Father Welsh: You have no morals at all, it seems, Girleen. Girleen--I have plenty of morals only I don't keep whining on about them like some fellas.
(Martin McDonagh, The Lonesome West)
A youthful figure strolls through an area in London known by the odd-sounding name of 'Elephant and Castle'. It is a place that lies in Southwark, in the southern suburbs of the city. Although this young man is accustomed to the location, familiar with its sights and sounds, in a real sense he is a stranger and can never belong. His family is from a rural background and a rural perspective on life lies buried deep in his psyche. His family's religion, too, sets him apart. It is resolutely Catholic, and London, of all places, rejects the old beliefs. He himself has ambivalent feelings about the church, its priests, and their influence on his life. He questions the authority and wisdom of the church in many matters, yet something in him remains loyal to the Old Faith. In fact, in no small way it will inform his writing in the years to come, and this young talent has a ready wit, imagination and, above all, a burning desire to become a great writer. Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately) to further him in this ambition, he has no great formal education--no university degree, for example. What is more, to some, his approach seems mercenary: he intends to use his writing--especially his playwriting--to get 'seriously rich'. He also carries an overwhelming sense of his own genius, to the point that some consider him arrogant; and certainly he is highly competitive and often dismissive of others. His precocious talent easily attracts jealousy and hostility from other (often less talented) writers. His detractors resent this upstart's cavalier attitude toward accepted norms and conventions; they accuse him of opportunism. Above all they resent his capacity to confound his critics, to combine profundity with commercial acumen, and to demonstrate a talent for entertainment that somehow manages to escape the superficial and transcends mere crowd-pleasing. (1)
Were this opening paragraph to be entitled 'Portrait of a Playwright', to whom might it refer? No doubt the keen student of theatre history could muster more than a couple of possibilities, but there are two names that present an immediate answer. If William Shakespeare in the late 1580s/early 1590s presents one possible model, then the London-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh in the late 1980s/early 1990s presents another. What makes the similarity in profile all the more intriguing is that in recent years they have been arguably the two most performed playwrights in the English language. (2) Shakespeare is an ever-present icon, but McDonagh is a living, growing, and challenging presence. In the words of New York Times critic, Ben Brantley: 'Mr McDonagh has become one of the great, glowing hopes of the English-speaking theatre.' (3)
Despite ten years of award-winning plays, an Oscar from Hollywood, and acclaim on the international stage, there are still those who question the accolades accorded to one whom some view as a maverick trading off a worthy cultural heritage; they dismiss 'this upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers,' the enfant terrible of Irish drama. 'There is a massive resistance,' admits David Wilmot, a Tony-nominated actor, who has appeared in leading roles in many of McDonagh's bloodiest productions, 'to his visceral talent.' (4) As though reflecting such contrasting judgements, the artist himself seems somewhat leery of his own success. 'I just want to write for the love of it,' McDonagh told Fintan O'Toole in a 2006 interview, and added perhaps a little disconsolately, 'and also grow up because all the plays have the sensibility of a young man.' (5) The intention, however, in this essay is not to debate these conflicting, and possibly irreconcilable, views but rather to look specifically and in detail at two plays, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which seem to have much in common--not least in the critical furore which surrounds them, and which has led to both being at various times dismissed in similarly pejorative terms: as 'another grotesque potboiler', as 'an excuse for blood-letting', or 'a grisly senseless map of horror'. Titus Andronicus has been referred to as 'the most notorious play in the Shakespeare canon'; The Lieutenant of Inishmore as 'McDonagh's most controversial play.' (6) 'The play's piling of horror upon horror,' write the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare volume about Titus Andronicus, 'can seem ludicrous'. (7) The word might just as easily be a description of the plot of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Indeed, the word 'ludicrous' (from Latin ludus) suggests 'play' or even 'tease'. There are elements of youthful jouissance (playfulness) about both dramas, which might also suggest youthful indiscretion--given the violence. If Theatre of Blood is a term that applies to much late sixteenth-century English drama, then it may not be entirely a coincidence that it was the Royal Shakespeare Company which finally plucked up enough courage to stage McDonagh's challenging drama. (8) Not only the original RSC production in 2001 directed by Wilson Milam, but also the 2006 Atlanta Theatre premiere in New York with the same director (and some of the original cast members) will add an important performance commentary on the play. These stagings will be contrasted with the Siren production of Titus Andronicus at the Dublin Project Arts Theatre in December 2005, directed by Selina Cartmell.
