The Theatre of Tom Murphy

Nicholas Grene
Methuen Drama

The Theatre of Tom Murphy

Irish playwright Tom Murphy, now in his 80s, has rarely gained the acclaim that he deserves other than in his native land.

This new book in the Bloomsbury Methuen Drama Critical Companions series seeks to put that right, providing a retrospective view of the long career of a man whom Nicholas Grene believes is a “playwright adventurer”, perhaps at times too adventurous for his own commercial good.

In receiving this accolade, Tom Murphy is immediately projected into the company of Eugene O’Neil, who is the most recent subject of a book in the series. Whether Murphy is quite in the O’Neil class only time will tell, but, despite relatively rare appearances of his plays in the United Kingdom or the United States, the author of this tribute believes that only Brian Friel of Irish playwrights of the last half century can bear comparison, which is high praise.

After a brief introduction setting Murphy’s career in context and putting forward the proposition that he really is a stage adventurer, Nicholas Grene considers the life and career of the great man and provides deep but clear analysis of all of the major plays. Rather than gathering these and organising them chronologically, he sets them out by theme. Topics covered include “Predicaments of Irishmen”, “Words and Music” and “The Lives of Women”. This frequently helps to improve the understanding, whether of plays that readers have seen or studied or, quite possibly in many cases, will be coming to you with no prior knowledge.

While this long career has included a good few misses as well as many big hits, some of the works should not now be restricted to recognition at home as Irish classics, deserving greater recognition around English-speaking world. These might encompass plays such as Conversations On A Homecoming, Famine, The Gigli Concert, and perhaps most pertinently in this context Bailegangaire. The last named not only receives detailed and typically insightful analysis in association with its two-sister plays but also becomes the subject of two critical perspectives by Lucy McDiarmid and Alexandra Poulain. It has to be said that each of these ladies seeks to propound a complex literary theory in the context of the play rather than merely giving readers a taste of its highly accessible lyrical attractions.

Once again, Methuen Drama is to be congratulated on picking a perfect writer for a book that could have got bogged down in complex theory but instead provides a worthy tribute to a playwright who must surely get deserved, if belated, exposure in the United Kingdom and the United States before too long.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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