John Murphy savours meaty, conflicted role in Eternal Hydra
Gordias Carbuncle is a tormented artist, and John Murphy loves him for it. Tucked into a cluttered cubbyhole in the old Playhouse Theatre rehearsal space on East 2nd, Murphy grabs lunch while telling the Straight about the smart, complicated character he’ll play in Touchstone Theatre’s production of Anton Piatigorsky’s smart, complicated script Eternal Hydra.
“It’s a great part,” begins Murphy, who just finished his run as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew at Bard on the Beach. “There’s the mask that Carbuncle presents to the world, and there’s an absolute counter mask as to who he really is. He flip-flops back and forth between calling himself an absolute fraud and calling himself a genius.” The question Carbuncle can’t resolve is whether or not he’s a thief; humming at the core of this story, like a nuclear reactor, is the explosive issue of cultural misappropriation.
A modernist novelist in Paris in 1936, the fictional Carbuncle is composing a 100-chapter manuscript, Eternal Hydra, in which he gives voice to some historical figures whom culture has silenced. Murphy explains: “In the play, Carbuncle gives the example of a chapter he wrote about a samurai soldier during the siege of Osaka Castle—who we’ve never heard about because he was one of the losers of history.”
But there’s a rub: history has also silenced the voice of Selma Thomas, a black female writer who is an acquaintance of the white Carbuncle—and a chunk of Chapter 72 of his novel looks a lot like a story that Thomas wrote about a race riot in New Orleans. Has Carbuncle ripped Thomas off?
Carbuncle dismisses such concerns, arguing against the notion of pure authorship. “He would fit in with the hip-hop artists of today, who grab and reuse pieces of music,” Murphy notes. “Carbuncle says, ‘Words exist in free circulation. Ideas, plots, phrases. There has never been an original idea…All of literature is a phyllo dough of theft.’” But, Murphy points out, Carbuncle also calls himself a leech. “Just being alive is torture for him because he hates himself,” the actor explains. “He hates himself for the things that happen in this play.”
Carbuncle is an alcoholic and an Irish Jew, and Murphy believes that the character weaves his Jewishness into his self-loathing. “He puts himself in Paris right before World War II is about to happen. And he talks about it; he knows it’s going to happen. He tries to convince Selma to leave the country and go back to America, and it’s like, ‘Dude, how about you?’ But I think he’s got this timeline in his head: ‘I’m going to finish the book and drink myself to death, and the Nazis are going to invade.’ And he dies on the day that happens.”
Despite his alcoholism and questionable integrity—the play keeps you guessing on that front—Carbuncle is an Irish charmer. Murphy comes from Irish stock. “For all intents and purposes, my parents were from medieval times,” he says. “They grew up on farms on the west coast of Ireland and had Grade 6 educations. Blue-collar people. Super Catholic.” But, he adds: “My mother could use humour as a tool, to cajole, to convince you of something, to take the edge off something if you were angry. She was a master charmer.”
Asked if he can relate to Carbuncle’s sense of fraudulence, Murphy replies, “I understand it. Every artist in every discipline has self-doubt.” But unlike Carbuncle, Murphy is happy in his work—although he dropped out of acting for a year and a half at one point.
He confesses to early arrogance. “I came out of theatre school [at UBC] and went, ‘Everybody’s just going to offer me roles. I’m the greatest actor on the planet.’ ” Jobs didn’t come easily, however. He turned his back on the business and worked in landscaping.
The break taught him two things: “I didn’t have to be an actor, I could do anything with my life; and being in the theatre, being an artist is the only thing I really want to do.” He got an agent; performed Tennessee Williams’s The Two-Character Play with Sarah Rodgers, circa 1997; founded a theatre company called Gut Wrench; and began working on his one-act script, The Heretic, which he eventually took to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
He is now one of the busiest theatre professionals in town. And he’s delighted to be playing Carbuncle.
“Getting the chance to play a character that’s so well drawn—so three-dimensional, complicated, and flawed—is really, really appealing,” Murphy enthuses.
Carbuncle is a tormented artist. But he’s being played by a happy one.
Touchstone Theatre presents Eternal Hydra at Studio 16 from Thursday (November 1) to November 11.