Plays by Tom Murphy

Alice Trilogy

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Alice Trilogy is a haunting triptych of disappointment and gnawing sadness. Three acts, closer to monologues than conversations, show three ages in the life of Alice, an unhappy housewife.

1980, in the afternoon murk of her attic, with whiskey in her coffee, is she losing her grip on reality?

1995, she has summoned a lost love to meet her by the gasworks wall.

2005, at the airport, a tragedy presses to the surface of her internal monologue.

Alice is a mesmerising creation, existing only half in her domestic married life, and half in a dream-like world of alter-egos and strange detachment.

Alice Trilogy premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2005.

Bailegangaire

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

In Bailegangaire, an endless folk story told by a senile old woman is woven through her granddaughters’ arguments and struggles to free themselves from her.

Night after night, in lyrical and relentless detail, Mommo begins to relate the story of a laughing competition in Bailegangaire and how the town came by its name – ‘the town without laughter’. Of her two granddaughters, she only recognises Dolly, and not Mary who does most to look after her. The younger women yearn to be free of the past in order to make a new beginning, and Mary comes to believe that to do so the story of Bailegangaire has to be concluded.

In Mommo, Tom Murphy has created one of the greatest female characters of twentieth-century Irish literature. The play was first performed by Druid Theatre Company, Galway, in 1985.

Conversations on a Homecoming

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Fresh from an apparently successful acting career abroad, Michael has returned to his old home town; back to the youth club-turned-pub where he and his friends once hashed out their plans for the future. That pub, 'The White House', stood as a place where free thought was possible for the young people of the town, away from the church and from the school. Now, though, the reunited friends are tied down to the realities of their lives after youth has given way to slow but steady decay, and as the evening wanes to night, their true lack of direction becomes clear through muddled conversations as pints are poured and drank.

Standing over all of this are the absent bar owner JJ and his beloved portrait of the late JFK, both fallen heroes from an idealistic and idealised time now long gone.

Conversations on a Homecoming was first performed by the Druid Theatre Company, Galway, on 16 April 1985, in a production directed by Garry Hynes.

A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer's Assistant

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

John Joe Moran is a 34-year-old dreamer, a 'fooleen' of a man who can't decide whether to stick it out at home, or emigrate out to the great unknown. Instead, he toes neither line, choosing to half-working and half-dreaming his way to unemployment amid a community which struggles unceasingly with disguising the outward signs of their poverty.

A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer's Assistant is a comedy about an unfunny situation, where laughs are found in the saying (in dreams) of what goes unsaid in real life. The resolution of John Joe's situation comes not from him maturing to a point of firm decision, but rather by shouting the absurdity of the choice from the rooftops.

A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer's Assistant premiered at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 1969.

The Drunkard

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Edward Kilcullen is the almost entirely disinherited son of a local landowner, whose legacy is reduced to one small cottage, in which live his newly acquired tenants, Anabella and her mother, both almost totally penniless.

Edward and Annabella fall in love and marry, but this is not enough to cure Edward of the flaw that he believes may have led to his disinheritance: drunkenness. He ranges from from tavern to ditch in search of drink, as though pursued by some evil spirit.

In fact, the evil spirit that pursues him is McGinty, the lawyer who served Edward's father. McGinty is possessed of a profound bitterness against the Kilcullen family, and is sworn to reduce Edward even further than the drunk-sopped destitution towards which he drives himself. Is there anyone who can save Edward and his new family from the thirst that rises incessantly in his throat?

The Drunkard is an adaptation of a nineteenth-century play of the same name written by the pseudonymous authors "W. H. Smith and a gentleman", the latter believed by many to be P. T. Barnum. Murphy adapted the play for the b*spoke Theatre Company, who premiered the play at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway, in 2003.

The Gigli Concert

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

JPW King is a dynamatologist – an English purveyor of a cultish quack psychology-cum-science whose Dublin office is far from thriving; indeed his professional space is also his only domestic arrangement as he eats rough meals and sleeps in the office, occasionally receiving visits from his lover Mona and making phone calls to his 'true' love Helen.

When an Irish man arrives to enlist King's services – he wants to be able to sing like the great Italian opera singer Beniamino Gigli – a symbiotic deadlock of character ensues, with each man playing his part, at times believing and then despairing of ever achieving any goal, whether practical or fantastic.

In his introduction to Murphy: Plays 3, Irish critic Fintan O'Toole writes: 'With The Gigli Concert, arguably Murphy's masterpiece, we get something even more ambitious [than The Sanctuary Lamp], a full-scale dramatisation of the impossible. With one set and three characters, Murphy gives us an operatic drama complete with deaths and arias, a version of Faust in which the Irishman's Mephistopheles tempts JPW into taking on his own demonic striving, and in which against all the laws of reality this down-at-heel alchemist finds the philosopher's stone of despair that enables him to transmute the leaden metal of his life into a moment of pure, glittering possibility.'

