Murphy's law

Theatre - Dominic Dromgoole on the tragic virtuosity of a great Irish playwright

How do we celebrate a tragedy? This ticklish human dilemma has pertained down the centuries and across cultures. It's a question that death poses a million times every day, throughout the world - from England, with its glasses of sherry and soft, shamed murmurs about "good innings", to India, with its petal-strewn, blazing pyres, to Mexico, with its cracker-filled, spice-coloured Days of the Dead, back round to Ireland, with its character-defining wakes. How do we take an experience that consists of little but pain and grief, and turn it into joy?

It's a conundrum that arises from the title of the Abbey Theatre's playwright fest - "Tom Murphy: a celebration" - in which Ireland's National Theatre is spending the next two months giving over all its resources to one of its theatrical giants. But how do you celebrate work that is so determinedly driven towards the moments in life that justify the term "tragedy" - work that so consistently and purely displays God's seemingly endless desire to stub out his cigarette in the birthday cake of life?

I won't attempt to define tragedy here, because doing so is the oldest canard in the book - for one man it's a World Cup own goal, for another a lost child, for another a fallen leaf, for another King Lear and only King Lear. Defining tragedy is a false business invented to keep academics in claret. Suffice to say, we know it when we see it, and we see it nowhere more completely achieved in contemporary play-writing than in Tom Murphy's work. It's there unmistakably; but if the vision amalgamated, the whole oeuvre, resembles a long black mountain range of pain and cruelty and luckless violence, how do you turn it into a party?

In ancient Athens, they had festivals of tragedy, day-long carnivals under the baking sun. There they sat, nibbling their unleavened bread, sipping their resinous wine, while Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and their disappeared brethren put on a great spread of tragic vistas - fratricide, matricide, patricide, infanticide, genocide, every "-cide" you could find a prefix for. Here was every form of debasement and violence known to man, and they called it a festival.

In Jacobean theatre, the mood was high and vivid and giggly, as groundlings milled around noisily amid traders and whores, beneath the envious eyes of their masters, in the Globe, the Rose and the Swan, those weird upturned funnels pouring life up to heaven. Great festive crowds were happy to be spellbound by the sight of children served up in pies, tongues being ripped out and eyes gouged out - all in the spirit of fun.

Murphy has a particular correspondence to the Greek body of work. Those old myths and archetypes haunt his more naturalistic confections. The Carneys in A Whistle in the Dark suffer from a similar locked-in, claustrophobic pattern of violence to the Atrides of the Oresteia; the explosion of desperate violence by John Connor in Famine is a heart-breaking echo of the madness of Euripides's Heracles; the hushed threnody of the ladies in Bailegangaire muffles the Trojan women's bold trumpet of grief; and frequent whispers of Dionysus flit around The Gigli Concert.

These are the obvious ripples from the dropped Greek stone, but there is a more complete correspondence of spirit than of detail to his predecessors, Jacobean as well as Athenian. Like them, Murphy goes to the end of the road. He ignores the slip roads of sentiment, redemption and humour, and walks steadily ahead to the inexorable and inevitable conclusion. You wish he wouldn't, you cover your eyes as if at a B horror film and say "Please, no", but Murphy won't skimp on his own tragic vision. The purity and extremity of that approach are what most set him apart from his contemporaries. If life, God and chance won't mollify, as they so frequently won't, why should he?

So what do we celebrate? That someone can shape tragedy and shape it so beautifully: the jokes that pass the time before the hurt; the mad optimism that keeps people bright in the face of the ugliness; the small moments of mercy that punctuate it; and the insane endurance of certain values in spite of it. That's enough to be getting on with, I suppose.

A blithe egomaniacal lord of my acquaintance lives in splendid isolation in the West Indies with his pet elephant. Once a darling of London society, he propelled himself into a sort of voluntary exile. But for several years, he was constantly complaining by letter and phone that people wouldn't keep him sufficiently in touch, that he'd been left out of the loop, that no one told him anything and he missed all of the important births, weddings and funerals. Eventually someone reluctantly relented, remembered him and sent news of the death of their mother. He wired back immediately: "Delighted to hear your tragic news."

Same for Captain Tom. Delighted to hear your tragic news, sir.

The Tom Murphy season is at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin (00 353 1878 7222). Bailegangaire is at the Peacock Theatre until 27 October. A Whistle in the Dark and The Gigli Concert are in repertory until 1 December

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world