There is a serendipity to storytelling that separates it from other art forms. The best storytellers don’t work from a set script, like a play would. Instead, they’ve internalized the story until it becomes a part of their very bones. The story is always the same, with the same thematic elements and major plot points, but the telling varies. Or as Irish storyteller Claire Murphy puts it, “It only happens once this way.”
While the stories Murphy shared during her Mad Myths of the Irish performance have been told and retold for thousands of years in an unbroken tradition of oral storytelling, they will only be told in exactly that way one time. In the next telling, Murphy may linger over the fear of young mother Mary Kate O’Driscoll when she realizes her unnamed baby boy has been replaced with a changeling, or perhaps she’ll play that moment for comedy, complete with demonic baby noises. Whatever the variation, storytelling acts as a bond that both connects us back to the very origins of human history, and a practice deeply rooted in the present.
Murphy was brought to Indianapolis by Storytelling Arts of Indiana for a multi-day stint which culminated in a Saturday night performance to an enthusiastic crowd at the Indiana History Center. Murphy spun four tales from her native Ireland. Three are myths from the days before the Celts conquered that green isle, when the Tuatha Dé Danann, a mythical race of nine-foot-tall gods, ruled. The last story is a more generalized tale from after the beautiful and terrifying Tuatha Dé Danann retreated into their underground barrows and became the legendary “little people .”
Murphy describes the subjects of her tales as “total, complete psychopaths. But they’re adorable!” And indeed, there was a full range of adorable psychopathy on display throughout the evening. Gods and men cheerfully slaughter each other, crossdress, lock their daughters in towers, and replace babies with changelings who make noises rather like when you get a Gremlin wet. In other words, it’s pretty much what you’d expect from the Irish.
As always, I love finding connections between myths from around the world. One has to wonder: did the Irish independently create the tale of evil King Balor, who locked his daughter in a tower so she could never give birth to the son who would kill him, or did the Romans bring with them tales of Perseus and Oedipus? Was the tale of boy wonder (and surprisingly bashful berserker) Cú Chulainn (né Sétanta) original, or was it influenced by Heracles? Truly, there’s nothing new in this old world of ours.
Murphy is a boisterous, rollicking storyteller. The most amazing thing about her is how much of the telling is nonverbal. Storytelling, you’d say. The importance of words is right there in the name. And while Murphy does turn some remarkable phrases–“pregnant women are like exquisitely beached whales” being my favorite–if you were to transcribe Murphy’s recounting of these stories verbatim, you’d wind up with a confused mess full of sound effects and long bursts of silence. For instance: “And he brought up his sword and augh!” With Murphy, the power of the story lies not just in the words, but in the bend and sway of her body, in the crescendo of her voice, in hushed silence and repeated incantations, in the rhythm and patter of her voice, as much as the words she speaks. Again, we’re reminded viscerally that a story isn’t what it’s about, it’s how it’s about.
Mad Myths served as a strong opener to what promises to be an interesting season of Storytelling Arts. You can read my full season preview here, and I hope to see some of you at their next event, Ghost Stories at Crown Hill Cemetery, on October 13. We’re promised a slate of seven of Indy’s finest purveyors of terror in one of the scariest and most beautiful settings in town.
My tickets were provided courtesy Storytelling Arts of Indiana.