To begin, let us look at brief summaries of the two plays: The plot of Titus Andronicus is macabre: the Roman general, Titus Andronicus, returns in triumph from the wars. Amongst the spoils of war, Titus brings home captive the beautiful Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and her three sons. The city of Rome celebrates Titus's success and as part of the celebrations, Alarbus, the eldest son of Tamora is chosen to be sacrificed as an offering to assuage the gods. On her knees, Tamora pleads for her son's life to be spared, citing mercy as the quality closest to divinity. Titus, however, seeing the sacrifice as both a patriotic and religious duty, is deaf to entreaty But his hardness of heart unleashes a cycle of violent retribution, which continues unabated until the final bloody scenes of the play. With her two remaining sons, Tamora secretly vows revenge on Titus.
When Saturninus, the new emperor of Rome, unexpectedly elevates her to be his queen, her chance to get even with Titus presents itself. With help from Tamora's Machiavellian minister, Aaron the Moor, her two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, rape and mutilate Titus's beloved daughter, Lavinia. They cut out her tongue and cut off her hands so that she cannot identify her attackers. Later, when Titus finds out who the rapists are, he kills Tamora's two remaining sons and has them baked in a pie. In a gruesome final scene which leads to the deaths of virtually all the major characters, 'mad' Titus invites Tamora and Saturnine to a feast. Having first ritually slaughtered Lavinia because she has been dishonoured, he then reveals that the pie which Tamora has been feasting on contains the remains of her own sons. Titus has his revenge but in doing so he has merely continued the cycle of violent retribution that he himself initiated. Moreover, in the process, he has destroyed the one that he loves most dearly.
The plot of The Lieutenant of Inishmore is at least as bloody: After five years as a Republican paramilitary in the INLA, Padraic, 'the Madman of Aran' has earned a fearsome reputation for his patriotism, his ruthlessness, and his capacity for vengeance. When we first encounter him in the second scene he is torturing a Belfast drug-dealer, even as he lectures him on good behaviour. The drug dealer is saved from further mutilation by chance when Donny, Padraic's father, phones from his home on Inishmore to tell him his cat Wee Thomas is 'poorly'. Hearing that Wee Thomas, 'me only friend in the world now', is sick, Padraic reacts emotionally and leaves Belfast immediately to return to his native Inishmore. Before Padraic's arrival home, Donny, and a young neighbour, Davey, are in panic, because Wee Thomas has, despite Donny's message, it appears, died suddenly following a road accident. They fear that on his return Padraic will blame them for the cat's death and take vengeance accordingly. However, unknown to the other characters, the cat's death is part of an elaborate plan to lure Padraic back to Aran where he can be assassinated. Erstwhile comrades in the INLA are angry with 'Mad Padraic' because they believe he is destroying their lucrative profits from the drug trade. One of Padraic's few admirers is Davey's sixteen-year-old sister, Mairead, who has long hero-worshipped Padraic and wishes nothing more than to follow in his bloody footsteps. On his return to Inishmore, Padraic has little time for Mairead or her dreams, until she saves him with her airgun from almost certain execution at the hands of the three INLA members who have arrived to kill him, at which point they begin a short but passionate love affair. She and Padraic order Donny and Davey to begin smashing up the bodies of the slain paramilitaries, but when she discovers unexpectedly that Padraic has killed her own beloved cat, Sir Roger, she turns on her lover and blows his brains out. Both her beloved Sir Roger and her once revered Padraic now lie dead before her. She has realized her dream of becoming a lieutenant in the INLA, yet in the end it seems to have turned sour.
