Seven steps to Martin McDonagh
5 Prepare to be offended
McDonagh has never shied away from taboo subjects. His dark comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore savagely satirises the IRA – to such an extent that theatres in Ireland and the UK refused to produce it, deeming it “too dangerous”. McDonagh saw those rejections as censorship, and refused to allow any of his other works to appear until Lieutenant premiered. It finally appeared at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2001, and became a worldwide hit.
That refusal to sanitise his views is evident throughout McDonagh’s career. In his best play The Pillowman, there’s a scene in which a young girl is crucified before being buried alive. The movie In Bruges caused offence with its portrayal of (as one character puts it) “two manky hookers and a racist dwarf”.
And in 2010, his play A Behanding in Spokane was attacked by the New Yorker’s Hilton Als for being racist. “I don’t know a single self-respecting black actor who wouldn’t feel shame and fury while sitting through it,” wrote Als.
McDonagh is unrepentant, suggesting that Als and others are missing the point. Writers, he states, must write without thinking of their “own political correctness”.
6 There will be blood
The final scene of The Lieutenant of Inishmore features two characters chopping up dead bodies. In The Beauty Queen, an old woman has scalding cooking oil poured over her before being punched in the stomach. In the Oscar-winning Six Shooter, a rabbit has its brains blown out. McDonagh’s is a blood-spattered oeuvre.
Yet he’s also a dramatist who’s unusually sensitised to the ethics of violence. He reminds us that we’re prepared to tolerate violence on screen and stage, and thus forces us to consider our tolerance of violence in the real world. Characteristically, McDonagh tends to downplay the intelligence of this aspect of his writing, saying he’s just “having his cake and eating it”.
7 The meta thing
Seven Psychopaths is about an Irish writer called Martin who’s struggling to write a film called Seven Psychopaths. This is an example of McDonagh’s love of what he calls “the meta thing” – the tendency for his films and plays to remind the audience that what they are watching is actually a film or a play, and not the real world.
The best example of McDonagh’s “meta thing” is The Cripple of Inishmaan, a play that shows the Aran islanders’ hostile reaction to Man of Aran, Robert Flaherty’s documentary. It shows that, far from exploiting Irish stereotypes, McDonagh has tried to refute them. And crucially, that play also shows us how an Irish audience that’s being misrepresented must react: by pegging eggs at their cinema screen.
PATRICK LONERGAN’s The Theatre and Films of Martin McDonagh has just been published by Methuen Drama.
Seven Psychopaths is out in December and will have its Irish premiere at the Cork Film Festival on November 18th