‘A cry for humanity’ - Tom Murphy discusses The Sanctuary Lamp

B*SPOKE THEATRE Company come to the Town Hall next week with a production of Tom Murphy’s powerful play, The Sanctuary Lamp, which Murphy himself directs.

The production has been garnering rave reviews; The Sunday Tribune hailed it as “a shining piece of theatre” while The Guardian declared it to be “a play likely to haunt one for months to come”.

Galway audiences can look forward to a real theatrical treat when the production arrives on the Town Hall stage.

An anti-Church play?

The Sanctuary Lamp centres on three people who are locked in a Roman Catholic church for the night. Harry, the English-born ex-circus strongman, prays to the flickering candle in the sanctuary lamp for strength to kill his wife and his best friend.

Maudie is a 16-year-old runaway waif, haunted by her past, and waiting for the release of forgiveness, while Irish blackguard Francisco, does not want anything...

The play explores major themes of redemption, love, guilt, spirituality, and the existence or non-existence of God. In an interview done at the time of its 1975 premiere, Murphy said of the play: “You have the three people knocking at the door, this feeling of being lost, adrift, cut off from something – call it Nature or God, whatever. They are locked inside this metaphorical monster that is a church and what does a church stand for? Stability, civilisation.

“But religion merely provides the venue for people to do their own thing, and feelings are much more important than equations or what-have-you about religion…So really, The Sanctuary Lamp hasn’t anything to do with religion. It’s about the campfire in the distance, the candle in the window and the proof of hope in man. Perhaps he is only just alive - but he’s man. And it was man who lit the lamp.”

Nevertheless, that first production at the Abbey aroused considerable controversy as the play was accused of being “anti-clerical” and “anti-Mass” and it provoked walk-outs from the theatre.

“I certainly wanted to annoy the clerics I had grown up among and had come to know and be instructed by,” Murphy acknowledges, speaking of the play today. “I thought they were very self-righteous, arrogant and, indeed, very ignorant, a lot of them.

“This business of the ‘one true church’, from very early on I felt was completely wrong. I was asked on the very first night what was my reaction by somebody from RTÉ with a tape-recorder, and he was really asking me about what I felt because maybe 20 people had left, some of them vociferously objecting.

“My answer to him was that I didn’t care that night what anyone thought, I thought it was terrific, I thought the production and the performances were terrific and, without thinking about religion at all, I thought that I was vindicated.

“The play was extremely difficult to write, I went through a very dark time, the play took a couple of years to write. My nearest and dearest, I would say, suffered because I was carrying this thing around and trying to complete it.”

Those who objected to The Sanctuary Lamp’s perceived attack on the Church might have been surprised to know that, just a couple of years earlier, Murphy had been one of two lay members on the International Commission for English in the Liturgy, a post-Vatican II reforming body.

“I got an invitation to go on the committee, they felt a playwright could offer something constructive in so far as playwrights write words to be said aloud and the Mass is also spoken aloud,” Murphy recalls.

“I thought it would provide an opportunity for me to be constructive rather than destructive. The standard type of conversation that I had with my contemporaries at that time about religion was bordering on the bitter, and sometimes quite bitter. So I thought maybe this was a better approach and, perhaps naively, I was thinking there would maybe be some salvation in it for me.

“I attended the next meeting and they asked me to become a member which I became. We had meetings in different parts of the world like Rome, Washington, Sydney, Toronto, but after a few years of the thing I thought it was wrong of me to be helping to fashion prayers for others that I didn’t quite believe in myself so I withdrew.

“I thought that the other 11 members on the committee were all very fine individually, and indeed at times I felt I was Judas among them. They were fine individually, very principled and upright, but collectively it didn’t make sense to me.”

Writer and director

After The Sanctuary Lamp’s first production, Murphy withdrew from writing for several years and it has been written that this was due to the hostile reactions the play provoked. However, Murphy emphatically refutes this theory.

“It’s been said, as recently as a week ago in The Irish Times, that I gave up writing for two years because of the response to The Sanctuary Lamp. That is completely incorrect,” he said. “I understand how people have interpreted it in that way, journalists for instance. But I didn’t want to let myself in again for the process of writing a play, any play.

“It wasn’t the response of the audience; if anything, I was quite pleased there was such a positive reaction because the greatest thing to fear is indifference. The reason I didn’t write anything for three or four years was I didn’t want to let myself in for the process of writing a play. I dig very deeply. I just didn’t want to be a playwright at all. But it had absolutely nothing to do with the reaction to the play.

“On the first night I felt vindicated because of what I had been through, then later, when that self-centred thing opens out, remembering what my nearest and dearest had gone through because in writing a play of that sort one tends to be monomaniacal and there is only the play to be thought about.”

Moving on to the present production of The Sanctuary Lamp, what was the impetus behind staging this revival?

“I really like the play,” Murphy declares, “I think it’s one of my better plays. I’ve always felt I would be able to direct it and when I was approached about it I said ‘Yes’.”

How does he compare the experience of directing to writing? “The process of directing isn’t completely different; writing the words for the play – that’s a theory and indeed on the first day of rehearsals for any new play of mine over the past 30 years I have always said, as a writer who’s a guest in the rehearsal room, ‘this is the theory’ . I think the actors appreciate that they and the director have to make that theory incarnate, they have to bring it to life, objectify it.”

Viewing the play today, does Murphy feel audiences respond to it differently than when it was first staged.

“I think they do,” he replies. “The play has one Irish character and three English characters but when it was first done it was played completely Irish. In 1975 I think we were much more self-centred as a race and much more insular.

“As I said, it was good to get a positive reaction years and years ago. I feel sometimes in this production that the play is seen much more as a cry for humanity rather than an attack on any church.

“The play does claim that an institutional church of any description can’t resolve people’s problems. There is an awful lot of humour in the piece as well, it’s a very funny play, I think that reaction in ‘75 lopsided the perception of it.”

The Sanctuary Lamp, with a cast featuring Kate Brennan, Declan Conlon, Bosco Hogan and Robert O’Mahoney, and design by Monica Frawley, plays the Town Hall Theatre from Tuesday May 4 to Friday 7 at 8pm nightly. Tickets are available on 091 - 569777.


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