Tom Murphy interviewed

  • 27 September 2006
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Colin Murphy talks to playwright Tom Murphy about depression, obsession and food fights with theatre directors


I know a number of very brilliant people. And it isn't necessarily that they went in the wrong door at some stage and couldn't get back out, but they don't seem to have taken any door in particular.

"Lives half lived. Contemporaries of mine. Women friends in particular, telling me how much I've done with my life. And I think I've done fuck all with my life."

He says "fuck all" with a wry smile.

Tom Murphy is sitting on his sofa, talking about Alice, the lead character of his new play, The Alice Trilogy. He is uncomfortable. He labours over questions. Like many of his characters, Alice wrestles with madness, and with the depression provoked by disillusionment.

He has wrestled with depression, and fought it through his writing.

"There isn't much point in just procreating, and whatever else one does – eating and sleeping and repeating the same thing over and over.

"Probably the reason I'm still writing, is trying to [find] something to satisfy myself in that, rather than in all the petty things we do, like getting sick, and getting cured, and going to the dentist..."

Writing a play is a "long, and slow, and sort-of tortuous process" that "takes over the life of the writer", he says.

"And then when the thing is done, the last thing one wants is the family company... Home life isn't going to satisfy that 'dog' that is let out. You lock up a dog for a few days and the dog start to run in circles, the dog doesn't want to go walking in straight lines or go shopping or to Funderland or wherever.

"I do regret my neglect of loved ones but – I don't give a fuck what people say – I don't think I'd much choice."

"If you've got the bug, and if you've got the talent, there's no choice in it. I don't think that one can be a daddy to the children or a husband to the wife: in writing a play one becomes monomaniacal."

He talks, guardedly, of his experience with depression.

"I haven't been depressed as such – not the deep depression that I used to suffer – in up to 15 years. Despite all my talking about it, perhaps the furies don't attack me as much as they afflict other people.

"I still believe that if you came in and said, 'I have a cure for depression in this envelope', I don't know that I would open it."

He saw various psychologists, but never underwent formal treatment.

"One of them wanted me to go on Lithium. No fucking way."

He learned to "recognise" and "watch" his moods, he says, and to feed them into his writing.

"If I fall into a mood – or that 'imbalance' that happens to a person who falls into depression – I try to use it. I'd say, 'You're fucking back again, I'll sit you out again'."

He stretches back on the sofa, hands in his pockets, until his body is almost rigid. Then he sits normally, then hunches forward, running his hands over the bald top of his head.

Tom Murphy was born in Tuam, Co Galway, in 1935. He met "every type of character that exists" amongst the town's 5,000 population, he says, and has mined them since in his writing. "The only difference is by degrees... The blaggard, and the romantic, and whatever you like, they're all there."

He was the last of 10 children, many of whom emigrated. After school at the Christian Brothers, he worked in a factory.

"I wouldn't exchange that for doing a degree in a university but I would like to have had both, some sort of structured education."

Instead, he followed his "own self-educated, meandering sort of way".

He had pottered about in the local amateur dramatic society, and took to writing. In 1961, his second play, A Whistle in the Dark, was a hit in London, where the critic Kenneth Tynan called it "the most uninhibited display of brutality the London theatre has ever witnessed".

"I wrote that play, quite a lot of it, on Friday nights and Saturday nights in the kitchen of my family home in Tuam with sort-of clenched jaws," says Murphy.

"I think there was huge frustration happening in my life, and rage – rage at what specifically would be very, very difficulty to specify. At the repression that I was living under, as was everybody else, the small-town life, the hypocrisy of everyone, including myself, because it was part of the culture to be critical, which was a denial of the generosity that a young person would be feeling.

"I look back to youth, to the beauty and idealism there, (and think) that life should be such as to foster that rather than smother it, dampen it, repress it."

Murphy writes slowly, rewriting obsessively – up to 35 drafts of some of his plays. Last year, somebody asked him about a play he wrote in 1981, The Informer, an adaptation of a novel by Liam O'Flaherty. Murphy found an old copy of it and read it again.

"And I thought, 'I can't leave this behind me, I just can't die and leave this fucking thing'.

"I spent nearly six weeks on it. I had to shelve a new thing that I was doing. I cut 45 pages from it."

There wasn't even a plan to produce it.

"That's one of the reasons I'm telling you this. It is now a 'honey' of a property."

He laughs loudly, spontaneously, mischievously.

"I certainly have had a tendency to overwrite. The rewriter tends to become too intimately involved with the material."

He wishes he'd done a course in journalism, something that would have taught him how to "put the blinkers on".

Would he change things if he had it over?

"I'd certainly have played a bit more with the girls."

Then he thinks and, slowly, he talks about writing again.

He would have written "perhaps a different kind of prose... were I secure in the fact that I had some kind of talent".

"I'd be doing it even more deliberately and caring less about what other people thought."

I make to finish up, and he relaxes, to a degree. Becomes more voluble and, almost, gregarious. Enjoys some brief chat. He tells the recent story of his spat with Michael Colgan, director of the Gate Theatre, at Colm Toibin's 50th birthday party.

"I dislike Colgan so much that I didn't even lift my eyes when he joined the company, and he was just going on and on and on. And so I said, 'how are things at the museum?'. And he said something about being a 'provincial' playwright, about my work not travelling. I had a lovely bowl of curry. And I just poured it on top of his head."

He laughs a throaty laugh.

"I was kissed so much that night."

And the interview is over.p

?More The Alice Trilogy will play in The Abbey Theatre from 10 October to 4 November.