DruidMurphy: Colm Tóibín interviews writer Tom Murphy
In Ireland in the 1980s, when I was starting to write, there was a relationship between the Irish theatre 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, and the director, Garry Hynes. 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.
CT I wanted to ask you about theatrical language and about the idea of rhythm.
TM First of all I think that conversational speech—everyday speech—has rhythm. [But] I don’t think that that particular rhythm is stage-worthy as such. It has to be adjusted.
CT At certain times the music in your plays is minimalist, is muted, 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—trying to get language to do something more than it normally does.
TM Yes, despite ordinary people in ordinary conversations 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 Your impulse as a playwright seems essentially poetic. Your images seem hard-won, what came after a struggle.
TM 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. I am one thing—the writer. The subject is another. But the play, the play has something of a life too.
CT Druid 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—
TM —I agree, 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 A 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. A 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. 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 What’s remarkable about A 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 manuscript 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 festival 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 Theatre 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 is rubbish, and no such characters as these exist.” 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 A 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 they [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. Well, you didn’t do that. 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 moralising. 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 Durrenmatt, 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 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.
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.
This is an edited version of the interview, Tom Murphy by Colm Tóibín, which was commissioned by and first published in BOMB Magazine, from BOMB 120/Summer 2012, pp. 44–51. © Bomb Magazine, New Art Publications, and its Contributors. All rights reserved. The BOMB Digital Archive can be viewed at BOMBsite.com