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Studies on the contemporary Irish theatre

Jacqueline Genet
Elizabeth Hellegouarc’h

Tom Murphy: the artist as informer

Lynda Henderson

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1The very notion of the artist as an informer, in its felt discomfort, points to an ambivalence in our attitudes to both. Neither are assimilable. The act of informing, however useful or enabling it may occasionally be, is sensed not to be wholly honourable. The informer is suspect, not because his information is unreliable but because his preparedness to give it breaches the normal codes of social conduct. The artist, in the very nature of his being, his work and the multiplicity of relationships with his society, takes on the likeness of the informer and, in this, is also suspect – unsound. Society, in its need and acceptance of the artist’s information, comes to suspect itself of similar unsoundness. A relationship which could be a positive one, made from a marriage of one party’s drive to find and to give and the other’s need to receive and react becomes nervy, volatile and rarely effective. It is, of course, possible for the relationship to become overtly negative. Society may compel an artist to a specific quest; or may insist that he hand over that which he is willing to seek but would prefer, should he find it, to keep to himself. These conditions are almost invariably the consequences of the financial context of artistic activity – the pressures of survival, subsidy and commission.

2What are the sources of the artist’s “informations”; how does he gain access to those sources; and with what areas of experience are the informations most commonly concerned?

  • 1 Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, New York, 1949.

3In some of his many writings on mythology, the Jungian Joseph Campbell explores the social significance of the heroic adventure1. He proposes that the function of the hero, in society as in myth, is to confront significant challenge on behalf of his community; the benefits of his hoped-for success devolving, with his return, upon that community. The artist may then be seen as fulfilling that heroic function – exploring areas of being and experience which others lack the courage – and may not be equipped – to penetrate. The ritual completion of the adventure then requires him, in his actual or metaphorical return, to make available to others the knowledge gained. He has no choice but to inform. Campbell’s mythological references make clear the destructive consequences for the hero who refuses the responsibility of the return and thus aborts the ritual process.

4The sources of the artist’s informations are then the areas of existence which most of us shrink from confronting. His access to those sources is achieved through his commitment to the heroic adventure, in the full awareness that neither his survival nor his success can be guaranteed.

5The areas of experience into which his adventure leads him are dictated by the pressures of existence and of mortality. Life demands of us that we:

  • negotiate with a world outside ourselves for our survival;
  • negotiate with an inner world for understanding and action;
  • become, somehow, reconciled to the process of living and dying;
  • develop the fullest range of our skills, abilities and faculties in order to conduct these negotiations most effectively
  • account to ourselves for the existence of our world, our fellow creatures, ourselves and for the events which concern us;
  • remind ourselves, from time to time, of who we are and where we are.

6The attempt to meet these demands leads us to negotiate and move between three worlds: an outer world which is largely a world of fact, objective, whose evidences are empirical; an inner world of feeling and thought which is largely subjective; and a third world formed from the action of the inner upon the outer world – or vice versa. In this third world we create what we variously describe as myth, or art, or history.

7If the journeying between these three worlds is a search for truths, our principal interpretative resources are those of feeling and reason. If we accept that the artist covers a greater sweep of these territories than do the rest of us, we may wish to consider whether he uses these resources of feeling and reason differently or in different proportion from the rest of us? It is useful to remember that another mythic motif of the heroic adventure is the unique license and ability to use special weapons.

  • 2 Colin Meir, Gaeliana, n°8, Centre de Publications de 1'Université de Caen, 1986.

