Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leeanne

Shortly after THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE finished its much praised run at the ROYAL COURT in March 1996, Harrison Birtwistle's THE MASK OF ORPHEUS opened on the South Bank. Thinking about the two productions, it is difficult to imagine that a dramatist who dared to be as iconoclastic and uncompromising as Birtwistle would get a start today on the English stage. None of the young dramatists whose work is attracting much praise shows any sign of wanting to plough such a new and individual furrow. On the contrary, the work of these new writers is marked by its conventionalism. Martin McDonagh's first play owes nothing to modernism except, perhaps, a fairly frank treatment of sex. Otherwise, it is a straightforward piece of realism, albeit one with a hint of allegory.  

Set in the Irish town of the title, it concerns the relations between Mag, a woman of seventy, and her much put upon daughter, Maureen who, at forty, is still struggling for her autonomy. Just why all the burden of looking after the importunate and scheming old woman should have fallen to Maureen is never made clear. What happened to her husband ? Why do Maureen's sisters not lend a hand ? These minor criticisms apart, the dialogue rolls along nicely, much of it funny in the midst of the nastiness that is the everyday intercourse between the two women. In this respect, McDonagh has begun well. He can write dialogue. He can structure a play too. The scenes knit together well. The appalling situation between mother and daughter is vividly created, but there is also a false note. Something slightly too cruel that tilts towards melodrama hovers behind even the early scenes of the play. It is as if McDonagh has lacked the confidence to allow the cruelty of the situation to seep out, to be present but never overstated. From the beginning he seems to be pushing a little too hard to make us see what is evident. His touch is a little too heavy.  

The plot concerns Maureen's chances of a life of her own with Pato, a man of her own age who is away earning what living he can in England most of the time. He returns for the farewell party in honour of his uncle who is heading off to Boston and invites Maureen to go with him. The old woman wants her daughter to stay with her. She stands in the way of her bid for independence and in a cruel and selfish act,denies her daughter her chance of happiness. It is terrible that the old woman should cling to her daughter so meanly. Awful that she cannot put her child's happiness before her own. Appalling that she, in the last years of her life, should have all she wants, little though that is, while her daughter should be denied the love, the passion, the new life that could have been hers. Yet it is a little too terrible. The true horror of it is undermined by the horror of it being overplayed. In the scene when Maureen and Pato have spent the night together under the old woman's roof and the daughter, half undressed drapes herself over the man and says:  

You'll have to be putting that thing of yours in me again before too long is past, Pato. I do have a taste for it now."  

it is hard not to feel that the spitefulness of this, its parading of the sensuality which the daughter craves and which the mother denies, its utter immodesty, its complete lack of any residue of love or respect for the old woman is a step too far. It is hard not to feel that it would have been enough for the old woman to sit in silent outrage at the thought that her daughter had known a night of love in her very house in spite of all her efforts to deny her. It is hard not to feel that the audience's emotions are being played on too heavily. On the other hand, when the old woman responds by revealing that her daughter has previoulsy been incarcerated in a mental institution in England, this feels right. It is the kind of desperate act to which the old woman would resort and is just what she needs to drive a wedge between her daughter and the man who could rescue her from a wasted life . Yet this shows how McDonagh doesn't quite get the relationship right, for if Maureen has as much contempt for her mother as she shows, why would she stay with her? Without some meagre glow of love, what would hold her? And in spite of her breakdown, brought on by being lonely and abused in England as a young woman, she shows herself to have spirit. Why wouldn't she use it to get away, if only twenty miles?

  All the doubts about the emotional poignancy of the play are brought to a head in its denouement. I apologise to those who haven't seen it for giving away too much, but it needs to be discussed. When Maureen realises that her mother has betrayed her, and this happens because of a word out of turn spoken by the old woman, she tortures her to make her reveal the truth. Earlier in the play Mag claims that Maureen has poured hot fat over her left hand which, at the outset is described as being slightly more shrivelled than her right. Maureen denies it, asserting that the injury was self-inflicted through carelessness. But in scene seven we see it. happen. Now, imagine a seventy-year-old woman having her hand held down while hot fat is poured over it. Is it likely that she would remain conscious through the pain ? And if she did, would she still be conscious when, having confessed to her evil act, the remainder of the fat is thrown into her midriff and splashes up onto her face? Yet even beyond this, in the next scene we find that the old woman's head has been split by the poker to which several references are made, an injury which leaves a red chunk of skull hanging from a string of skin. This is serious. Mag is dead. How is this to be explained away? Forensic techniques may not be as sophisticated in small-town Ireland as in metropolitan England, but would the police pass over such injuries lightly ? And what kind of accident could explain them ? Yet the whole issue of investigation is dismissed in scene nine as Maureen declares that " the hundred bastarding inquests, proved nothing." An old woman has been badly burned by fat, had her head cleft and the inquests come up with nothing.  

