The Theatre of Martin McDonagh
A World of Savage Stories
This Collection of essays is a vital and significant response to the many challenges set by McDonagh for those involved in the production and reception of his work.
The volume brings together critics and commentators from around the world, who assess the work from a diverse range of often provocative approaches. What is not surprising is the focus and commitment of the engagement, given this controversial and stimulating nature of the work.
Whether for or against, this is an essential read for all who wish to enter the complex debate about Theatre of Martin McDonagh.
Table Of Contents
- Table of Contents
- Section One: Textual and Cultural Contexts
- 1 | The Early Plays: Martin McDonagh, Shooting Star and Hard Man from South London
- 2 | Macabre Merriment in McDonagh's Melodrama: The Beauty Queen of Leenane
- 3 | Ireland in two minds: Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson
- 4 | The Stage Irish Are Dead, Long Live the Stage Irish: The Lonesome West and A Skull in Connemara
- 5 | The Cripple of Inishmaan Meets Lady Gregory
- 6 | The Helen of Inishmaan Pegging Eggs: Gender, Sexuality and Violence
- 7 | Martin McDonagh's Lieutenant of Inishmore: Selling (-Out) to the English
- 8 | The Politics of Morality: Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore
- 9 | Language Games: The Pillowman, A Skull in Connemara: Martin McDonagh's Hiberno-English
- 10 | 'Like the Cat-astrophe of the Old Comedy': The Animal in The Lieutenant of Inishmore
- 11 | An 'Economy Of Pity': McDonagh's Monstrous Regiment
- 12 | War on Narrative: Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman
- 13 | Martin McDonagh's Blend of Tradition and Horrific Innovation
- 14 | Grotesque Entertainment: The Pillowman as Puppet Theatre
- Section Two: Critical Frameworks
- 15 | 'When it's there I am, it's here I wish I was': The Construction of Connemara
- 16 | Genuinely Inauthentic: McDonagh's Postdiasporic Irishness
- 17 | 'The Outpouring of a Morbid, Unhealthy Mind': The Critical Condition of Synge and McDonagh
- 18 | Decolonization Postponed: The Theatre of Tiger Trash
- 19 | Is Martin McDonagh an Irish Playwright?
- 20 | Martin McDonagh, Globalization, and Irish Theatre Criticism
- Section Three: Performance Contexts
- 21 | Domesticating a Theatre of Cruelty: The Plays of McDonagh on the Hungarian Stage
- 22 | The Beauty Queen of Leenane in Australia
- 23 | Martin McDonagh's Irishness: Icing on the Cake?
- Reports and Reviews
- 'The Real Ireland, Some Think'
- 'Gained in Translation'
- 'Drama Sails to Seven Islands'
- 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' 2000
- 'Ireland Feels Power of Beauty'
- 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane'
- 'Murderous Laughter' – 'The Leenane Trilogy'
- 'The Pillowman Program Note'
- 'New Themes in Synge-song Land: The Beauty Queen of Leenane'
- 'The Pillowman'
- 'Pack up your Troubles ...'
- 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane'
- 'The Cripple of Inishmaan'
- 'The Lonesome West: Another Tempestuous Night in Leenane'
- 'A Skull in Connemara'
- 'The Pillowman'
- Biographical Notes
- Select Bibliography
- Plays and Productions
We would like to thank Bernadette Reynolds who worked as editorial assistant on this project. Thanks to Barbara Brown for her expert advice and skilled proofing of the document, and to Sunali Munshi for her work on production research. Thanks to Patrick Lonergan for his invaluable advice and support on this book. Thanks also to Michelle Corcoran and Garry Hynes at Druid Theatre Company for their help. We wish to acknowledge the following journals for permission to republish work: Irish University Review, Modern Drama, New Theatre Quarterly, Irish Studies Review, Working Papers Irish Studies, Yearbook in English Studies, Contemporary Theatre Review, Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies. Thanks to The Guardian, Observer, The Irish Times, New York Times, irish theatre magazine, and Variety for permission to reprint reviews and comments. To Methuen and Faber & Faber for permission to quote from the published texts. Thanks to Martin McDonagh and to the Rod Hall Agency for permission to use the cover photo. Most of all, we would like to thank Dan Farrelly for his unstinting work as General Editor of Carysfort Press.
