The Beauty Queen of Leenane

by Martin McDonagh

The Play


The Author

Welcome to McDonaghland – About Language, Biscuits, and a Certain Taste for Aussie Soaps

[...] The bare bones of the plot can convey neither the dramatic impact of the story nor the sheer exuberance of McDonagh’s language, which critic Fintan O’Toole calls a "strangely beautiful hybrid", drawn from "the edgy street-talk of English cities and the lyricism of rural Irish speech." The result is not a dull naturalistic speech but an eloquent, artificial, highly accentuated style that McDonagh’s characteristic mix of savage irony and surreal humour. The world of the play is held together by a series of running jokes: from the brutal ambivalence of its title to domestic details such as Complan and Kimberley biscuits: from the uncertain name of the local priest (who is known as "Welsh – Walsh – Welsh") to the constant rain; from Mag’s habit of emptying her chamber pot in the kitchen sink to her irritating tendency to call Ray "Pato." [...]

A well-made play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane toys with audience expectations. Although at first glance the setting could be Ireland in the thirties or fifties, the play mixes this traditional rural ambience with nineties reference: when, for example, Mag tells Ray that "There was a priest (in) the news Wednesday had a babby with a Yank!", London audiences recognized the reference to contemporary scandals, even if they didn’t know – as Irish spectators surely did – that McDonagh was thinking of Eamonn Casey, the bishop of Galway, in whose diocese the real Leenane is situated. But if, in McDonaghland, "You can’t a kick a cow" without "some bastard holding a grudge twenty year", the place is also part of the global village: Australian soap operas and American cop shows on the television, references to Spiderman comics and Cadillacs, constant travelling to London and Boston.

Ireland is a country redefining itself, a place where Delia Murphy shares the airwaves with the Chieftains. [...]

The violence of The Beauty Queen of Leenane feels like a cross between a Coen brothers film and an "olde" Irish play. On one level, the violence expresses real family hatreds, with the mistrust and the malevolence of people in a hopeless life bursting out in blatant aggression. [...] But the violence is not only domestic, there are references to the wider world, whether the unjust imprisonment of the Birmingham Six or the war in Bosnia. [...]

But the play’s violence is not just a comment on domestic life in a suffocating backwater; it also creates a world drenched in a nineties sensibility. [...] McDonagh’s Ireland is postmodern in its grotesque exaggeration, in its isolation in a globalized world, and in its knowing nods and winks at Irish culture.

from: Aleks Sierz, In-Yer-Face-Theatre. British Drama Today. London, 2001, pp. 220-224.

What is Confrontational Theatre?

In-yer-face theatre always forces us to look at ideas and feelings we would normally avoid because they are too painful, too frightened, too unpleasant or too acute. We avoid them for good reason – what they have to tell us is bad news: they remind us of the awful things human beings are capable of, and of the limits of our self-control. They summon up ancient fears about the power of irrational and the fragility of our sense of the world. At the same time, theatre is similar to other cultural forms in that it provides a comparatively safe place in which to explore such emotions.

Experiential theatre is potent precisely when it threatens to violate that sense of safety. [...]

Because every performance is different, there is always the risk that something unexpected might happen. In a provocative play, this feeds into the tension of what is happening onstage. For such reasons, theatre can be a place that conveys a strong sense of territorial threat and of the vulnerability of the audience’s personal space. Live performance heightens awareness, increases potential embarrassment, and can make the representation of private pain on a public stage almost unendurable. But theatre depends not only on willing suspension of disbelief but also on empathy. For while no one believes literally in what is shown on stage, no actual atrocity is actually being committed – many spectators will invest emotionally in it. Although what is shown is make-believe, they take it close to their hearts. And because the actors are always real people breathing the same air as the audience, the public tends to empathize strongly with them.

For these reasons, in-yer-face (or: confrontational) theatre has the potential to be much more visceral, more shocking than other art forms. It can sometimes be an emotional journey that gives you a startling feeling of having lived through the experience being represented. This can tell you more about an extreme state of mind than just reading it.

from: Aleks Sierz, In-Yer-Face-Theatre. British Drama Today. London, 2001, pp. 6 – 7.

The Leenane Trilogy

The "Leenane Trilogy" consists of three plays, The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996), A Skull in Connemara, and The Lonesome West (both 1997). All three plays are set in the small village of Leenane, County Galway. The plays depict three independant, but closely interwoven stories of the Leenane villagers.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane tells the darkly comic tale of Maureen Folan and her ageing mother, Mag.
A Skull in Connemara deals with the local gravedigger, who apparently killed his wife years ago and now gets into trouble when the old graves are emptied to make way for new arrivals in the cemetery.
The last play, The Lonesome West, tells the story of the two Connor brothers, Coleman and Valene, who enjoy very special love-hate-relationship.
All three plays share many cross-references and insinuations to each other (e.g. the local priest Father Welsh – always referred to as "Father Welsh – Walsh – Welsh" - is mentioned in the first two plays and finally appears in the last play), and all three plays show an escalation of events which lead to an outburst of violence and murder.
Jens Gonser