Home to Darkness: An Interview with Playwright Tom Murphy
July 9, 2012 | by Belinda McKeon
Sit in a theater for a Tom Murphy play and I can guarantee you one thing: you will come out of that theater rattled, and throttled, and staggered, in the best of all possible ways. It might take a long moment, afterwards, to catch your breath; use that moment to listen to the torrent of marvelous language that will still be surging through your head. That tussle of starkness and poetry. Murphy doesn’t give us lyricism the way that Irish writers, apparently, are meant to do; he gives us blunt and beautiful rhythm. He doesn’t give us laughter in that way either, though audiences will inevitably seek it out, and connect, in the sting of that laughter falling wrongly, with the defiantly dark intelligence of Murphy’s vision: guffaw at all the drinking scenes, if you will, but these are broken lives, and there’s no joking that away.
Tom Murphy is Ireland’s greatest living dramatist. We say things like that in Ireland—Ireland’s greatest this, Ireland’s greatest that—as though it means anything in the greater scheme of things. Who cares what Ireland thinks is great? Tom Murphy doesn’t. But it’s true of him, that accolade, I promise you. There’s nobody like him writing today. Various theories exist as to why his work is not as well-known in the United States as it ought to be; most of those theories touch on the emotional intransigence of his work, on its refusal to offer release through moments of redemption, conciliation, or through that thing you might have heard about when it comes to Ireland: that business of craic. Now, these theories are being tested, as three of Murphy’s greatest plays are playing at the Lincoln Center Festival, in a production by Ireland’s renowned Druid Theatre Company, the company best known in the U.S. for its work with the plays of J. M. Synge, Martin McDonagh, and Enda Walsh.
Although in conversation Murphy, now seventy-seven, is more mellow than his plays suggest he might be, the watchfulness is still the same; that dark intelligence has gone nowhere. It’s a while now since he threw the first draft of what would be his first produced play, 1961’s A Whistle in the Dark, into a corner of his County Galway kitchen, feeling unable to go on: There was so much anger in those pages. So much violence. But he picked them up again, and he saw it through, that world of a family turning on itself in a place not their own. Pinter’s The Homecoming was indebted to that play; so was the best Irish play of the last ten years, Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce. In truth, there isn’t a writer from Ireland who doesn’t have something of Murphy’s ferocious blood running through their veins; if an Irish writer claims otherwise, they’re blinkered, or vainglorious, or they haven’t been to the theater enough. There’s no escaping plays like The Gigli Concert, Bailegangaire, and the three plays which make up the DruidMurphy cycle: Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark, and Famine. These three plays, all thematically concerned with mass emigration and what it does to a people, were performed in a single, nine-hour cycle on Sunday and will be presented in the same format next Saturday, as well as in individual performances this week. They are extraordinary, and once seen they will not be shaken from the mind. Nor will that memory of being in an auditorium full of people suddenly unsure if it is safe to breathe.
Why did you begin to write? When you set about writing those first plays, what was driving you then to take up the pen in the first place?
At the age of ten I wrote, would you believe it, a history of heavyweight boxing. Which I buried in the garden of my parents’ house; it’s waiting there for an enterprising archaeologist to unearth it. And I wrote poems, for convent schoolgirls—keeping my pen in, so to speak. In 1958, my best friend said to me, why don’t we write a play? I didn’t think it was an unusual question, because in 1958 everyone in Ireland was writing a play. And subsequently, as I reached adulthood ... at the age of 40 or so ... I wanted to write about the feeling of life. Not life as an intellectual process, or a concept, but as a feeling.
You’ve spoken before of how driven you were, especially as a young playwright, by rage.
Well, maybe too much has been made of rage. But it was the only outlet I had. I would like to have been a singer, but that was a planet away. I would have liked to have been a film star, but that was two planets away. And my instinct, I think, is for writing.
You grew up in County Galway as the youngest of ten. Do you think that being the youngest had an impact on the fact that you became a writer?
Each one of them told me what to do, and advised me, which was sickening. I had to invent a twin. Who was younger than me. I had to invent somebody to whom I could offer advice. Being the youngest ... well, certainly I was left to my imagination. People say the youngest is cosseted and so on, and maybe generally they are. But there’s also isolation. I had five brothers, and I tried to talk like them, walk like them, be like them, comb my hair like them, and it was when that waned that a search for the self, I suppose, began.