Introduction: The Critical Debate
Like anything that is novel, different, challenging, irreverent, apparently prejudicial, uncompromising, or difficult to place, the theatre work of Martin McDonagh has come in for very diverse responses. Sometimes the criticism is overwhelming, appreciative and respectful, almost awe. Such respondents regard the work as adventurous, and as a celebratory and dialogical fusion of old and new. For them, there is a conscious reminder and reiteration of forms, characters, language, locations, and realities that are nebulously and indefinably familiar, onto which something strange, uncanny and atypical is superimposed. This feat appears to unsettle the gaze of the spectator and to make easy emotion, sentiment, and analysis somewhat problematic.
For those commentators venting negative views on McDonagh's work, they operate from an almost similar base line, only to find little or nothing novel or exciting in the process. In this vein, the texts are seen as merely the vague and thoughtless recycling of old-fashioned and stale dramatic structures, which are marinated with gore, and spliced with a notional pop/ postmodern sensibility. Further, the plays are brought down by caricature and unjust stereotypes, infiltrated by depthlessness, and numbly polluted by endlessly rehashing threadbare sensibilities and situational dynamics. These less than positive responses range from mild resistance to blatant, unsubtle and savage criticism of McDonagh's work. However, it is above all else the violence, brutality and mayhem in the plays which prove to be most controversial and divisive. Perversely perhaps, many of McDonagh's ←1 | 2→characters that carry out acts of murder remain at large and are not held accountable for their crimes.
In a sense, Garry Hynes, the Artistic Director of Druid Theatre in Galway, 'discovered' McDonagh. And it was The Beauty Queen of Leenane which kick-started his career in 1996. He had then a series of successes with The Cripple of Inishmaan (1997), The Lonesome West (1997), and A Skull in Connemara (1997). At one point in that year he had four plays running in London, a major achievement for a relatively new playwright. Apart from The Pillowman (2003) the West of Ireland is the locale for all of the work performed to date: Leenane for The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West and A Skull in Connemara and the Aran Islands, Inishmaan and Inishmore for The Cripple of Inishmaan (1997) and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001) respectively. The Oscar-winning live action short film Six Shooter (2005) is set in Ireland, but has no named locale.
Partly because the early plays were set in Ireland, and produced mainly with Irish actors, designed with distinctly Irish stage environments in mind, and conceived of through the mobile lens of Irishness, whatever that happens to mean, McDonagh is categorized by many as an Irish playwright. (See the Methuen website for instance.) However, he was born in London on 26 March 1970 and was reared initially in Elephant and Castle, amongst a significant Irish immigrant community, and later in Camberwell. His parents were from Ireland originally, his father from Lettermullan, in county Galway and his mother hailed from Killeenduff, Easkey, in county Sligo. During his childhood, McDonagh regularly took holidays in Connemara and in Sligo. Having left school early, McDonagh started to write short stories, radio plays and to take up pretty menial jobs, having spent some time on the dole. He had a series of rejections,1 apart from two radio plays broadcast by an Australian radio station, and he turned to theatre almost as a last resort, or so the mythology goes.2
Many other critics have highlighted McDonagh's obvious Anglo-Irish heritage, and many have been quick to point towards other figures caught in a similar sensibility, those constituting second generation Irish, who were reared, educated, and socialized in Britain, but also exist with strong, complex, and ambivalent connections with Ireland. Within the specifics of that Irish ←2 | 3→community operating within a London environment, McDonagh absorbed and rehearsed notions and conventions of Irishness and much more besides. (The Northern Irish troubles and the bombing campaigns by paramilitaries in the United Kingdom often led to hostile and stereotypical responses to the Irish communities.) When asked by Sean O'Hagan as to how he responds to 'the inevitable accusations of cultural stereotyping', McDonagh responded by saying, 'I don't even enter into it. I mean, I don't feel I have to defend myself for being English or for being Irish, because, in a way, I don't feel either. And, in another way, of course, I'm both'.3
Critics, productions and audiences can get hung up in particular on the perceived nationality of McDonagh, and by so doing make great and inopportune claims as to the convoluted motivations and inflated intentionalities of the writer – in an era when authorial intentionality has lost a great deal of currency. There is of course another tendency, namely, to filter the violence in the plays through the notion of McDonagh's perceived Irishness, in a way that aligns, discretely or otherwise, Irishness and violence in most unproblematic and unchallenging ways.
