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The Legacy of McDonagh’s ‘Beauty Queen of Leenane’

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Irish playwright Martin McDonagh speaks fluent Grand Guinol, but speaks it with the lilt of Galway.

The importance of this has more resonance than, at first, one might realize.

There’s an old axiom which is presently leaving the airy realm of proverbs for the more solid firmament of fact –

Ireland was England’s first colony, Ireland will be its last.

As the Celtic Lion roars and the Union Jack appears to be shredding, the long and torturous thralldom between the two countries seems to be catapulted into a sharper definition.

And the Irish language is revealed as an objective to be conquered for one and the firmest line of defense for the other.

It is also Playwright McDonagh’s strongest gift.

County Galway, whence McDonagh hails and sets his play, is regarded as Ireland’s cultural Heart, renowned as a center for arts and music and as the westernmost Gaeltacht (♦ – see below) for the Connacht dialect of the Irish language.

Connacht differs from the other dialects of the islands Erris, Ulster and Achill in many aspects of grammar—most notably sentence structure—with Connacht employing the word order of “Verb-Subject-Object” wherein the statement “I sang a song” would be expressed “Sang I a song.”  A variation found in less than ten percent of the world’s families of languages.

Connacht also shows the trend, comparable to Germanic languages, of forming new words by grouping established ones, as demonstrated in Ireland’s longest place name which is found in County Galway, “Muckanaghederdauhaulia”; which can be roughly translated as “Ridge pig’s back shaped in the center of two bodies of brackish water.”

McDonagh’s works benefit from this rich linguistic heritage and throughout his plays the dialogue uses words not so much as tools of communication, but as weapons.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane was first produced in 1996 by Galway’s Druid Theater Company which is also responsible for the current staging at the Mark Taper.  It was the then 23-year-old McDonagh’s first play and revealed those strengths and weaknesses which are still found in his works.

At the center of the play is the tortured relationship between the bitter Maureen (Aisling O’Sullivan) and her scheming, aged mother Mag (Marie Mullen).

Abandoned by her two sisters, the task of being her mother’s caretaker has been thrust onto Maureen, a task which she has carried dutifully—year after year—as she allowed it to slowly strangle her off from life.

Beauty Queen of Leeane

Aisling O’Sullivan and Marty Rea (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

Now at the age of 40, having never experienced any relationship outside of that which she shares with her ever-demanding mother, Maureen is given what may be her last chance of escaping the seemingly never ending routine of cooking her mother’s porridge, listening to her mother’s radio programs, enduring her mother’s constant criticism and feeling as if each passing moment were merely another stone being added to her own tomb.

That chance comes when Ray Dooley (Arron Monaghan), the youngest son of their long time neighbors arrives with an invitation to a party, at which his older brother Palo (Marty Rea), recently back from working in England, will be.

One generally finds in the first efforts of young playwrights, especially those of talent and promise, the echoes of those works they admired and sought to learn from.  This is true of Joe Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair which is patently inspired by Harold Pinter and it is true of The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  McDonagh’s Beauty Queen is rife with lessons drawn from O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, though whatever McDonagh may have taken from these has been distilled through that perverted pixie-like playfulness that has become his hallmark; especially in his film work and the scripts for In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths.

In Beauty Queen one can also discern a debt to the ancient Greek plays, and in the character of the younger Dooley we are presented with the classic Greek chorus; though one obsessed with Australian soap opera and still bearing a childhood grudge against Maureen from when she confiscated a ball which had accidently gone into her garden.

For with that invitation, which Maureen sees as a last chance at life and her mother views as a threat of abandonment, events are put in place which will bring both women to an “inevitable” fate.

The plot that follows is drenched with a deceit and desperation that overflows from these characters to the point of almost washing everything else from the stage.

