No indeed. Since his emergence, McDonagh has seen seven of his plays performed throughout the world. (At least one, The Banshees of Inisheer, remains unproduced.) He has directed one short and two feature films and has another script ready for production. Mind you, he seems to have been in training for this life since he left school at 16. Why did he not stay for A-levels? He seems like a smart fellow.
“I never wanted to have proper job,” he says. “I had a love of film and a developing love of books. And I hoped that would go somewhere. Studying seemed to be ‘studying for work’ and there was no job I wanted. I’m sure I read more when I was on the unemployment than I would ever have done if I was studying the classics.”
When he eventually found his voice it was a most unusual one. Since he was a boy, McDonagh had travelled to Ireland for holidays. However, not every child of immigrant parents becomes so attached to the language of the old country. It seems a little cheap to compare McDonagh with Shane McGowan, but both men did seem to find an odd class of liberation in the language of their parents.
“I think writing the Irish plays was the first time I felt properly free,” he says. “Until then, they were like imitations of Pinter or Mamet. There is still something of those writers in the plays, but the Irish plays freed me up and I felt I wasn’t imitating them so much any more. Ireland is slightly removed from where I was. That allowed the stories to go anywhere they needed to go. I couldn’t have done that writing about London.”
After eight years of signing on and doing dull tasks for the civil service, McDonagh finally stumbled into overnight success. The Beauty Queen of Leenane transferred to Broadway and won a Tony. The Lonesome West and The Cripple of Inishmaan were similarly successful.
That sort of acclaim could easily turn a man’s head. Did he manage to retain his humility?
“Before Beauty Queen I knew the work was getting good and I had developed an arrogance about the work,” he says. “Seeing all this stuff rejected when I knew it was good actually bred that arrogance. So, success didn’t change me. I had already become a knobhead. But having that arrogance allows you to defend your work. In the early days you get so much rejection and you meet all these people who have an opinion about changing the work. Frankly, if you didn’t have that arrogance to stop it being changed then you would be screwed.”
For the most part, reviewers and audiences were happy to buttress the author’s self-confessed arrogance. The first decade of McDonagh’s career was a fiesta of awards, plaudits and critical hosannas. By his own admission, he didn’t encounter any significant break in the positive consensus until A Behanding in Spokane opened on Broadway in 2010. His first play set outside Ireland didn’t get hammered exactly. But the notices were considerably more lukewarm than those he had become used to. Hilton Als in the New Yorker famously took him to task for promiscuous use of the word “nigger”.
“Just one review mentioned that,” he says in a patient voice. “Most of the reviews weren’t very positive. So I thought somebody else would have brought that up if it really was an issue. But it is always a danger using that word. Somebody won’t see the reasons why you are using it.”