Harry is an out-of-work strongman seeking employment (and shelter) in the sanctuary of a local church. The priest of the church hires him as a clerk, but insists that the arrangement can't include domestic arrangements. He must leave at night and come back in the morning. And above all, he must maintain the flame in the pendant lamp that embodies Christ's presence in the church.
Harry takes him up on half of the offer, working hard then sleeping over, as he hopes to escape from the perceived betrayal at the hands of his ex-partner Francisco. Meanwhile, an innocent young woman named Maudie enters; she too has been using the chapel as a doss-house. When Francisco arrives, the trinity is complete, ready for an entanglement of friendship, rivalry, and perhaps even freedom.
Fintan O'Toole writes: 'With The Sanctuary Lamp, we get a modern play that has the scale of ambition of the Greeks. It is not just that the play is a version of sorts of the The Oresteia with Harry starting out as the Orestes of Eumenides, seeking sanctuary in the temple of Apollo from the Furies that pursue him, becoming Agamemnon haunted by the death of his daughter, and becoming again Orestes bent on revenge. More importantly, it is that Murphy follows the Greek original in seeking to make a play about nothing less than the replacement of the old gods by the new, of worn-out Christianity by a new faith in man.
'The Sanctuary Lamp was first produced by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 1975.