The Good, the Bad, and the Irish


It’s not every playwright who can claim he got into a fist fight with James Bond, but Martin McDonagh sure can. The now infamous scene took place in 1996 at the Evening Standard Awards. It was a great year for the up and coming playwright. His first play The Beauty Queen of Leenane was a phenomenal West End hit and he was about to receive an award for Most Promising New Playwright. Yet, in true McDonagh form, he showed up to the ceremony with his brother three sheets to the wind. The two stormed in so loud, obnoxious and vulgar that Sean Connery himself—always at his Majesty’s service—stepped forward and told the young men to behave themselves. Needless to say, McDonagh did not take this rebuke gracefully. “It’s not something that I’m proud of,” he has since confessed,” but it happened. Yes, that’s right. I squared off with a 66 year old man.” Yet, the incident did teach him a valuable lesson. “I can tell you one thing, if you meet him; don’t say anything about the Royal Family. He may be 66, but he seemed pretty big and vigorous when he had his hands on my shoulders.”


            This is the type of story that makes literary legends. Yet, it is only one of many. McDonagh’s biography is probably even more outlandish than anything he could dream of writing. The son of a construction worker and cleaning lady, he dropped out of school at 16, shunned college because it was “bogus” and spent the following 10 years on the doll watching TV and eating potato chips. During this decade of leisure, McDonagh watched his brother, John, try to become a writer, and decided that it might be a good idea to become one too. “Here was a job where all you had was your head, a pencil and a piece of paper. That’s the coolest kind of job there is.” So, he marched into his brother’s room and borrowed a “How To” manual on writing. This new literary pursuit also helped justify his jobless situation. “It was unemployment with honor.”  Then, calamity struck. His unemployment benefits dried up and he soon found himself working 9-5 as a clerk in a civil servant’s office. This turn of events only fueled McDonagh’s drive to become a writer all the more.


The result may not have been overnight success, but it was close.  After failing at short stories, radio plays and a TV script, he turned to the chapter on “Playwrighting” in his “How To” manual. Eight days later, according McDonagh, he had cranked out his first play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. The rest is history. Not long after, this native of England, who had never lived in Ireland, became one of the most successful Irish playwrights alive. At 26, he had four different plays running simultaneously in London. It’s an amazing story, especially since McDonagh absolutely hates the theatre.


             “My first love was always film, “he has said. “So I try and introduce some cinematic aspects to my plays. A kind of speed. I like short, sharp, set-ups and scenes. And I like telling stories which is something that theatre has lost over the last 20 or 30 years and which film always had. “His idols are not Shakespeare or Chekhov, but rather Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, David Mamet, and Harold Pinter, with whom he shares a love of stylized language and the relentless threat of violence. 


            Theatre for McDonagh is just a stepping stone. His real goal is to become a filmmaker. But what kind of films would this Englishman who writes Irish plays make? How about an Irish spaghetti western? According to McDonagh, “any country that has a history of crazy guys with guns has a leg up when it comes to doing films.”  Who knows? Maybe Martin McDonagh will go from being the next John Synge to the next Sergio Leone.


Dan Tarker, Literary Associate