James Murphy

Q and A with James Murphy on The Poets

This is the first of three interviews with the author.
You can read the others on ‘Handbook for the Damned‘ and ‘The Misanthropist’s Secret Love-Life‘ by clicking the titles.

Born in 1957, James Murphy grew up in the suburbs of South London. He graduated in Philosophy from the University of East Anglia at Norwich. He then worked in several different fields (sometimes literally), including journalism and teaching. During the 80s, he lived in Tuscany, and currently resides in Hampshire. He has written two collections of poetry, The Misanthropist’s Secret Love Life and Wrongdoing. He has also written two plays, The Poets and Disposophobia. He is married with a son. 


Why Byron and Shelley?


   ‘I can date my love of the Romantics to reading Richard Holmes’ vibrant biography of Shelley. It picked me up at a particularly low ebb: post-university, dead-end job, living under sheet-metal skies in hideous London digs, and here were these brilliant young men and women breezing around in Italy, living an elemental, exotic, adventurous life. So I thought – with characteristic modesty – ‘I write poetry: I’ll do that. I’ll go and be a Romantic genius.’ As it happened, I’d also just met an inspiring woman who was equally sick of London, and who also loved Italy, and that was it. –  Of course, we were 200 years too late, but that was a minor detail. We left Dover on the cheap midnight ferry and went and formed a Pisan Circle of two!


So did you manage to replicate the Byronic life-style?


‘Absolutely not! Our bank balance was distinctly un-Byronic; in fact our budget included strategically running out of petrol downhill on our weekly trip into town! So, sadly, there were no ostriches in the hall, or midnight trysts in Venetian barges!


‘Having said that, our living arrangements were pretty dramatic: we lived alone in a rundown castle on a Tuscan hilltop in winter; well, alone, apart from the weird caretaker and his wife, and then we spent the summers in a semi-derelict farmhouse in a deserted valley that seemed to have views all the way to Rome; so we did experience a degree of what you could call Romantic intensity in the kind of lives we led.


So how much did their Romantic myth affect you on a daily basis?


‘Sometimes enormously, other times not at all. I mean, Lerici, Florence, Pisa: those places are rightly shrines to anyone interested in Romantic poetry, but we didn’t really go there to impersonate the Romantics. We went to live a different life, to give ourselves time to think and feel, and to explore the talent we felt we both had, talent which didn’t seem to fit in in England at the time.


Didn’t fit, in what way?


‘Well, you have to remember that for someone writing a classically structured, traditionally conceived kind of a play, the English ‘new-writing’ scene was very much a closed book at the time. A very unsubtle transgressivism  was – still is – the in-thing: if you weren’t dredging up some depressing aspect of moral degradation a la Sarah Kane or Mark Ravenhill, you weren’t considered relevant.


‘And it wasn’t just artless ‘in-yer-face’ drivel either: the other option was to write fantastically tedious, expressly agitprop stuff, or kitchen-sink drama: it was all sanctimoniously ideological – and, ironically, very much an exclusive club – in a humble, Marxist kind of a way, of course.


How long did ‘The Poets’ remain on the shelf then?


‘Over a decade. Admittedly, there were also logistical problems with the play. The Poets’ cast is large-ish for a new play. You can just about perform it with a cast of ten. So in that sense, too, it’s always very much swum against the tide, a tide controlled by Modernists like Beckett, Pinter and others: I mean, casts don’t get much more minimalist than Billie Whitelaw mired up to her neck alone in a mud-pie on stage!


But do you feel things are changing, ideas about drama, theatre itself?


‘Not really. I still think theatre is hopelessly polarised between populist rubbish on the one hand and unbearably dismal ‘right-on’ minority stuff on the other, with very little access to anything over and above or in between. The main problem, as usual, is the people in power where commissioning is concerned. They push drama in the direction they want: if they’re obsessed with brutal, so-called transgressive drama, then that’s what they’ll put on. They won’t even look at anything which doesn’t meet those limited criteria.


‘It’s a problem that art seems to throw up every generation, whenever a particular artistic philosophy or dispensation gets too entrenched and big for its boots, so to speak. – There’s no question post-war British theatre needed ‘Look back in Anger’ – though the play’s pretty dull – but ever since then all we’ve had is ever-more artistically diluted takes on the same tired old anti-bourgeois message.

‘Actually the problem’s been with us for longer than that. Look at Rostand in the 1890s for god’s sake: his Cyrano is a consciously romantic refutation of the dreary so-called ‘realism’ that was beginning to swamp French theatres in his day. So the problem’s been around for a long time.


So what’s the answer?


‘The situation needs new commissioning editors of real vision and, I hate to say it, a deeper education and more refined sensibility than the current bunch.


‘The trouble with the current crop of pseudo-Modernist masters is that they have a totally blinkered Pol Pot ‘Year Zero’ attitude to any dramatic philosophy that predates their era. The result is that the previous dramatic worldview, with its extraordinary literary standards and rules – actually the whole profoundly meditative predisposition that allowed a ‘Hamlet’ or a King Lear or, say, the whole Restoration or Georgian comedy canon to get written – have been utterly abandoned. and what we’re left with is low-life dross: a canon of drama which will almost certainly exit through the gateway marked ‘oblivion’. None of it, not one word will stand the test of time. This can – and does – happen to whole eras.



