Irish Exports: Tom Murphy's plays of emigration

The movement of people from one country to another, which is one of the principal characteristics of globalization, has been an inescapable part of the Irish consciousness for more than a century and a half. “No custom has been more native to the country than getting out of it,” wrote the critic Terry Eagleton of Ireland’s sad history of emigration, in which her greatest export was her sons and daughters. An unexpected chapter of that story is now being written after the demise of the Celtic Tiger. Three plays with exile as the theme, written by the contemporary dramatist Tom Murphy, have recently been staged as DruidMurphy in London and New York City and will be performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., from Oct. 17 to 20.

Each play in this extraordinary production by the Druid Theatre Company of Galway, Ireland, deals with exile in one of the aspects familiar to every emigrant, Irish or not. First there is the story of those who leave the old country and of those who stay behind. “Famine,” set in 1846–47, shows the Great Hunger that sparked one of the largest mass migrations of the modern era, as the landowners try to entice the starving peasants to leave their homes for Canada, about which they know nothing (one character wonders whether it will be hot or cold there). Next, in “A Whistle in the Dark,” we see the reality of the new country: in Coventry, England, in 1960 the Irish run wild, freed from the constraints of home and church, and fight Pakistanis for the next-to-lowest rung on the ladder. Finally we see the return to the old country and how every exile carries the homeland in his or her imagination. In “Conversations on a Homecoming,” a man revisits his hometown to find that his contemporaries no longer share the idealism that had once animated them. He, of course, has been able to preserve—and embroider—the memory in New York. “Why is everyone calling me a romantic?” he asks. The withering reply from one of his pals, “It’s more polite.”


It is hard to believe anyone has ever called Tom Murphy a romantic. That is likely one reason why he is far less familiar to theatergoers than his contemporary Brian Friel or younger playwrights like Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. The lyricism that audiences (rightly or wrongly) expect in Irish drama even in the midst of violence is hard to discern in Murphy, who writes raw, naturalistic dialogue spoken by characters who rarely if ever break free of their constraints. Yet there is poetry in these plays—or better yet, music.

Despite Ireland’s reputation as a nation of raconteurs (“We Irishmen have done nothing,” said Oscar Wilde, “but we are the greatest talkers since the time of the Greeks”), Murphy portrays people who find it hard to speak about their own lives, so he strives to give them a rhythm of speech that “can make the inarticulate sing with feeling.” A character will repeat a phrase over and over like a musical motif, often in place of what he cannot, or dares not, express. The abusive father in “Whistle,” for example, cannot admit how he has brutalized his sons: “Boys…Ye’re not blaming me…Made men of ye…I tried, I did my best…I tried, I did my best…Tried…Did my best…I tried….”

In these plays, which were written years apart and not intended to be a trilogy, there is also a more universal theme than emigration. Murphy asks us to consider what happens when people become mired in ideas or sets of values that no longer answer the realities of their lives.

In “Famine,” John Connor, the village elder, cannot leave or take any other decisive step because, though now landless, the Connors were long ago chieftains here. In “Whistle,” Dada Carney brings a pre-modern blood feud from the west of Ireland to industrial England. When the eldest son asks what they will gain by beating up the rival clan in a pub brawl, he shows he belongs to the commercial world of gain and loss, that he is not a man of honor. And in “Conversations,” set in the late 1970s, Michael, just returned from America, harks back to the Camelot era and wants to carry on the vision of their own local J.F.K., a once-charismatic figure whom everybody in town now knows to be a drunken fraud. In each case, the disparity between what people believe and the circumstances in which they find themselves leads to violence, actual (in “Famine” and “Whistle”) or verbal (“Conversations”). But there is also hope in the struggle of at least some of the characters to find a hard-won reconciliation.

Murphy has had a longstanding relationship with Druid and its director, Garry Hynes, and, as with her 2006 production of “The Playboy of the Western World” by J. M. Synge, she more than does justice to the playwright. As with every Druid production I have seen, the performances are uniformly excellent, though I cannot help but single out two actors: Niall Buggy, whose Dada Carney is not a swaggering tough guy but a prissy little martinet; and Aaron Monaghan, astonishing in each of the works as a blowhard entrepreneur, a vicious thug and a crippled scapegoat. (I saw the plays at London’s Hampstead Theatre in June, but the production and cast at the Kennedy Center will be exactly the same.) To see these plays—especially all in one day—is to be shaken up, and not by their violence alone. (In “Whistle,” there is a debate about the relative merits of fists, chains and broken bottles in a fight—and we then get to see the results.)

These works are unsettling, but at the same time they give us “the celebration of being alive” that Murphy sees as the reason we go to the theater. Asked recently about the nature of his work, he said: “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.” Murphy manages to capture all these things at work in their brokenness and in their beauty.

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6 years 3 months ago

If productions are half as good as this review, I want to see (and hear) them.

Review has vitality, vocabuulary, and insight into audience psychology. 


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