McDonagh’s strength tends not to be in his plotting, which is often merely constructed on an escalation of the initial crisis, accelerating it into the absurd, an approach which he refines to perfection in his later work The Lieutenant of Inishmore.  In fact, the two major plot turns in the play are merely a repetition of one favored in old Bette Davis movies that of the letter falling into the wrong hands.  Which then begs the question why didn’t he just go and talk to her?

His strength lies in his characters and the words he gives them that displays those qualities which justifies the acclaim McDonagh has gathered, and though his plays have a darkness both disturbing and off putting, it is his lively whistling we hear coming from that darkness that entices us to them.

Whenever reading reviews of McDonagh’s works, often there are two words whose pairing is disquieting to find: hilarious and terrifying.

Beauty Queen is certainly that, a gothic comedy, which reflects the paradox of life as a slapstick tragedy.

After debuting in 1996 at the Druid Theater Company, which she founded, Garry Hynes would take the production, which she directed as well, to the stages of London and America picking up nominations for the Olivier, Tony and other awards along the way, and winning a good few too.

This new staging finds not only Hynes directing again, but one of the performers from the first   production as well.

In 1996 Marie Mullen played Maureen earning a Tony Award and an Obie for her work. This time she’s taken the role of Mag the mother.

Hynes has assembled the kind of cast every director and playwright dreams of finding under their tree on Christmas day.

Perhaps unobserved by his fellow cast members, Rea nearly tiptoes out the backstage door with the evening deviously concealed under his arm when he reviews the heartbreaking maladroit love letter he’s penned to Maureen.

Hynes with great craft and aided by the talents of two superb actresses delivers McDonagh’s challenging dialogue with chiseled clarity tuned perfectly to convey the emotional and humorous wealth of his words.

One cringes in imagining what a lesser director would do with this so-demanding work, dwindling it down to the point where it comes across as nothing more than two old women bitching at each other.  Hynes succeeds in mining McDonagh’s piece for all the golden ore that’s  there,  even elevating the conflict to where the audience finds itself questioning the reality of events before them.  Is what we’re seeing on stage the fabrications spawned from madness, and if so, where does that madness begin and where does it end?

Beauty Queen can also be seen as a twisted parable on that agony shared between England and Ireland, an anguish expressed as “history.”

Beauty Queen of Leeane- Mark Taper Forum

Marie Mullen, Marty Rea , Aisling O’Sullivan (photo by Craig Schwartz)

There are hints and shades of that history hidden throughout the play like those colorful eggs at a White House Easter. The ever dominating Mag suppressing her daughter; the constantly rebelling Maureen whose obsession over the wrongs done her keep deepening, fueling her need to break free which in turn acts as bellows to her mother’s battle to control her.

The anti-English sentiment is vocally present on stage, yet there is an even more anti-Irish unstated pronouncement in the work’s sediment.  The inability to see the world except through the stale miasma of an arcane conflict, realize an identity beyond that of victim, or acknowledge the deception of immigration  as a solution symbolized in the final act by two suitcases ready to be taken far away, but empty.

It is one of the sad motifs of humanity, that no matter the greatness they may achieve, a people are doomed when they cannot escape the madness of their history.

Thus the oppressed become the oppressors,

Thus democracies fear their freedoms as weaknesses,

Thus by fighting battles of the past we defeat the future.

At the end of The Beauty Queen of Leenane Maureen stands as a bleak warning to us all.

When we do not act to unchain ourselves from history’s dictates our punishment is called “destiny.”

♦    ♦    ♦

♦ A region where Irish is primarily spoken


A Druid Production of

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Playing now through Dec 18, 2016 at

The Mark Taper Forum
135 N Grand Ave,
Los Angeles, CA 90012

For Tickets and Additional Information:

Go to: centertheatregroup.org

Written By Martin McDonagh
Directed By Garry Hynes

Set and Costume Design:
Francis O’Connor
Lighting Design by
James F. Ingalls

Sound Design Greg Clarke

Cast:
Aaron Monaghan
Marie Mullen
Aisling O’Sullivan
Marty Rea

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An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, Among the Vipers was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist three times in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest's stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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