Well, now. They’re back! Though the Irish never really went away. It’s been said for generations: Where would English drama be without the Irish? But where would American drama be? Here we have two more plays by Ireland’s favorite exports-namely, Martin McDonagh of that Tony Award-winning spectral piece of grand old blarney, The Beauty Queen of Leenane , and Conor McPherson of the windy drinking man’s ghost story, The Weir .
The McDonagh-McPherson industry is reaching saturation point, if it hasn’t already, and that’s the fecking truth, as Mr. McDonagh’s felicitous characters like to say. Why, apart from their latest productions-Mr. McDonagh’s The Lonesome West at theLyceumandMr. McPherson’s This Lime Tree Bower at Primary Stages-even more New Wave Irish drama will soon be with us.
There is, for example, Patrick T. Golway’s Olivier Award-winning I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen , a darkly elegiac memory play inspired by Sean O’Casey about a beautiful raven-haired member of Riverdance who falls in love with a werewolf. There’s Ballybog by the 20-year-old prodigy George Bernard O’Byrne, which has just won the Dublin Prize. Ballybog is an Irish family tragedy about random murder, pedophilia and the Catholic Church that the British critics lauded for reaching the poetic heights in its crystalline moments of metaphoric devastation. Vyvian Holland’s sparkling comedy Where Has All the Guinness Gone? is the prestigious Evening Standard Award-winner that I caught in London at the Bush Theater earlier this season; I found it to be the best of all the new Irish plays. It’s a timely, refreshing satire, involving ghosts and ghouls and homicidally thick country yokels in a postcard image of quaint old Ireland that takes a healthy swipe at the entire new school of Irish dramatists. My money’s already on Where Has All the Guinness Gone? , with its brilliant low-comedy Irish ensemble directed by Congreve Kelleher of the Gnome Theater Company, Galway, to take the Tony for best play next season.
Now, none of the above paragraph is true-as I’m sure you long since guessed. My point is: It could be! So forgive me. As Conor McPherson’s Joe puts it in Lime Tree Bower : Better to make something up than tell the literal truth, in that con man’s game known as spinning a yarn.
The literal truth is that Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson have between them had six of their plays produced here in little over a year. Even for these gifted writers, who are still in their 20’s, it feels like overkill. They come in threes: three plays each for Mr. McDonagh and Mr. McPherson (and three plays this season alone from David Hare). Time out, gentlemen! One thinks, like the testy refrain between the battling brothers in The Lonesome West , “Take a step back, now.”
My difficulty so far with Mr. McDonagh is that I find I like his writing more than his plays. He’s smart and savagely funny in his dark gallows humor; he possesses the confidence and wit (and cheek) to send up his Gothic melodramas as much as he expects us to take them seriously. But I felt that The Beauty Queen of Leenane was overpraised as a “great play.” Come now! It’s a yarn . In another life, its old hag from hell would have been played by Bette Davis. It’s a Gothic potboiler with a time-honored, creaky plot device: the letter delivered into the Wrong Gnarled Hands.
I think that Mr. McDonagh is having much more fun with his plays than his over-serious admirers are. His maturer The Cripple of Inishman (which was botched in its production here) is his most accomplished play to date. It satirizes the clichéd backwater half-life of rural Ireland while seeming to agonize over its romantic hope and damnation. The Lonesome West -which has been nominated for a Tony-belongs to the Gothic violence of the “Leenane Trilogy,” with a nod to a surprising source, Sam Shepard’s True West .
What! Is he sending up True West now? Well, I’d guess, partly . Mr. McDonagh remains his own irreverent man, though both dramas have warring brothers who could, at any moment, kill each other. And both are somewhat blatant metaphors-for dislocated, rootless America; for exploding, divided Ireland.
The Lonesome West is set in Mr. McDonagh’s fictional hellhole, Leenane (in contrast to Brian Friel’s more elegiacally imagined village of Ballybeg). I wouldn’t go near Leenane on your travels if I were you. Its native traditions are of serial killings (the old crone in The Beauty Queen of Leenane previously died via boiling and the poker); suicide (by drowning); murderous biblical feuds; rain-soaked feudal poverty; and a drunken damned priest trying to save his pathetic flock. It’s a new, and entertaining, form of “Theater of the Grotesque.”
