Martin McDonagh’s plays are set in rural Irish villages whose residents speak in a patois spiked with the coarse expressions of common people. As chronicles of small-town Irish life, they extend the literary tradition established by John Millington Synge, Sean O’Casey, and other writers of the Irish Literary Renaissance of the early twentieth century, who viewed the tensions and struggles within traditional Irish society as prognostic of greater social and political forces affecting the nation. McDonagh’s dramas differ in their virtual avoidance of any overt political agenda and focus on fallible characters living lives shaped, and often malformed, by personal flaws and values peculiar to small-town life.
Loneliness is a common theme in McDonagh’s plays. His main characters not only live in towns outside the social mainstream but also exist on the fringe of their society, set apart by personal inadequacies, physical afflictions, or criminal tendencies. Invariably, their efforts to integrate with their peers or flee to a fresh start in life meet with disappointment and disillusionment.
Though McDonagh’s plays have a traditional style, they are notably modern in their quotient of violence. Characters mock one another in exchanges riddled with insults and obscenities that give the dramas a darkly comic edge. These verbal assaults sometimes culminate in physical assault and even murder. Usually, the most troubled and inevitably fatal relationships are those that should offer people the greatest comfort: between children and parents, husbands and wives, and siblings. The fragility of these familial bonds evokes a sense of moral instability and precariousness in the world of these plays.
The brutality of McDonagh’s work is its most controversial aspect, and his plays have been criticized for pandering to tastes shaped by the violent excesses of television and film, the influence of which he openly acknowledges. If anything, McDonagh suggests that violence is actually an intimate form of social intercourse between his characters. As one character says in The Lonesome West, “It does show you care, fighting does.” The violence of McDonagh’s dramas contribute to their spirit of cynicism, which also is fueled by their mockery of traditional depictions of Irish life. McDonagh is very self-conscious of romantic images of Ireland in film and fiction and uses these as a measuring stick against which his grubby, realistic depictions of everyday life in ordinary towns fall woefully short.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
McDonagh’s first produced play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, laid the groundwork for subsequent plays in the Leenane Trilogy through its depiction of Connemara, the town in which it is set, as a dull and unfulfilling small village whose inhabitants are eager to escape it. With few opportunities in life, the indolent townsfolk indulge in drink, gossiping, self-destruction, and murder.
The play centers around the bitter, acrimonious relationship between Maureen Folan, a middle-aged woman who has never known romantic love, and her mother, Mag, an annoyingly needy woman who depends on Maureen for her care. Maureen’s last chance for romance is an invitation from a potential lover to come with him to the United States. When busybody Mag intervenes to prevent it, Maureen kills her. Maureen is the archetypal character in McDonagh’s dramas: the individual whose ordinary exterior conceals emotional turmoil with the potential to erupt in violence.
A critical and popular success, The Beauty Queen of Leenane was praised for its simple style and adherence to basic unities of drama. Its theme of the individual driven by desperation to violent extremes gives it a universality that transcends its contemporary Irish setting.
The Cripple of Inishmaan
McDonagh’s second play is his...
(The entire section is 1603 words.)