Shock and Awe - The Works of Martin McDonagh, Part One

This is Part One of my three-part essay on the works of Martin McDonagh.

In the last few years I have become a fan of the dramatic work of Martin McDonagh. I have seen two of his plays performed on Broadway, seen his movie "In Bruges" and read as many of his plays as I've been able to lay my hands on. I've written reviews for Amazon and other venues because of my admiration for his work, gore and all. His characters are often lumpish and funny. You step into a McDonagh work expecting black comedy, absurdist dialogue and blood and guts. How inhumane can one human being be to another in his work? Surprisingly mean-spirited and nasty. View or read McDonagh, and you'll experience shock and awe.

"The Cripple of Inishmaan"

On Broadway I saw productions of Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman" and the "The Lieutenant of Inishmore." The latter play had more blood and guts spread over the stage than any play within memory; the former was a dark, scary play that shocked even blasé New York audiences. Some of the weak-hearted even chose to shakily stumble out of the theater. People have been known to wretch at a performance.

This play is about simple folk in a small village in 1934, and one could be forgiven for considering them simple-minded as well. Elements of theater of the absurd, farce, vaudeville-like routines, and inane dialogue add to the great comic effects achieved in this piece. Two women run a grocery store that seems to be overstocked with cans of peas. There is no doubt that Cripple Billy is a cripple because the other characters are constantly mentioning it and indeed call him Cripple Billy. Some of the jokes are stupid, but nonetheless funny.

Billy stares at cows, Helen pegs eggs at Father Barratt, and Aunt Kate talks to a stone.

Billy cons a boatman into taking him to a nearby island where Robert Flaherty is filming his documentary "Man of Aran." Billy even goes to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune.

Johnnypateenmike, the village gossip,(characters use long names in addressing each other) ferrets out and carries the news around the village. His Mammy in her nineties he keeps drunk and hopes she'll croak. These are like stage stock Irish character types.

McDonagh is not aiming for realistic portrayals. This is farcical stuff with the flaky characters uttering vaudeville-like riffs. Some of the dialogue sounds nonsensical, absurdist, but somehow the plot gets moved along, and the audience gets entertained by these nut cases. It's almost like a hillbilly comedy.

The play has its darker elements because McDonagh is not going to let the audience leave with a happy ending. Violence and cruelty are never far out of sight. If it plays as well as it reads, I'm sure it would be a hilarious theater experience.

"The Beauty Queen of Leenane"

This is another of Martin McDonagh's black comedies in his growing canon in the theater of malice and cruelty. He'll soon corner the market on the make 'em laugh, then shock 'em Irish village genre. Here a mother and daughter exist together in am atmosphere of mutual hatred. The mother Mag is a harpy, a harridan, lazy, spiteful, self-centered, and malicious. Her daughter Maureen, frustrated, unstable and equally malicious, is shackled with her. A local man Pato Dooley, headed for the States, dubs forty-year-old Maureen the beauty queen of Leenane which is their tiny Irish village in Connemara.

McDonagh's characters often start with verbal nastiness and graduate to physical cruelty consisting of torture, blood and gore. He's carved out a niche for himself that can cause his audiences to cringe and cower at the lengths he'll go to finish off a character or two. There may be bloody consequences. A McDonagh character must learn to duck to fend off violence and nastiness. In this play, his characters would do well to beware of hot cooking oil and heavy pokers.

His characters often seem like simpletons teetering on the edge of insanity who speak at times in an absurdist nonsensical dialogue. The playwright see-saws his audience between seemingly harmless comic absurdity and dark cruelty and sadism. In his theater of savagery human life is negotiable and precarious, and often valueless.

He's an original, edgy creative talent who may turn off the queasy and those easily shocked in his audience, but he is a force in the theater to be reckoned with. Making his audiences uncomfortable, making them wriggle in their seats may well be his goal. In this play expect less blood and gore than in "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," but don't expect much compassion for the human race. Sick, brilliant stuff is going on. You aren't going to nod off in this one.

"The Lonesome West"

"The Lonesome West" is early Martin McDonagh about the forlorn west of Ireland where according to the author the inhabitants tend to be isolated, insular, slow-witted, barely civilized, violent, and dangerously unneighborly. Remember hearing about the theater of the absurd, the theater of the ridiculous and the theater of cruelty? Here we see them taking on a new life and veering off in a loony, kookie, and gory direction.

"In Bruges" showed you later but barely less barbaric McDonagh. Expect frequent outbreaks of black comedy, burlesque, farce, and shock and awe to emerge.

His characters are drinking the local hootch-poteen. None of the play's inmates can remember whether the local priest is Father Walsh or Welsh, but spiritually he's of no consequence anyway. The only bright lights in McDonagh's plays seem to be good-looking, quite young local lasses who are fiercely independent and don't mind killing things or blinding cows.

The priest has a crisis of faith (did he have any to begin with?) and a tendency to drink too much. McDonagh seems to feed on Irish stereotypes. Two brothers, both dimwits, living together are constantly feuding. One brother has offed his old man for a trivial slight. The other brother keeps silent about it, but only because his sibling has signed all the family property over to him.

They are screwball characters: two of the three stooges, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy in their dialogue riffs. You're on a merry-go-round of illogical talk and absurdist dialogue. The brothers in this play fight over nonsensical stuff, partly because both are dumbbells.

What is the meaning of it all? It's like Pinter's "Homecoming" but more violent and goofy, but with less significance and artistry. Pinter digs deeper, is a bottom fisher: McDonagh feeds closer to the surface.

The younger brother, Coleman, is flippant and irreverent toward the priest. The characters in general are impious, disrespectful with an irreligious attitude toward faith. Between the brothers, Coleman and Valene, there's pent-up violence.

It's a village with a sick group of inhabitants. Cats have more value than people.

People in a McDonagh play apologize, but they never really mean it. Bad stuff and family secrets come out in the dialogue. The brothers give a litany of bad, hateful stuff they've done to each other which increases their mutual hatred for each other.

Brothers in a McDonagh play like the brothers in "Pillowman" seem to deliberately destroy their own kin by their actions.

There is violence and cruelty as nasty people take revenge. Should we worry about these numbskulls, even feel concerned? But it's still such fun to watch them going at it. And isn't that McDonagh's purpose? Making us laugh and feel uneasy all at the same time?

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