As Oscar Wilde lives and breathes, where would English drama be without the Irish? There’s Wilde himself, of course, and G.B. Shaw, not to forget Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Samuel Beckett and Brendan Behan, W.B. Yeats, J.M. Synge and Sean O’Casey, Brian Friel, Sebastian Barry (of the recent, stunning Steward of Christendom )-and the latest sensation, Martin McDonagh, who, at 27, has had four plays running in London simultaneously.
You may have already heard of Mr. McDonagh, a Londoner whose parents come from Galway. He’s like a young version of Synge in exile whose voice, worn with sorrow and savage humor, owes a debt to Synge’s Playboy of the Western World . The good news is that Mr. McDonagh is to make his New York debut with two plays: The Beauty Queen of Leenane , his first play, written when he was 23, will open on Broadway later this season, followed by Nicholas Hytner’s fine production of The Cripple of Inishmaan , at the Public Theater.
The second is the superior drama, and both are Irish fables and yarns told by a born storyteller. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a gothic dark comedy-some call it a tragedy-about a dominating hag of a mother and her daughter whose only chance of love and marriage is destroyed by Mum. Set in Leenane, a small town in Connemara, County Galway, the backwater life with its primal battles and feuds and comedy is typical of Mr. McDonagh’s work. “Ah, bollocks to ya!” the daughter, Maureen, says with a smile to her suitor and her one hope of salvation. But we know-and the confident dramatist wants us to know-that all will end in disaster.
The cheek of this young dramatist! In The Beauty Queen of Leenane , he’s assuming-rightly-that we want the daughter, who’s no sweetheart, to murder her appalling mum. Which she gleefully does at last by throwing boiling fat over the old crone. Wicked Witch Boils in Oil. Then we are led satisfyingly to suspect that she finishes the job with a poker.
Mr. McDonagh has written a literate, creaky horror movie, which in another life would star Bette Davis. The plot actually revolves around a letter that ends up in the wrong hands-in Mummy’s gnarled, manipulative hands. The plot of A Doll’s House notoriously revolves around a letter, too. But no matter. The Irishman is in good company.
“Don’t forget to deliver the letter to Maureen,” is Mr. McDonagh’s oft-repeated message to the dimwitted messenger. Uh-oh, we think. There’s gonna be trouble. The letter is the suitor’s proposal to Maureen and their escape route to the Promised Land of America. Mr. McDonagh, who knows how to enjoy himself at the theater, deliberately italicizes the urgent directive for us: Whatever happens, deliver the letter only to Maureen … At the play’s end, the desperate daughter, now destined for a life of delusional, rotting spinsterhood, is left alone in her mother’s threadbare shoes.
The Cripple of Inishmaan , which I caught in London during its sold-out run at the National Theater, is a more accomplished play. It shares at least this in common with his confident debut: gallows humor (nothing could be more Beckettian than the pleasures of despair) and the yearning to escape from small-town Irish life from which there’s No Exit (nothing could be more dramatically Irish). The Inishmaan of the title is the remote island about 30 miles west of Galway that inspired the plays of Synge. (The plot of Playboy of the Western World was suggested by an anecdote Synge heard on Inishmaan.) Martin McDonagh has been similarly inspired by the true story of the Hollywood documentary filmmaker, Robert Flaherty, who turned up in the area to film the Irish natives, as it were.
Set on the island of Inishmaan in 1934, the play tells the fabulous story of how the one person who wants to be in the film more than anybody is young Cripple Billy, who usually spends his time reading or throwing a brick at a cow (to liven him up). Mr. McDonagh thrusts us into the implausible and the all-too-believable simultaneously! Cripple Billy’s small world appears surreal and comically half-mad, with its village store that seems to sell only canned peas; its vindictive local gossip trading stories for eggs and trying to kill his drunk mother with booze; its flighty egg delivery girl, Slippy Helen, a likable, uncompromising slut, adored by Billy and groped by priests, who likes to smash the eggs she’s supposed to deliver over various heads.
“Do you want to play ‘England versus Ireland’?” she asks the 16-year-old Bartley, who’s a bit thick.
“I don’t know how to play ‘England versus Ireland’!” he replies.
“Stand here and close your eyes. You’ll be Ireland.”
“And what do you do?”
“I’ll be England,” replies Helen.
She breaks two eggs over his head, one by one. “That wasn’t a nice thing at all,” says Bartley.
“Haven’t finished,” says Helen, breaking a third egg over him.
“That wasn’t a nice thing at all to do, Helen.”
“I was giving you a lesson about Irish history, Bartley,” she replies, a little indignantly.
Mr. McDonagh isn’t a romantic, though he verges on the sentimental in the character of orphaned Cripple Billy. Billy’s tragic realization, which seals his fate and ends the play, is manipulative, though it might leave most of us desolate. He doesn’t possess the poetic lyricism of Mr. Friel or Mr. Barry, and he may not wish to. He can turn an unexpected phrase: “She’d kiss anything. She’d kiss a bald donkey”; “News that’s so boring it’d bore the head off a dead bee.” He enjoys the rhythmic effect of “feck,” “fecking” and “fecker,” as in, people are “boring feckers.” The fantasy Eden of America is no better than Ireland: “full of fat women with beards.”
Mr. McDonagh might be a pagan in a Christian society. He’s a realist with rich gifts. Billy goes off to America for a film test, and returns home without a backward glance (though he’d hoped to disappear forever in America). He didn’t get the part. “A blond lad from Fort Lauderdale they hired instead of me. He wasn’t crippled at all, but the Yank said, ‘Ah, better to get a normal fella who can act crippled than a crippled fella who can’t fecking act at all.’ Except he said it ruder.”
An Irish friend of mine resents the backward-looking view of Ireland that seems to dominate its drama, with its comic “characters” and familiar small-town types. It’s as if Ireland has never gotten much beyond the turn of the century. As if it has never become our contemporary. Mr. McDonagh is guilty of a more brutal nostalgia born out of affection and disaffection. He mocks the mythic postcard stereotype of Ireland. “Ireland musn’t be such a bad place if German fellas want to come to Ireland,” someone says in The Cripple of Inishmaan . “They all want to come to Ireland, sure. Germans, dentists, everybody,” is the response.
“And why, I wonder?”
“Because in Ireland the people are more friendly.”
Mr. McDonagh is immensely talented and bizarre. He cannot resist Cripple Billy getting the girl. Because that’s the way it has to be, for a while. “All right,” Slippy Helen says to Billy out of the blue, “so I’ll go out walking with ya, but only somewheres no fecker would see us and when it’s dark and no kissing or groping, cos I don’t want you ruining my fecking reputation.”
Well, we look forward to Martin McDonagh’s plays this season. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess. He has said that he’s more interested in movies than theater. If so, that would be a fecking pity.