Born March 26, 1970, in London, England; son of a construction worker and a housekeeper.
Addresses: Home—London, England. Office—c/o Focus Features, 65 Bleecker St., Third Fl., New York, NY 10012.
Worked in a London-area supermarket as a shelf stocker, late 1980s, and for the British Department of Trade and Industry as a part-time administrative assistant; first play to be produced, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, opened at the Druid Theatre, Galway, Ireland, February, 1996, and also became his first play to appear on Broadway with its April of 1998 debut at the Walter Kerr Theatre; wrote and directed the short film Six Shooter, 2005, and the full-length feature film In Bruges, scheduled for release in 2008.
Awards: Most promising playwright prize, London Evening Standard Theatre Awards, 1996; Drama Desk Award for outstanding new play, for The Beauty Queen of Leenane, 1998; Laurence Olivier Award for best new play, Society of London Theatre, for The Pillowman, 2004; Academy Award for best short film (live action category), Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for Six Shooter, 2006; Obie Award, Village Voice, for The Lieutenant of Inishmore, 2006.
Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has no formal training, but a sheaf of plays he wrote during one long stretch back in 1994 turned him into one of the most celebrated new English-language dramatists of his generation. Nearly all of McDonagh's plays are set in Ireland, and draw heavily from Irish idiom and culture in their skewering of once-sacrosanct literary and political ideals. "McDonagh's writing is a tightrope act of unnerving skill and maturity," asserted John Peter of London's Sunday Times in reviewing one of the plays, which he claimed was "in the finest tradition of Irish writing: Its hard moral drive is oiled, but never softened, by brutal but generous humour."
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, and the pair of siblings grew up both close-knit and argumentative, and with later career paths that mirrored one another's. Their father was a construction worker, while their mother cleaned offices and houses, and the family lived in a South London neighborhood that served as home for many other working-class Irish émigré families.
The McDonaghs sent their sons to Roman Catholic schools, and took them back to Ireland every summer to visit family. Their 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's brother left school around the age of 16, announcing his intention to become a writer; McDonagh followed suit when he reached the same age, and both wound up living on public assistance and, a few years later, taking over their parents' house after the elder McDonaghs had moved back to Ireland. "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 watched television, read—the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges became particular favorites—and 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. One was inspired by the medieval German tale about the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the rat catcher hired by the town to rid it of vermin; when the local authorities refused to pay him, the mysterious Piper led all the children out of town to their deaths. In McDonagh's version, the story is told through the voice of one little boy, who meets a menacing man on the road one day and shares his food with him. The man tells the boy that he will give him a present as thanks, and with that takes a cleaver and slices off the boy's toes on one foot. Later, the stranger leads the town's children to their death, and the little boy with the injured foot is unable to run fast enough to keep up with the other children, and is the only youngster who survives.
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 Connemara relatives he seemed to hear as he was writing it. He began submitting the finished plays to theater 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.
The three plays in McDonagh's Leenane trilogy belonged to the first batch of work written during that nine-month period back in 1994, as did his next three plays, collectively known as the Aran Islands trilogy. The three Aran isles—Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer—are situated in Galway Bay, not far from the Connemara area where McDonagh spent summers with his family. The Gaelic language is still spoken there, and the islands' rocky beauty, forts dating back to the Iron Age, and toughened, fishing-dependent inhabitants has fascinated several generations of writers, including John Millington Synge and W. B. Yeats. The primitive way of life was also the subject of a famous 1934 documentary film, Man of Aran, by Robert J. Flaherty, whose 1922 work Nanook of the North was the first commercially successful feature length documentary movie.
Flaherty staged some elements of Man of Aran, and the making of the film serves as the centerpiece for The Cripple of Inishmaan, the first play in McDonagh's Aran Islands trilogy. First produced in London in 1997 at the National Theatre, the play centers around Billy, a disabled teen who seeks a part in the Flaherty film to impress the local girl, Helen, on whom he has a crush. But McDonagh's play was also a commentary on Ireland and what it means to be Irish. "McDonagh's main point is that cinema has done more than anything to foster the Irish myth," wrote Michael Billington in his Guardian review of the production. "The richest, funniest scene is that in which Flaherty's film is shown on Inishmaan: the islanders either ignore it totally in pursuit of their local feuds or hilariously question its authenticity."
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.
The second play of McDonagh's Aran Island trilogy was The Lieutenant of Inishmore, but it took several years to reach the stage. Theater companies across Britain were reluctant to produce it because of its political themes; its main character, Padraic, is a thug so violently patriotic that even the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has rejected him. Instead Padraic leads an extremist group, and his torture of a drug dealer sets off a chain of events that brings the play to a spectacularly bloody end. The comic element comes in Padraic's devotion to his cat, called Wee Thomas; when Padraic's father, Donny, calls to tell him something bad has happened to Wee Thomas, Padraic returns home to extract his revenge.
McDonagh actually announced that he would not write any more plays until The Lieutenant of Inishmore was produced onstage in Britain. The 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement concerning Northern Ireland resulted in an IRA ceasefire and their involvement in the subsequent peace process, and the cooling of domestic political tensions prompted the Royal Shakespeare Company to include McDonagh's play in its spring 2001 line-up at Stratford-upon-Avon. In early 2006, it had its U.S. premiere at the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York City, moving on to Broadway's Lyceum Theater in May, where it also became a Tony Award nominee for Best Play.
McDonagh did stop writing for several years, but a few detractors theorized that the rush of plays he had written back in 1994, and which sustained his career over the next decade, had actually exhausted his literary talent. He did begin writing for the stage again after The Lieutenant of Inishmore was produced, however, reworking one of the unproduced 1994 plays into The Pillowman, which won the 2004 Laurence Olivier Award from the Society of London Theatre—considered the most prestigious awards in British theater—for Best New Play of the season. A departure from his previous, Irish-set stories, this one is set in an unnamed, authoritarian state and centers around a man questioned by the police for the horrifically violent fairy tales he tells to entertain his brain-damaged brother, which seem to be occurring in reality. Its Broadway staging in the spring of 2005 featured Jeff Goldblum as the police inspector, and was nominated for yet another Tony Award.
There is one final play of McDonagh's from 1994, The Banshees of Inisheer, which has never been produced. 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 slated for a 2008 premiere with Colin Farrell as one of two hit men who must hide out in Belgium after accidentally killing a child. "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."
The Beauty Queen of Leenane (first produced in Galway, Ireland, 1996), Methuen Drama (London, England), 1996.
A Skull in Connemara (first produced in Galway, Ireland, 1997), Methuen Drama, 1997.
The Lonesome West (first produced in Galway, Ireland, 1997), Methuen Drama, 1997.
The Cripple of Inishmaan (first produced in London, England, 1997), Vintage Books (New York City), 1998.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and Other Plays, Vintage Books, 1998.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore (first produced in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, 2001), Methuen Drama, 2001.
The Pillowman (first produced in London, England, 2003), Faber & Faber (London, England), 2003.
Six Shooter (also director), Irish Film Board/Film Four Lab, 2005.
In Bruges (also director), Focus Features, 2007.
Esquire, December 2005, p. 208.
Guardian (London, England), January 9, 1997, p. 6.
Newsweek, March 16, 1998, p. 73.
New Yorker, March 6, 2006, p. 40; March 13, 2006, p. 92.
New York Times, January 25, 1998; February 27, 1998.
Observer (London, England), November 16, 2003, p. 10.
Sunday Times (London, England), January 12, 1997, p. 18.
Time, April 13, 1998, p. 215.
Variety, May 8, 2006, p. 89.