Arts Fuse Appreciation / Commentary: DruidMurphy, There and Here

The Druid, one of Ireland’s most celebrated stage companies, undertook the project to celebrate Tom Murphy’s work and to make the case for him as one of the world’s leading living playwrights.

By Steve Elman.

A scene in the Druid Theatre Company production of Tom Murphy’s FAMINE.

“Why d’ya have to talk so much?”

In Tom Murphy’s Famine, a drama that both illuminates and transcends the tragedy of Ireland’s potato famine, John Connor tries and fails to silence his wife Maeve with those words. He is tortured by the failure of the countryside’s farms, the loss of his family’s ancient prestige in his village, the unwelcome burden of community leadership, the indifference of the distant colonists, the malice of their in-country agents, the futility of his efforts to find a way forward, the dilemma of leaving his homeland for an uncertain fate or staying there and dying. It’s the one moment that most forcefully stays with me from my two-month engagement with the work of Tom Murphy.

It is also the question that I had to answer for myself as I came to understand Murphy as a dramatist.

I was lucky to see all three of the Murphy plays performed in repertory by Ireland’s Druid Theatre in their UK–Ireland–US tour, from May to October this year. The Druid Theatre Company, one of Ireland’s most celebrated troupes, undertook the project to celebrate Murphy’s work and to make the case for him as one of the world’s leading living playwrights.

I stumbled on the tour without any preconceptions because I happened to be in Cork City in September when they were performing A Whistle in the Dark. The experience struck me so forcefully that I decided to go to Washington DC in October to see the other two, Conversations on a Homecoming and Famine.

The Druid succeeded admirably in both of their goals. Their performances of these plays, from three stages of Murphy’s career, have been praised almost without reservation by critics in Ireland, the UK, New York, and DC. If you want to read about the details of the plays and the quality of the performances, there are thousands of words available to you on the net. Just search for “DruidMurphy” and “review,” and you’ll have enough reading for a week.

After I saw the final performance of the tour, on October 20, I knew that there was no point in my doing a “review,” and I’ve struggled for the past month trying to find something valuable that I could add as a postscript to all that’s been said previously.

I perceive some close and not-so-close New England connections that haven’t been noted before, and since the Fuse’s brief is New England, I might as well start with those.

Regrettably, the Druid did not have the chance to mount these plays in any of the New England states, a matter doubly to be regretted because of New England connection I: Quinnipiac College in Connecticut was a co-producer of the tour. Quinnipiac no doubt would have welcomed the Druid to Hamden to help them open their new museum devoted to the Irish famine (the museum opened on October 11, just a week before the Druid staged the plays at the Eisenhower Theater of the Kennedy Center in DC). I presume that economic or scheduling realities made a stop in Boston or New Haven impractical. Still, if the Druid had been able to do Famine near the museum, it would have been an event of major resonance.

New England connection II: The Druid has played in Boston, and bravo to ArtsEmerson for bringing their production of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan to the Paramount in 2011. Now I know how much I missed, since Aaron Monaghan, who played Billy, was triply memorable in the three plays I saw on this tour, and Garry Hynes, who founded Druid and directed Cripple, also directed these three.

A scene from the Druid Theatre Company’s production of A WHISTLE IN THE DARK.

New England connection III: Aaron Monaghan as the Druid’s Tom Derrah. Of all the superb Druid actors, Aaron Monaghan impressed me the most, and this is somewhat ironic, since he did not have a lead role in any of the plays. His style is a bit more mannered that that of his fellows in the company, but it leaves a strong taste in the brain—much like Tom Derrah’s work with the ART. His negotiation of crutches as the provocateur Mickeleen O’Leary in Famine was stunning; he made the other actors look like cripples because they didn’t have his extra limbs. His exaggeration of the word “fel-las” as Liam in Conversations started out as wheedling and became more menacing as the action proceeded. And the bitter edge he brought to Harry, the thuggish brother with a grain of intellect in Whistle, gave that character a third dimension that was only implied in his lines.

New England connection IV: the setting and context of Conversations on a Homecoming. The play concerns an Irish expatriate who returns to his home town in the 1970s, and it takes place entirely in a pub called The White House, which was named in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential victory. Again by pure chance, I happened to visit a pub called The White House in Kinsale, County Cork, which has a strong connection to the Kennedys (it was dedicated twice by Kennedy legislators) and New England (just outside the pub is a replica of a Newport, RI street sign, and the owners keep a log of Rhode Island visitors). Conversations is set in County Galway, and there is a White House pub in the Galway town of Athenry, so it’s not likely that there is any direct connection between the pub I visited and Murphy’s fictional one. But the social context provided resonance here—Murphy’s White House is a scene of disillusionment, with a faded photo of JFK on the wall providing all that needed to be said about the pride the Irish felt in having a son of the old sod rise so high and the grim reality that followed. The rededication of the White House in Kinsale by Congressman Patrick Kennedy coincided with the Celtic Tiger boom, now a receding memory of Irish promise like so many others before it.

