I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Martin McDonagh, born in London of Irish parents, is one of the most startling and prolific contemporary playwrights. At 27, he has had four new plays open in Ireland and England in the last two years. His Leenane Trilogy—The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemaraand The Lonesome West—was staged together by the Druid Theatre of Galway, and at the Royal Court in London. The first play of another trilogy, The Cripple of Inishmaan, was produced by the British National Theater. One play from each trilogy—The Beauty Queen and The Cripple—is being produced in New York this spring at The Public Theater and the Atlantic Theater. Though McDonagh grew up in London, all of these plays are set in the west of Ireland and are written in an Irish idiom. The combination of a pastiche of rural Irish forms and a displaced urban sensibility gives his work a dark, violent, and very funny edge. This interview was done in February in a coffee shop in Manhattan. He had just returned from a trip to Australia, where the Druid production of the Leenane Trilogy had been on tour.
Fintan O’Toole You tend to avoid interviews. Do they make you uncomfortable?
Martin McDonagh It’s kind of scary to analyze my plays like this now, because I didn’t do it before I started writing. The whole premise of interviews frightens me. I’ve said that to you before, I didn’t do self-analysis before I started writing, I’m not doing it much now. I’m doing it more than I should, even though I don’t want to. And not because I choose to, but because this whole process of having to publicize something forces you into these kinds of situations. I’m never unhappy doing them. I’m not unhappy doing this, I’m just tired. You have to either not do it, or stop whinging about it. I’m not whinging about it now. (laughter) But the whole self-analysis, for me, goes against the grain of everything I want to do. I never thought about any of this stuff before I wrote the plays, and I think they’re quite good plays. I think just going on like that is the best way to achieve that process again, to go on without over analyzing.
FO You’ve come from nowhere as far as the theater world or the show business world is concerned. You’ve had four plays staged in Ireland, England, Australia, now America. You’ve done all of this really rapidly. You also wrote the plays very quickly, and you’ve written a lot of them in a short space of time. Do you get haunted by the fear that something which comes as quickly as that can also go as quickly as that? You don’t know where it comes from, and therefore it’s like this mysterious process, which might just vanish?
MM Not haunted. It is a worry but it’s not constant … I still have that arrogant faith that I had before I started writing—I can do this as well as anybody. But it is a fear, and it does linger now. The last play I wrote, The Banshees of Inisheer, isn’t as good as the others. I’ve done a couple of other pieces—two short films—which are still up to the standard I want to achieve. So hopefully I can do it again. I’ve always felt that I was my own best and worst critic. I couldn’t stand being the type of writer who made an entire career out of something they did 20 years ago. That would horrify me to still be going in 20 years’ time if I hadn’t written anything better than what I’ve done so far. I’ve got the faith that I’ve still got as many story ideas coming to me. I could tell you right now, five ideas for plays or films. I’m trying to do more films, because I’ve got such a backlog of plays written already that, you know, you have to try a different kind of medium. But at the same time, when I’m sitting watching technical rehearsals of, be it Beauty Queen or Cripple, I’ve got a position now in theater, which if I had thought about it when I started, is the place I would have loved to have been in. Three years ago, or maybe a little bit more, before I started writing plays, I would have hated—the whole idea of it would have been disgusting, and sometimes it still is. But now I am in a place where I’m not a disgusting playwright. I have carved out a niche. I’ve written plays that I respect, even as a film boy. That was always the place I was coming from, this respect for the whole history of films and a slight disrespect for theater. But now, I’m in a place where I like the plays I’ve done, and even in comparison to the films I love, they still stand up. And I think they would also stand up for any other film fan who goes to the theater. So being in that position, having written things that even film fans would like, bringing people like me—who grew up like me—into the theater, that’s a lovely position to be in. To maintain that and do even better work in theater, I would like to continue that. Not only because I’ve got a massive fear of never being able to write a good film, but sometimes I’m watching tech rehearsals and seeing the stage and the people and the set and stuff … I’m constantly bored with what I’ve done before. I always think it’s too weak. Everything I’ve done so far, even Beauty Queen, which I respect as a good play, and The Cripple, I could do it 20 times better. For me, and for people like me who like great, visceral, strange, tough films, I could do so much more from this position. I could tell a hundred better stories in the same kind of style with the same motivations as I have been doing up to this point. I guess I might as well hang on for a while and do it. It’s more likely than not that I’ll opt out for a while and do it on the quiet and not have the whole pressure, the irritation of having to see them put up on stage. I’d like to just have them as pieces of paper. I think I’m coming to realize that that’s when I’m at my happiest: having written something that I really like. It’s been the most rewarding so far. There’s been good and bad reviews, there’s been brilliant nights, brilliant days, but nothing really connects. The only time I’m really happy is re-reading what I’ve handwritten the day before. Re-reading it and being surprised that I actually wrote that. That’s sounds pretty arrogant, but there’s a joy in that, flipping back the last two hand-written pages and being surprised. I think it probably gives me more joy than anything else I’ve done up to this point.