8The cultural traditions of western Europe have been progressively rational. In our long acceptance of the primacy of reason we have relegated feeling to a minor place. We have come to distrust and often to deride it. In a paper on Yeats given here at Caen four years ago2 my colleague Colin Meir said: “Emotion is always validated by time. Reason hardly ever is.” The inevitable, initial reaction was to dismiss this as obvious nonsense. A creeping unrest about the security of such a dismissal leads to a re-examination of the proposition and a gradual acceptance of its accuracy. The reason of one time is always replaced by the greater reason of a succeeding time. Truths discovered through the feelings seem to have a greater capacity to carry their validity through time and culture. Colin Meir’s proposition does not dismiss reason; nor does it ask us to do so. It relocates it in a temporal dimension which is less enduring than the previous position we gave it; and it requires an alteration of the conventional balance between the application of feeling and reason. On the life journey, logic and reason will get us from one place to another; but they cannot make the journey worthwhile. Only what is gathered to us by feeling can do that.

9The priorities of survival have long engaged us in negotiations with the outer world. Time and experience have made us more confident in our knowledge of it and in our relations with it. Our focus has consequently been drawn towards the less familiar and more dangerous – because less stable – world of the interior. Its topography is unmapped and largely unmappable since it does not remain constant between one visit and the next. Because it is closed to the light, we cannot see and must feel our way. All of our long distrust of feeling comes to the fore to make us chary of conscious and prolonged reconnaissance. This is the territory where the artist’s most risk-laden and most valuable adventures take place.

10If the general function of the artist in society is that of the delegated hero, tacitly charged with the responsibility of exploration and elucidation in the collective good, the role of the playwright Tom Murphy in Irish society makes an interesting case study.

  • 3 On the Outside / On the Inside, Radio Eireann, 1962.
  • 4 Too Late for Logic, Abbey Theatre, 1990. As yet unpublished. Reviewed: Theatre Ireland 24.

11The pattern of the explorations of the outer and inner worlds documented in Murphy’s writing follows the progression described above. His earlier plays tended to deal with negotiations with his cultural outer world for his – and, by extension, our – survival. The title of one such play, On the Outside / On the Inside3, itself reflects the inevitable, if gradual, move towards penetration of the interior. The latest map reference for the playwright, provided by his most recent play, Too Late for Logic4, is in that particular world.

12On the Outside / On the Inside deals with the collision of the adolescent male psyche with the sexually repressed sublimations of rural Irish social behaviour. The fortuitously named central character, Willie, eventually moves from being one of the boys excluded from the local dance hall (a place of almost mythological status, thanks to William Trevor’s novel, The Ballroom of Romance) to the privilege of entrance. Nothing is resolved. The final stage instruction shows Willie “biting his nails, wondering which way to run next” while the closing line of the play has another character, Malachy, ironically repeat the title of the song, “What is this thing called love”. Murphy here reminds us that negotiations with the world outside us may not always be successful and that the only route to survival may occasionally be to change one’s external context. In this case, the specifically Irish outer world – introspective, sensually and sexually inhibited, subliminated through language, spiritually malnourished, inimical to the holistic development of the individual – seems to preclude survival as much as negotiation.

  • 5 A Whistle in the Dark, Theatre Royal, Stratford East, 1961; Gallery Press, 1970.

13Murphy did himself become an emigre, spending a period of some years in London. Immediately before this time of exile he had a notable success with A Whistle in the Dark5 which was produced by John Littlewood’s company at Stratford East in 1961 and then transferred to the West End. In this play again, Murphy is concerned to explore the problematic relations existing between the inner and outer worlds.

14The matter of A Whistle in the Dark is the gathering at Coventry in England of an Irish family, the Carneys. One of them, Michael, has emigrated and has lived, worked, married and become a householder there. He and his wife, Betty, have progressively become involuntary hosts to two of his brothers, Iggy and Hugo and one of their friends from home, Mush. The play opens with this hardly homogeneous group awaiting the arrival from Ireland of the pater familias, Dada, bringing their youngest brother, Des. Dada does not only escort Des, he brings with him the tribal antipathies of the Carneys to another emigre family in Coventry, the Mulryans; and he preaches for the primitive, violent solutions to such rivalries. The play ends with the fully tragic, accidental manslaughter of Des by Michael, the brother who has left Ireland to escape the hold of the tribe.

