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The Irascible Irish Genius of Martin McDonagh

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Martin McDonagh

Photo by Euan Kerr.

Google Martin McDonagh—whose play The Beauty Queen of Leenane is onstage at the Mark Taper Forum November 9 – December 18, 2016—and you very quickly learn a few things. One is that in 1997, he famously (and drunkenly) cursed off Sean Connery. (Which is true.) Another is that in that same year, he became the first playwright since Shakespeare to have four plays simultaneously produced in London. (That, apparently, is not true. It’s a butchering of the fact that he and Shakespeare were the only playwrights to have four plays simultaneously produced in London in 1997).

Regardless, these are two of the facts that created McDonagh’s reputation as an irascible Irish genius playwright. He burst onto the theatre scene in 1996, when the original Druid production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane took Ireland, then London’s West End, then Broadway by storm. He went on to win three Olivier Awards, receive four Tony Award® nominations, and earn an Academy Award (in 2004 for the short Six Shooter).

How did an Anglo-Irish man in his 20s who had been on welfare, and who had no formal training, manage to become both famous and infamous so quickly? A few interviews over the past 20 years offer a glimpse into McDonagh’s life and mind.

In 1994, according to a 2006 profile in The New Yorker:

McDonagh quit his job at the Department of Trade and Industry and, alone in the house in Camberwell [where he had grown up], began to write every day. In nine months, he produced drafts of seven plays—his entire dramatic corpus. (Only one of the plays has not been staged: The Banshees of Inisheer, which, McDonagh says, ‘isn’t any good.’) Each morning, after eating a bowl of bran flakes, he would sit in his bedroom, at a child’s desk facing a window with a view of a bleak concrete yard, and write with a pencil in a spiral notebook. He would begin by making a mark in the notebook two pages ahead of where he had left off the previous night. Then he would listen to the voices in his head, voices that spoke not in Mamet’s caustic American or in Pinter’s terse London English but in the looping locutions of Connemara. McDonagh felt almost as though he were taking dictation. He would hear Pato Dooley, Maureen’s would-be lover in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, speaking in a voice not unlike his father’s, describing his life as a construction worker in England: ‘And when I’m over there in London and working in rain and it’s more or less cattle I am, and the young fellas cursing over cards and drunk and sick, and the foul digs over there, all pee-stained mattresses and nothing to do but watch the clock.’

Those voices struck a chord with audiences around the world. In spring 1998, an interviewer for BOMB Magazine asked if McDonagh’s sudden fame made life difficult:

I wouldn’t say I found it hard, certainly not on the surface. Maybe that tells you something. It’s been a crazy two years. Mad, really. I can see how much I’ve changed, but I can see how much I’ve stayed the same. Maybe it’s a lack of connection that I’ve always had. I hope maybe that helps the writing in some ways, to not be quite connected, to see things from a skewed point of view. It’s been a strange few years. I still hope I can always get back to the place where I was two years ago. Just physically, to not have an answering machine, to not have people phone me. The best way to not have people phone you is to take the phone off the hook, or not have a phone. It’s a mental choice to not do that anymore, everything can be switched off that easily. It’s a question of having the guts to do it, and having the guts to hurt people when you do it. It can happen. It’ll take some effort.

He had his detractors, however. McDonagh was born and raised in London, though his parents are both Irish. He spent summers in Connemara, where his father is from, and chose to set his first plays there. This bothered some people, explained The Theatre and Films of Martin McDonagh author Patrick Lonergan in the Irish Times in 2012:

Yet some critics were uncomfortable with McDonagh’s global prominence. His early plays present the west of Ireland as a horrible place, populated by people who are savagely cruel yet strangely innocent: like ‘monstrous children,’ as Hynes puts it. The fact that he was a London-born son of Irish parents only bolstered the accusation that McDonagh was not an Irish writer laughing with us—but an English writer laughing at us.

Those attacks now seem begrudging, but McDonagh has tended to resist being categorized as Irish or English, saying that he feels somewhere between the two. He has an affinity with second-generation Irish band The Pogues and although his writing owes much to Pinter and Mamet, it draws freely on Irish traditions.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is part of a trilogy of plays—along with The Lonesome West and A Skull in Connemara—set in the western Ireland town of Leenane, in Connemara. Just before The Lonesome West appeared on Broadway in 1999, McDonagh discussed the plays’ themes and how the stories intersect on Charlie Rose:

Loneliness, sibling rivalry, sibling love and hatred, and the breakdown—maybe—of a society, especially in that kind of religious context, too. But I was just trying to, also, make a kind of a sweep of the town, you know? Just, like, a little sketch of a place, you know? And it was just interesting for me to have, like, off-stage characters from the first play become the main characters for the next…And to have events all twists and turns in the plot of third play already told to the audience in the first and see if they remember them from—you know, have a set-up with two plays beforehand instead a scene beforehand. It was just kinda interesting to play around with that, with a broader kind of canvas, I suppose.

McDonagh elaborated on the themes of his work further in a 2001 interview with The Guardian:

So, I ask McDonagh why he is drawn to extremes—of character, behavior, emotions. ‘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.’

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