John Patrick Shanley Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

John Patrick Shanley has maintained that his motivation for beginning to write at the age of eleven was to provide an outlet for his own difficulties. He has credited playwriting with saving his life by compelling him to remember basic truths he had learned as a child and using them as a means of coping with his own life.

Like other modern playwrights, Shanley seems to be concerned with escalating violence in the world, returning again and again in his plays to violent situations similar to the ones he encountered while growing up and to his unresolved feelings about them. However, Shanley suggests that the greatest violence to individuals seems to manifest itself psychologically through the bitter, binding family ties. As a result, he has mined every step in his relationships with family members in his writing. His characters confront alienation, guilt, betrayal, and love as they attempt to relieve the destructive influences of parent-child kinship. Shanley insists that coming to terms with one’s family and resolving the bitterness is a crucial event, and although it may not achieve a state of grace for all concerned, it is necessary to continue living.

Shanley’s fatalistic view of life is reflected in his depiction of how love affects his characters. These individuals are doomed to suffer, if not from past family traumas, then from love or its effects. Love brings no happiness to his characters, only pain and loss. It robs individuals of options, of self-respect and peace; it consumes everything, leaving only the pain it generates.

Although Shanley’s strength is comedy, the world he depicts is a cynical, gritty one in which individuals confront those who caused them pain, hoping to return it. It is inhabited by eccentric characters, usually blue-collar, working-class people whose explosive dialogue attacks others and themselves with sarcasm, rage, and despair. Frequently, his bombast merges with passionate, poetic lyricism that, to a remarkable degree, compensates for frequent plot deficiencies in his plays. Shanley discovered early in his career a gift for reproducing unpleasant, naturalistic details that depict a neurotic, violent, self-perpetuating, self-defeating world.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea

Shanley’s reputation soared with the production of this play. The first of a series of four autobiographical plays, it examines the violence that festers and intermittently explodes. The play centers on a couple who meet at a rough Bronx bar, one violent and eager to maim or kill, and the other guilt-ridden, suicidal, and generally self-destructive. The difficulties that these characters experience with human contact is linked to the horrors in their familial past.

The acrimony and aggression between the two snarling, verbose outcasts, who appear to be engaged in a kind of defensive and combative prize fight with the audience at ringside, create a sense of apprehension as the woman appears to goad Danny into killing her. As the play manages to draw viewers into the strange, impending disaster, suddenly a jolting transformation occurs as the scene shifts to her bedroom, and the characters are talking of love and marriage. Somewhat undeveloped, the startling play seems little more than a vignette, though somewhat too long, that leads to a sentimental and mawkish tribute to the transforming power of love.

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