‘Ask yourself: what play do you know or quote from the Victorian era? I can tell you. None. That’s a whole century with nothing to show for itself dramatically, until dear Old Oscar comes along and injects some swashbuckling Irish brilliance into it!


Surely Stoppard is an example of the meditative attitude in modern drama?


‘Not for me. I mean authentically ‘meditative’ rather than just merely ruminative in that flippantly Stoppardian sense where all the thinking is pretty self-congratulatory, and you don’t get the feeling that the thinking really matters to any of the characters involved in the drama: they could either think what they think or not, and it wouldn’t matter to them, or the play, either way really.


So you remain pessimistic about the direction of contemporary theatre?


‘In an optimistic kind of a way! Actually, I loved Bennett’s History Boys. At its best that play displays a genuinely Baroque dexterity with words and wit. When Bennett’s not on his Socialist soapbox he’s very good indeed.


‘All I’m saying is that we have to get beyond this sort of Onanistic pride in our own little worldview, its obsession with demotic, parochial single-issue drama: whether it be women’s rights, or sexual abuse, or unemployment, or big bad nasty capitalism; issues that are dated to the moment their authors put their pens down. Actually these subjects could be interesting – I mean what is The Taming of the Shrew if not a staged debate about gender politics? And Greek tragedy is of course riddled with the theme of incest. – But that’s the point, with classical writers, who were of course, just the modern writers of their day, you get an aspiration to literary, poetic excellence, whereas today the literary quality associated with most so-called ‘new writing’ is usually so poor, so elementary for the most part, its vernacular so coarse and metaphorically  sterile that it won’t last past next Thursday where the test of time is concerned.


So, conversely, why do The Romantics continue to have a relevance for a modern audience in your opinion?


Their detailed documentation of their struggles with ideals of love, truth, beauty, and the energy with which they pursued these ideals.


Detailed documentation?


‘In the sense of minutely investigating and articulating their personal encounters with these timeless universal subjects. – That and their dogged belief in the sovereignty of the individual in an age of increasing uniformity.

 ‘Keats’ declaration about the ‘holiness of the heart’s affections’ sums it up really. There’s an innate principle of beauty in that phrase. I mean, you can’t imagine any post-modern so-called realist saying ‘I’m driven by the holiness of the heart’s affections..”


But wouldn’t some argue that the Romantics were just a bunch of privileged individuals escaping from reality.


‘I don’t think it’s escapism to subject yourself to a rigorous practise of your chosen art-form. The discipline required in order to write great poetry is immense. Not that you hear modernists talk a lot about discipline: it’s a dirty word, and yet Art is an intense discipline. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that unless you experience it as a discipline, then you’re not really creating true art.  – That doesn’t mean to say the discipline has to be unpleasant. Not at all: it can be, should be, life-affirming ultimately. But it is rigorous: it does require everything you’ve got. If you’re not mentally and emotionally drained after a day’s writing, then you haven’t really been writing, in my opinion.

 ‘And as for escaping the banality of so-called reality – I’d argue that Art is its own reality – a much higher reality, actually, and it’s not divorced from the world and so-called ‘normal’ people: if anything, its message tries to connect with ‘normal’ people so that they become less ‘normal’; so that the society in which they live becomes less normal. – Art is revolutionary in a much deeper sense than anything Marx dreamt up.


But Byron and Shelley were rich by most standards…


‘Well Byron was: not so much Shelley: he had enough to live comfortably on, sure. But he lived modestly. – He only had a small boat!

‘But this accusation of idle privilege is bogus in reality. The Romantics were absolutely not escapists, they weren’t indifferent to the social evils of their day – Shelley was famously political – too political in my book. And Byron spoke in Parliament against exploitation.

 ‘But, as I say, as writers, artists, the Romantics served a different god, they had different views about how to reform human nature, principally through art. Blake is a classic – perhaps the classic example of that: he said ‘unless a man be an artist he is not a Christian..’ By which he meant that you’re not really religious, you can’t be said to be truly religious unless you’re creating something out of your own humanity, bringing forth, creating something original from within yourself that connects with the divine…

 ‘I don’t want to over-state the case here: I’m not trying to portray the Romantics as saints. Their story has its decided failures and dark periods – actually these are as interesting as their successes. The way creative people deal with universal problems common to us all is always fascinating.

 ‘But the point is they did believe – I believe all artists believe – that their art could change people; even if it was only a select few who were open to notions of self-transcendence in some shape or form.’


And yet The Poets, as you’ve written it, is hardly a true story…


‘Well, the play’s plot takes great liberties with the course of their actual lives, but only to tell a deeper truth.

