I must offer a minority opinion about Martin McDonagh’s raved-over The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and it’s a shame. The sold-out production at the Atlantic Theater Company is soon to transfer to Broadway; the all-Irish cast of four from Galway could scarcely be better; the accomplished director, Garry Hynes, first produced the play at the now legendary Druid Theater Company, which she founded, and it marked Mr. McDonagh’s professional debut at the not so tender age of 23. (His writing is too self-assured for him to give a damn about his relative inexperience.) But I don’t think The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a good play, let alone the great and memorable Gothic drama we’re told it is. To which its many admirers may well respond, “Ah, bollocks to ya!”-as the drama’s doomed heroine likes to say.
Mr. McDonagh, now 27, extravagantly hyped on both sides of the Atlantic-I’ve been guilty of some of the hype myself-had a phenomenal four plays running simultaneously in London. No dramatist in memory can equal that achievement. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is New York’s first taste of his work, whose voice, already worn with sorrow and yearning and dark, savage humor, has been compared to the J.M. Synge of Playboy of the Western World. But we should remember it’s his first play-and a comparatively minor one compared to his maturer, far more accomplished The Cripple of Inishman, due to open at the Public Theater in April. At best, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a grand guignol yarn told by a born storyteller. But we have serious doubts about the telling.
The play is a dark comedy-some call it a spectral tragedy-revolving around an awesomely familiar theme. In retrospect, we wouldn’t have been too surprised had the dramatist opened the spooky proceedings with a mighty thunderclap and the foreboding, time-honored, “It was a dark and stormy night …”
Set in Leenane, a small town in Connemara where it pours with rain and the sight of a cow loping across a field is a major event, strange and terrible events take place in the stifling, rural backwater. Mag Folan, the mother from hell, a bullying old gnarled hag maliciously emptying her pisspot into the kitchen sink, and her daughter Maureen, bone-tired at 40, an eternal spinster eternally trapped, live together in mutual hatred and petty primal feuds about lumpy porridge and foul-tasting biscuits. When poor Maureen’s one chance of love and marriage enters her desolate life-the opportunity at last to escape!-horrible Mum ruins it. And it will take you about five and a half minutes to guess that Mum won’t be around much longer, what with a young local lad saying innocently how the big poker by the stove would make an admirable murder weapon and all.
We know-and can’t fail to know-that all will end in bloody disaster. The cheek of this gifted young dramatist! He appears to be sending up Gothic melodramas as much as he expects us to take him seriously. He’s assuming-rightly-that we’ll want the victimized daughter, who’s no sweetheart herself, to deep-six her appalling slag of a mother. Which she gleefully does in the end by throwing boiling fat over the old crone-Wicked Witch Boils in Oil-finishing off the grizzly job with that prized family heirloom, the poker. But what we’re watching-surely!-is a low-budget horror movie that creaks.
We aren’t unnerved as we should be. The plot devices are clumsily telegraphed at every twist. The entire action-and Maureen’s tragic fate-hinges on the conventional melodrama of a crucial letter ending up in the wrong hands-in Mummy’s cruel, indolent hands. Maureen’s slow-witted suitor, Pato Dooley, tells his younger brother, dim Ray Dooley, three times to be certain, absolutely certain-now don’t be forgetting or I’ll kill you-to be absolutely and unwaveringly certain to deliver his letter only into the hands of Maureen. Pato’s letter, written from London, asks her to come to America with him. He could have asked her in person when he comes back home to visit, but no matter. Don’t forget to deliver the letter to Maureen-right?
The plot of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House notoriously revolves round a letter, too. The Irishman’s in good company. But he goes a little further than Ibsen. When the unreliable Ray Dooley turns up at Maureen’s home to make the delivery, only the ogre is there-casting a greedy, beady eye on the letter he’s carrying. “I’m under strict orders now,” says Ray defensively. Don’t forget to deliver the letter to Maureen. But-oh no!-the dope hands it over to the mother-witch, saying, “And may God strike you dead if you open it!”
God does just that, in a sense. And we are not surprised. At the play’s end, Maureen-who spent some time in the nut house during her youth-is now destined for a life of delusional, rotting loneliness in her mother’s threadbare shoes, stuck forever in her rocking chair in front of the depressed, unending dull glow of the telly.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is an old-fashioned potboiler without the fun. It isn’t well made. It is wonderfully acted. The Irish actors play off each other so well. They are authentically, unaffectedly real in ways we don’t often see. In particular, Marie Mullen’s beaten, bitter, fleetingly exultant Maureen is an extraordinary model of unadorned naturalness who touches our hearts. But we aren’t happy with Martin McDonagh’s overpraised drama, failing to see it even in terms of a rattling good mystery tale.
Mr. McDonagh’s love of Ireland-he lives in London-is born with gallows humor out of affection and disaffection. But I was also troubled by how much the play unconsciously reinforces the patronizing myth of an Ireland that’s home to backward yokels living in squalor and ignorance. And to that I say: Don’t forget to deliver the letter to Maureen! He nevertheless mocks the Irish postcard stereotype in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, but he does it to more satisfyingly mature effect in the superior The Cripple of Inishman. His first play led to greater things, better tales.