In placing these plays side by side several points of comparison and contrast present themselves. The first and most obvious similarity is that they are extraordinarily bloody and violent. In both cases, a continuous series of murders and mutilations leads to a final, destructive denouement. Secondly, an 'eye-for-an-eye' principle of vengeance and retribution seems to underlie most of the action. Thirdly, the central figures (Titus and Padraic, both characterized as 'mad'), who initiate most of the violence, are driven by militaristic codes of honour, which have patriotic and religious elements to them. Of course, while such similarities exist, it must be admitted that the two plays belong to different genres. Apart from the obvious contrast between poetic and demotic speech, Titus Andronicus is listed among Shakespeare's works as a 'lamentable Roman tragedy'; The Lieutenant of Inishmore is described more correctly as 'a black farce'. That said, perceptive directors and productions (such as the recent Siren staging in Dublin) have discovered such a rich vein of black comedy in Titus Andronicus (and others a rich undercurrent of despair in The Lieutenant of Inishmore) that the two plays are far closer in type than a superficial the dichotomy between farce and tragedy might suggest. 'When will this fearful slumber have an end?' asks the suffering Titus, (III.i.253). 'Oh, will it never end? Will it never fecking end?' asks the despairing Davey in Scene 9 (p.67) of McDonagh's play. (9) Above all, in this regard, it is worth remembering the puzzling description (cited by Meyerhold) of a theatrical success in 1560s London, Thomas Preston's play, Cambyses, as 'a lamentable tragedy mixed full of pleasant mirth'. (10)
As a title for this essay, the Shakespearean phrase 'Put to Silence' (11) seems appropriate for many reasons. In terms of production, at least, McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore was famously 'silenced' for a number of years, during a critical stage in the Northern Irish peace process. As a result, the author berated the English theatres for their timidity. The fact that none of the English theatres wished to produce his play has been much debated. Clearly, in a more brutal manner, the silencing of writers was also a feature of the Elizabethan age as the fate of Shakespeare's contemporaries, Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd indicates: Marlowe was almost certainly murdered; Kyd was tortured and died soon after, a broken man. The latter's play, The Spanish Tragedy, in which the imprisoned hero bites off his own tongue in order that he cannot be forced to speak, seems emblematic of that age. In Shakespeare's case, a new generation of critics is re-evaluating his writings in the light of the fraught religious history of Elizabeth I's reign. Stephen Greenblatt, Michael Wood, and Eamon Duffy amongst others, for example, see a strong Catholic influence in both Shakespeare's immediate family and in his education. (12) They are prepared to speculate that Shakespeare may have spent part of his youth in Lancashire--a hotbed of Catholic radicalism--and even argue that he may early have come under the tutelage of influential Jesuit teachers. Such influence, if it existed, would have been impossible for Shakespeare to confess openly. Clare Asquith takes the argument a stage further contending that Shakespeare spent his career forging a precarious balance between his underlying Catholic sympathies, his need to propagandize, and the real politics of the day that made secretiveness a necessity. He may well, she argues, have written a play such as Titus Andonicus as a coded message to an audience who would have needed special understanding to decipher the unspoken meaning between the lines.
