Volume I, Issue II Winter 2002

The end of the Irish literary renaissance

Writing about "Dancing at Lughnasa" for the New York Times in 1991, Frank Rich observed, presumably with annoyance, "Whenever an Irish dramatist writes a great play, or even a not-so-great one, habit demands that non-Irish audiences fall all over themselves praising the writer's command of the English language."

Martin McDonagh, who was hailed in his mid-twenties as the new incarnation of Irish theatrical genius a few years ago when this same play premiered in both London and New York, may have changed all of that forever. The Irish Literary Renaissance, begun gloriously in the days of W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and John Synge, may be over. The presumption of Irish dramatic genius, of which McDonagh got full advantage, is apparently debunked.

Martin McDonagh
Martin McDonagh

In all fairness, McDonagh should not be singled out as the one solely responsible for the present state of affairs. It began about thirty years about when people began comparing every Irish playwright who arrived on the contemporary scene with Shaw, O'Casey and Synge. It also followed from the rash statements of people like Kenneth Tynan, who in a review of Brendan Behan's "The Hostage," during the '60s, suggested that England's writers were permanently indebted to the Irish for periodically freshening up the language. These same people neglected the genuinely gifted playwrights emerging in England at the time.

But to get back to Mr. McDonagh, subsequent plays like "The Cripple of Inishman" and "The Lonesome West" did little to add to his reputation.

What brings this all to mind is seeing "The Beauty Queen" again after a few years. The production in question (at the Hudson Backstage Theatre in Santa Monica) shows it to be what one always feared, a kind of Irish tobacco road without the sociological insights of the latter work.

One could argue that director Anthony Caldarella, who has erred before, particularly in a recent production of the "The Price" at the Odyssey, is a less-than-competent director, and that M.J. Karmi (who plays the title character) is an execrable actress. The argument would be well taken in either case, but it would not save McDonagh. "The Beauty Queen" is, quite simply, a bad naturalistic play, devoid of nuance and intellect. Competent work by Helena Carroll (as the mother) and Tim Murphy (as the lover) is wasted.

So there are no more Irish dramatic geniuses to be had at the moment, and when another happens to appear, it will be too late, the streak will have been broken. It was a grand and glorious run, but it's time to bring down the curtain.

Winter 2002 Theater Section | Winter 2002 Main Page
Current Theater Section | Current Home Page