The unbelievability of this denouement reverberates back through the rest of the play. It is overstated, overplayed. The mystery is why McDonagh felt that he must have Maureen get away with the murder, except ,of course that had she been arrested the final scene could not have been in her home. But if unity of scene was a requirement, given the scale of the production, then it requires merely a bit of dramatic ingenuity to overcome the restraints this imposes. It won't do to skirt round a major problem of authenticity in the manner of a television soap. Worse, McDonagh wants Maureen to get away with the murder. He is on her side and to such a degree that he flies in the face of the realistic logic of his own plot. He won't let the play go where it ought. He lets Maureen go free because that is what he, Martin McDonagh, would want. But what has he to do with the determinism of events ? Once set such determinism in train as an artist and it won't do to retreat from the consequences. Maureen should have been convicted and imprisoned. That would have been tragic and ironic. McDonagh shys away from tragedy because he wants to control the world. He does not have the maturity of a dramatist who knows that the heart and mind have their own laws, as does the State. The resolution of this little play is wholly unsatisfying, emotionally and intellectually. It shows that being able to write dialogue is no proof of a dramatist's skill. It brings the whole structure of the play crashing down. It is cheap, tawdry, silly and manipulative.  

All this is a shame, for McDonagh can write and might have something to say. The most interesting suggestions in the play are those which draw a parallel between the relationship between the two women and that of Ireland to England. The old country cannot let go of its grip. Colonialism has left Ireland dependent. People must go to England to look for work. In some ways underdeveloped, Ireland is oppressive because the underdevelopment goes hand in hand with a lack of maturity in personal relations. And native Irish culture has been overlayed with an imported English one: the old woman lives on Complan and boil in the bag fish. There seems to be nothing on the television but Australian soaps. The sense of having been robbed of a real sense of identity as a nation comes over strongly but is humourously conveyed. As is the petty-mindedness of small-town life. There is a lovely line about not being able to kick a cow in Leenane without someone bearing a grudge for twenty years and Pato expresses poignantly the paradox of wanting Ireland and not wanting it, of feeling neglected in England and yet being glad to be away, to be able to enjoy anonymity and independence. These are interesting ironies and it is a pity that they weren't further developed. As it is, McDonagh has chosen to touch upon them in a drama which focuses on the personal but which does so through a realism which denies itself by being finally unbelievable.  

In this play McDonagh has proved that he can write dialogue. The question is, and it is a question Michael Billington is constantly asking, will he continue to write for the theatre or be poached by television and film? There is no doubt that a writer with his facility for speech could find a lucrative niche. Yet if he chooses to make the theatre his home, and I hope he will, he needs to look more to O'Casey than to the melodrama that televsion audiences feed on, more to Beckett than to the conventional drama that majority audiences absorb. My guess is that young writers of his ilk fear that if they stray too far from the conventional, they will be rejected. Theatres today cannot afford productions like THE BIRTHDAY PARTY which sent its audiences away wondering what it was about. Which brings me back to my original point:

where are the Harrison Birtwistle's of playwriting ? When will we see again young writers who dare to challenge the conventions, to subvert all our expectations about the theatre? I think that behind the writing of this play is a nod to television, to its naturalism, its spatchcock plots and emotional unreality. Which is not to say that McDonagh might not be capable of robust plotting and emotional reality. I'm sure he might, but he needs courage. The kind of courage which will eliminate from his future work the unconvincing devices with which he chose to end this one. There is much promise in this play but no writer of promise ever produced something lasting without being brave; brave enough not to play safe. If McDonagh wants to be more than a one or two hit wonder or a rich scribbler of transient scripts, he needs to cast aside the conventions, cease manipulating both his characters and his audiences, forget the well-made play and write something artistically daring. He has a lot of growing up to do.


Confessions of an Old Believer - Jim Burns
The Gox
- Steven Blyth   Redbeck Press 24 Aireville Rd Frizioghall, Bradford BD9 4HH

 Here are two interesting collections from David Tipton's Redbeck Press, one from an old hand and the other from an eager beaver. Over the years Redbeck has helped into print many writers who would otherwise have struggled. David Tipton has worked hard on behalf of other writers and his own rewards have often been modest. Still, he must be glad to be able to publish work of this kind. 

