Tom Murphy: A Life in the Theatre

The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Tom Murphy (1935-) is Ireland’s greatest living playwright, with over 20 plays to his credit from his breakthrough success A Whistle in the Dark (1961) to Brigit (2014). Based on the full archive of his papers in the Library of Trinity College Dublin, this online exhibition explores his achievements, the genesis of his work, and the triumphant staging of his drama by the Abbey and Druid Theatres.

Although Murphy left Tuam, Co. Galway, in his mid-twenties, memories of his native town have informed his work ever since.

Murphy’s first experience of theatre was Tuam Little Theatre Guild, the very active local amateur drama society: here as Christy Mahon in J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.

Murphy’s summary of his early comedy of small town life, eventually staged as A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer’s Assistant, written before he left Tuam in 1962. (1/3)

The play, set in a small town in Ireland, covers a week in the life of young man, a shop-boy, who can neither live in nor leave his home town; who can neither marry his bank-clerk girl nor end the romance. The forces, imaginary and real, preventing him making a decision are: his own weakness, self-consciousness, class consciousness, community life – the provinces – the neighbours, the church, his parents, fear of the unknown etc. (2/3)

The play does not aim at a typical week or at realism in the sense of showing how the characters continually live. Its main concern is to recreate the feelings of a young man and his attitude towards, and his vision of, the environment he lives in. (3/3)

First production of Crucial Week at the Abbey Theatre in 1969, with Donal McCann (centre) playing John Joe.

The Imperial Hotel in Tuam figures under its own name in The Wake (1998), where Vera scandalises her family and the town by engaging in a sexual threesome in the upper front drawing room visible through the large windows to all of the passers-by in the Square.

Murphy’s plays evolve during the writing process as he thinks through the conception, and are also often revised after first production.

The ending of A Whistle in the Dark used in London premiere of the play staged by Theatre Workshop at Stratford East in 1961 in which Michael, deserted after he has killed his much loved brother Des, is left by his wife Betty and turned in to the police by his father Dada, assisted by the family hanger-on Mush. (1/2)

A policeman comes in the hall door. The father follows & pushes past him. Mush is seen standing at the door. The father points at Michael.)
Father: That’s him officer.
(The policeman walks over to Michael as the curtain falls.) (2/2)

1970 published text of A Whistle in the Dark with revised ending.

In this revised ending Dada is isolated from his sons who gather round Michael and their dead brother Des.

A Whistle in the Dark has continued to be Murphy’s most frequently revived play: here 1986 Abbey production starring Godfrey Quigley (seated centre) as Dada.

Notes for The Sanctuary Lamp showing Murphy’s process of cutting back characters and scenes from initial drafts of a play, concentrating in on the three main figures, Harry the circus strong man, Francisco the juggler and the waif Maudie whom they encounter in a church. (1/2)

The circus: Am I interested in a dying circus? Cut circus scene.
I’m finding my essentials: The essentials are already there but I couldn’t see them because of all the peripheral stuff. (2/2)

Murphy has always been aware of the theatrical impact of music (most notably in The Gigli Concert) and of story-telling (in Bailegangaire).

In early versions of The Gigli Concert the quack psychiatrist, then called J.P.R, dies in the end, having watched a “replica” of himself ‘singing’ Gigli in the final sextet from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Here, as often, Murphy used old blank diaries as workbooks (1/2)

Sextet continues to its conclusion, J.P.R. dead in his chair. (2/2)

Gigli sings Donizetti

Critics complained that the first production of The Gigli Concert by the Abbey Theatre in 1983 was too long. Murphy’s signed note on the original TS ironically mocks his own tendency to write plays on an impossibly epic scale. (1/2)

The play submitted to the Abbey Theatre: A four hour play before the silly clots turned it into a three-and-a-half hour one. Many extras, too numerous to mention, as distinct from what can be seen on the stage or what can be seen in the Gallery Press publication.
Next year the penultimate draft: a wonderful five hour play. (2/2)