FO It’s often struck me that there is a fairy-tale dimension to your plays. They work with speed and violence and a slightly surreal feeling. Did you read a lot of fairy tales as a kid?
MM I don’t think I did too much as a kid. Now I have memories of them—which serve that same purpose—of a short story quickly told, and told with elements of strange danger. I got the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales recently. When I was starting out, trying to write short stories and such, most of those were fairy-tale-like stories. I’d write a whole list of titles which I hoped would spark up story ideas like The Chair and The Wolfboy. You know just looking around this place it’d be: The Short Fellow and The Strange Frog; The Violin and The Drunken Angel—twin ideas that might go somewhere. I’d sit down and write 50 titles. And then the next week or whatever, I would try to write them almost like fairy-tale stories. Some of them were more straightforward than fairy tales. Then I started getting into trying to retell the fairy tales I’d remembered as a kid, but to tell them in a more truthful way than I remember them having been told. There’s something dark about them that doesn’t quite come through. I tried to go down that corridor of thought, in whatever way the fairy tale, in my memory at least, had come. In re-reading the Grimm’s, they’re pretty bloody dark. It was interesting to compare my memory, what I remembered about the fairy tales, and then to see the actual text. To be not quite sure if you were told a cleaned up version of it or if your child’s memory cleaned it up yourself. I think more often than not it was that you were told a cleaned up version. Little Red Riding Hood is a bloody dark story. And in the original it’s quite horrific at the end; they cut the wolf open. I like the details. They cut the wolf open, took out Little Red Riding Hood and her friend. They put rocks in the wolf’s stomach, and sewed him back up with green wire. They watched him as he awoke, and waited until he jumped out of bed in fright at everybody watching him, and dropped down dead ’cause the stones were grating against his intestines! I would love to write something as horrific as that if I could.
FO There is this perception, from the outside, that Irish culture has a storytelling tradition, it has an oral tradition and a whole body of inherited stories that feed into things in the present. Did that have any reality for you growing up in a mixed Irish-English background?
MM Thinking about being Irish only came into my life when I decided to write Irish plays. Before that I tried to write a few re-workings of Irish fairy tales, or myths I’d heard growing up. But none of them were specifically Irish at that point. The whole history of Irish storytelling didn’t really come into it, and has only come into it in the last two or three years. So I couldn’t say that it had any kind of influence at all. It’s interesting when I hear it said about the stuff I do, but honestly I couldn’t say there is an awful lot of truth in it. If I was Italian or Luxemburgian, they would be the same stories. It depends on the way you see the world, to me anyway, more than the way you’ve been brought up or your history of storytelling. I suppose most of my storytelling influences weren’t Irish, they were mostly American films. Novel-wise, and short-story-wise, mostly American or, like Borges, South American. I didn’t read many Irish books or short stories when I was younger, I read what my brother had, and they were mostly American books. So Irish stuff didn’t have any kind of influence really, certainly not when I was growing up. Now it’s become a bit more clearly defined, but even now, I’m more aware of the idea of Irish storytelling, the tradition, but I still haven’t studied it or taken enough time out to actually see what it’s all about. Although I am interested in the general myth of the Irish storyteller and I’ve just finished the third play in the trilogy that begins with The Cripple of Inishmaan. It isn’t as good as the other two but it’s all about the Irish storytellers, the seanchais. I find it interesting to play around with that from a fictional point of view. And it’s interesting to play around with it. Now that I am an Irish storyteller, I’ve told Irish stories. It’s interesting to come back and see things with that perspective, knowing that there were Irish storytellers in the countryside telling the myths, the stories, the legends. I think that was the spark that gave me the idea for The Banshees of Inisheer. But it would be phony of me to say I have anything to do with Irish storytelling. The plays are Irish stories, and I hope someday they’ll be recognized as Irish stories … But for me, now, I feel kind of phony. Maybe I’m just having a bad morning. I hope someday they’ll be regarded as true Irish stories, I don’t think they are at this minute. It will take a long time for the baggage of me being a Londoner to be in the past.
