Irish audiences have never known quite what to make of Martin McDonagh’s films and plays. Here’s a short guide to his work
1 He really is an Irish writer
McDonagh was discovered in the mid-1990s when Druid Theatre’s Garry Hynes came across one his plays in her company’s pile of unsolicited submissions. “I couldn’t believe how funny it was,” Hynes says – so she quickly produced his first play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
International success soon followed, with Druid embarking on an award-winning tour to London’s West End and Broadway. Yet some critics were uncomfortable with McDonagh’s global prominence. His early plays present the west of Ireland as a horrible place, populated by people who are savagely cruel yet strangely innocent: like “monstrous children”, as Hynes puts it. The fact that he was a London-born son of Irish parents only bolstered the accusation that McDonagh was not an Irish writer laughing with us – but an English writer laughing at us.
Those attacks now seem begrudging, but McDonagh has tended to resist being categorised as Irish or English, saying that he feels somewhere between the two. He has an affinity with second-generation Irish band The Pogues and although his writing owes much to Pinter and Mamet, it draws freely on Irish traditions.
2 McDonagh and celebrity
McDonagh first came to the public’s attention not for his plays but for a high-profile spat with Sean Connery. He and his brother John (who later made the Irish movie The Guard with Brendan Gleeson) had been attending an award ceremony, where they disrupted a toast to Queen Elizabeth II. Connery told McDonagh to “shut up or leave”; McDonagh told Connery to f**k off. The tabloids jumped on the story. McDonagh has since described the event as “drunken eejit stuff”: the worst thing about it, he said, was that his mother wouldn’t speak to him for a week.
But even now he can provoke media attention for the wrong reasons, as seen when he told the New York Times that he wanted to beat up the playwright Conor McPherson, who (reportedly) said that McDonagh’s work was “stage Irish”.
3 Don’t believe everything you read in the papers
Enjoyable as his press interviews are, some of the things written about McDonagh are completely untrue. In 1997, for instance, Time magazine stated (accurately) that McDonagh was the only playwright, other than Shakespeare, to have four plays running simultaneously in London that year. Sometime later, a journalist misread that line and claimed that McDonagh was the first playwright since Shakespeare to have four of his plays running simultaneously in London. That genuinely daft statement has since been repeated in dozens of media profiles of the writer.
Many similar inconsistencies – and even occasional untruths – have been written about McDonagh, and while they boost his popularity, they may also undermine the appreciation of his work.
4 Actors love McDonagh
His new film Seven Psychopaths has a dream cast. With Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Woody Harrelson and others, it’s like a roll call of America’s most eccentric actors. That McDonagh can attract such talent is testament to his reputation as an actors’ writer. This was evident right from the start, when Druid’s Beauty Queen won Tony awards for two of Ireland’s greatest actresses, Marie Mullen and Anna Manahan. Since then, McDonagh’s international productions have featured extraordinary performances by actors such as David Tennant, Jim Broadbent, Billy Crudup and Jeff Goldblum.
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