The Gigli Concert is an astonishing story of human intention and achievement. It was first performed at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 1983.

The House

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Summertime, and the emigrant workers, dressed in new suits and dreams, are returning home for the annual sojourn. They are young, vigorous, and have money in their pockets, but they do not belong here anymore – and they do not belong abroad.

As a result, they are resentful and dangerous and none more so than the seemingly gregarious Christy Cavanagh. His childhood fixation with Mrs de Burca and her daughters becomes a frightening obsession when he finds that the date has been set for the auctioning of their house; his bid to possess that heaven has tragic consequences.

The House premiered at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in April 2000.

The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

An epic family drama about greed and control, telling the tragic story of the disintegration of a family, along with their estate and way of life.

Arina is an ambitious woman. As a servant girl, she marries in to the degenerative family she works for; her ruthless energy saves it from bankruptcy and she expands the family estate into a land empire. Now, as a severe and hardened matriarch, she rules with an iron hand and insatiable avarice, competently managing every inch of her empire – until she begins to question herself. Resigning her power and dividing her lands between her children, she sees the family and the estate crumbling before her eyes.

Tom Murphy’s haunting play, shot through with dark humour, is a compelling depiction of hypocrisy and degeneration. Inspired by The Golovlyov Family by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, the play premiered at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland, on 3 June 2009.

The Morning After Optimism

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

James, a temporarily retired pimp, is on the run from a shadowy pursuer. His mother has just died and he is cynical to the point of despair about what should become of him. With him is Rosie, his long-time 'girl', who encourages him to think ahead, offering a less pessimistic view of his prospects.

In the forests through which they flee, James encounters a pretty, innocent girl of 17 named Anastasia. She has been alone a long time, and like many a fairy-tale woman, is awaiting a dashing saviour to arrive.

In his introduction, leading Irish critic Fintan O'Toole writes that 'The Morning After Optimism draws on Shakespeare's Forest of Arden for its setting, on Jungian psychology for its imagery, and on European fairytale for much of its shape, language and action . . . [it] is certainly no ordinary play, with its consciously artificial language, its use of fairytale characters, and its exploration of the relationship between illusion and freedom . . . Optimism proclaims itself by its setting, by its use of characters who dress and talk like they are well acquainted with the Brothers Grimm, for what it is: a play of the dream world.'

The Morning After Optimism was first performed at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in March, 1971.

On the Inside

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A companion piece of sorts to On the Outside, On the Inside shows the disappointing reality of the dance that others yearn so desperately to enter. It is the Teacher's Union dance, and at 6s per head entrance, only those with wages and prospects can enter. One of those, Kieran, is none too impressed with the average looking prospects that he has to offer, and seeks a way to escape the inevitability of his average looking girlfriend, and the life that they are heading towards. But like the fun of the dance, even the desire to escape fails to take off fully, and in the fug of drunkenness at the end of the night, Kieran restates his commitment to his mundane existence.

Performed for the first time just weeks after the premiere of On the Outside, On the Inside was first staged at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, on the 18th of November 1974.

On the Outside

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

It is the evening of the Teacher's Union dance, and Joe and Frank can't afford to get in. Frank is on a promise with a young teacher named Anne, whom he has had to avoid meeting beforehand lest she find out he can't afford to get in. These tradesmen's apprentices are embarrassed by their lack of funds and try every trick they can think of to get in, but spend the whole play outside the doors, seething over the 6s entrance fee, and the chastity their poverty has thrust on them.

In his introduction, leading critic Fintan O'Toole writes that 'within a a very simple story and a very short play a whole range of social tensions is dramatised; in the way the mundane story of two young men waiting outside of a rural dancehall which they haven't the money to enter takes on the metaphysical lineaments of heaven, purgatory and hell.'

On the Outside was first performed on stage at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, on the 30th of September 1974.

The Sanctuary Lamp

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Harry is an out-of-work strongman seeking employment (and shelter) in the sanctuary of a local church. The priest of the church hires him as a clerk, but insists that the arrangement can't include domestic arrangements. He must leave at night and come back in the morning. And above all, he must maintain the flame in the pendant lamp that embodies Christ's presence in the church.

Harry takes him up on half of the offer, working hard then sleeping over, as he hopes to escape from the perceived betrayal at the hands of his ex-partner Francisco. Meanwhile, an innocent young woman named Maudie enters; she too has been using the chapel as a doss-house. When Francisco arrives, the trinity is complete, ready for an entanglement of friendship, rivalry, and perhaps even freedom.