FO The one aspect of Irishness that has to go everywhere, New York, Australia or London, and in some way the simplest and the most powerful, is Catholicism. If Irish culture in the sense of stories, plays or novels wasn’t there for you, was Catholicism an important part of your world growing up in London?
MM I didn’t see it as important when I was growing up because I didn’t think about it, like you don’t think about being white when you’re growing up, being white is just something that’s there. It’s only in the process of rejecting something that you think about why you were brought up that way in the first place.
FO You didn’t go to a Catholic school, did you?
MM I did. Half run by priests, both my schools. The primary was half run by nuns and lay teachers. The secondary was priests and lay teachers. I didn’t have any massive moment of deciding to reject the whole Catholic faith. It was a gradual disagreement with certain points, I guess that’s the way most people who leave it go. It wasn’t like a Damascus-type of thing, just details of the doctrine that didn’t seem quite right, as well as not being bothered to leave an hour of every week to go to church. (laughter) I never set out to comment on Catholicism or priests. Seeing the Leenane plays The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara and Lonesome West again in Sydney … it was interesting to see a play through a whole different culture’s eyes. It was the first time I saw them without seeing through an English or Irish person’s eyes, it was completely new and fresh. But all the seemingly anti-clerical or anti-Catholic or anti-Christian jokes still came through. For me they seemed more a comment on the faith than they were when I was writing them. Or maybe they were … All the things that have been going on in Ireland in the last few years, the revelations about child abuse by priests, were at the back of my mind while I was writing. Having somebody representing a gang of people, some of whose members are vicious bastards who are defended by the same system—it is like the mafia, the church with the cappos …
FO But the priest is quite a sympathetic figure in the Leenane Trilogy. I don’t know if he’s pathetic or if he’s incapable of actually doing much harm.
MM No, but he is actually seen as an ordinary man. I guess maybe I don’t see him as a priest. I see him as a bloke, a decent man. He’s probably more a representation of my idea, or my faith in the Christ I was taught about as a kid. I guess it’s a suicidal Christ figure, which is a figure I’ve always been interested in. Somebody who kills himself for the sake of others. I think the general tone of voice is—maybe, I don’t think about it in these terms, but the majority of the jokes are anti-Catholic. And the portrayal of the priest is pro. He’s the savior figure of the Trilogy. More because he’s a decent man than anything. I guess it plays into my idea—maybe it’s a childlike idea of Jesus more than Christianity.
FO Do you write most days or do you write in bursts?
MM If I’m going to write a play or a film I’ll say, I’m starting it today and then I’ll go three hours a day, or three pages a day until it’s done. Then stop, maybe type it. I’ll do it until it’s done, and then not write for ten months. No, I don’t write constantly. I don’t even take notes, really. I don’t even think about it too much. I like having things seep in. No, I don’t write every day; I don’t think I could. I should write more than I do probably. I really could do 12 plays a year. If I cut down, Fintan, I swear to God I could. (laughter) I haven’t even seen my favorite play staged yet.
FO Which is what?
MM The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Maybe at the end of this year it’ll come out. I’m in the position now where I have said—nothing else is going to come out in England or Ireland before that one comes out. Because it deals with the Northern Ireland situation, so this year is the best time to do it. I would be happy to not have anything else come out before that.
FO Your life before all this happened was relatively isolated. You weren’t well known, you weren’t part of a very large group of people, and then suddenly you’re thrown into this situation which is collaborative, which is incredibly public, which opens you up to all kinds of stuff that you’re doing now. Did you find that hard to cope with at a personal level?
