Before seeing The Lieutenant of Inishmore in 2006, I never expected to see a character in a Broadway play get shot in the head. Gunfire in plays generally happens offstage. Even when the shooting occurs in view of the audience, the sound effect is what gets our attention as the actor collapses, hit by an imaginary bullet. A pistol pointed at someone’s head is an empty threat. Or so I once assumed.
The playwright Martin McDonagh took the stage by storm with a now legendary burst of creativity—six hit plays, drafted in a single nine-month period and staged in Dublin, London, and New York from 1996 to 2006. By the time Inishmore arrived on Broadway, audiences were familiar with McDonagh’s signature blend of comedy, violence, and cruelty. Inishmore raised the stakes again with the grisly story of an Irish patriot, Padraic, whose violent streak was too extreme for the IRA. By the end of each performance, the stage was so slick with “blood” that the actors glided across it like ice skaters. Even so, when I saw a gun aimed at Padraic’s head, I didn’t expect the actress holding it to pull the trigger. She did. I well remember the shock of that moment, of seeing the actress get hit with a splatter of bright red stage blood. More shocking still, I remember the audience, including me, shrieking with laughter.
McDonagh is a self-taught dramatist with matchless instincts for storytelling: his plotting is airtight and swift; he knows how to stay a step ahead of the audience, and how to slip important information into dialogue under the guise of a joke. When Inishmore finished its Broadway run and McDonagh told the press he was finished writing plays, there were good reasons to assume it was an empty threat. He was phenomenally talented, wildly successful, and still in his thirties. On the other hand, he was already building a promising career in Hollywood. McDonagh wrote and directed Six Shooter, which won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film in 2006, and followed that in 2008 with the full-length bloody farce In Bruges. The latter starred Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as Irish hit men exiled to Belgium, where the storybook loveliness of Bruges provides an incongruous backdrop for their dirty dealing and petty squabbling. Suspenseful, funny, perversely touching, and ludicrously violent, In Bruges suggested McDonagh might be as adept a filmmaker as he was a playwright.
Still, his sabbatical from the stage was short-lived: his new play A Behanding in Spokane opened on Broadway this month. Behanding is the first of McDonagh’s plays to premiere in New York, and the first to take place in the United States. Aside from the Kafkaesque The Pillowman (set in an unnamed totalitarian state), all of McDonagh’s previous plays had been set in Ireland’s County Galway.
The rural Irish landscape appears in McDonagh’s plays like a reflection in a funhouse mirror, with perspective and proportion thrown disorientingly out of whack. McDonagh, who grew up in London and spent summers with his family on the west coast of Ireland, is suspicious of romantic or sentimental notions of Irish life. His corner of Galway is grim, provincial, and suffocating. Everyone seems to know everyone else, and familiarity has bred only contempt. This cramped bleakness is most fully realized in the terrific Leenane Trilogy (published by Vintage as The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Other Plays), in which characters from one play become subjects of gossip in the next. The overall impression is of a community where everyone has cruelty in common. There seem to be no jobs, no industry, no ambition or potential of any kind. No one consumes any real food, just potato chips and poteen; they subsist largely on grudges and spite. It is as though the characters’ limited horizons have stunted them all into eternal childhood.
The comedy in McDonagh’s plays arises both from the characters’ stuntedness and from the way the audience gets swept up in it. To watch his Irish plays is to enter a world where insults and slights are worth killing over, and violence and murder are taken in stride. The denizens of McDonagh’s Galway are Catholics, of course, but only culturally; the ethical demands of their religion have made no impression at all. The local priest is known universally as “Fr. Walsh Welsh” because his parishioners can’t be bothered to learn his name. The resulting moral distortion can be harrowing, but it is irresistibly comical. And McDonagh spins marvelous poetry from his characters’ twisted mouths. A woman in A Skull in Connemara scolds a neighbor she suspects of killing his wife:
You’ll be meeting up with Oona again someday, Mick Dowd...and when you meet may down to the stinking fires of hell she drag the rotten murdering bones of you, and may downhill from there for you it go.
Fr. Welsh finally appears in the trilogy’s conclusion, The Lonesome West, utterly demoralized by the immorality of his flock. “It seems like God has no jurisdiction in this town,” he moans. “Two murderers I have on me books, and I can’t get either of the beggars to confess it.” Valene and Coleman, brothers who have recently added another murder to the parish ledger, are puzzled by Fr. Welsh’s “maudlin” attitude. “He takes things too much to heart does that fella,” Coleman shrugs. Fr. Welsh’s sincerity only throws the surrounding nihilism into sharper focus.
McDonagh’s best plays are theatrical games, in which he manipulates the audience into laughing harder as his stories grow uglier and darker. But to judge from the amusing but unsatisfying A Behanding in Spokane, McDonagh has lost interest in the game he invented. The title suggests another of his grotesquely lyrical tall tales, but the “behanding” it alludes to is a past event. The play takes place in a forlorn hotel in an unspecified city, where a man named Carmichael (a particularly cadaverous Christopher Walken) is searching for the hand he lost as a child. McDonagh’s plotting is uncharacteristically listless. We never learn much about what Carmichael has been up to in the intervening decades; there are hints of a violent past, and a suggestion that the low-rent con we’re watching is just one in a long string of attempted scams. But few of the tantalizing details materialize as plot twists, or even as character traits.
Like McDonagh’s dark thriller The Pillowman, Behanding seems at times to be commenting on the author’s vocation—on the process and purpose of telling stories. One character even stops the action to comment on its strangeness and ask the audience, “Where’s a story like that gonna go?” But the playwright is less interested than any of his characters in following this story to its conclusion. The play runs out of momentum well before the end, and the loose ends of the plot are left dangling. It’s a new kind of nihilism for McDonagh—not simply moral, but stylistic too.
Walken’s self-indulgent performance, all tics and quirks, would be detrimental to a better play, but this script is too wan to be undermined. The biggest disappointment in Behanding is McDonagh’s failure to create a convincingly demented world and a persuasive cast of characters to populate it. What makes the Irish plays so chilling is the sense that the characters’ warped perspective reflects an external reality. There seems to be no escape, no alternative to their bleak circumstances. In Behanding, no matter how imminent the threat, escape always seems possible. The setting is too nonspecific and the characters are too generic to be convincing. And the production too often calls attention to the script’s shortcomings. (Does Christopher Walken sound like he’s from Spokane?)
Perhaps Behanding is the first tentative step in a new direction for McDonagh. It may signal a deliberate move away from the gore of Inishmore and In Bruges—the violent threats in this script were mainly false alarms. Even so, when one character held a gun to another’s head near the end of Behanding, I flinched, afraid the gun would go off. I still expect McDonagh’s work to take me by surprise. Behanding is a misfire, but McDonagh may yet find American territory to claim as his own. I can’t wait to see the stories he tells when he does.
Pictured: Christopher Walken in A Behanding in Spokane. Photo by Joan Marcus.