Martin McDonagh’s Lieutenant: Best Bloody Play I Ever Saw

It’s great news that Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore is to transfer to Broadway. Not only is Wilson Milam’s production of the dark comedy for the Atlantic Theater Company perfect, but Mr. McDonagh has written the most laughably staggering play I have ever seen.

Now, it could well be that there are better plays than The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Mr. McDonagh has written at least one of them (last season’s fantastic tall story and modern Grimm’s fairy tale, The Pillowman). But no play I’ve seen in years of theatergoing begins to approach the mad daring of Inishmore. Put simply, this is the first farce about terrorism in the history of the whole wide beautiful world.

I cannot help laughing now, as I recall the outlandish cheek of it all. I found Inishmore a very funny play indeed, if a bit sick, and the more outrageously over the top it became as the bizarre evening progressed, the funnier it was. Be warned, though: There comes a point in the grotesque proceedings when the stage appears to be swimming in rivers of blood, along with various heads and limbs that have yet to be severed in half for convenience sake.

If, therefore, you possess little or no appetite for the sorrowful, savage humor of the gallows that Mr. McDonagh inherited from his early mentor, J.M. Synge (and to a lesser extent, from the milder dark ironies of Beckett), The Lieutenant of Inishmore is not for you. There’s always Barefoot in the Park.

Mr. McDonagh is the postmodern heir to the socially subversive Joe Orton a thousand years on. (Orton’s 1965 classic, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, has just opened at the Laura Pels Theatre.) They share a similar appetite for thoughtful ironies when someone has just been bludgeoned to death.

“I should have asked for references,” says the boss of the murderous chauffeur who’s just killed his old dad in Entertaining Mr. Sloane. “I see that now.”

As two characters hack away at the body parts in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, they have a matter-of-fact conversation as if chatting over a pint:

“Won’t your mam be upset, your Mairead joining the paramilitaries, Davey?”

“She knew it was coming some day,” Davey says. “I think she’ll have resigned herself to it, though I think she’d have preferred it to be the I.R.A. if anybody. Y’know, they’re more established.”

“They are. And they do travel further afield than the INLA.”

“The I.R.A. do get a good bit of traveling done, aye.”

“They do. They go to Belgium sometimes.”

For anyone to skip the Grand Guignol pleasures of Inishmore would be a pity, for its singular playwright has us laughing at our blackest fears and unspeakable events. Yet we have nothing to compare his bloodthirsty play to, except, perhaps, to the Jacobeans. But the twisted Jacobeans were child’s play compared to this. Mr. McDonagh’s terrorist farce is nothing less than a graphic satire on torture and the Irish Republican Army.

The psychotic terrorist, Padraic, for example, has a love of sadistic death matched only by his love of cats. (A dead cat known as Wee Thomas, which might have been run over deliberately, plays a pivotal role). In an early scene, Padraic is torturing a whimpering drug dealer who’s strung upside-down when his cell phone rings. “Hello? Dad, ya bastard, how are you?” says Padraic warmly. “ … I’m grand, indeed, Dad, grand. How is all on Inishmore? Good-oh. Good-oh. I’m at work at the moment, Dad, was it important now? I’m torturing one of them fellas pushes drugs on wee kids, but I can’t say too much over the phone …. ”

The gossip with his dad continues a while as the drug pusher twists on the rope: “I haven’t been up to much else, really. I put bombs in a couple of chip shops, but they didn’t go off. ( Pause) Because chip shops aren’t as well guarded as army barracks. Do I need your advice on planting bombs? ( Pause) I was pissed off, anyways. The fella who makes our bombs, he’s fecking useless. I think he does drink. Either they go off before you’re ready or they don’t go off at all. One thing about the I.R.A. anyways, as much as I hate the bastards, you’ve got to hand it to them. They make a decent bomb.”

Even the brazen act of writing the play was to tempt fate (or scream for a response—evidence that a playwright counts for something). “I was trying to write a play that would get me killed,” Mr. McDonagh has said of Inishmore.

He’ll have to settle for being alive and collecting an Academy Award recently for his short film (Best Live Action Short). But then, the essential message of The Pillowman was that spinning a good yarn to the limit is a glorious pursuit for its own sake, and, paradoxically, that writers count for something and must be silenced. “We like executing writers,” announces Pillowman’s cool prosecutor, Tupolski. “Dimwits we can execute any day, but you execute a writer, it sends a signal, y’know?”

The Lieutenant of Inishmore was initially silenced in England and Ireland. In the midst of the current uproar caused by the cancellation here of the Royal Court’s My Name Is Rachel Corrie, it’s salutary to recall that The Lieutenant of Inishmore was turned down by three theaters that had staged Mr. McDonagh’s plays in the past—the Royal Court, the National and the Druid in Galway.

The insidious, hidden underbelly of official censorship is self-censorship. Our playwrights and nonprofit theaters are living in fear (and are cravenly caving in to it). Only Cromwellian despots and fools close down mere plays. In any event, Mr. McDonagh lived to tell the tale when the Royal Shakespeare Company stepped in to produce The Lieutenant of Inishmore. But time and a truce have caught up with it. The peace process in Northern Ireland has made the extraordinary play not politically toothless, but fairly harmless. Mr. McDonagh’s yokel Irish living in the lower depths of blighted Inishmore are all as thick as two planks. His dim Irish are caricature Irish jokes in themselves, and quite comforting in their way.

And yet when the drums sounded during the play, I was reminded that I have seen proud Irish men and women with lives as hard as nails in a crucifix marching to the drum in Londonderry and I have felt afraid. So the play still unsettled me although it made me laugh. The cast is magnificent. Scott Pask’s hellhole of a set in craggy, unforgiving Inishmore is exactly right in every threadbare detail. It represents Mr. McDonagh’s beloved Ireland—or home, sweet home.

As for the exceptional playwright, he might have written himself into obsolescence. There’s no further he can go, for The Lieutenant of Inishmore already goes to the anarchic outer limit. His plays have all come in a youthful flurry, as if they were written in a fever, as if blessed. I loved one of the earliest, The Cripple of Inishmaan; was disappointed by the predictable, easy tricksiness of later plays like The Beauty Queen of Leenane; and have been again enthralled by his last two plays to be produced here, Pillowman and Inishmore. Now he’s talking ominously of an end to playwriting, at least for the immediate future.

Martin McDonagh knows himself. “I want to just write for the love of it,” he told Fintan O’Toole in the New Yorker. “And also grow up, because all the plays have the sensibility of a young man.” True, but I hope we don’t lose him to the movies. You can’t grow up writing movies, only age badly. Besides, when was the last time anyone went to a movie for a great story?