All writing has conscious and unconscious motivations, stimuli, biases, suppositions, imperatives, and precedents. To discuss and demarcate influences usually means that critics can establish connections and find it easier to place work and to elaborate on its potential meanings. Concepts of McDonagh as imitator, copyist, intertextualist and parodist, are frequently raised. The playwright clearly writes within and against traditions, like any other writer. Many see the Irish tradition as the one within which he primarily operates. As examples, in this collection of essays McDonagh is considered in relation to Lady Augusta Gregory, John Millington Synge, Sean O'Casey, Samuel Beckett, Conor McPherson, and Marina Carr. Others also see McDonagh in relation to the British theatre movement and playwrights such as Joe Orton, Harold Pinter, Sarah Kane, and Mark Ravenhill are mentioned. Others link the work to a whole range of cultural forms from the writings of Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges to American detective shows such as Tom and Jerry cartoons, I Love Lucy and Beavis and Butt-head to Steptoe and Son, Father Ted, and Australian soap operas, ←3 | 4→Brookside, slasher/ horror movies and puppet theatre. Many point out the specific influences of cinema and film makers, like Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Sam Peckinpah, Terence Malick, John Woo, and Quentin Tarantino. The Pogues, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and Nirvana are bands mentioned as having inspired the playwright. Clearly, McDonagh appears to have a great deal of influences, some of which he absorbed by reading and viewing, and some by osmosis. A contemporary susceptibility is allowed to run amok amongst traditional forms, values, and sensibilities.
Over the past few years McDonagh has refused almost all requests for public interviews, and previous comments that he has made about either the Irish tradition or his own exposure to theatre writing generally can be taken almost with a grain of salt. Too much trust has been placed in his statements, and too much opportunistic exploitation has ensued. Reliable or not, his own general comments, on what plays he had read/ seen before he began to write, and on who are his influences, seem to feed a certain distrust of his motives. We can add to this his general unwillingness to mouth platitudes about those playwrights who have gone before him, which does not seem to be abiding by the usual rules of the game; instead he calls them ugly and second rate. Most upcoming playwrights pay due deference to their traditions at least in public; McDonagh's reported disrespect seems more to be schooled by the Gallagher brothers, Liam and Noel, of Oasis fame, who gained significant PR thanks to their notorious antics and vocalised disrespect. By generating sensation, infamy, and good copy, McDonagh feeds the celebrity mill. His reported altercation with the actor, Sean Connery, at the Evening Standard Awards gained certain notoriety in the tabloid press. At times, one gets the feeling that all McDonagh needs to do is to appear on some reality television show – I'm A Celebrity Get me Out of Here! or Celebrity Love Island – for many of the biases about him to be absolutely confirmed in some peoples' minds.
It is merely ten years since McDonagh's first success as a writer, but it seems that he has written very little for the theatre since 1994, the year he accredits to the writing/ drafting of all of his plays.4 And while it is obvious that McDonagh is no short-term wonder, the true measurement of the body of work is its ability to ←4 | 5→be revised and reconsidered through performance and interpretations over time. Yet, it would be an error to postpone evaluation or contextualization on the basis of such a short period of time. Fundamentally, we need to see clear distinctions between the author and the work that emerges through the testing ground of production and reception, while at the same time not eliminating the writer from the writing process and as the initial facilitator of the text. At that stage, how much conscious control a writer has over creativity and meaning is debatable. What happens between the writer's draft presented to a company for consideration, the process of rehearsal and production and the script that eventually emerges after the initial production, is anybody's guess. What ends up as the published text can have a complicated relationship to the production that is presented on opening night.