I have never met Jim Burns personally but I have followed his work over more than twenty years. His output of poems, reviews and essays is considerable, if you know where to look for it. In this collection are more than seventy poems from a period of about ten years all marked by that wry modesty that is Jim Burns's signature. His poems do not attempt to be significant, he doesn't ry to stun us with his wisdom or insight. Nor does he parade before us his consummate deftness with language. it is in small observations that he looks for clues to what it means to be human and he uses a simple, straightforward language that is no less carefully chosen for that. Through his poems emerges the vision of a modest man who has learned to look at life and at human foibles slightly askance, not to set himself apart or above, but to try to cast a little oblique light on our condition. In these poems you can find humour, tragedy, compassion, bitterness some anger and a lot of love. But you will seldom find boredom or triteness.  

There are several references to communism, socialism, the workers' struggle in general and the title poem tells the story of the poet's disillusion with the politics of the left. Not that there is any move rightwards or an apologetics for capitalism, rather the regret at the failure of socialism is mingled with a sense that its expectations were, perhaps, always too high. But Burns obviously still cherishes affectionately some of the great figures and moments of the workers' movement.. In THE CALL he gets a nicely ironic piece out of the fact that a hall where Big Bill Haywood and A.J.Cook once spoke is now a bingo palace. His bitterness and, perhaps, even sense of having been let down is tempered by an ability to see the funny side, but it is, of course, a slightly dark humour.To anyone with even a passing interest in the collapse of communism and the failure of socialism this collection should appeal, not that it is full of historical detail but rather because Burns shows us how it feels to have been part of the movement, of its promise defeated. Through defeat, though, comes the feeling, as Nathaneal West put it that all order is doomed but the struggle is worthwhile. There are no answers here. But there is a belief that some things are worth fighting for. This is a poetry of hope.

  I don't want to give the impression that the book is about nothing but the historical and political. On the contrary, Burns delights in the little ironies of personal relations. He also writes about jazz, the bohemian life, the country and the city, books, and the oppressive gregariousness and ubiquitous noise of contemporary culture. I recall that when Peter Porter reviewed Burns's INTERNAL MEMORANDUM he called him "humane, randy and highly skilled ". He may be a little less randy these days but the other two categories still apply. There is no ideology in his work but in poem after poem comes the sense that a more humane life is within our grasp if only we had the courage to seize it. As for the skill, all the effort is to be clear, to use language unostentatiously but with poignancy. The words, the line-ends, the forms are carefully chosen. They give that impression of effortlessness which the best poetry always displays. It isn't easy to write poetry which is not afraid to embrace ideas but which remains accessible, humourous, wry, but seldom trite or time-serving. Of course, the danger of this kind of poetry is that it can tilt into cut up prose and I find that Burns sometimes has a problem in ending a poem: the search for the effect, the punch-line if you like, is a little too strained.

  Reading this collection I wondered why Burns has never been taken up by a big publisher either for his poetry or his prose (he has written extensively about jazz, the Beats and much else) though I suspect from his work that he would not be too pleased to have too much attention from the literary establishment. Still, I can think of many poets published by big houses whose work is not as interesting or as original as this. It's when you read a book like this that you realize just how important the small presses and people like David Tipton really are. Without them, think of all the voices we would never hear.

  It was interesting to read Jim Burns's collection along with Steven Blyth's. There are certain similarities but Steven Blyth differs in having absorbed influences which weren't around when Burns began to find his voice. There is an echo of Simon Armitage but the poems are not derivative. He uses a multiplicity of poetic persona and each one seems to approach the world with a sense of hesitancy, as if life is so baffling, what is happening to us can hardly be grasped. I suppose you could call Blyth's work, The Poetry Of Bewilderment. His characters( and his poems do create characters) tell their little stories in a faux-naif voice which points up the peculiar in the commonplace, the curious aspect all those things we take for granted assume when we look at them hard enough. The voices come at you from an unexpected angle. Poems begin: "Here I am, sorting out my belongings" or "Gig. It's a word she uses all the time." It is as if standing at the bar, minding your own business with your drink, one of those invasive tap-room philosophers starts bending your ear. And Blyth's poems provide the same kind of amusement. His characters talk as though they know what they're talking about precisely because at the same time it is clear they . don't. Their words never quite manage to get purchase on the reality they reach out to grasp. It is in the gap between our pretentions to understanding and our failure to understand that Blyth finds his humour. In SUMS the first line of which is quoted above, the narrator sorting out his things is helped by a friend, Rob. While they take a break they chat about their friends and the different ways they have of expressing love. Rob offers his homely explanation and the poem ends on a nice twist as the crosses in a long discarded maths exercise book bring to mind the kisses in cards. It is neatly done and almost makes you laugh out loud. It treats, of course, of a serious matter: the pain of divorce or the failure of love, but the pain is hidden behind the humour and the oblique observation. It's only when you think carefully about the poem that you realize it has touched on the tragedy that is at the heart of the commonplace experience of the end of a relationship.  

