Theatre: “The Master of the Unfinished Sentence”: DruidMurphy Symposium Review

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Director Garry Hynes, Actress Marie Mullen and Prof. Patrick Lonergan
How It’s New York: This symposium was presented by Fordham University, organized by Dr. John P. Harrington. Scholars and theatre people from the tri-state came out for it.
How It’s Irish: The symposium delved into Druid’s presentation of DruidMurphy at the Lincoln Center Festival; a cycle of three plays by Irish writer Tom Murphy. Director Garry Hynes and actress Marie Mullen were on the final panel.
A version of this article was first published in Irish Examiner USA.

I had the lovely task of introducing Patrick Lonergan. I’d include a photo of me doing so, but it came out blurry.  If you missed DruidMurphy at Lincoln Center, you could go to the Dublin Theatre Festival and catch it there. Meanwhile you can check out the review I did of the plays. A full line-up of the symposium is here.

One way to learn about Ireland is to experience its art. Another is to take a class. At a symposium about playwright Tom Murphy held last week at Fordham University, attendees got to experience the best of both worlds. The symposium, hosted by Fordham University on July 11, included scholars from Trinity College, Dublin and NUI Galway among others.

I introduced NUI Galway’s Patrick Lonergan, who is among other things the author of Theatre and Globalization: Irish Drama in the Celtic Tiger Era, which won the 2009 Theatre Book Prize.
The symposium coincided with DruidMurphy, the cycle of three plays, Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark, and Famine, by Murphy brought over by Galway’s Druid Theatre as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, which ran from July 5 through July 14.
The plays were chosen by director Garry Hynes to express the story of Irish emigration, beginning with a play set in Ireland in 1970, followed by a play set in Coventry and 1960, and concluding with a play set in County Mayo in 1846.

The panel looked not only at the importance of Murphy to Irish playwriting, but also at the cultural memories of the immigration and famine in Irish and Americans today.
Several of the speakers, including director Garry Hynes herself, saw the cycle as an archeological dig back through layers of time and experience.

The small hall at Fordham was completely full before the first lecturer, Nicholas Grene from Trinity College, Dublin, began. “It’s a good pedagogic strategy to disrupt people, so they are attending,” he quipped, as he encouraged newcomers to take chairs behind the table where the moderator sat. He eventually insisted on giving his own chair to an elderly lady who arrived late.

He was introduced by Prof. Lucy McDiarmid, of Montclair State University. His talk, called “Tom Murphy and Irish Drama: Voicing the Voiceless,” situated Murphy in the history of Irish theatre.

“The impulse for the Irish National Theatre literary movement was to give voices to marginalized people,” Grene said. Grene’s credentials are lengthy; he is co-Director of the M. Phil in Irish Writing, and has written many books. Using handouts with quotations from Murphy’s plays, Grene demonstrated that Murphy’s writing lacked the lyrical richness Irish playwrights are known for – which may to some extent account for his not being so well known outside of Ireland.
Murphy’s characters, Grene showed, are “literally voiceless, inarticulate.”When Grene asked the audience how many people had seen the plays, nearly every hand went up. 

More than one person during breaks and question-and-answer periods expressed how much richer their experience was after hearing the scholars speak.

Lonergan’s talk was called “Druid and Tom Murphy: A Theatre of Miracles.” Lonergan led the audience through some of the history of Druid, and its tour of Conversations on a Homecoming to prisons. Druid, he said, called its tours “unusual rural tours,” or “URT,” intended to bring Irish theatre to an international stage. He pointed out that Druid plays often focus on isolated individuals, speaking of how Druid’s work on Synge‘s play Playboy of the Western World focused on Pegeen, “the woman who stays,” and looking at the characters in Martin McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane and in Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce. 

It was particularly helpful for Lonergan to make these connections, because, as I pointed out in my introduction, New Yorkers have had an opportunity to see a lot of Irish plays over the years – including all three of those – but Tom Murphy, not so much.

Like the characters in Walsh’s play, Lonergan said, the characters in Murphy’s Conversations on a Homecoming are “trapped into a cycle of endless recurrence.” He suggested that to watch the play now is to see that the excesses of the Celtic Tiger period were present decades before. “Murphy had spotted them,” he said.

Lonergan also noted that where the plays of Brian Friel’s plays often finish before tragedy occurs, like Translations¸ which ends 10 years before the famine, Murphy’s plays ask, “what happens after?” John Connor, the town leader in Famine, begins the play during the wake of his daughter. “How am I to overcome it?” he asks. Famine and the Celtic Tiger, he said, could almost be considered mirror images of one another. Druid’s plays show correspondences between the past and now, even though the present is quite different.

For his students, Lonergan said, “emigration isn’t traumatic. They have Facebook and cheap flights.” Unlike the characters in Conversation, who are embittered by the church, his students seem liberated and even indifferent to it.

Maureen Murphy, Mary Burkey, Shelley Troupe, John P. Harrington

After a break, there was a panel on “Famine, Immigration, and Modern Ireland,” with Maureen Murphy of Hofstra University, Mary Burke of the University of Connecticut, and Shelley Troupe, of NUI Galway. John P. Harrington of Fordham University, who had created the symposium, moderated. Maureen Murphy quickly and emphatically taught the audience about some details of the famine, including the reality that little girls often had less of their share to eat, and that the famine was not so much lack of food but the lack of access to it. She pointed out, strikingly, that Ireland continued to produce whiskey, and that the amount of cereal needed to do so could have fed many people. 

There was the equivalent of a Thatcherite government, she said, which prized “free trade” above all. She stressed the reality of emigration to England vs. America and what it meant, that going to America was more respectable, and that while today people may have cheap flights, it is still true that if they are undocumented, once they leave the States they wouldn’t be allowed back. 


Mary Burke also talked about emigration, recalling collections for old Irish men in Britain, when she was a girl in Ireland. She talked about how the plays had changed as Murphy revised them over the years. Troupe looked at the posters and flyers for the Murphy plays in different productions by Druid over the years, showing how they have been positioned as history plays or not. The discussion became particularly engaging when the panelists talked to one another.
 

Garry Hynes and Marie Mullen

The final event of the symposium was a discussion, expertly moderated by Lonergan, between director Garry Hynes and actress Marie Mullen, who played Missus in Conversations and Sinead in Famine. They talked about the founding of Druid when they were both out of college, having worked together on a drama course there, and of their work with Murphy over the years.

When they began working with Murphy, Hynes said, “that’s the point at which Druid grew up.” Asked if they would bring other plays of his, Hynes said that “this cycle is telling the history of Ireland through the plays of Tom Murphy,” and some of the others didn’t fit.
Marie Mullen, who said she grew up in the west of Ireland, said that Murphy’s plays express

 “the loneliness and isolation of rural Ireland that I was familiar with. It felt familiar. The violence didn’t, but I understood it.” 

Hynes, echoing Grene earlier, described Murphy as “the master of the unfinished sentence.”
The two women bantered with one another and answered audience questions decisively.

Asked why there weren’t so many women as central characters in Murphy’s plays, Mullen said that she “knew for a fact that Tom loved women.” “You know for a fact?” said Hynes suggestively, as Mullen turned bright red. 

Hynes also talked about discovering Martin McDonagh, and how she cracked herself up laughing when she first read McDonagh’s A Skull in Connemara. Discussing what a wonderful reception Druid has had in New York over the years, she asked,

“Why shouldn’t we be able to bring American plays into Ireland? If I had a magic wand, I would love to do a season of Eugene O’Neill and Tom Murphy together.’

That sounds like a wish for us all.

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