15In an absolute sense as well as, in Des’s case, a literal one, the Carneys do not survive this collision with their external context. Murphy shows us that they – and Dada in particular – are incapable of survival because they are almost entirely unaware of and insensitive to that outer world. They attempt to impose upon it their inner reality of a world where dignity, authority, identity are found in faction fighting and a code of vengeance.

  • 6 Kenneth Tynan, The Observer, 1961.

16Dada has been described as a monster, a very personification of evil in his relentless fostering of his primitive world view. Kenneth Tynan has described the play as “the most uninhibited display of violence the London stage has ever witnessed6.” These analyses have tended to deflect attention from a significant cause which the writer is at pains to identify. Murphy shows us that Dada had attempted to negotiate with the outer world in his own way; that he had been profoundly damaged by the fact and the nature of his failure; and that the anger which fuels him now was born of that doomed approach.

17In Coventry with his sons, Dada talks of his evenings in a golf club near home and the conversations there in which he had held his own. Whether or not we share his respect for the mores of the golf club, we cannot but warm to his pleasure in the sense of a world seeming to open to him. Then he tells of an evening when the club secretary, an exalted functionary called Anthony Keenan, a man to whom Dada had felt he was becoming an equal, offered him a job, as club caretaker. This brutal reinforcing of the status he was immovably perceived as having – sharpened by its unconsciousness, its benevolent condescension – was, Murphy suggests, the crass, class judgement that left Dada (and, by extension, the Irish people?) no choice but to seek his dignity in his own dark, familiar world. And so he comes to perpetuate that world in the lives of his sons.

18The Carneys finally cannot be redeemed from time because they are unaware of the need to achieve synchronicity of internal and external time; nor have they the capacities to do it. The failure of their negotiations for survival with the world outside them is prefigured in the inevitable collision of conflicting rhythms.

  • 7 Conversations on a Homecoming, Druid Theatre Company, 1985; Gallery Press, 1986.

19Failure in such matters may stem from a range of roots. In Conversations on a Homecoming7 Murphy reminds us that contracts agreed during negotiations have a temporal limitation clause and that it is therefore dangerous to fail to maintain a negotiating position with a changing society. In the play JJ, the past visionary, hero and leader, is seen, bitterly, as an anachronistic vaudeville act. Nevertheless, he is still capable of damaging his adherents in his inability to realise – and to enable them to realise – that the social contracts he supported in the illud tempus of the sixties are no longer valid. Like the Carneys, JJ has chosen to lock himself in another time and is blind to the real nature of current circumstances. JJ’s proselytising, in the mode of J.F. Kennedy, is seen to have helped to accelerate, in the local contemporary culture, an unthinking dependancy on popular American forms. The play acidly denounces the “country and western” invasion. Most of the principal characters in the play are estranged from themselves, either through being decultured or feeling neutered by a continuing dependance on others for their subsistence – a condition mirroring that of their society. Here too Murphy suggests a consequent disintegration, although in the person of JJ’s daughter he finally offers a symbol of hope that is not entirely convincing. It seems a reasoned rather than a felt reconciliation.

20Where the artist explores areas of the external world in his heroic quest, we may follow in his footsteps because that world is open to us too. Where he turns his attention to the inner world of the psyche and his felt experience, we are barred. We must wait for what he has to tell us on his return from the journey.

  • 8 Richard Schechner, Between Theatre and Anthropology.

21In this travail the artist comes to act as a specific type of hero, in Campbell’s terms. Tribal societies had the shaman and the hungan as their formal negotiators with the metaphysical. In loose critical parlance these figures are often either confused with each other or have their functions merged under the name of the shaman. An amusing rule of thumb for distinguishing between their ritual roles is “Shaman – we go there; Hungan – they come here”. Both roles involve possession and both cause forms of transformation. The Shaman, in his trance, sees, enters and negotiates with a world denied to us; but, in his behaviour under trance, he takes us with him on his journey. We witness his achievements on our behalf. He and we are transported, as Richard Schechner defines the term.8 The Hungan in his trance state, is possessed by the spirits from the other world who are thus made directly manifest in our experience, our world and our time.