MM I wouldn’t say I found it hard, certainly not on the surface. Maybe that tells you something. It’s been a crazy two years. Mad, really. I can see how much I’ve changed, but I can see how much I’ve stayed the same. Maybe it’s a lack of connection that I’ve always had. I hope maybe that helps the writing in some ways, to not be quite connected, to see things from a skewed point of view. It’s been a strange few years. I still hope I can always get back to the place where I was two years ago. Just physically, to not have an answering machine, to not have people phone me. The best way to not have people phone you is to take the phone off the hook, or not have a phone. It’s a mental choice to not do that anymore, everything can be switched off that easily. It’s a question of having the guts to do it, and having the guts to hurt people when you do it. It can happen. It’ll take some effort. If I’m not happy writing-wise over the next year or two, probably two ’cause this stuff is crazy. Again, there’s no connection, having two plays on in New York, two or three years ago I would have thought, You’re joking; but now it means nothing. Maybe it’s a good thing to have all that counts for you be the next play down the way. I think that’s good, to not have too much respect for this kind of thing. To know that Beauty Queen is a play I wrote in a week and a half, Cripple was a play I wrote in five weeks. I think I could do the same things again and better next month if I put my mind to it. I hope so. We’ll see what happens next month. Okay, I might not be able to do it next month, but this whole hoopla has no connection to me.
FO Is that partly because the plays are not about yourself, they’re external. You’re not working out some attempts at analyzing who you are or where you’re coming from. Or is there some hidden, deep element of hate in them?
MM I think there’s a lot about me in the plays as any writer who expurgates stuff out of themselves. I don’t know. Not as much. I tell stories. Anybody could tell the stories that I tell. But I care about the stories as I’m writing them.
FO Because the word you keep using is “disconnected” or “disconnection.” Do you have any idea where that comes from, or where it’s located. Is it to do with the sense of physical dislocation?
MM No. It would be bogus to put that kind of analysis on the stories. No, it’s just a personal thing I’ve always had. Just a lack of connection. There’s no major to do about it. I think it might make the stories better. They’re not cold or analytical. I don’t dissect characters, it’s not like sticking a few marionettes around the stage. Again, it’s about caring about that stuff while it’s on the page. But afterwards, it’s about destroying them. Now most of it’s gone. I had a grand time getting around to places I never dreamed I’d be going to. Like Sydney and here. I came here for the first time about two and a half years ago. I had no friends here at that time. I just came for about ten days, bummed about as a tourist. I wrote a play from an hour experience I had in Coney Island. If I had imagined then all of this stuff, I wouldn’t have believed it. And it’s brilliant, really. Sometimes I stop and think, it’s fun, because I only wanted to have fun with all of this stuff. The whole point of writing in the first place was to get out of the house a bit, and now I’m getting out of the house too much. (laughter) My main ambition was never to have a job—a job like I was brought up in school to do. This isn’t a job in those terms.
FO Is it different with movies? Are you more ambitious about movies in that this is something that you really want to do, and you would feel unhappy if you weren’t to achieve some kind of purchase on the movie world?
MM Not purchase on the movie world. I would be unhappy if I wrote 90 good plays and didn’t make a good film. But if I made one good film. If I made one brilliant film, one really, really good film, I’d be happy. One would be enough. My favorite film director only made one or two. Badlands is my favorite film and Terrence Malick only made that film and Days of Heaven. He’s making another one at the moment. That’s one of the biggest influences on my life and my work, that one film, Badlands. There’s no play that’s ever had that kind of effect on me. I’ve got a childish idea of the worth of the glossy nature of film, but it is something I feel quite strongly about. There could be a hundred interpretations of a play and some will be good, some will be great, and some of them won’t be so good, but with a film, if they get it right, it’s there forever. That knowledge that a work of beauty will always be there to inspire somebody. Like Buster Keaton, something that guy did in the 1920s still has the power to inspire now; that’s beautiful and if I could achieve something like that … It’s probably stupid. You really love theater maybe …
FO I do, yeah.
MM It’s not that I don’t respect theater. I’m intelligent enough to know that a play can completely inspire a person as much as a film. I know that. But it’s never happened to me, and theater isn’t something that’s connected to me, from a personal point of view, I can’t appreciate what I’m doing. I hope what I’m doing, or just moments of what I’m doing, might be an inspiration, but it’s something that I can’t quite connect with. Maybe that’s the best way to do it anyway. I guess it goes back again to this position as a youngish guy involved in a medium that is mostly frequented by older, duller, less rock ’n’ roll-y kinds of people. That’s a stupid sentence but, do you know what I mean? I’d like to see my plays if I wasn’t me. Maybe I should think about that more often than I do.
Fintan O’Toole is a drama critic for the Daily News and a columnist for the Irish Times. A native of Dublin, his latest books are A Traitor’s Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and a collection of essays on contemporary Ireland, The Lie of the Land.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee