It is rare and a bit overwhelming to discover the existence of an artist with a mature and highly individual body of work. Imagine suddenly finding out there lived a black American named August Wilson who, before he died, wrote 10 revealing plays about his people and country. Or, as actually happened in dance in the '70s, imagine stumbling upon the legacy of a 19th century Danish choreographer named August Bournonville, who left 50 ballets unknown to or unappreciated by much of the rest of the world.
So it is with the discovery of Tom Murphy. Despite our country's recent fascination with Irish drama, Murphy and his 26 plays are virtually unknown here. The playwright, now 77, has been a staple and major influence on all the big names in Irish theater. But until the Lincoln Center Festival brought three of his works here in a package called "DruidMurphy," Murphy had been known -- even after a 2001 Murphy festival I attended in Dublin -- as a sentimental, very Irish writer whose plays about his country are too local for export.
Thanks -- and I do mean thanks -- to director Garry Hynes and the stunning repertory actors of her Druid Theatre Company of Galway, the discovery of Murphy feels like finding one of those precious lost tribes preserved in a faraway place. The three plays, presented individually and, as I saw them Sunday, in a 9 1/2 -hour marathon, are each very different but loosely linked to the deep historic consequences of emigration.
"Famine," a grueling 1968 work about the potato blight of 1864, would probably be rough going on its own. Presented as the final play in a series that moves backward in time, however, the unflinching political and natural tragedy reverberates throughout the characters and uneasy national identities of the previous works.
In "Conversations on a Homecoming," a man returns to his disillusioned buddies at the pub after years trying to become an actor in England.
In "A Whistle in the Dark" -- Murphy's extraordinary first play and an obvious influence on Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" -- a family of male emigres turn into London thugs of terrific violence and grandiloquence.
Hynes' stagings are intense wonders of psychological observation. And play-to-play, the transformation of these actors -- Niall Buggy, Aaron Monaghan, Garrett Lombard, Rory Nolan, Marty Rea, Eileen Walsh and so many others -- is nothing short of astonishing.
WHERE John Jay College, Broadway at 60th Street, through Saturday
INFO $90-$240 for cycle, 212-721-6500; lincolncenterfestival.org
BOTTOM LINE The revelation of a new-old playwright