Early draft of Bailegangaire in which the old woman’s story is told straight through, almost without interruption, her granddaughter Mary’s silent presence only registered at the foot of the page. (1/2)

(A bed – the head-end down stage – and an old woman sitting beside it)
Now! And let ye be settling, my fondlings. Cause there’s a lot of people calling on me tonight. And I’ll be telling ye my nice story again. Yis, how Bailegangáire came by its appellation. Och ho-no ho ’gus haha, for isn’t it a good one! (2/2)

The legendary performance of Siobhán McKenna as the senile grandmother Mommo repeatedly telling her always unfinished story in the Druid Theatre Company premiere of Bailegangaire in 1985; her carer granddaughter is played by Marie Mullen.

Murphy is an extravagant writer, with much material ending up on the cutting room floor, but he is also economical, recasting earlier works in different media from television to theatre.

Snakes and Reptiles, TV play broadcast by BBC in 1968, re-used in The White House and Conversations on a Homecoming. The title is taken from the bitter comment of Michael, the returning emigrant who finds himself unwelcome in his home town, commenting on a statue of St Patrick in the pub.

The White House, a two act play staged by the Abbey in 1972, contrasting a group of young people in the White House pub in 1963 with their disillusionment ten years on. (1/2)

Act Two, Speeches of Farewell, set on the night of President Kennedy’s assassination, showing the enthusiastic decoration of the White House, was intended to come after the Act One Conversations on a Homecoming revealing the later dejected mood of the group. (2/2)

Conversations on a Homecoming, the standalone play created out of a revised version of one act of The White House, as triumphantly performed by Druid Theatre in 1985.

The twenty-first century has seen two major Murphy retrospectives: an Abbey season of his plays in 2001, and DruidMurphy, a sequence of three plays produced by the Druid Theatre Company and toured to Britain and the US in 2012.

Programme of season of six plays by Murphy staged by the Abbey.

Sarah Jane Drummey as Maudie in 2001 Abbey production of The Sanctuary Lamp.

Frank McCusker as Francisco in 2001 Abbey production of The Sanctuary Lamp.

Alan Leech as Edmund, Laura Murphy as Anastasia in 2001 Abbey production of The Morning after Optimism.

Book cover and trailer of DruidMurphy, the sequence of three plays, Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark, Famine staged by Druid Theatre Company in 2012.

President Michael D. Higgins presenting Tom Murphy with the gold torc and the title of Saoi of Aosdána, the highest honour of the arts in Ireland.

Nicholas Grene & Liam Harrison
Credits: Story

Curated by Nicholas Grene (School of English, Trinity College Dublin), and Liam Harrison.

For technical assistance we owe huge thanks to Greg Sheaf (Digital Systems and Services, the Library of Trinity College Dublin).
For permission to use photographs, we gratefully acknowledge the following: Dan Bourke, Corralea Court Tuam, Tom Lawlor, Paul McCarthy, Pat Redmond, Amelia Stein, Áras an Uachtaráin / Maxwells Photography.
From within Trinity College we wish to thank the following for their support of the project: Helen Shenton (Librarian and College Archivist), Jane Maxwell (Curator of Manuscripts), Caoimhe Ní Lochlainn (Head of Media Relations, Public Affairs and Communications), Sharon Sutton (Digital Resources and Imaging), Brian McGovern (IT Services).
For the filming and editing of the video, we are very grateful for the excellent work of Barry Lynch (Infocus Media).
For permissions and help in identifying archival sources outside Trinity College, we have to thank the following: Barry Houlihan (Hardiman Library, NUI, Galway), Mairéad Delaney (Abbey Theatre), Holly Faulkner (Gate Theatre), Róisín Stack (Communications, Druid Theatre).
Sourcing Images. We are grateful to Susan Furber (Bloomsbury) and Riana O’Dwyer (NUI, Galway) for sourcing images used in the exhibition. Above all, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Tom Murphy who generously loaned us so many photographs from his personal collection.
For kindly agreeing to be interviewed for the exhibition, we wish to thank most warmly: Garry Hynes, Fintan O’Toole and Colm Tóibín.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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