22It is obvious that the writer, on different occasions and on different journeys, is variously shaman and, through the production of his plays, hungan. In Tom Murphy’s work there is evidence that the act of writing may be the very mode of transport rather than the means of providing a retrospective description of the journey. Writing often seems the instrument, the ice axe, with which he notches his way up his particular Everest – an attempt to love woman. He cannot do it. His quest has allowed him to find respect, admiration, pity, sympathy, fear – but not love.

  • 9 The Gigli Concert, Abbey Theatre, 1983; Gallery Press, 1984.

23Much of his remarkable play, The Gigli Concert9, is caught up with the pain of fraught relationships between men and women. It is as if this play was Murphy’s self imposed virility test, the one where he must confront the central life difficulty of the man and defeat it. It doesn’t work. JPW King, the principal character of the play, has a lover, Mona, who discovers that she is dying of cancer. Numbed at her predicament, muted by her courage and moved by their long familiarity, he tries, as she leaves him to go to hospital for the treatment she knows will fail, to tell her he loves her. He knows what that would mean to her but he cannot say it, try as he will. He cannot even attempt it until she has gone and then: “I lo-! (love) I love! I-! I-! Fuck you! I love! Fu-! fu-! fuck you! I love! – I love! Fuck you – fuck you! I love... ”

24Although JPW, in the absolute extremity of need, has failed fully to love the woman, the crisis provoked by the strength of will summoned in the attempt achieves an oblique success. Through JPW, Murphy expresses what has been discovered on this quest – a love of the species, a love of mankind. The species, of course, includes woman in a manageably neutralised form and so there is a limited success in the embracing of woman within this spectrum. Under the pressure of the attempt and the failure, JPW takes some of the drug Mandrax, washed down by vodka. He is then visited by the Irishman, the overt focus of his clinical concern as a dynamatologist, to be told that his client has “recovered himself and needs no more treatment. Out of a sense of compound failure, JPW takes what he assumes to be an overdose of the drug, assisted by copious amounts of the vodka. He does not die but in a trance akin to that of the hungan, he is possessed by Gigli and, from his own body emanates the transcendant beauty of the aria, “Tu Che A Dio Spiegasti L’Ali”.

25When the heroic adventure of the artist draws him from the outer world – where the principal purpose of the quest is to negotiate for survival – to the inner one, this may imply a growing loss of interest in survival or a decreasing sense of its signal value. Although evidence of this change of direction from outer to inner was there progressively in the earlier plays, from The Gigli Concert onwards Murphy has been preoccupied with the internal world. Interestingly, in his most recent piece (referred to above) Too Late for Logic, the central character, Christopher the philosopher, does not survive. He commits suicide by shooting, at the start of the play which then becomes an analytic survey of his latter life with Christopher acting as courier and commentator for the audience.

26In search of academic distinction, even achieved through recognition awarded by bodies for whom Christopher expresses considerable derision, he has left home, wife and teenage children. That the self knowledge and awareness of others which had eluded him in life informs the errant Christopher after his death, suggests that the suicide was sacrificial. The nature of the offering, though, in its inversions, forces us to look again at Murphy as shaman/informer.

  • 10 Richard Schechner, Between Theatre and Anthropology.

27As argued by anthropologists and by practitioners who seek to relate the processes of theatre to those of ritual, a significant element of the performance of both is known as “restored behaviour” or “behaviour twice behaved10.” Its overt purpose is to manage experience and its assimilation by recreation and deliberate intervention. The same process is employed in the fields of psychodrama and dramatherapy.

28Given that there is a temporal relationship between the writing of Too Late for Logic and Murphy’s own leaving of home, wife and teenage children, the nature and domain of his artistic hero-quest, its purpose and his own role as informer in the play are placed squarely in the area of restored behaviour. Murphy’s purpose is to journey to his own interior, to confront the deepest darknesses there and, restoring his behaviour by having it re-behaved in the play, to succeed in reconciling himself to himself.

