mulryans. Dada insists that “a man must fight back.” But Michael is trying to live by the codes of respectable civility: “A fine man isn’t a thug.” His tragedy is that he can abide by neither code: his brothers despise him as a coward, but his shame and humiliation drive him to an act of violence even more terrible than theirs.

Conversations on a Homecoming has a similar sense of characters caught between two irreconcilable and equally unpalatable alternatives, the alienation of exile, embodied in Michael, and the suffocating stasis of home personified by Tom. It is said of Tom and Michael that “the two of ye might make up one decent man.” Emigration has torn that unity asunder, turning those who go into “daft romantics” and those left behind into embittered cynics. But the play itself preserves a perfect sense of the neoclassical unities of time, space, and action, with everything unfolding within a single temporal and spatial frame.

And Famine, though it is much more extensive and less unified in its plotting, also has a Greek feel. Its central character, John Connor, a village elder whose ancestors were once local kings, is at one level a version of King Oedipus whose city is beset by a plague whose origins he cannot understand—in this case, the blight that blackens and destroys the potatoes on which the community depends. It is precisely his attempt to continue to act as if he were the king—to keep the community together, to try to plot a course to survival, to maintain some sense of nobility—that destroys him. The apocalyptic feel of an imploding world deserted by pitiless gods gives the play a mythic dimension that is emphasized in Hynes’s stark production.

On the other side of these very pure, contained forms are those violent shifts from the ordinary into the extreme: the way the trivial conversation in Conversations (“Molloy’s dog got killed by a tractor last month”) turns into a series of lacerating verbal duels; the way the mundane living room of A Whistle is transformed into a mad gladiatorial arena presided over by Dada as its sadistic emperor, as the violence that has been offstage (the fight against the Mulryans) literally comes home; the way John Connor’s quiet dignity in Famine is slowly exposed as a form of madness because he is trying to apply decency and rationality in a world turned vicious and insane.

Hynes’s production at John Jay College brings these two sides of the plays together in part because she has a great ear for the musicality of Murphy’s writing. The bridge between ordinary dialogue and heightened speech in the plays is singing. Murphy’s dialogue is shaped as if it were meant to be sung, with solo arias, counterpoints, and even trios, creating verbal musicals in which characters are utterly defined by the noises they make.

Conversations is about five minutes in when Junior starts singing to himself, and later it will be in songs that some kind of hope and comfort will seep back through the despair and self-hatred of the characters. In A Whistle, singing binds the brothers together (their anthem, “The Boys from the County Mayo,” encapsulates their values: “Boys stick together in all kinds of weather,/Don’t show the white feather wherever you go”) and Dada’s sweet tenor voice forms a chilling counterpoint to his brutality. Even Famine, where the subject is too solemn for song, opens with that almost musical formal keening for a dead girl. In each of the plays, the ensemble acting is characterized by a precise awareness of the musical rhythms and stresses of dialogue that is always halfway to being pure sound.

Even more important, though, is Hynes’s clear sense of what, beyond the overall theme of emigration, allows these plays to cohere as a cycle and makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts: the strange feeling induced by an enactment of violence that is shocking in itself but that merely hints at a far greater savagery beyond the stage.

For those who have seen the cycle, it may seem odd to suggest that the violence is not fully expressed. Hynes is unflinching. In A Whistle, Michael’s wife Betty is not merely, as the minimal stage directions have it, “hit” when the brothers, triumphant after defeating the Mulryans, bring their pumped-up aggression back home. She is punched viciously in the stomach. Later, when she leaves the house, Michael’s brothers don’t just call out names after her—“Bitchey! Polly! English trash! Whore!”—they follow her out, banging on the metallic sides of the set like enraged apes in a zoo. The pure misogynistic hatred is all the more stunning because it is the ultimate expression of Dada’s warped code of male honor.

In Famine, the villagers, after they realize that the potato crop has failed for a second year, attack the crippled Mickeleen, played by the riveting Monaghan, seeking in violence some release from their own fear. Again, Hynes gives the scene a primal terror: you really believe that they will kill him unless they are stopped. Conversations has no such physical violence, but in Hynes’s razor-sharp orchestration of the dialogue, the characters’ lacerating verbal assaults might as well be broken bottles thrust in each other’s faces. Tom, for example, calls Liam

This eejit, this bollocks, with his auctioneering and tax-collecting and property dealing and general greedy unprincipled poncing and Saturday night dancing….

Yet the real terror of the plays is not physical but psychic. The literal violence seems but a token of a more unfathomable desolation. There is something dark and deformed behind the violence, and as the cycle progresses it becomes increasingly obvious what it is: fatherhood. Each play has at its core a different version of a very basic archetype: the father. It happens to be especially resonant in Irish theater: the great play of the revolutionary period is John Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, in which the “killing” of an oppressive father is a comic image of liberation. In Murphy, though, the father is back in control. The great liberation never happened.

Each of the plays in turn is dominated by a disastrous father figure. In Conversations, the patriarch, J.J. Kilkelly, never appears. He is offstage, “drinkin’ himself to death,” but hovers invisibly over every action and silently taints every word. He was a village publican who modeled himself, in his delusion of grandeur, on John F. Kennedy—hence the name of the pub, The White House—and filled his young acolytes, Tom and Michael among them, with promises of “thought, hope, generosity.” His phony optimism has left his spiritual sons with nothing but “images: fuckin’ neon shadows.” He promised to give them meaning, to provide a spiritual home, but the promise proved false.

While J.J. haunts Conversations from beyond the stage, the much more monstrous patriarch Dada holds sway over A Whistle. He is pathetic and pretentious in his more twisted delusions of grandeur, imagining himself a respectable gentleman, a fine singer, and an educated man. He nonetheless manipulates and controls his sons through a devious combination of wheedling appeals to family honor and sadistic bullying. In a remarkable performance, Niall Buggy makes him fey and fussy in a way that at first seems to undercut his brutality but that gradually makes it much more subtly and insidiously dreadful.

And just as the fearful vision of Dada at the end of A Whistle, standing on his chair, disavowing all responsibility for the tragedy he has caused, is fading from sight, Famine throws up an even bleaker twist on the archetype of the paterfamilias. In A Whistle, an evil father shapes the tragedy, but in Famine there is something much worse: tragedy propelled by a good father, Connor, played with gravity and poise by Brian Doherty, who wishes merely, as he repeatedly insists, to do “only what’s right.” Connor’s nobility leads him to share his family’s meager food with his neighbors, to oppose the theft of the grain that is still being exported despite the famine, to put his trust in quiet endurance (“We’ll withstand it!”), and, in a particularly powerful scene, to resist the landlord’s plan to transport the villagers to Canada.

All of his virtues of generosity, morality, perseverance, and dignity lead him only to a final act of degradation. Nothing can be “right” in this universe of starvation. As Connor’s wife asks, “What’s right in a country when the land goes sour?” It is a question that echoes back through all three of these plays, each of which suggests in its own way that neither “right” nor “thought, hope, generosity” can survive if nature and society fail.

This is why the cycle moves backward from the early 1970s to 1846. Hynes has fashioned it into an Irish Inferno, a slow descent through the circles of Hell. It works by a kind of psychic archaeology, digging down through layers of self-hatred and violence in search of an answer: How did this world become the way it is? How did its generosity of spirit get squeezed out? Francis O’Connor’s stern set is gradually laid bare, as the naturalistic detail of the first two plays is stripped away and even the surrounding frame is taken apart, providing a visual parallel to the stripping away of the veneer of civility with which the characters begin.

In a simple and terrifying image in Famine, this digging-down beneath the surface becomes literal. The villagers dig into the soil to uncover the blackened and rotten potatoes that doom them to starvation—and doom their descendants in the other plays to a starvation that is not literal but spiritual and psychic. We are thrown back to the first two plays and realize that their people are destroyed by delusions of grandeur because, when hunger takes hold, grandeur itself becomes a delusion.

  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). 

  2. 2

    Evening Press (Dublin), March 22, 1962. 

  3. 3

    The Observer, September 17, 1961. 

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