 ‘As I wrote in the programme notes of the original production, as a play The Poets is full of lies. And it is. As an historical document it shamelessly distorts certain facts – I mean Byron never actually sent his infant daughter to a convent, but in disowning her as he did, he might as well have done! – So by including that as part of the plot, The Poets is true to a deeper, more powerful and poetic reality. Call it poet’s licence on a grand scale.


But what do you say to critics who accuse the play of being innately old-fashioned?


‘Apart from f*** off? –  In a nutshell, they need to radically review their notions of what constitutes artistic relevance. And that means breaking out of hidebound, short-sighted ideas about what constitutes Modernism in play-writing.

 ‘I mean, do they think Shakespeare thought “Ah, King Lear, that would be a cracker – no, it’s no good: an early British King is just not relevant to an Elizabethan audience!” The Poets is only old-fashioned if issues like personal betrayal, the validity and violence of religious belief, and the nature of the artistic mind are old-fashioned.


But it is a costume drama.


‘Well yes, in the sense that the actors put on costumes and those costumes pertain to an age not our own. But, again, we have to be very careful here about becoming hidebound in a kind of thin-lipped moral and aesthetic narcissism that says we can only relate to issues if we recognise the clothes the people are wearing as our own. How short-sighted is that? I mean, pardon the Shakespeare analogy again, but do we really think Shakespeare thought “Julius Caesar, yes! But those togas’ll have to go or no-one’ll understand it!”

 ‘We’ve become laughably chauvinistic and masturbatory about the importance of our era! Actually, it just shows how fragile we really are in our outlook, how feeble our imaginations have become that we have to dress truth up in clothes we recognise in order to relate to it. Modern dress, is just one example; the racial purity required in Othello so that no white man can ever play him, et cetera, is another: it’s all just the worst kind of PC and it needs to be thrown out, junked unceremoniously. No, ceremoniously, actually.

 ‘There should be a great ceremony of debunking PC in the arts, where all its principles are thrown out, and all the idiots who supported it are pilloried in the stocks. Eggs, fish, rubbish – chuck the lot at them. Because PC has done tremendous damage to the Arts in my book. I mean, as a philosophy it professes to be so liberal, but actually it’s fascist in a way – certainly aesthetically fascistic.


–  But, with respect, it’s not just the costume element that sets The Poets in another dramatic era, it’s also its structure: the way you use a plot, the very fact that you actually have a carefully constructed plot. These elements would seem to place the play outside the Modernist canon where realism is concerned.



‘Isn’t Hamlet a realistic depiction of a soul in torment? King Lear? They have plots. Plots are just the twists and turns of different people’s lives concentrated and integrated into a short dramatic unity. Our lives have plots actually, if you look at how they work out.

‘For me, poetic realism is the most real of all. Poetic truths are realism writ large. Actually, it’s the banal concerns of kitchen-sink drama that are unrealistic. Drama becomes petty when its concerns are too localised in transient everyday experience. If anything its so-called Realism that is completely unrealistic!


So what feeling would you like ‘The Poets’ to leave people with coming out of the theatre?



‘I’d like them to feel transported in an imaginative sense. Taken somewhere they didn’t want to return from; taken away from people they didn’t want to say goodbye to. I certainly felt that about the incredibly vibrant young cast we worked with on the original production. It was a joy. As a writer, you don’t always get the chance to interact with the rehearsal process, but it was a joy. I know the actors felt they benefited from having the writer around too. It affected us all very deeply. At your best you achieve a kind of artistic communion… Anyway, I’d like the audience to feel inducted into that same kind of community – no, into a communion of ideals, a circle of friends celebrating those ideals, at least for a time.


‘Failing that, I’d be satisfied if they left with a revitalised appetite for certain questions they’d thought were answered, a desire to re-open certain books they previously considered closed. Obviously physically reading the poets themselves would be great. But equally importantly, I mean whole areas of their lives they’ve put on the shelf without realising it – friendship, the need for Beauty, communality at a deep level. We’ve have all become so insular and alienated.

 ‘Not that our bloody awful British climate helps! Actually, The Poets is a just clarion call for everyone to leave Britain and go and live in Italy… Well, the British have always done that, actually: we’re always leaving continental cities with street-names like ‘le promenade des Anglais’ or ‘Corso degli Inglesi..”


Do you miss living in Italy?


‘Ma come non! What’s not to miss? I think to be born British is to be cursed with this knowledge that the other man’s grass is not only greener, but warmer, sunnier and actually a hell of a lot more desirable in general. I mean look at the way we all travel South, the kind of casually muted ecstasy that grips us on the ferry!

 ‘Certainly, whenever I head South, the moment I start seeing those Roman roof tiles on houses, a pilot light ignites inside me, and I start seeing, feeling things in a more vibrant way.  – Feeble-minded really: inspiration shouldn’t depend on anything so transient, fragile and fleeting as a climate. But that’s the point: the Mediterranean climate isn’t just a climate, it’s a way of life, which makes going there a kind of pilgrimage.  – The Mediterranean is a kind of holy site for me….  – just feeling the strength of that sun on your face, on your skin…