In this volume we have not only gathered some of the best criticism already published on McDonagh, but we have also sought new work from a variety of individuals, which engages with some, but not all of the previously published analysis. Far too often, volumes of critical analysis all sing more or less off the same hymn sheet. Unlike the writings on much of contemporary theatre practices, these writers seem to be full-bodied and full-blooded in their approaches, less wary and less circumspect than is the norm. Still, despite the open intent, as in theatrical dialogue, what is said often masks the unsaid, thus subtextual readings and systematic consideration of structures of belief and ideology of both plays and criticism is well founded. Hopefully the insistent dialogue between these articles opens up the debate, and gives consideration to multiple, often conflicting, and self-contradictory points of view. As theatre performances require cultural, dramaturgical, translation, production, and audience reception contexts, both the theatre and the academic critic offer not only evaluative frameworks and contextualizations, but they also function as gatekeepers. Yet in the strident efforts to praise and claim, damn and rebuff, there is the persistent drive for myth-making that has long haunted theatre practices. And it is not only writers who are out to mould their own myths.←5 | 6→
For the collection, we have also decided to re-publish a series of reviews of plays in performance and articles that deal with the productions and reception of McDonagh's work in Hungary, Australia, Flanders/ Holland, and Turkey. They are not offered as some complete overview, but to provide some snapshot or insight into how the plays are considered, produced and received internationally. It is vital to see not only the potential of scripts to operate in different contexts, but also to be produced in a variety of different ways, especially those that jeopardize the staging and sensibilities of the original productions.
Playwrights cannot control meaning and cannot control production choices, apart from agents granting licenses to perform. Fundamentally, despite intentionalities, the reception of the work is always up for grabs globally. It is important to recognize the impact of globalization itself and the piggybacking that McDonagh's plays seem to do on the back of this phenomenon. Many productions of McDonagh's work will invariably misconstrue things, make unwarranted assumptions, and will project values, aspirations and identities that may not be apposite reflections of space, language, character and action. Yet, the sense of getting it 'wrong' is problematic in its own right. Every act of translation is one of mistranslation, and every production is a supplement and unfaithful in many ways to the published text. Yet, in finding a new context, scripts can be liberated from other types of constraints. So the vaunted Irish dimension is far more complex in reality. Yet it is necessary to be reminded constantly that McDonagh's plays are performed and regarded internationally, not just as representative of the Irish tradition, but as indicative of new British or European trends. Funding of the arts and commerical and subsidised realities are the ultimate contexts through which we must view the work.
It is necessary to ask what makes the West of Ireland the draw for a young man raised in London. McDonagh is on record with numerous comments on this fact. Lieutenant has an Aran island location, according to him, simply because it is far enough from Belfast to delay the return of Padraic. He states that he also wrote about the West of Ireland simply because he wanted to get away from the influence of writers like Harold Pinter, David Mamet, and Joe Orton. This fleeing has obvious cultural, social, and ←6 | 7→political ramifications, as does the notion of creative liberation, sanctuary, and pastoral regeneration in Ireland's western seaboard.
On first viewing/ reading, the characters in the plays speak in what could be regarded as a hybrid Hiberno-English. Many critics in this volume investigate McDonagh's use of language from many different perspectives. As with language, critics are divided on the characterizations that McDonagh presents across the body of the work. The characters are regularly regarded as caricatures, puppet-like, adult children without depth. McDonagh is frequently accused of pandering to old colonial stereotypes of Irishness. Often there is a casual homophobia and naturalized racism in what the characters express. Most of it is grounded in fear and not in the experience of contact between those of different sexual orientations, genders, or races. McDonagh's characters are not rampantly sexual, but operate from a celibate reality or a childlike dysfunctional take on sexual relationships. The world of McDonagh's dramas is almost always where intimacy and empathy are in abeyance. Relative poverty is a significant marker.
As with most contemporary plays, questions about gender and agency are raised. McDonagh's plays are open to that scrutiny. Across genders, agency is a complex notion. Obviously, one can test the dramatic action of play to see if the women characters have access to similar types of behaviour, thoughts, and feelings as those of their male counterparts, or if not, analogous access to a wide array of simple, complex, and comparable emotions, whether there are isolations, immobility, exclusions, or the absence of restraints on agency. Clearly, there are gender expectations in the work of McDonagh. The actions of the characters seem to be motivated without real depth, desire or longing. That way, it is the incidental which paves the way for the catastrophic. In the main, they are characters that are invoking the games of children into their adult lives; murder is just child's play, the violence of the fairy tale or nursery rhyme given licence in the world of the characters. What complicates characterization is that there is irreverence, simultaneity, and ambivalence as to motive. The plays are a motive monger's nightmare.
