The Beauty Queen of Leenane
15 July – 21 August 2010
Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins
David Ganly – Pato
Terence Keeley – Ray
Rosaleen Lineman – Mag
Susan Lynch – Maureen
Desperate measures. Because anarchy and rebellion are the brutal threads that run through modern Irish history, you’d expect the same from its literature. But the greatest Irish writers going back to Yeats and Joyce have avoided Soviet-style social realism. Some have kept their distance from Ireland altogether, including London-born Martin McDonagh, the greatest writer about the Troubles who never experienced them first hand. They are the toxic air he breathed from a distance but still choked on.
McDonagh, now forty, has a poetic gift for extreme psychological duress, shocking even by the standards of the torture chambers of terrorism, and when his characters aren’t involved in the Troubles (they usually aren’t), his imagination transmutes an entire people the way that Faulkner did with his imagined Yoknapatawpha County – in its primal savagery and murderous comedy, McDonagh’s Ireland fully embraces Faulkner’s South. But his characters watch themselves ironically, or as one baby-faced mass murderer smirks before he shoots it out with the police, “And I thought Freud was dead.“ A skinned cat serves as a comic prop in one play and electric wires to the testicles in another. No wonder Mcdonagh repels as many people as he spellbinds.
The ultra violence of the “mad dogs” of the IRA (who ran secret safe houses where suspected spies and traitors were stripped, bound, tortured, and shot), the coke-crazed rivalries of youth gangs in Limerick and Dublin, the bitterness of poverty and social paralysis in rural areas abandoned in the Irish diaspora have all been assimilated by this outsider and made into something rich and strange. Just how rich and strange is indicated by McDonagh’s first major success, The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996), which surprisingly enough has not had a revival in fourteen years. It can now be seen in an all but perfect production at the Young Vic. The four actors trapped in a filthy dilapidated cottage accomplish the peculiar McDonagh magic: turning despair into giddy exhilaration.
The plot is more than a hint like The Glass Menagerie. A domineering mother, Mag, has captured her old maid daughter, Maureen, keeping her in attendance as a personal slave while making sure that no man comes near. One can have nothing but praise for the small cast, and in particular Rosaleen Lineman’s hateful Mag. The bulk of the old woman, seated in her rocking chair like a malevolent Buddha, dominates the place. Mag is sly and demanding, constantly whining about her infirmities while mercilessly suffocating the life out of her hapless daughter. (Did McDonagh remember the simpering, sadistic Mrs. Sairey Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit?)
The audience is also trapped with these two combatants from the first moment as they exchange rancorous barbs. They can turn “Do you think it’s going to rain?” into a ritual battle of wills. Their daily routine has dwindled down to the telly, old folksongs on a crackling radio, doses of Complan (a popular nutritional supplement) and porridge for the old woman, and her clandestine trips to dump a pot of wee into the sink. The contents of the pot figure unwholesomely into Mag’s porridge later on.
In the course of the play Maureen receives the attentions of a sort of gentleman caller, Pato Dooley, a burly workingman who has come home from London for a brief stay. The story revolves around Mag’s devious attempts to keep Maureen a prisoner and drive Pato away. She succeeds, only to be bludgeoned to death by her daughter with a fire iron. McDonagh’s melodramatic frisson turns the audience’s laughter to gasps, but it’s too pat. One comes away remembering instead the grim comedy that he wrings from desperate lives, another feature in Faulkner.
I find myself more fascinated by the playwright than the play in this case. McDonagh crashed on the theatre scene, not just in London but worldwide, as a spectacular surprise. From the age of sixteen, when his parents returned to live in Galway, he was living on the dole in London while visiting Ireland during the summer. Supposedly he had seen only one play in his life, and yet in the span from 1995-97, starting at age 26 he produced in manic succession six plays, several of which won Tonys, Olivier Awards, and drama desk prizes wherever they went. He was hailed as a master of black comedy, with a pitch-perfect ear for West Country dialect on the order of Synge and a postmodern sensibility that mined Beckett, Pinter, and others as literary influences. To boot, McDonagh went on to win two Academy Awards when he turned to his first love, cinema, writing and directing “Six Shooter,” a violent comic short set on a train, and the feature film “In Bruges,” which takes two Irish gangsters to Belgium with bizarrely fatal results. (For anyone new to his work, “Six Shooter” is on YouTube – press here for Part 1 – and perfectly reflects the tone of the early plays.)
The first half dozen plays are generally divided into three that take place under impoverished rural conditions in Leenane, a mountain village in Connemara – The Beauty Queen is the best known of these – and three set in the Aran Islands, which if anything are more bitter and raise the ante on violence. Since this first explosion of plays, however, McDonagh’s output for the theatre has been scanty, and some allege that he may have burned out. The script for “In Bruges” shows no falling off, but a recent return to Broadway, A Behanding in Spokane, was not well received, and the transposition of racist and homophobic dialogue to an American setting especially rankled the New York critics.
I am an unabashed admirer, however, after two viewings, in New York and Chicago, of The Pillowman, a surreal futuristic drama that strikes me as a masterpiece. It is much richer in fable and allegory than the six works set in Ireland, even though it dates from the same period. The source being mined here is Kafka, since Pillowman centers on Katurian, a writer of horrific children’s stories being tortured by the secret police of an unnamed dystopia. They suspect him of a series of child murders that parallel his stories almost exactly. The mystery revolves around whether the killings were carried out by Michael, the writer’s mentally retarded brother, who heard Katurian’s stories at bedtime.
In this play McDonagh has no Irish dialect or stereotypes to play off of, and he soars above the stereotypes about himself at the same time. The added dimension of the plot is Katurian’s desperate moves to save, not himself, because he has accepted his fate, but his stories. When you read it as a fable about how art can save modern society from despair, Pillowman itself becomes art. I realize that it’s a digression to speak about a play not in current production, but the literary richness of Pillowman repays reading about it in detail (the Wikipedia entry is fascinating).
In my immediate vicinity at Beauty Queen I heard three writers talking. I could have joined them in an enclave of envy. McDonagh’s immense gifts are somewhat obscured by the controversies he has stirred up. The Irish accuse him of paddywhacking and resurrecting music hall caricatures of “Oirish” comics. Politically correct Americans accuse him of needless racism in his dialog. The squeamish detest his Kubrickian glee at violence a la A Clockwork Orange. But I keep returning to Faulkner, who drifted through the same disturbing terrain. Human desperation is at once the easiest and most difficult subject to write about. We’ll see if McDonagh fades away like Steinbeck, who took the easy way of sentiment and the heroism of poverty, or if he survives by taking the hard way, putting the audience through the same torments that purify in the flames of suffering.