Irish novelist and playwright Colm Tóibín talks about DruidMurphy
In the three plays Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark and Famine, the stage is filled with trapped emotion, trapped hopes, trapped characters. Language in Tom Murphy’s work does not offer release, but comes in a set of opposing tones, playing voice against voice, illusion against disillusion. This can reach a pitch where something new becomes possible – some knowledge, some hard-won truth, some fierce and plaintive drama. But it can also offer highly dramatic moments where nothing can move or grow. Part of the power of the work is a constant uncertainty in its texture, a restlessness, a refusal to operate using formula or easy arrangement.
Some of the lines of dialogue in his plays rise above their own cause and occasion, creating a pure space for feeling, a strange and highly-charged moment of release. It is easy then to think of these plays as nourished by opera and song, all the more so perhaps because Tom Murphy has woven music into the fabric of so much of his work, especially in plays such as The Blue Macushla (1980) and The Gigli Concert (1983). It is easy to read longer speeches as arias, and interpret other moments as duets or trios. It is easy to see how the work moves as music moves, letting the characters have a motif in their systems of speech, and then orchestrating each scene, allowing certain melodies to dominate, or offering variations on certain sounds or tonal obsessions, then, as tension rises, playing cacophony against sweeter or softer tones, or against the possibility of silence.
It might be more useful, however, to compare what Tom Murphy does with how a painter works. As a playwright, he operates almost in the same way as an artist handling and wielding paint and creating an overall pictorial structure. Thus a scene in one of his plays has as much in common with a canvas by Cezanne as an opera by Verdi. Each line of dialogue comes as a brushstroke; some strokes have the emotion in them coiled and buried; some others seem casual; others seem tentative, with much left out. And then there are strokes which have definition, a clear line; they can contain much conflicting colour and can be placed there with absolute resolution. Always, there is a sense of Murphy working with language as texture, as gesture, knowing how to control and then release rhythm. He uses speech patterns, or oddities of speech, for their tone as much as what they tell us about character or how much they impel the movement of the play. Some of his dialogue is sharp and filled with biting wit. Murphy’s ear is flawless. But this is only a beginning, a way perhaps of distracting an audience from noticing the imaginative pattern, the underlying sound, which has a way of hitting the nervous system, or creating pure theatrical tension at key moments in the plays.
It is this sense of artistry in his plays, something almost abstract in their systems, which perhaps has caused them not to have dated in any way. They do not remind us of the time in which they were written; they do not merely dramatise the period in which they are set. This does not mean that Murphy’s work soars above history or real moments in time, or that it is strangely timeless and avoids confrontation with the real and the exact. It is part of the tension within these plays that they explore very precise dilemmas and dramas in locations and settings that are fully recognisable and that they also stretch above such limits. They live in their time in the same way as a painting by Vermeer lives in time, but like the face in the painting, or the way certain shadows fall, they manage to suggest and dramatize some abiding element in human relations, something mysterious in our predicament in the world, or in the power that language can have.
This vast nourishing tension which exists in Murphy’s plays between the setting and some pure theatrical space also makes its way into other tensions and other ambiguities. It might have been easy, say, in Famine to make the drama a stark conflict between Irish victims and English cruelty, between starving peasants and official indifference. Murphy does great justice to his characters in the play by allowing them to have subtleties, weaknesses, unusual responses. We cannot read them simply. John Connor’s pride and sense of personal dignity appears in his speech patterns coupled with a strange simplicity; his belief in human goodness is matched by refined stubbornness. The crisis is in his delicate conscience as much as it is in the nation. Tensions will do battle within him; outside forces will bring these tensions to the fore. What we have before anything is a man. Murphy’s genius is to look hard within the forces of history, and study also what it means to be alive; he sets about creating that man, and making what happens to him deeply complex.
There is another tension which Tom Murphy unfolds in Famine, which is the tension between a catastrophe which occurred almost a hundred and seventy years ago and the world of now. The play seems both filled with precise images from history and appears also deeply connected to the world we inhabit. The images of power and powerlessness, passivity in the face of officialdom, the loss of community in a time of great pressure, what poverty does to the spirit, have echoes in the Ireland we inhabit. This echoing between the present and the past is done with considerable subtlety and suggestiveness so that there is no precise moment in Famine when it becomes too clear or open or obvious. It is done by implication, by working with character, and with the shape of human motives, rather than preaching or offering easy connections. The tragedy of what happened and the power of the play are not lessened by the fact that Murphy is offering images and responses which seem oddly persistent rather than merely belonging to a specific time in history.
It is not quite accurate to state that John Connor is the moral centre of Famine, and it is interesting always how much Murphy’s work evades such easy declarations. It is perhaps true, however, that morality – what is the right thing to do – figures in Connor’s consciousness and emerges in how he speaks and what he does. The shape and contours of morality – its ways of offering false consolation, its slippery rhythms – live dynamically at the centre of the play and remain unresolved. In the way Connor’s presence moves in the play between belief and doubt, between certainty and weakness, between sympathy and violence, there is drama of great subtlety.