Destructiveness proves to be the most difficult thing to place or countenance. Violence, which can be appalling at times, is shared ←7 | 8→across all gender characterizations and is the social bind, not bonding, not family blood lines. People get uneasy with such a representation, especially if there is no moral structure acutely activated to counterbalance such destructiveness. Whatever moral voice is harnessed in the plays, it often appears to be as perverse as it is absurd. Violence is that which must not be condoned but also which challenges perceptions of authenticity. In relation to Lieutenant, McDonagh believes that the violence has a purpose:
Having grown up Catholic and, to a certain degree, Republican, I thought I should tackle the problems on my own side, so to speak. I chose the INLA because they seemed so extreme and, to be honest, because I thought I'd be less at risk. I'm not being heroic or anything – it was just something I felt I had to write about. The play came from a position of what you might call pacifist rage. I mean, it's a violent play that is wholeheartedly anti-violence. The bottom line, I suppose, is that I believe that if a piece of work is well written, you can tackle anything.5
When McDonagh does deal with political violence he is accused of air-brushing the depth of political complexity in favour of sensationalism. Anthony Roche, having seen Lieutenant in London, left the theatre thinking that the play would never get an Irish production.6 It can be argued that McDonagh uses Gothic or carnivalesque frames to destabilize violence. In other words, by recontextualizing, different types of questions and responses can be available to an audience. Many critics in this volume point out that justice has no place in the work – eased out or never there to begin with. When asked about identity McDonagh had the following to say:
Well, we're all cruel, aren't we? We're all extreme in one way or another at times, and that's what drama, since the Greeks, has dealt with. I hope the overall view isn't just that, though, or I've failed in my writing. There have to be moments when you glimpse something decent, something life-affirming even in the most twisted character. That's where the real art lies. See, I always suspect characters who are painted as lovely, decent human beings. I would always question where the darkness lies.7
The West of Ireland offers the potentialities of pastoral, exilic consciousness, and the exhilaration sanctuary, redemptive sentiment and nostalgia for bonds, rurality and orality.8 However, ←8 | 9→McDonagh generates a reality that cannot be bound up with old pastoral images of the West of Ireland.9 The frugality, simplicity, community, and scale of pastoral are there, but something else is also accommodated; community morphs into perverse disconnection, sympathy twists into rivalry and petty vindictiveness, and sharing transforms into crude individuality and ownership. The traditional Irish kitchen, instead of smelling of bacon and sausages, smells of urine in Beauty Queen..
Into that western world McDonagh grounds the work notionally with allusions to real incidents, atrocities, people and football championships. References abound to Complan, Kimberley biscuits, Swingball, Tayto Crisps, women's magazines – Take a Break and Bella, for instance, which sounds almost ironically like product placement. Despite surrounding the environment with real locations and the props of authenticity, there are temporal and factual anomalies that may perhaps be intentional or casual carelessness. Fintan O'Toole argues that:
As descriptions of sociological reality, these [the plays] are, of course, dramatic exaggerations. But they are not pure inventions. McDonagh makes sure that the action is continually brushing up against verifiable actuality.10
O'Toole pushes very hard for a connection between the world on stage and the real; however, all of the plays put that relationship under considerable strain. The idea of realism seems to come under enormous pressure, especially when the relationship between cause and effect breaks down, when time is elastic, or where props, symbols, characters, myths and metaphors are be manipulated, amplified or foregrounded through staging or dramatic structure. By implication, McDonagh is accused, knowingly or otherwise, of disfiguring the notion of a mimetic reality within which these texts socio-politically and superficially operate. For many, the reality must be served in a particular way, carrying obligations and responsibilities. To do otherwise, is somehow to distort, falsify, perjure, and to deny truth. To that consciousness, the capturing of power dynamics, gender imbalances, implausibility, and social injustices matter a great deal. The tensions then are between sociology and fiction, fabrication and verisimilitude, between complexity and slighted represen←9 | 10→tations. It is often within these sensitivities and sensibilities that the texts are adjudicated. Whether we conceive of the play as 'real' or not has huge implications as to how we respond to the play itself. Garry Hynes argues:
There's this issue about Martin and authenticity – the response that his is not Irish life now and it's not Connemara life. Of course it isn't. It's an artifice. It's not authentic. It's not meant to be. It's a complete creation, and in that sense it's fascinating.11
Inauthenticity can be seen as the fault line or fatal flaw, but it may also be its opposite, the great strength of the work. It creates an alienated reality, but not true alienation in the Brechtian sense, because, unlike Bertolt Brecht, McDonagh does not necessarily want his audiences to get back to the real. In this way, there is a fundamental dissociation from the real. Ultimately, the median between Utopia and dystopia is not simply fecktopia.
