by Richard Pettengill
On both sides of the Atlantic in the late 1990s, the theater world was buzzing about a 24-year-old English-born Irish playwright who, over the course of ten months in 1994–95, had pounded out drafts of seven compelling and innovative works for the stage. By 1996, Martin McDonagh had the distinction of being the first playwright ever to have four plays running simultaneously in London's West End. Set in a trio of islands just off the coast of County Galway (where McDonagh spent childhood summers), these plays include: the "Leenane Trilogy" (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West); and the "Aran Islands Trilogy" of The Cripple of Inishmaan (1997), The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001), and The Banshees of Inisheer (unpublished). McDonagh's first non-Irish play, The Pillowman (2003), was set in a fictitious totalitarian state. More recently, McDonagh has focused on film; he won a 2005 Oscar for his short film "Six Shooter" and was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his first full-length feature In Bruges (2008), starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. A new play, A Behanding in Spokane, played on Broadway in 2010, starring Christopher Walken.
Fintan O'Toole writes that McDonagh's plays are "a vibrantly original mixture of absurd comedy and cruel melodrama." They combine startling humor and often-horrific violence with compassionate insights into the human condition. Nothing is what it seems in McDonagh's work, and The Cripple of Inishmaan is no exception; it forgoes the extreme violence of some of his plays for an engaging story about coming to terms with the cards that life has dealt. The process of teasing out the truth behind the illusions that McDonagh cannily sets up in The Cripple of Inishmaan is one of the most rewarding theatrical experiences of the last twenty years.
Audiences and critics have been consistently amazed and engaged by an unlikely, intriguing paradox inherent in McDonagh's work. On the one hand, McDonagh is innovative, even cutting edge; on the other, he is entirely traditional, conventional, and conservative. He is a "postmodern" pasticheur: that is, he draws from influences as diverse and seemingly irreconcilable as his Irish forebears John Millington Synge and Sean O'Casey, playwrights Harold Pinter, David Mamet and Tracy Letts, from TV shows and from film directors like Robert Flaherty, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino. With no formal training in drama, the young playwright also seems to have inhaled Aristotle's Poetics and the formulaic nineteenth-century "well-made plays" of Scribe, Sardou, and Ibsen. A "well-made play" typically has a carefully constructed plot in which no detail is superfluous. In referencing important prior events, the playwright provides exposition designed to inform the audience of them. McDonagh's plays are just as "well made" as Ibsen's A Doll's House or Hedda Gabler. While their content feels utterly fresh, their structure is testament to the tried-and-true effectiveness of conventional dramatic form.
The Cripple of Inishmaan, set in 1934, obliges on all these counts. It opens with the concerns of Kate and Eileen regarding the erratic behavior of their adoptive nephew "Cripple Billy" (he stares at cows), Johnny the gossipmonger's latest news (the American director Robert Flaherty has arrived looking for locals to act as extras in his film Man of Aran), and Bartley's ruling obsessions (American candies and telescopes). Such bits of information may seem random at first, but all end up having important roles in the play's ultimate conclusion. Throughout the play, we hear divergent accounts of a key event that occurred prior to the beginning of the play: the circumstances of the deaths of Billy's parents and whether, based on those circumstances, they had in fact loved him. The eventual revelation of the truth behind that event figures centrally in the play's conclusion and in Billy's arc as a character.
Well-made plays typically employ a letter or papers falling into the wrong hands and bringing about unexpected twists in the plot. In line with Aristotle's Poetics, the letter gives rise to a peripeteia (reversal of fortune) for the protagonist, revealing the reality behind appearances and usually bringing about some kind of return to order in the world of the play. The Cripple of Inishmaan incorporates the requisite letter, the contents of which, while not revealed to the audience at first, are so powerful that they upturn and shape the story. The play's ending contains what we might consider a return to order, but McDonagh's version of "order" is a deeply surprising, disturbing, and ironic one.
The Cripple of Inishmaan is in essence a play about accepting one's own lot in the world. It takes an odyssey from Inishmaan to Hollywood and back for Billy to learn that (to quote a well-known American film of the 1930s) "there is no place like home." Home is the place where Billy can achieve his dreams, even while the fates deal him a hard blow. Martin McDonagh has quickly proven himself a contemporary master of dramatic narrative, and Chicago audiences are fortunate to have an opportunity to see a major production of one of his finest plays.
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