When you're writing, what does an ideal writing day look like for you?
Well, the ideal wouldn’t happen until the third or fourth draft. Because it’s hit and miss, and rather frequently there’s the feeling of its being a futile search. But when three or four drafts have come along, one knows at least what one doesn’t want. Then the ideal for me would be to get up at four in the morning, with something to work on. I’d maybe be balking at going to the desk. I’ve had a distinguished drinking career behind me, though I've only been sick twice ... but frequently, I’ve been balking at going to the desk, in fear. But I’d still get up at four. I’d have taken a sleeping pill or two, to knock me out until then. Feeling I could control my life. And resentment rising in me, then, when I saw the lights coming on in the neighborhood. The neighborhood that had no right to get up, because it had been just me and the world.
Would you stop then? Once the day began for other people?
I’d work until eleven. I am a donkey, in ways, in that I would start at the first word, a hundred times. When I say three or four drafts, some sections would be written a hundred times. I'd start again and again at the first word, to see if one could get a bit of momentum; to push once beyond the place of the full stop.
When you’re writing, does the mind of your mind fit itself to the space of the stage, or are you thinking only about the characters and their lives?
Yes. I think that when one declares oneself a playwright, one hopes that the words being written are going to be spoken aloud. But in the digging process, it’s not just the subject and the writer—the play comes into it too. And only recently I’ve begun to wonder if the play’s coming into it, if that is rewarding the writer for the time he or she has put into the work. It’s perhaps known as inspiration. Or it could be characters. That I try—well, subconsciously—I try to get to a stage where I know what the characters are feeling. And therefore, the characters can only speak one way. In the way that they want to speak. Because the better you know someone, the more limited the words in which you know they will express themselves become.
Your work squares up to the worst of the human condition. Fury, betrayal, despair. This results in theater of immense power, but it must be difficult to write, not just in emotional terms but in terms of maintaining control over the material as it comes?
I laugh at the lines I write myself occasionally. And I cry. But I think every writer is a neurotic. Otherwise how would ... why? Why would people want to be writers? I know that neuroticism isn’t depression, but I am prone to depression, like more than half the world. But it satisfies me, in some way. The writing has to satisfy me first. And as to control; recently, with DruidMurphy and the play that has been on at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin this summer [The House], there was a lot of talk about the work being relevant to the current sociological and political situation in Ireland. Well, I don’t write political or sociological stuff. If something was written fifty years ago, or even just ten years ago ... if you manage to get human nature at work, human nature is constant. Human nature will always, always be greedy; human nature will fall in love, will hate, will aspire, will emigrate.
Speaking of human nature: You’ve remarked before that you’re jealous of composers, and of how you used to be jealous of singers; this is not so surprising, given the centrality of music and song to your work, and, I suspect, to your writing process also. But have you ever been jealous or envious of actors?
No. No. No.
Of other writers?
I have been puzzled by success of certain writers, but as I said, I write for myself primarily. I know I am a playwright, I know that it has to be stageworthy. If it satisfies myself, that fulfils an urge to write, and ... I can't think of any writer I would envy.
And as for writers who have been important to you, centrally important to you, in an enduring way?
Well, yes. Yes. I discovered [J. M.] Synge through Lorca. Lorca was a sort of model for me at one stage, though I moved away from that to find my own voice, as they call it. And I admire Synge, I admire his generosity, and for instance nobody with a tight little mouth should be playing Synge. It needs the full open-throated and mouthed thing. And, Tennessee Williams, the best of Tennessee Williams. When I was a young man, I read these Penguin translations of Chekhov, Strindberg, Ibsen and so on. And they were stolid. They were stodgy. Which was probably just the translations, but when I was alerted to someone called Tennesse Williams, and I came by a copy of A Streetcar Named Desire, I thought, this is the most naturalistic dialogue ever. And of course, Tennessee is very lyrical and poetic, but that was the liberating thing for me. It wasn’t quite a Saint Paul, whatever that road he took was, experience, but yes. And of course I admire Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s play. And what it must have cost the man.
Why do you think people go to the theater?
Well. I’m very fond of the circus, myself. The celebration of being alive. But I think that theater is the living form. And, well, that’s the best answer I can give you.