Martin McDonagh

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565

The drama of Martin McDonagh (muhk-DUHN-uh), characterized by cruel and merciless humor, is claimed by two contemporary literary and dramatic traditions, the Irish and the British. Often viewed as representative of a new kind of theater, Rough Theatre, McDonagh’s plays have received enthusiastic praise by both critics and audiences for his talent for storytelling and gripping dramatic dialogue.

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McDonagh grew up in Camberwell, a blue-collar district in South London. His parents had emigrated from Ireland before his birth. His father, a construction worker, was a native of Connemara, Galway, while his mother, a part-time housekeeper, came originally from Sligo. Martin McDonagh spent most of his summers in the west of Ireland, thus maintaining a live connection to an Irish cultural and linguistic heritage. He dropped out of school at sixteen and worked as a civil servant while writing, first, short stories and then, inspired by his brother John, radio scripts and screenplays. After five years of continuous manuscript rejections, McDonagh began writing plays whose plots and characters have reanimated, both respectfully and irreverently, Ireland’s theatrical tradition, especially the work of Dion Boucicault, John Millington Synge, and Sean O’Casey. In 1995 McDonagh became a writer in residence at the Royal National Theatre in London.

It was The Beauty Queen of Leenane that brought McDonagh public and critical acclaim in 1996. He claims to have written the play in only eight days. With The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a coproduction of the Druid Theatre in Galway and London’s Royal Court Theatre, McDonagh won the Evening Standard Award and the London Critics Circle Award for most promising newcomer to the British stage as well as the Writer’s Guild Award for best fringe play. His success continued in 1998 in New York, where The Beauty Queen of Leenane was presented by the Atlantic Theater Company. Nominated for six Tony Awards, the play won four. It also received New York’s Drama Desk, Drama League, Lucille Lortel, and Outer Critics Circle Awards for best play as well Time magazine’s Best of Theater Award. Among his other prizewinning plays are The Cripple of Inishmaan and the black comedy The Lonesome West, which in 1999 was nominated for a Tony Award in four categories, including Best Play. In 1997, A Skull in Connemara received a nomination for an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. McDonagh’s radio play The Woolf and the Woodcutter brought him distinction at the London Radio Playwrights’ Festival in 1995, and, three years later, a bronze medal for best writing at the International Radio Festival of New York.

In interviews for the British press, McDonagh admits that his training in the 1990’s came from complete immersion in television, cinema, and pop culture; he found the London stage boring. He acknowledges the artistic and stylistic influences of playwrights Sam Shepard and David Mamet as well as film directors Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Sergio Leone, among others. However, the gripping sense of place his Leenane and Aran Islands trilogies convey, the former containing The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara, and The Lonesome West, and the latter, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and his planned The Banshees of Inisheer, is recognizably rural Irish. In the comic exploration of inflammatory, disturbingly excessive despair and violence, of an exaggerated, cruel reality and psychological extremes, McDonagh’s work skillfully manipulates the possibilities of melodrama and the grotesque.

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