The Beauty Queen and The Mammy: A new study of playwright Martin McDonagh
From Leenane to LA: The Theatre and Cinema of Martin McDonagh Eamonn Jordan Irish Academic Press, tpbk, €27.95, 287 pages, available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709 350
Opinion on the merits or otherwise of Martin McDonagh's theatre is sharply divided.
So I have to say from the outset that while Eamonn Jordan, author of From Leenane to LA: The Theatre and Cinema of Martin McDonagh is most definitely for it, I'm most definitely against it.
I think McDonagh's theatre is overrated to the point where I suspect some major hoax has been perpetrated. I just don't get it and never did. But my position is not so unusual. In fact, my "not getting it" is a vital part of the academic game that is the 'McDonagh industry', which thrives on controversy.
Arguing about the "it" is a bit like talking to a religious zealot: no matter what you say it can easily be accommodated into the teaching. So to criticise McDonagh's work is merely to "highlight the controversial problematic at the heart of the body of work," or some such academic retort: the rock upon which a future scholarly thesis might be constructed.
With that clarified I intend to relax myself into a relatively satirical mode on the subject of McDonagh's theatre. I can assure the reader that no academics were harmed in the writing of this polemic.
Martin McDonagh was a bit of a godsend to Irish Studies departments, his oeuvre completing a seemingly perfect circle with the works of JM Synge and the history of the early Abbey Theatre. A layman looking on might be inclined to the view that McDonagh was quite simply having a bit of a post-modern giggle with traditional Irish theatre. But one man's giggle is another man's PhD, and so it came to pass that young Martin McDonagh with his parodies of Irish theatre – cleverly nipped and tucked by Garry Hynes – had the effect of nicely bookending the history of 20th century Irish theatre and creating a rich new seam of academic ore.
Since his emergence there have been dozens of books and essays on the plays of Martin McDonagh. The latest addition to this growing library is Eamonn Jordan's study, billed as a monograph. Jordan's book deals with, among other things, the various responses, both positive and negative, to McDonagh's work which has had the effect from the outset of delighting some and not so delighting others.
This controversial aspect is wonderful grist to the academic mill. It's a little known, but I think vital, fact that James Joyce wrote the first academic paper on Ulysses, thereby kicking off the Joyce industry. In much the same way Fintan O'Toole and Garry Hynes kicked off the McDonagh industry when an essay by O'Toole was published in the programme for the première of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, briefing the audience on how to receive the play.
Prior to that fateful night, conversation during the interval in the Town Hall theatre Galway usually revolved around the question, 'Are you enjoying the show?' But prompted by O'Toole's essay everyone was suddenly on speaking terms with such academic-sounding concepts as "remembered language" and "cultural osmosis". O'Toole's essay had the effect of lending academic importance to what was essentially a 'sitcommy' piece with relatively broad humour, not a million miles from the comedy of Brendan O'Carroll. But you are unlikely to see such a link explored by academics any time soon, as this would surely bring the house down in all the wrong ways, O'Carroll being seen to lack any cultural weight whatsoever.
Academics seeking to explain a popular success will reach for high-minded cultural ideas and will rarely mention a general audience's desire simply to be entertained by broad comic knockabout. In this context the Mammy aspect of The Beauty Queen will always, for academic purposes, be paired with Tom Murphy's Bailegangaire and the grave import of JM Synge. This is Jordan's second book on McDonagh and is designed as a kind of ideas hub for future McDonagh explorations. The book builds on the foundation provided by Hynes and O'Toole back in 1996 and sets out to explain and elucidate the many aspects and charms of the McDonagh puzzle and the differing views and theoretical ideas on offer, exploring the wide range of influences evident in the work; some surprising, others a bit startling.
The list of proposed influences is almost infinite, including everything from cartoons to classic plays. Fancy doing a comparative study between the works of Martin McDonagh and the cartoons of Tom and Jerry? Too late. It's already been done. But there's more. Much, much more. There's a whole new world of study at hand, a veritable new continent of theoretical veins to be mined. There is much work yet to be done, many influences to be tracked down, linked, considered and elucidated.
To add to the sense of bonanza the writer in question is still alive and producing, a relatively unusual situation in academia. An actual living writer who is also theoretically interesting! Cripes! Open a new wing to the library. This book is aimed at students of theatre and Irish Studies departments and offers an ideal starting point for anyone interested in pursuing the theoretical ideas which have emerged in response to the works of Martin McDonagh.
Reading it I was filled with admiration for the quiet genius behind the scenes who managed to create a literary cottage industry that looks set to last for as long as Irish Theatre Studies departments exist.
So, since this book's success is already assured, with a likely foothold in posterity too, I'll end with the one question I almost always ask of literary theory books: does it fling well? Yes, I have to say, this one flings very well.
EAMONN KELLY IS A DUBLIN PLAYWRIGHT AND AN AWARD-WINNING SHORT STORY WRITER.
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