In The Lonesome West , Coleman (Maeliosa Stafford) has blown his father’s head away with a shotgun. His poor dad, we learn, has been murdered for insulting his son’s hairstyle. (Even odder, the excellent Mr. Stafford is bald.) Coleman is blackmailed by his equally foul brother, Valene (Brian F. O’Byrne), who’s a proud collector of the plaster saints that fill the shelves of the dump they live in. In return for his silence about the patricide, Valene now owns everything they have-their hovel of a farmhouse, the booze in the cupboard, the biscuits in the locked tin, the bright new cooker (a prize acquisition, like a holy relic, which will also be blown away in time). All the possessions, even including the glasses, are marked with an ugly “V”-for Valene, or Victory (or “Get lost”).
Coleman hates Valene-“Ya feckin’ fecker ya!”-and the possibly effeminate loon Valene sure hates him, while fearing less for his own life than for the future of his saintly figurines. The brothers are the brutally ignorant, violently insane Irish equivalent to The Odd Couple . “They’re the Kings of Odd!” cries Girleen (Dawn Bradfield), the flighty local teenager who fancies the village priest.
Sad, ineffectual, drunk Father Welsh (David Ganly) is “the laughingstock of the Church in the whole of Ireland-and that takes some feckin’ doing.” He gets soused with the battling odd ones while trying to save them. Fat chance! Father Welsh, in despair, sacrificially scalds his hands in a boiling bowl of Valene’s cruelly melted-down plaster saints. (Not Mr. McDonagh’s lightest touch.) Then he drowns himself, leaving behind a letter to the Brothers Grim praying for such a miraculous reconciliation between them that he’d surely qualify for canonization.
The brothers then do their sadistic best to “take a step back” but fail to stop fecking fighting even over a miserable bag of potato chips. And by now, if not long before, you will have got Mr. McDonagh’s loud message and metaphor about blood feuds, the powerlessness of the Catholic Church, and an Ireland at war that’s literally trashing itself to death. The Lonesome West is perfectly acted by its fine Irish quartet; the director is Garry Hynes.
I’m afraid that I have a bias against Conor McPherson’s monologues. It has less to do with the talented Mr. McPherson, and is more about the nature of monologues themselves. St. Nicholas , with the great Brian Cox as an embittered Irish drama critic, was certainly enjoyable, though it lost me with the entrance of the vampires. I didn’t believe them. I was less struck by The Weir , with its series of ghost story monologues that seemed sentimentally artificial to me. Mr. McPherson’s latest outing, This Lime Tree Bower , has three monologues told by three men involved in a drunken misadventure. But I just couldn’t connect to it.
We’re drowning in a surfeit of wry Irish eccentricity. But that isn’t quite it. Lime Tree Bower , directed by Harris Yulin, needs time to develop more smoothly if its three accomplished actors are to bring it to the boil. But they will grow in confidence. No, the fault is mine in that I can’t really appreciate monologues as theater.
But isn’t it currently the fashion for us to listen to these stories as if-we’re told-we are all sitting ’round a campfire? I don’t know what that means or why it’s a good thing.
A theater isn’t a campfire, though I see the folksy point. Brian Cox, a strong champion of Mr. McPherson’s (and a friend of mine), wrote eloquently in a recent New York Times Arts and Leisure piece: “The emergence of the monologue in the last decade is no accident. There has been a harking back to the very roots of drama itself, when the storyteller moved from camp to camp, telling tales of derring-do or die.” The living tradition of the traveling storyteller in Ireland is still strong. And Mr. Cox likes the monologue form for its challenging immediacy. In effect, a monologue is a soliloquy.
But for me, not by soliloquies alone. Monologues are also short stories. They could be read to us just as effectively-and we can read them like any story. Monologues are to be listened to. They aren’t plays but tales. They tell beguiling stories. But they aren’t theatrical .
With monologues, it’s too easy to close your eyes.