With Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri poised to sweep award season there might be a fair few of you asking just who is Martin McDonagh? And how did he create one of the most original scripts we’ve seen in years?
But writing has been a lifelong love affair for McDonagh and he’s perhaps better known amongst theatre crowds than cinema goers. Let’s have a snoop around in his back catalogue and see just exactly how he honed his distinct style.
McDonagh was born in 1970 in London, England, to Irish parents who had moved there to find work. The family included his older brother, John, who later moved to California to become a scriptwriter. The McDonagh’s father hailed from Connemara, on Ireland’s west coast, and the rocky, windswept district would later serve as the setting for most of McDonagh’s plays. In his teens, he was drawn to the films of Al Pacino he found on television. In 1984, the year he turned 14, he saved enough money from odd jobs to buy a ticket to see his first play in a professional setting: a David Mamet drama, American Buffalo , in which Pacino was the featured lead.
McDonagh desperately wanted to follow in the footsteps of his elder brother, but admitted “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” McDonagh explained to Fintan O’Toole for a profile that appeared in the New Yorker about this time in his life. “I didn’t want to educate myself toward some kind of job. I didn’t even want a job. I didn’t want a boss.”
Over the better part of the decade that followed, McDonagh consumed as much television, and literature he could get his hands on. He adored the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges. During this time he held various jobs, including a stint in a supermarket and another as an part-time administrative assistant at the British Department of Trade and Industry.
Since his teens he had also been writing down the grotesque stories he invented, which were usually based on folk tales, and eventually amassed about 150 of them. McDonagh began sending his stories to film companies in the hopes that someone would be interested into turning them into short films, and a couple of them were adapted as radio plays in Australia. In 1994, McDonagh’s brother went to California to study screenwriting, and McDonagh began a nine-month stretch of writing that yielded his first seven plays. The first play he finished, The Beauty Queen of Leenane , he simply transcribed “like it was a conversation I heard in my head,” he told Newsweek ‘s Jack Kroll about the echoes of speech of his Irish relatives he seemed to hear as he was writing it. He began submitting the finished plays to theatre companies, and received consistent rejection letters until the Druid Theatre in Galway, Ireland, contacted him and offered to stage The Beauty Queen of Leenane .
The play premiered at the Druid in February of 1996 to critical acclaim for its mix of taut drama and black humor. Its title character was 40-year-old Maureen. Never married, she lives at home with her mother, with whom she is locked in a relationship of mutual hatred and resentment. The plot centers around Maureen’s desire to leave Ireland for America with her suitor, a man her age named Pato. Her mother, Mag, manages to thwart the plan, and Maureen retaliates with horrific consequences. The play went on to a successful run on Broadway two years later and was even nominated for a Tony Award. During that 1998 run, Ben Brantley, theater critic for the New York Times , hailed both the play and its author, asserting that what “McDonagh has provided is something exotic in today’s world of self-conscious, style-obsessed theater: a proper, perfectly plotted drama that sets out, above all, to tell a story as convincingly and disarmingly as possible.”
After years of living in anonymity and collecting unemployment benefits, McDonagh suddenly found himself a celebrated new literary figure in the British Isles. In the fall of 1996, he won the Most Promising Playwright prize of the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards, but a case of nerves caused him to drink too much before the ceremony and, with his equally soused brother in tow, wound up trading insults with actor Sean Connery, who had told him to quiet down. The incident was summed up by one tabloid headline the following day as “Irish Writer Curses Bond.”
The two other plays in McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy, A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West , were both staged in Galway in 1997. The first of the two centers around a church graveyard that has reached full capacity, and the priest who hires two locals to secretly dig up some remains; one of the men takes a pair of skulls home as a souvenir. The Lonesome West features two warring brothers, Coleman and Valene; the former murders their father, then takes his brother’s beloved collection of plastic saint figurines and melts them down in the oven. It also earned a Tony Award nomination in the Best Play of 1998 category.
In the summer of 1997, McDonagh’s earlier Leenane trilogy was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London, and that production as well as The Cripple of Inishmaan gave him a rather impressive distinction: He became the first playwright since William Shakespeare to have four plays running simultaneously on the professional London stage. In the spring of 1998, The Cripple of Inishmaan moved to New York for its Broadway debut, which came at the same time as The Beauty Queen of Leenane was also playing, which was another extremely rare occurrence for a modern playwright.
He has said he will not write any more works for the stage, and instead has ventured into film. He authored the screenplay and served as director for Six Shooter, a short film that earned him an Academy Award For Best Live-Action Short Film of 2005. His first full-length movie, In Bruges, was met with critical praise “I think I’ve said enough as a young dramatist,” he explained to O’Toole in the New Yorker profile about why he was moving away from stage drama. “Until I’ve lived a little more, and experienced a lot more things, and I have more to say that I haven’t said already, it will just feel like repeating the old tricks.”
Well theatre’s loss is our gain, as it seems that by avoiding the ‘old tricks’ of it’s two predecessors, McDonagh has found his feet again with Three Billboards. With a strong female lead in Frances Mcdormand and one of the best ensemble cast this year, it looks like McDonagh is back to his winning ways. But if you’re chomping at the bit for more McDonagh, I highly recommend reading his early works for more of his dark, twisted comedy.