In addition to these links, both plays are filled with people whose 'mouth[s] [are] stopped' (to use another telling Shakespearean phrase), people who either through intimidation, or mutilation, or death, are made to relinquish their stories. In Lavinia's case the phrase has a particularly horrible resonance. Despite her innocence, her mouth is quite literally stopped. Her attackers make sure that she cannot speak to accuse them. As with Desdemona (the phrase comes not only from Titus Andronicus but also from Othello) her innocence is no defence. One remembers Brecht's notorious: 'The more innocent they are the more they deserved to die', (13) but the mad logic of this world seems mockingly to echo his sentiment. What the innocent have to say is often muted while a new narrative is imposed. Refusal to change one's story can be a fateful, indeed fatal, decision. 'Truth's a dog must to kennel,' says the Fool in King Lear, a play frequently connected with Titus Andronicus, 'He must be whipped out' (I.iv.105). In Titus Andronicus, the ruthless Aaron loses no time in despatching the Nurse, when her narrative of events proves inconvenient (IV.ii.150-170). People who speak what they feel to be true, in both Titus Andronicus and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, suffer a terrible price of either mayhem (maiming) or murder.
Donny: If you admit it was you knocked poor Thomas down, Davey, I won't tell him. If you carry on that it wasn't, then I will. Them are your choices.
Davey: But it isn't fecking fair, Donny!
Donny: I don't know if it is or it isn't.
Davey: I knew well I should've up and ignored the bastard when I saw him lying there, for if a black cat crossing your path is bad luck, what must one of the feckers lying dead in front of you be? Worse luck. I killed Wee Thomas so, if that's what you want to hear.
Davey: How? However you fecking want, sure! I hit him with me bike, then I banged him with a hoe, then I jumped up and down on the feck!
Donny: You hit him with your bike, uh-huh, I suspected. But an accident it was?
Davey: An accident, aye. A pure fecking accident.
Donny: Well ... fair enough if an accident is all it was.
Davey (pause) So you won't be mentioning my name so?
Donny: I won't be (Scene 1, p.8).
This blatant rewriting of narratives here seems familiar and is, indeed, deeply characteristic of an age in which 'spin doctors' are constantly 'rewriting' events to suit those whose agendas they serve. That is surely one reason why today such scenes have a powerful appeal. McDonagh shows the insidious effect of this rewriting. Although both sides appear to be getting something from the re-arrangement of truth, in reality it merely sets at least one party up for a future fall. Later when Donny uses the confession against Davey in an attempt to assuage his son, Padraic, Davey is forced to admit that he made the confession, even though he knew at the time it was false. As time passes, and Davey's courage returns, he ensures his threatened mutilation and execution are made even more certain by his open challenging of Padraic. Yet, for all that, Davey's initial cowardice is forgiveable. The rules of the game are unmistakable: stick to your version of the truth at your peril. And this principle that honest speech may come at a huge cost must be seen to have a wider application than mere paramilitary intimidation. In fact, the reception and interpretation of McDonagh's play have often taken a markedly different turn depending on the context of performance. As Patrick Lonergan points out: 'It is interesting that the play was presented in Istanbul mainly in the context of terrorist violence, whereas in Australia it was presented as a condemnation of state violence.' (14) Surely a fundamental error of some criticism has been to see this play in terms merely of paramilitary justice or injustice. Thuggery, it might be argued, is not confined to illegal, subversive organizations. Names such as that of the Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, and the British Government scientist, Dr David Kelly, bear proud and enduring witness that the pattern of intimidation, followed by silence, may be equally true of another kind of terror.
Of course this does not just describe our world. It applies equally to the society of Shakespeare and of Titus as well, as Clare Asquith explains:
The play [Titus Andronicus] now [Act IV.iii-iv] refers to the two occasions on which Catholics in England attempted to inform the Queen about the real state of the country. In 1585, Richard Shelley, a kinsman of [Robert] Southwell's, was imprisoned for presenting a petition for toleration, dying later in jail without trial; and in 1592, Southwell wrote his doomed Humble Supplication. In an echo of these fruitless initiatives, the demented Titus accosts a simple countryman and asks him to deliver a letter that [...] also contains a weapon, this time a knife--a hint at the barbed attacks contained in the appeals. The message is twice called a 'supplication'. For running this errand, the poor clown, who delivers the letter with a cheerful invocation to God and the martyr St. Stephen, is hanged on the spot (pp.96-7).
Alice Hogge …