Directing “DruidMurphy,” she’s on a mission here, to upend the conventional wisdom, with what she describes as a trio of plays that take theatergoers on “a kind of archaeological dig” of what has made the Irish Irish. Through “DruidMurphy” and its cast of 18 actors, the dramas are intended to be seen in reverse chronology, starting with the 1970s-set “Conversations on a Homecoming.” The play occurs in a pub in Galway, where a man who had left a decade before for New York has returned. “A Whistle in the Dark” takes place in the English Midlands in the early ’60s, and details the violent lives of a thuggish Irish family that has settled in Coventry. “Famine” goes back to the 1840s, the time of the Great Irish Famine, a cataclysm Hynes submits had been “buried” in the psyche of Ireland until Murphy excavated it in 1968, when the play first appeared.
Hynes had been contemplating a large-scale survey of Murphy’s work for several years. The choices were primarily Hynes’s, Murphy explains, but he was happy with her selections even if he did not want the grouping to portray him as a writer with any kind of overarching agenda.
“The point I have been trying to make,” he says, in the deliberate if languorous cadence for which he’s known, “is that I’m not a political tract writer or a sociological tract writer. I think primarily I write about human nature. And as applied to my work, I think human nature doesn’t change. People are inquisitive, they emigrate, they love, they hate, they’re b----y.”
His work has been compared to the likes of such varied artists as English dramatist Harold Pinter and director Sam Peckinpah, but Murphy cites the pillars of the American stage as influences. “I think I’m more of a traditionalist [like] Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller,” he says. His inspirations sometimes have sprung from behavior that’s struck him as emblematic of larger themes. “A Whistle in the Dark,” for example, was the imaginative product of absorbing the “macho culture” among young Irish men in Coventry, where two of his brothers had settled.
The toughs he encountered seemed an embodiment of how Ireland had been “decimated by emigration,” how dislocation had rendered them rootless. “They were free of the constraints of family, neighbors, church and so on,” he recalls. “They didn’t belong to England, and they didn’t belong at home.” The play had its premiere in 1961 in London because it had been rejected by Ireland’s best-known theater, the Abbey — which would later embrace his work, including a production this past summer of “The House.”
Murphy sounds pleased with the American exposure he’s getting, and expresses little worry over what audiences take from the work. If it feels right to him, he’s satisfied, a sensation he experienced in the rehearsal room with Hynes. He doesn’t seem to mind ruffling feathers, either. Even over long distance, one can hear the glee in his voice as he describes the reaction a patron once had to a harsh play of his, set in a church. “Brendan Behan was a gentleman compared to you!” this person declared. Recalls Murphy: “I was delighted.”
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