29The play does not provide the evidence that he has fully achieved those ends. He is informing on himself but, in what cannot seem other than an act of bad faith, he does not provide truthful information and so, as informer, deserves here to be suspect for respectable reasons. In Christopher’s posthumous survey of his life, he cries to the image of his wife, “I packed a satchel and left home to become a scholar to escape the pain of boundless love”. On stage that did not seem a credible explanation as much as an act of self-exculpation. Time has not lent it credibility.

30Murphy is writing the play as restored behaviour in order, by intervention through the editing and rewriting capacity which that process makes available, to create a context for his actual behaviour which he can assimilate more easily. He cannot be blamed for that. There is always a time when the pack leader begins to withdraw from challenge as he feels age and declining energies render survival in combat less likely. What is important is that this evasion at the heart of the play’s intentions may have determined its failure to achieve success as a coherent piece of theatre.

31If the purpose of this play was self-defeating in its relative dishonesty and if Murphy’s quest to find the capacity to love woman has also been unsuccessful, he has been triumphant in his principal heroic adventure.

  • 11 Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, London, 1968.

32His vision is generally accepted as a humanist one. Many dismiss humanism as ultimately reductive in its perspective on the scale of things. Mircea Eliade, among others, proposes11 that if we lose our sense of the sacred, we also lose the necessary sense of the terrible. It is felt that the renaissance proposition that “man is the measure of all things” leaves us spiritually poverty-stricken.

33It is largely a matter of emphasis. If we say “man is the measure of all things”, that is clearly reductive. All things must be compressed to fit within the human frame. The scale is too small. If, however, we say “man is the measure of all things”, that is expansive, affirmative, enabling, fully and properly humanist.

34Suppose also that we have not so much lost the sense of the sacred as begun to suspect that we may have been mistaken in our assumptions about its location? Suppose that we look for it, not without but within? In many ways this is a logical consequence of the structuralists’ theories of our instinctive binary organisation of experience and our need to externalise in order to understand.

  • 12 The Morning After Optimism, Abbey Theatre, 1971; Gallery Press, 1974.

35That Murphy is – and has long been – concerned to persuade us to relocate our sense of the sacred, to demonstrate the largeness of a humanist perspective and to inform on the shamanistic trance journeys to this inner illud tempus, is clear from the evidence of the plays. A series of unattractive and unwholesome characters testify to the sense of a good hidden within them. The pimp, James, in The Morning After Optimism12 talks of “my hidden beautiful self. In the same play, Edmund, who has bruisingly rejected Rosie, says, “Once I closed my eyes to trap the angel self within me”. The megalomaniac Irish property developer in The Gigli Concert says “singing is the only way to tell people who you are”, witness to the notion of a beauty found within but rarely expressable. In the same play, JPW, the crank psychotherapist, utters the most lucid of Murphy’s humanist propositions and his most transcendent:

You see, Benimillo, God created the world in order to create himself. Us. We are God. But that neatly done, God started making those obscure and enigmatic statements. Indeed his son did a lot of rather the same thing. The Last Supper, for instance: the wine, the conversation, Jewish wine being passed around, Christ standing up, “In a little while you will see me, in a little while you will not see me”. They must have thought the man was drunk. But he had learned the lingo from his father. God taking his stroll in the garden, as we are told, and passing by innocent Adam, he would nod, and say “I am who am”. And that was fine until one day, Adam, rather in the manner of Newton, was sitting under a tree and an apple fell on his head jolting him into thought. “Whatever can he mean”, said Adam, “I am who am”? And he waited until the next time God came strolling by, and he said, “Excuse me” – or whatever they said in those days. I must find out. And he put the question to God. But God said, “Out! Out!” “I only asked”, said Adam. But God said, “Out! Out! ”. And naturally, after such rude, abrupt and despotic eviction, the wind was taken out of Adam’s intellectual sails: not surprising that he was not up to pursuing the matter. Which is a pity. Because the startling thing, God had got it wrong. Because what does it mean, “I am who am”? It means “This is me and that is that. This is me and I am stuck with it”. You see? Limiting. What God should have been saying, of course, was “I am who may be”. Which is a different thing, which makes sense – both for us and for God – which means “I am the possible”, or, if you prefer, “I am the impossible”. Yes, it is all crystal clear. We understand our existential guilt, our definition of ourselves is right from the start – I am who may be – and meanwhile, our paradoxical key, despair, is rising, rising in our pool to total despair. That state achieved, two choices. One, okay, I give in, I wait for the next world. Two, what have I to lose and I take the leap, the plunge into the abyss of darkness to achieve that state of primordial being, not in any muddled theocentric sense, but as the point of origin in the here and now where anything becomes possible. Now you follow! (He laughs in celebration) And I have three more days to do it.

  • 13 Richard Kearney, Myth and Motherland, Field Day, 1984.
  • 14 Pierre Girard, Le Bouc Emissaire, Paris, 1982.

36Christopher’s sacrificial suicide in Too Late for Logic must be considered in the light of the notion expressed here of the achievement of the state of primordial being through a plunge into the abyss of darkness. Richard Kearney13 quotes Girard as suggesting14 that the blood sacrifice of the scapegoat is considered a means of purifying society and of restoring it to a new order of harmony and unity. Christopher’s sacrificial scapegoat is his failing actuality and the sacrifice restores the harmony and unity of his essence. After he is dead, the spirit of Christopher can see, can understand. This is an interesting hypothesis at the level of pure reason but it is decadent at the core because it enables nothing. It does not affect the play because the writer’s self-justificatory act of bad faith prevents him from finding truth and genuine under standing. It cannot affect the audience unless we are to believe that Murphy is advocating that we become a phalanx of born-again absurdists on a short trip to nowhere.

37If Murphy has been engaged in a quest to discover the true location of the sacred and has found it in a humanist perspective, then Lionel Trilling offers an illuminating hypothesis. He distinguishes between piety as being a condition of sincerity and secularity as being a condition of authenticity – defined as “to fashion for oneself. This means that, in the secular dimension, we are free to create the meaning or the value which we choose.

38Murphy has exercised his right to create his meaning and his value and has done so from the fruits of his metaphysical journeys. What he has created is exemplified at the end of The Gigli Concert when JPW opts for life and leaves his room for the first time in the duration of the play. Before he goes out, he puts the Gigli record on repeat on the turntable and as “O Paradiso” fills the air he says to the author of the voice:

Do not mind the pig sty, Benimillo ... mankind still has a delicate ear ... that’s it ... that’s it... sing on forever ... that’s it.


1 Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, New York, 1949.

2 Colin Meir, Gaeliana, n°8, Centre de Publications de 1'Université de Caen, 1986.

3 On the Outside / On the Inside, Radio Eireann, 1962.

4 Too Late for Logic, Abbey Theatre, 1990. As yet unpublished. Reviewed: Theatre Ireland 24.

5 A Whistle in the Dark, Theatre Royal, Stratford East, 1961; Gallery Press, 1970.

6 Kenneth Tynan, The Observer, 1961.

7 Conversations on a Homecoming, Druid Theatre Company, 1985; Gallery Press, 1986.

8 Richard Schechner, Between Theatre and Anthropology.

9 The Gigli Concert, Abbey Theatre, 1983; Gallery Press, 1984.

10 Richard Schechner, Between Theatre and Anthropology.

11 Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, London, 1968.

12 The Morning After Optimism, Abbey Theatre, 1971; Gallery Press, 1974.

13 Richard Kearney, Myth and Motherland, Field Day, 1984.

14 Pierre Girard, Le Bouc Emissaire, Paris, 1982.


The University of Ulster

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1991

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