New England connection V: lessons for our own companies. The Huntington Theatre Company in Boston has programmed Irish- (and Irish-American-) themed plays in fits and starts, but their commitment has at least a more consistent history than that of any of the others, although the New Rep’s 2008 production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore was a shining exception. Among the Huntington productions I remember with pleasure are Eric Simonson’s adaptation of Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah (1999); the Richard Nelson/Shaun Davey musical version of James Joyce’s The Dead (2001); Ronan Noone’s The Atheist and Brendan (2007); Conor McPherson’s Shining City (2008); last season’s The Luck of the Irish by Kirsten Greenidge, a play that illuminated both Irish-American and African-American attitudes; and this year’s Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire. (I was less impressed with Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme [2002]). Murphy’s work has never been staged by the Huntington, but on the strength of the plays I saw, his plays seem like a natural fit for them—with the proviso that they are unremittingly Irish, and that they need actors who can carry off the accents and the attitudes. In fact, I would go see any of the other Murphy plays staged by any of the local companies with the courage to undertake them.

That last New England connection leads naturally to a more general discussion and John Connor’s haunting question.

“Why d’ya have to talk so much?”

Playwright Tom Murphy — one of the world’s leading playwrights.

Tom Murphy gives his actors a lot to say. There are long, difficult monologues in each of the plays, which the Druid actors handled beautifully, but my first reaction to the wordiness of A Whistle in the Dark was that it had to have been the excess of a young playwright (and indeed, Whistle was one of his first plays, dating from 1961). Seeing the other two plays refocused my thinking about his dialogue, which I now would compare to August Wilson’s. Both playwrights allow their characters to rhapsodize in a realistic context, which sets up a kind of tension between the reality of the play’s action and the poetry of the dramatist’s vision. When, thanks to the Huntington’s unflagging devotion to August Wilson’s work, I learned to accept this discord as style rather than problem, I came to love his plays, and the exact same revelation came to me about Murphy.

This is a playwright who transcends the Irishness of his work, and that’s why his use of language is so important. Each of these three plays is deeply rooted in the culture and issues of Ireland; the Druid chose them because each has something to say about the Irish as real or potential expatriates and how individual Irish interact with cultures other than their own. But each of the plays quickly grows beyond its borders. Conversations is ostensibly built on the old theme of “You can’t go home again,” but it throbs with the heartache that haunts anyone who becomes a person without a country. Whistle is ostensibly a family drama, but it reads much larger much more quickly, as it becomes an allegory for the tyranny of ignorance. And Famine, the greatest of these three plays, is a microcosm for the timeless agony of every dislocated and displaced population, from the Trojans to the Bosnians, from the victims of the Holocaust to the relocated Cambodians to the persecuted Tutsis—except that in this story, the people are speaking our own language, and in many cases, they are the ancestors of our neighbors and friends.

Thanks, Druid—and especially Niall Buggy (Dada in Whistle), Beth Cooke and Brian Doherty (Maeve and John Connor in Famine), and Marty Rea (Michael in Conversations and a different Michael in Whistle)—for giving Tom Murphy to me. Now, let’s hope someone locally lets other Bostonians see and hear him.


  1. Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on November 21, 2012 at 9:17 am

    New England Connection VI:

    From the mid-90’s to 2006 Tom Murphy’s plays were presented in Boston by the Súgán Theatre Company, which staged New England premieres of Famine, Bailegangaire, and The Gigli Concert. The small but intrepid troupe also produced Conversations on a Homecoming and The Sanctuary Lamp. Sometimes, confronted with a large-scale script such as Famine, STC’s artistic spirit was willing but its theatrical resources dangerously scarce. But Bailegangaire and The Sanctuary Lamp were first rate productions on every level. What’s more, the scrappy company always showed off Murphy’s considerable strengths as a dramatist — this was important cultural work that needed to be done, and should be remembered.

    Here is what I said to Carmel O’Reilly when I presented her Súgán Theatre Company’s 2005 Eliot Norton Award, Outstanding Production, Small Resident Company, for its production of The Sanctuary Lamp:

    It is customary to talk about a company’s loyalty to particular actors or directors. It is more unusual to see a troupe commit over a period of years to the works of a living playwright, especially when that dramatist writes powerful but difficult scripts that are not boffo box office. 
If Tom Murphy is the best Irish playwright you have never heard of, it is despite the effort of the Súgán Theatre Company. The troupe has produced New England premieres of five Murphy plays, from 1995’s Famine to this season’s The Sanctuary Lamp.

    The scripts share a restlessness with form, a lyrical language open to myth and fantasy, and a knack for ticking off Irish audiences on issues political and theological.
 Even by Murphy’s obsessive standards The Sanctuary Lamp’s poetic tale of lost souls searching for redemption is difficult. A Jewish strongman on the lam, a disillusioned priest, an Irish blasphemer, and a deluded young girl take refuge in a Catholic church from which God has apparently fled. The Súgán Theatre Company cast – Aidan Parkinson, Stacy Fischer, Nigel Gore, and Jackson Royal – infused their allegorical sufferers with visceral and humorous pizzazz under Carmel O’Reilly’s sensitive direction. The result was what nervy theater should be – sometimes baffling, often compelling, and always moving.

    The key word regarding Murphy is “difficult.” When I spoke to O’Reilly about staging these plays she told me that it was a labor of love — his brand of powerful theater often turned off audiences who were reluctant to be stretched in new directions. Given generational changes, mounting commercial pressures and minimized expectations, lack of imagination and daring among the artistic directors of the theater companies large and small, I don’t have confidence that we will see more productions of Murphy’s plays in Boston. If anyone has any interest in the New England premiere of a Murphy script, I would recommend The House, which he wrote in 2000.

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