(Tóibín’s article appeared in Bomb, Summer 2012; the clip above is Murphy with Sean Rocks.)
In Ireland in the 1980s, when I was starting to write, there was a relationship between the Irish theater and its audience that was raw, visceral, and immediate. As new plays came—by Brian Friel, or Billy Roche, or Frank McGuinness (and later by Marina Carr, Sebastian Barry, Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson, Enda Walsh, and Mark O’Rowe)—there was a sense of real expectation and excitement. And as older classic Irish plays were performed by a new generation of Irish actors, that excitement was also there. Two of this period’s central figures entered our spirit and transformed the country in ways both clear and mysterious: the playwright Tom Murphy, who was born in Tuam in the west of Ireland in 1935, and the director Garry Hynes, almost 20 years younger than Murphy. The two began to work together in the mid-1980s and have come together again to revive three of Murphy’s plays—A Whistle in the Dark, Conversations on a Homecoming, and Famine.
I will never forget the opening nights of other plays by Murphy, such as The Gigli Concert (1983), about a man who wants to sing like Gigli, the writing filled with magic and sour wit and soaring language, and Bailegangaire (1985), where the great actress Siobhán McKenna played an old woman who has a story to tell which she cannot finish, whose ending will liberate her, those around her, and, by implication, the audience too. I will never forget a revival in the Abbey Theatre, directed by Hynes, of Murphy’s first play, A Whistle in the Dark, which had been a West End hit in the early 1960s. Or the first production of Conversations on a Homecoming, in Galway, in 1985, with the brilliant young actors from Druid Theatre doing committed and exemplary work. Or the epic production of Murphy’s play Famine, also in the mid-1980s in Galway, also directed by Hynes. Murphy’s restless imagination, something both soaring and uncompromising in his spirit as an artist, and his belief in the image and in the struggle to achieve raw perfection, make him an example to all of us. He is the writer whom other Irish writers most admire.
— Colm Tóibín
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