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"Turning Violence into Play: Violence as Comedy in Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan"

The culminating thesis to the MPhil in Theatre and Performance at University of Dublin, Trinity College.  15,163 words.  Supervisor, Eric Weitz.



In the late 1990’s, a dominant theatrical style emerged in the United Kingdom. This style, characterized by unapologetically graphic violence and sensation, was coined “In-yer-face theatre” by Aleks Sierz. Along with playwrights such as Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, London-Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh, emerged in the forefront of this movement. His vicious comedy has earned him both glowing and scathing critical distinction. In this aesthetic, McDonagh remains a key playwright whose works function to simultaneously disgust and delight audiences.

McDonagh was born to Irish parents in London, and spent the summers of his childhood with relatives in Connemara. Reflecting his Irish upbringing in the United Kingdom, McDonagh has set five out of his six published plays in the West of Ireland.1 Martin McDonagh’s status as an outsider, not quite Irish but not quite British, has often led critics to insinuate “otherness” into interpretations of his texts. Jan-Hendrik Wehmeyer has identified McDonagh’s otherness as being in the same vein as his Celtic Revival predecessors, such as Yeats and Synge: “McDonagh is as much ‘outside’ his subject matter as the Anglo-Irish were at the beginning of the last century.”2 While acknowledging his Irish/Englishness, Wehmeyer is quick to suggest that McDonagh is not the simple binary that critics would paint him, but an amalgamation of complimentary and contrasting otherness, which creates his unique aesthetic. This distance from the subject of his work creates a simulacrum, “[…] the simulation of a reality that never actually existed in the first place,”3 allowing him to explore fresh representations of reality, not tied to a national identity. These nuanced components that inform McDonagh’s unconscious are transferred into delicately crafted, incongruous elements in his plays: most notably, the incongruity of graphic violence with side-splitting humor.

In this dissertation, I will argue that the laughter produced at the most violent moments of McDonagh’s plays is not a “laughing off” of violence by spectators, but rather their primal approval of the violent aesthetic. Furthermore, I will clarify that, despite much opposing criticism, the comic violence in Martin McDonagh’s plays serves a purpose greater than laughter itself, namely to make the spectators accountable to themselves as opposed to the specific truth of the playwright.

The first chapter will examine the mechanisms that McDonagh uses to frame the humor in his plays. The second chapter will explore McDonagh’s use of violence with humorous intent within the plays. It will ask the question: How can we laugh at such graphic violence? The third chapter will answer the question posed in chapter two through an understanding of Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection and Philip Thompson’s ideas of the grotesque. The fourth chapter argues that McDonagh’s comic violence is justified by a greater purpose than laughter itself. Much of the theory and criticism that this paper will address is applicable to all of Martin McDonagh’s works. However, in the interest of brevity, I will more closely examine two of McDonagh’s plays. Though McDonagh’s play The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the story of a disturbed, middle-aged virgin and her venomous, infantile mother, is the most critically successful and most abusive of his works and an obvious choice for the study of verbal violence and abusive comedy, the majority of studies done on McDonagh’s works focus on The Beauty Queen. Therefore, in order to contribute new research to the criticism of Martin McDonagh, I will alternatively examine the use of verbal violence and comic abuse in The Cripple of Inishmaan. I will be using The Lieutenant of Inishmore, arguably McDonagh’s most humorous and most violent play, to examine the interweaving of physical violence and humor.


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