Friday, October 29, 2010

McDonagh's Gift of Gab...And Gore

“It’s incidents like this does put tourists off Ireland.”

That’s Donny (drolly played by the habitually wonderful Sean G. Griffin) speaking to his friend Davey in his rundown cottage in rustic Inishmore, Ireland in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, currently playing at ACT till November 14. The incidents he’s referring to involve a catalog of horrors that begin with the death of a cat, and don’t end until said rustic cottage is strewn with blood and corpses—a conclusion that won't surprise anyone familiar with the writing of Martin McDonagh.

McDonagh’s reputation as a playwright was made through a series of plays set in rural Ireland, which he depicts as having a cultural life similar to how most Americans think of the Ozarks: the sticks, the backwoods, hillbilly country. Whether or not there’s any relation between McDonagh’s rural Ireland and reality is a subject of some debate, but there’s no question that his gleeful mix of lyrical dialogue with graphic violence has made him a name to be reckoned with.

His meteoric career as a playwright seems to have stalled slightly as of late. His most recent play A Behanding in Spokane, playing now on Broadway, is apparently an adequate vehicle for Christopher Walken, but critics have found it a thin excuse for some predictable violence. Like Tarantino (to whom he’s often compared), McDonagh seems trapped by his early success as a shockmeister.

While I have usually found McDonagh a morally bankrupt artist, he’s talented enough to do what any good playwright should be able to do: get your interest in the story, and hold it right to the end. We often talk of Grand Guignol as if any hack can pull off on-stage blood and guts, but the dramatic sense of how far you can go with your mayhem is a subtle craft. In certain works (Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus naturally comes to mind), scenes of torture, rape, murder and worse are used to illuminate actual truths of the human condition.

But that’s not this play.

Lieutenant is revenge tragedy as farce, where the death of psychopathic freelance terrorist Padraic’s pet cat leads to a tornado of death and mutilation. Shots are fired, humans (and cats) are killed, and what starts as a slovenly home devolves into an abattoir. But really, the structure of the play is no more sophisticated than an extended joke.

In McDonagh’s defense, this was an early play that was only dusted off and produced after the success of the superior Beauty Queen of Lenane and A Skull in Connemara, among others. As to its somewhat hyped “political commentary,” that’s pretty slim, mostly reduced to some caricatured names of IRS splinter groups that recall the “People’s Judean Front” scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

For me the sole line in the play that carries some actual philosophical weight is when Mairead (Elise Hunt), sister of Davey and romantically inclined towards Padraic, says near the end of the play “I thought shooting fellas would be fun, but it’s not. It’s dull.”

Over drinks after the show with actor Jeffrey Frace (who plays Padraic), he mentioned to me that during a few months in Ireland back in 1989 the young people he spoke to on both sides of the religious divide echoed this thought: they were simply bored of the violence and wanted it to stop. I recall similar conversations with my Irish friends around the same time—the violence wasn’t just horrific, it was dull. The younger generation frankly had little interest or passion for its causes.

And this points to one pleasant aspect of this play: it’s already something of a museum piece. The most significant thing about The Lieutenant of Inishmore as a play is that we’re far enough away from the horrific violence of “the Troubles” that it’s possible to conceive laughing at it. And, perhaps, that there is indeed a way of dealing with terrorists: you don't declare an unending "War on Terror." You stop killing them, and you sit down and talk with them.


  1. As usual, thought-provoking, insightful and deeply informed. It is such a pleasure to read you, John, and I only wish you were still reviewing regularly.

  2. I was wondering about this, as I'm out of town when it's running, but it sounded intriguing. I enjoyed In Bruges, too. My friend's wife compared it to the Dumb Waiter after she saw me perform it, which I thought was interesting. Also, John, as someone who just fucked up your and you're on facebook, it's Tarantino, dude. :P

  3. Oop! Thanks for catching the "Tarantino" gaffe--before Quentin got a hold of me personally.

    And while I enjoyed "In Bruges," I would call it a streeeeeeeeetch to compare ANY McDonagh to Pinter. It's not a case of quality, it's a case of moral intent--and while I don't always enjoy Pinter, I frankly just wouldn't trust McDonagh with so much as the loan of my lawnmower.