Some of the poems are about childhood and Blyth obviously enjoys nostalgia, the opportunity it provides for exploring innocent views of life. This innocence, the world being different from how we think and feel about it, keys in, of course, to the sense of bewilderment. THE IMPORTATION OF AIR shows how a childish misconception and foolishness lead to a disappointment which, though small, points to the kind of tragic disillusion we must all experience as we grow up and leave behind our charmed childhoods. TAG deals with our attempts to recreate the past or at least to connect with it only to find it can never be retrieved and is always distorted by our present wish to remake it according to today's needs. A kindred idea is pursued in GIG where the title word has one meaning for the young while its onomatopoeia brings an entirely different set of connotations to someone a generation older. Time passes. Values change. Sacrifices and even horrors are forgotten by those who never lived through them. The pace of modern events opens up a chasm between one generation and the next. How to hold on to what is precious ? How to bridge the gap ? Steven Blyth, like Jim Burns, offers no answers, but he knows how to ask the right questions.  

If Blyth has a weakness, it is that he relies too heavily on the narrative poem, homeliness, the small ironies of the recognizable. It works but it has a limit and the little descents of language and sentiment you find in the poems, almost chatty, confidential asides to the reader, while having warmth and friendliness might start to jar in a full collection. Still, I shall watch for Blyth's work in the small presses and look forward to seeing a longer volume to see if he knows how to develop as a writer from this auspicious beginning.  

I wonder if the younger writer will publish all his work in small press collections like the older man ? So much unmemorable poetry pours from the small presses that it is a relief to have books like these that you can look forward to taking down from the shelf over and over. It is a great tribute to the modesty and integrity of Jim Burns that he has stayed loyal to the small presses in which he made his well-earned reputation. It is a comment too on the perversity of the publishing world. Much third-rate poetry by untried writers is published by big houses, yet a solid experienced writer must go to a small publisher to get into print. Perhaps Steven Blyth will be luckier, but in any case, these books make clear just why small presses are so valuable and why you most definitely can't judge writers by their imprint.


Poems for the Millennium : Volume One - From Fin-de-siecle to Negritude edited by Jerome Rotheberg and Pierre Joris University of California Press 1995

Anthologies abound these days and it's often wise to check carefully before buying them because of the amount of duplication that occurs. Too few editors look beyond the obvious and the result is that the same names, and often the same poem, crop up with monotonous regularity. This is especially true of British anthologies (edited and published in Britain that is), and the narrow boundaries of the educational system and the literary establishment impose equally narrow definitions on what is considered worthy of inclusion. To be fair, it's also necessary to acknowledge the narrow tastes of many British poetry readers. To talk to a local poetry audience is often to realise that much of the history of modernism is still largely unknown to them.  

It's refreshing, therefore, to have available some splendid anthologies from the United States, the latest and possibly the most important of which is the first volume of Poems for the Millennium, a magnificent 800 page survey of what the editors refer to as "those international and national movements that have tried to change the direction of poetry and art as a necessary condition for changing the ways in which we think and act as human beings." That it is only the first volume needs to be stressed and it covers from "the beginnings of modernism to the middle 1940s," with a second volume scheduled to bring things up to date. It is, I think, significant that only a handful of poets from the British Isles, among them Basil Bunting, Edith Sitwell, and D.H. Lawrence, are included. Some might want to claim Eliot as a sort of honorary Englishman, and there are a few other British contributors, though they're noticeably from the Celtic areas. David Jones and Hugh McDiarmid come into this category.  

Interestingly, though it has always seemed to me that the United States is more open in its appreciation of developments in poetry, the editors refer to a tendency there to favour "a conventional view of poetic traditions and formal possibilities" when providing accounts magazines, and literary publications, preferring instead to give space to poets who operate within a safely conventional framework. I can't claim that I like everything in Poems for the Millennium, nor do I even understand it all, but I am excited by it, which is more than I can say about most of the poetry I read in current publications. To flick through the pages is to see a variety of forms at play and that, in itself, is something to admire. The poems are obviously often translations, but they have life and substance in their own rights and never become mere literal versions of the originals. And it all adds up to a splendid history of modernist and post-modernist poetry which ought to be on the shelves of anyone who claims to want an awareness of developments in poetry besides those presented to us by the literary establishment. It challenges the systems of exclusion designed by the so-called educators to persuade us that they know best.