Tom Murphy

Definition

Theater

  • (1935 - ) Prolific Irish playwright, whose works vary widely in style and form. The son of a carpenter, Murphy grew up in the small town of Tuam, Co. Galway, and began to write plays while teaching metalwork at a local school. In 1960 his first full-length piece, A Whistle in the Dark, was rejected by the Abbey Theatre for its unsparing depiction of a violent and bigoted family of Irish emigrants living in the English Midlands. Murphy then submitted the play to London's Theatre Royal, Stratford East, which staged it amidst some controversy in 1961 (Kenneth Tynan wrote approvingly of "the most uninhibited display of brutality the London theater has ever witnessed"). When the play went on to become a West End hit, Murphy moved to London and became a full-time writer. His next play, Famine, a somewhat Brechtian treatment of the potato famine of the 1840s, was accepted by the Abbey in 1966 and seen at London's Royal Court in 1969. Murphy's openness to a wide range of influences was further shown by The Fooleen: a Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer's Assistant (1969), which combines naturalism and expressionism, and The Morning After Optimism (1971), a surreal fairytale. Having returned to Ireland in the early 1970s, Murphy again shocked Irish sensibilities with The Sanctuary Lamp, an antireligious polemic that provoked mass walkouts when staged by the Abbey in 1975.

    Murphy's plays of the 1980s include two audacious pieces that are frequently considered his greatest: The Gigli Concert (1983), in which a half-crazed millionaire's ambition to sing like Gigli becomes a symbol of the human spirit, and Bailegangaire (1985), a poignant fable in which an old woman tells her granddaughters a never-finished tale about a 'laughingcontest' between two villages. By contrast, Conversations on a Homecoming (1985) marked a return to the severest naturalism; the action is confined to a single bar room and unfolds in real time, with the story repeatedly held up for the buying and drinking of alcohol (and consequent toilet breaks).More recent plays have included The Patriot Game (1991), The Wake(1997), The House (2000), and The Alice Trilogy (2005), a set of three short plays about the same woman at the ages of 25, 40, and 50. Although Murphy's plays remain relatively little known outside his homeland, his work has proved perhaps the most important influence on the younger generation of Irish dramatists that includes Frank McGuinness and Conor McPherson.

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