Fintan O'Toole writes: 'With The Sanctuary Lamp, we get a modern play that has the scale of ambition of the Greeks. It is not just that the play is a version of sorts of the The Oresteia with Harry starting out as the Orestes of Eumenides, seeking sanctuary in the temple of Apollo from the Furies that pursue him, becoming Agamemnon haunted by the death of his daughter, and becoming again Orestes bent on revenge. More importantly, it is that Murphy follows the Greek original in seeking to make a play about nothing less than the replacement of the old gods by the new, of worn-out Christianity by a new faith in man.

'The Sanctuary Lamp was first produced by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 1975.

A Thief of a Christmas

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

It will be a lean Christmas now that the villagers have failed to sell their wares at the market in the town. Glum, if not devastated, they gather in John Mahony's shop-cum-pub to sing songs, drink a little and worry for the season ahead. Among them is Costello, a gregarious man, full of laughter, who has seen the world perhaps a little more than the others and knows how to hold their attention.

When a stranger and his wife, grounded by the bad weather from getting back to their homes, enter the inn, a peculiar challenge emerges: that he, the stranger, is a better laugher than Costello. Betting begins on this uncanny contest, with stakes so high it becomes a matter of life or death for Costello, for the stranger, and for Mahony in whose house they convive.

A Thief of a Christmas was first produced at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in December 1985.

Too Late for Logic

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Christopher, a philosophy professor preparing a lecture on the work of Schopenhauer, is engaged by his son and daughter, Jack and Petra, to help rescue his brother Michael. Michael's wife, Cornelia, has died, leaving Michael in a pit of drunken despair, threatening suicide in a local pub.

Christopher, who wishes to remain in his ivory tower of philosophical reflections, reluctantly joins his grown children on their ultimately successful mission; Michael leaves the pub and eventually a funeral for Cornelia is held.

This apparently small sacrifice appears to cost much, however, as Christopher's desire to personally and professionally develop is parked in deference to his duties to his family.

The Irish Times described the play as 'One of [Murphy's] most disturbing, most affecting, and most subjective works . . . the whole adds up to an important event in Irish theatre'. Too Late for Logic premiered at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in October 1989.

The Vicar of Wakefield

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Murphy builds a delightful, comic tale of righteousness and foolishness modelled on Oliver Goldsmith's classic eighteenth-century novel The Vicar of Wakefield.

An onslaught of misfortunes has beset the Primrose family; from his lonely prison cell, the unworldly vicar Dr Primrose relates the misadventures that have caused his downfall and brought disintegration and ruin to his loved ones. When the family’s fortune is lost, they are forced to move to more modest lodgings on Mr Thornhill’s estate, where Primrose’s beautiful daughter catches the covetous eye of the squire. Her folly and the family’s suffering tests the vicar’s determined faith in the goodness of the world, in a play that is both humorous, moving and an engaging renewal of a classic narrative.

Sometimes known as She Stoops to Folly, Murphy's adaptation of The Vicar of Wakefield, was first presented in 1995 at South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, California.

The Wake

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Vera O'Toole is alone, adrift and living dangerously in New York where she survives as a call-girl. But she has a sustaining thought, a dream. She is not alone, she feels, because she has a family in Ireland; she belongs; indeed, some day she may even become worthy of that family.

Now, as the story begins, she returns home to Ireland to pay her respects to her dead and beloved grandmother and to discover her dream, her sustaining thought, turning into a nightmare.

The Wake was described by the Mail on Sunday as 'Extraordinarily good . . . the power of the piece comes from Murphy's refreshing and almost defiant unpredictability, his refusal to impose a single limiting theme on this tragic-comedy . . . it somehow touches on everything and everyone Irish'.

The Wake was first performed at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in January 1998.

A Whistle in the Dark

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The uprooted Carney family live in Coventry, England. Michael, the eldest, is the exception to the cult of violence that prevails; he would live a civilised life. But he has taken the tragic step: thinking to influence his brothers, he has brought them to live with him and his English wife in his Coventry home. And now two more are arriving from Ireland to descend on him.

Described by Time magazine as 'a play worth every tribute', A Whistle in the Dark was first produced by the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in 1961.

Picture of Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy was born in Tuam, County Galway. He lives in Dublin. He has received numerous theatre awards and holds honorary degrees from Trinity College Dublin and NUI (Galway). A six-play season celebrating his work - Tom Murphy at the Abbey - was presented at the Abbey Theatre in 2001.

He has written for television and film, and a novel, The Seduction of Morality. His stage plays include On the Outside (with Noel O'Donoghue), A Whistle in the Dark, A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer's Assistant, Famine, The Morning After Optimism, The White House, On the Inside, The Sanctuary Lamp, Epitaph Under Ether (a compilation from the works of J.M. Synge), The Blue Macushla, Conversations on a Homecoming, The Gigli Concert, Bailegangaire, A Thief of a Christmas, Too Late for Logic, The Patriot Game, She Stoops to Folly (from The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith), The Wake, The House, The Drunkard, The Cherry Orchard (a version), Alice Trilogy and The Informer (from the novel by Liam O'Flaherty).