With much of post-colonial theory there is an anxiety around national self-criticism, disparaging imaginings, and anything that remotely looks like the perpetuation of degrading stereotypes. There is a need to contend with both positive and negative imaginings and with a more expansive meaning of Irishness to include the indigenous Irish, the diasporic, second and third generation Irish, and non-Irish nationals. There is also the notion of an international, globalized Irishness being fostered, some of which is creative, dynamic, confident and assured, but much of it is just commodification. Defining a writer by nationality is just as problematic as establishing a single reality, sensibility, frame or tradition for the work.
It is a challenge but not impossible to explain how the same work can be read as mercenary, simplistically conservative, spitefully reactionary, and regurgative by some and as artifice, comedic, challenging, positively controversial, innately intelligent, and radically postmodern by others. Far too much of this debate rests on the writer and the plays and little is said of companies who produce the work, or the directors, actors, and designers who shape the performance text or on the openness of texts to be interpreted and construed in different ways.
McDonagh is the man from nowhere,12 elsewhere, anywhere and everywhere, displaced without the longing for a place or a ←10 | 11→position either within a single nationality or canon. Ultimately the plays are constituted as much by what they lack, truncate, or exaggerate, as by what they present, represent or by what they are made to mean. It is necessary to understand and to negotiate the permissive and prejudicial frames through which audiences and critics respond to the work. His work bears all the hallmarks of internationalization, multiple influences, dialectical sensibilities, and incongruities. As such, McDonagh's work is much more than a debate about originality, justice, violence, authenticity, and representation.
If, as Katurian passionately believes, in The Pillowman, The only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story', then Martin McDonagh has told us a variety of 'savage stories' which have a life of their own.
1 It has been claimed that the BBC rejected twenty-two or twenty-four depending on the source of his radio plays. His radio play The Tale of Wolf and the Woodcutter was chosen as one of the five winners of the London Radio Playwrights' Festival during late 1994/early 1995.
2 He wrote '200 short stories that he planned to incorporate in a feature film called 57 Tales of Sex and Violence .... only one was actually about sex: 'Anarcho-Feminists' Sex Machines in Outer Space', the remainder about violence. Cited in 'The 'greatest playwright looks forward to Oscar night', (no journalist acknowledged) Sunday Times 5 Feburary 2006, p.19.
3 Quoted in Sean O'Hagan, 'The Wild West', The Guardian 24 March 2001, p.32.
4 Fintan O'Toole, 'A Mind in Connemara: The Savage World of Martin McDonagh', New Yorker 6 March 2006, p.44. In this article McDonagh claims that he has only one piece of work The Banshees of Inisheer that remains unperformed, but the Rod Hall Agency listed a number of other plays on their website, until very recently, namely, The Retard is Out in the Cold and Dead Day at Coney, while some previous articles on McDonagh mention a play titled The Maamturk Rifleman. See http://www.rodhallagency.com/index.php?art_id=000075
5 Quoted. in Sean O'Hagan, p.32. His account of the same creative implulse is rather different in the O'Toole New Yorker piece, where McDonagh claims, 'I was trying to write a play that would get me killed. I had no real fear that I would be, because paramilitaries never bothered with playwrights anyway, but if they were going to start I wanted to write something that would put me top of the list'. Ibid., p.45.
- XII, 454
- ISBN (PDF)
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- ISBN (MOBI)
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- Publication date
- 2019 (December)
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2006. XII, 454 pp