'Put to Silence': Murder, Madness, and 'Moral Neutrality' in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Martin McDonagh's the Lieutenant of Inishmore
Wilcock, Mike, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies
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'. …