Part of the reason for the power of Murphy’s work is his ability to take in what is happening in society, in the public realm, as sensuous fact with a shape of its own that is broad enough to be almost symbolic. He believes in the stage as a place of possibility, of a widening of vision rather than a limited arena to tell stories or mirror the state of the nation. This means that he can find an imaginative shape for his conflicts which allows archetype to play against fully-created, deeply-imagined character.
A Whistle in the Dark, for example, is set among the Irish in England. It seeks to destroy a set of illusions about emigration and home and Irish innocence, and create a drama which is stark and savage. At times, the language is raw and real, but underlying this is a sour poetry, as though the characters were pushing through their own inarticulate rage and finding something new and almost exciting there. The characters are recognisable, they come from life, but underlying them is a narrative of elemental forces to do with love and loyalty, tribe and exile, fathers and sons. What is enacted is both fully exact and has a force and a resonance which pushes the real towards the harshly poetic. Murphy is as interested in dramatising the mysterious, or allowing it to filter into the very core of his work, as he is in dealing with the phenomenon of emigration, or what happened to the Irish in England at a certain time.
There is at the heart of these plays a supreme theatrical intelligence at work. In Famine, Murphy is prepared to offer the main character a role which is nuanced and flickering rather than definite, and it is all the more dramatic and surprising for this absence. In A Whistle in the Dark, he allows Michael to play the role of moral arbiter, someone who sees through illusion towards truth. But, as the play unfolds, this role is slowly taken from Michael, and it is not given to anyone else. The drama then arises from an absence of moral strength, the lack of a moral arbiter. We look up to no one, and, in the space created by this absence, Murphy finds a real dramatic energy as the family slowly becomes a strange and poisonous unit, all the more coherent as they become verbally incoherent and sing snatches of songs and shout at each other.
Michael’s efforts to rescue Des not only fail, and are not only futile, but they become weaker versions of the illusion of greatness from which the Carneys suffer. Michael’s illusion is of goodness rather than greatness; it is backed up by nothing other than some words he says. And out of this wreckage Harry, his brother, learns to speak something approaching the truth; his lines have a ferocious intensity, a stark dramatic power which is almost moral but, in their ferocious nihilism, what he says moves beyond morality to a place which offers no comfort.
These are plays without heroes offered with an intensity to suggest that the actual absence of the heroic is a player on the stage. It is as though the characters in Murphy’s work have found a Trojan horse and are locked inside it. Nothing is moving; there is merely illusion; and then there is talk, bits of song and swigs of alcohol that come as forms of distraction and occasions for futile display. By working on this as a pattern, by lifting it to the level of the operatic, by allowing his characters to live dynamically, Murphy creates a heroic space for his non-heroes.
Like Famine and A Whistle in the Dark, Conversations on a Homecoming takes a moment in history and offers it dramatic shape enough to transform it, or move it beyond its confines in time. But the time remains important. The play is set in the aftermath of an era of pure hope, or pure illusion. There is not merely stagnation, cynicism and disillusion; that would be too simple. The aftermath of hope comes with dramatic force, just as a scene through a window can become the centre of a painting or a melody withheld can have a force in music. The pub where the drama takes place was created as The White House in a time of hope, when the glow from John F. Kennedy and the bright rhetoric he used could transform some lives in an Irish town, as in many other places.
If there is a hero, it is Kennedy, and he is dead, but maybe the hero is also J.J., who created the illusion, and he does not appear. He is nearby, he is elsewhere, a palpable absence. Some of the speeches, especially by Tom, the most disillusioned character, have a biting wit, a way of slicing the air with their bitterness and their truth that would make them dramatically forceful at any time in any society which knows provincial gloom. It would be easy for the characters then to tell stories, work out a way to entertain the audience by the quality of their despair tempered by a rich verbal gift.
Instead, Murphy creates an intricate pattern for them, while never losing sight of what has been lost. Michael, as the emigrant returned, could easily have become wealthy, or rich in self-esteem, or he could be broken by exile, or he could be the one to see through the illusions and the failures. It is an example of Tom Murphy’s subtlety that as the play goes on Michael becomes harder and harder to be sure about. It is true that he has no money and false hopes. His stories from New York don’t work, they puzzle his fellow drinkers. But what he says comes with a shadow, which is close to awkwardness and that gives him a reprieve of some sort. He responds to Anne, J.J.’s daughter, with tenderness. He cares about the illusion which J.J. created; maybe it has failed, he feels, but it meant something. The new world will be run by Liam, and the culture which comes from American hope will be, as Tom points out in a brilliant speech, country and western music. But, nonetheless, Murphy allows Michael’s memories to mean something, and allows him a last line about J.J. as the last line of the play: ‘Tell him I love him’ which is oddly tender and unexpected and also hard-won against the images of despair and stagnation which Murphy can conjure up and then dispose of with the alchemy of a master.
Colm Tóibín is an award winning Irish novelist, short-story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist and critic. He is the author of two plays, Beauty in a Broken Place and Testament, the latter directed by Garry Hynes for the Dublin Theatre Festival 2011. His novels have been twice short-listed for the Booker Prize. His most recent publication is a collection of essays, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers & Their Families. He is Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University.