Tom Murphy (playwright)

This article is about the Irish playwright. For the Australian playwright, see Tommy Murphy (Australian playwright).
Tom Murphy
Nationality Irish
Period Post-war era
Dramatic devices Dostoyevskian and surreal takes on the usual auld Irish clichés
Notable work(s) A Whistle in the Dark,
The Sanctuary Lamp,
The Gigli Concert,
Conversations on a Homecoming
Works with Druid Theatre Company

Tom Murphy (born 23 February 1935) is an Irish dramatist who has worked closely with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and with Druid Theatre, Galway. Born in Tuam, County Galway, Ireland, he currently lives in Dublin.

Murphy's first successful play, A Whistle in the Dark was performed at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London in 1961 and caused considerable controversy both there and in Dublin when it was later given its Irish premiere at the Abbey having initially been rejected by its artistic director.


Murphy was born in Tuam, County Galway, the youngest of 10 children.[1] His elder siblings gradually emigrated to Birmingham until he was left alone with his mother.[2] He attended the local Archbishop McHale College, and later became a metalwork teacher. He began writing in the late 1950s, saying, "In 1958, my best friend said to me, why don't we write a play? I didn't think it was an unusual question, because in 1958 everyone in Ireland was writing a play". His second play, A Whistle in the Dark, was written in his Tuam kitchen on Murphy's free Friday and Saturday nights. It was entered into a competition for amateur plays, which it won, and was eventually produced in London in 1961, having been rejected by the Abbey Theatre. While Murphy was religious as a boy, education by the Christian Brothers left him largely irreligious. His 1975 play The Sanctuary Lamp was produced in the Abbey Theatre and received a hostile reception due to its anti-Catholic nature, with theatre goers walking out and much negative criticism in the media. After this controversy Murphy worked as a farmer for some years. He now lives in south Dublin.

Writing career

Considered by many to be Ireland's greatest living playwright[3] (a title also often given to Brian Friel), Tom Murphy was honoured by the Abbey Theatre in 2001 by a retrospective season of six of his plays. His plays include the historical epic Famine (1968) which deals with the Irish Potato Famine between 1846 and spring 1847, the anti-clerical The Sanctuary Lamp (1975), The Gigli Concert (1983) and for many his masterpiece, the lyrical Bailegangaire and the bar-room comedy Conversations on a Homecoming (both 1985) .

His work is characterised by a constant experimentation in form and content from the apparently naturalistic A Whistle in the Dark to the surreal The Morning After Optimism and the spectacularly verbal The Gigli Concert. Recurring themes include the search for redemption and hope in a world apparently deserted by God and filled with suffering. Although steeped in the culture and mythology of Ireland, Murphy's work does not trade on familiar clichés of Irish identity, dealing instead with Dostoyevskian themes of violence, nihilism and despair while never losing sight of the presence of laughter, humour and the possibilities of love and transcendence. His works are often described as being filled with rage, with Murphy himself stating "There is a rage in me which I think is a natural thing. It was in me when I was 24 or 25, scribbling with my stub of a pencil. And it's still there in everything I do. Rage not against the unfairness of life – life is of course unfair – but against the inequalities, the arrogance of power."[1]

Younger playwrights whose work shows an indebtedness to him include Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh and Gary Mitchell. His latest plays include The Wake (1997), The House (2000) and The Alice Trilogy, which premiered in 2005 at the Royal Court Theatre in London with Juliet Stevenson in the eponymous role. In 2006 Murphy directed the Irish premiere of the same play at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin with Jane Brennan in the lead role. In 2009, his play, The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant premiered at the Abbey Theatre.

His play The Sanctuary Lamp was shown at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, London from 10 March – 3 April 2010, directed by Tom Murphy himself.

He has written one novel, The Seduction of Morality (1994).

List of works



See also


  1. 1 2 O'Mahony, John (7 March 2010). "Playwright Tom Murphy: 'There is a rage within me'". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 October 2013.
  2. Toibín, Colm (Summer 2012). "Tom Murphy". Bomb Magazine. Retrieved 19 October 2013.
  3. McKeon, Belinda (9 July 2012). "Home to Darkness: An Interview with Playwright Tom Murphy". Paris Review. Retrieved 19 October 2013.
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