Sara Keating, review of The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant, by Tom Murphy, in The Irish Times (30 May 2009)

[ Details: Sara Keating, ‘An intimate portrait of power’, review of The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant by Tom Murphy, in The Irish Times (30 May 2009), Weekend, p.8 - available online; accessed 03.07.2011.

Sub-heading: As a picture of a disintegrating Russian family, and of a world in which security is more important than succour, Tom Murphy’s new play reflects, with uncanny prescience, the current mood of the country.]

Tom Murphy’s new play, The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant, is a magisterial reflection of a way of life that is slowly dissolving. The life in question is a Russian small-town life, one on the brink of industrialisation, a world where important class distinctions are eroding in a country that is gradually moving towards its own apocalypse with the social revolutions of the early 1900s.

The Russia that Murphy evokes is a sterile one; the frost-bitten fields of its wintered landscape reflect the moral freeze at the heart of this bleak period in Russian history. The play was inspired by an obscure 19th-century Russian novel, The Golovlyov Family, written by the satirist Mikhail Saltykov under the pseudonym of his alter-ego Shchedrin, and christened by his contemporaries as “the gloomiest [novel] in all Russian history.” But if 19th century Russia seems far from the usual concerns of Murphy’s plays, The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant is not. It is a significant addition to a corpus of work that is as varied in form as it is consistent in theme.

With its uncompromising, epic four-act scope and its cast of 19, The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant recalls Murphy’s infrequently performed 1968 play Famine, which is set during 1846 and 1847, at the height of the Great Famine. The difference in time-period in the settings of the plays is roughly 30 years (Shchedrin’s novel was first published in 1876, 14 years after Alexander the Second infamously abolished slavery, and The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant loosely evokes this era). However, the social and moral pressures reflected in both plays are the same. In Famine, Murphy used the physical starvation of a landscape and a people to ask deeper questions about humanity.

“What about other ‘poverties’ that attend famine?”, he wrote in the introduction to his first published collection of plays. “A hungry and demoralised people becomes silent ... Intelligence becomes cunning. There is poverty of thought and expression. Womanhood becomes harsh. Love, tenderness, loyalty, generosity go out the door in the struggle for survival. Men fester in vicarious dreams of destruction. The natural exuberance of youth is repressed ... The dream of food can become a reality ... and people’s bodies are nourished back to health. But what can similarly restore mentalities that have becomes distorted, spirits that have become mean and broken? Or, at what price survival?”

These same questions haunt the family at the heart of The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant: a family slowly eroding under the weight of their individual instincts for self-preservation. However, where Famine saw the slow decline of a family from utopian unity to fractured tragedy under the intense pressure of contemporary events, in The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant the family has already fallen; its degradation is an historic, inherited, inevitable one.

EVEN THOUGH the action unfolds over almost a decade of the family’s lives, Murphy gives us an utterly corrupt, bereft society from the very opening moments of the play. This is a world where duty is valued more than love, and security is more important than succour. This is a world where relationships are defined by what you get - not what you give - This is a world where religion is a not a spiritual but a material calling, despite the veil of blessing that it calls down from the heavens. This is a world where hypocrisy itself loses meaning, so starved is it of moral truth.

It is 19th-century Russia, but it is also very firmly reflective of important issues today. in its caustic microscopic dissection of greed it a cutting commentary on the last 20 years Irish history. In its acerbic assault on institutionalised religion, it echoes Murphy’s great anti-clerical play of the 1970s, The Sanctuary Lamp, but it also reflects with uncanny prescience the unfolding events surrounding the recent publication of the Ryan report.

Grand epic sweeps at society aside, The Last Day of a Reluctant Tyrant is also an intimate family play, as poignant a portrait of a family crisis as his 2000 play The House, or the savage 1963 tragedy A Whistle in the Dark. The matriarch, Arina, is the tyrant of the title. Once a lowly peasant girl, she married in degenerate, decaying aristocratic family and literally saved it from ruin. Now she is a bitter old woman, vying for power with her senile husband and contemptible sons.

Like King Lear, she must divide her kingdom, and like Lear, she must choose between her three children; in this case sons, each more reprobate than the next. As they disown her and leave her to fend for self, she must come to terms with the legacy of all her hard work and uncompromising living: the absolute corruption of her sons. There is the slovenly Stephen who drinks himself to death; the apathetic Paul, who literally gives up on life; and the despicable Peter, a masterpiece portrait of hypocrisy, who thrives on the misfortune and ruin of his brothers.

Shchedrin called Peter (Porphyry as he was in the original) a “bloodsucker” and “Little Judas” throughout his novel; Murphy’s character needs no such name: he wears his unctuous pietism like a perennial smirk, even on the page. Like Arthur Miller’s tragic hero John Proctor in The Crucible, like the complex hero of Famine’s John Connor, Peter is obsessed with what he calls the “sacredness” of the family name, and yet he sullies it even by claiming it as his own. “Children belong entirely to their parents,” he counsels his mother. “Parents may therefore judge their children, but children their parents? Never. Even if it were true that parents wronged their children, it would never be lawful for children to meet parents with the like. Children must obey their parents, must follow their guidance without question and take care of them in their old age.” That is until you have your inheritance, of course, and can discard the useless, toothless, aged along with one’s abused servants and illegitimate heirs.

HOWEVER, MURPHY’S play is not Peter’s. It is Arina’s, and The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant follows her fate to its bitter, impoverished end. Haunted by the ghosts of those she sacrificed for industry and wealth, she is left to account for herself. Like Dada in Murphy’s A Whistle in the Dark, who sees his sons turn on him as he has forced them to turn on each other, she is left to deal with the legacy of her own life: the sheer weight of its spiritual wastage.

But a tyrant can’t be wrong, in her own eyes at least: tyranny is defined by dogged self-belief. And so Arina will leave this world unrepentant and take whatever punishment is due in the life hereafter. She will not enforce her own claim on salvation, she says in the play’s closing lines, and yet Murphy still suggests that she might get it. There may be no comfort for her in this bleak, bleak world, but Murphy still believes in the possibility of her forgiveness in the next.

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