It’s all mathematical to me. I don’t really have a sense of other people’s horror, because I’m just there trying to get it right: that joke to work or that horrific moment to work. I think there’s something a little bit broken in my psyche that doesn’t quite allow me to see it as other people do. —Martin McDonagh, as quoted in The New York Times, April 3, 2005
I simply threw two characters together—as I often enjoy doing—at a Sears in an outlet mall (I had a long history with that department store chain in my youth) and waited to see what happened. —Neil LaBute, preface to This Is How It Goes
A novel breed of “angry young men” has invaded the theater. Unlike the famous post-war British movement sparked in 1956 by John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, this new crop of playwrights has no interest in railing at a corrupt system. Led by Martin McDonagh and Neil LaBute, they simply want to spin baleful tales that reveal just how short, nasty, and brutish life really is. Human relationships, as they see it, are Nietzschean wrestling matches doomed to mutual defeat. Imagine Strindberg in modern dress, minus the trenchant philosophical vision.
The spectacle of sadism rivets both McDonagh and LaBute, which is why they can’t help treating characters like lab rats in a cosmetics factory. Taking their cues from the movies, they subject their unsuspecting protagonists to the most manipulative plots, stretching them on the rack of contrived setups and torturing them with unhappy ends. Object lessons these are not. (Didacticism isn’t their shtick.) It’s flashy storytelling the truculent lads are after. They’re fabulists with a lurid, contemporary bent, who relish playing a rough game of cat-and-mouse with their audiences.
These playwrights aren’t so much commenting on our time as symptomatic of it. So why has a quorum of influential theater critics crowned McDonagh and LaBute kings? Probably for the same reason that a Hollywood star like Jeff Goldblum is taking a huge pay cut to appear on Broadway in McDonagh’s The Pillowman, with Ben Stiller doing the same in LaBute’s This Is How It Goes at the Public Theater. Under the guise of artistic seriousness, these works afford actors the chance to enjoy onstage the same frissons that they’re accustomed to on-screen—a drama of violent sensation unburdened by the anguish and introspection that emerge from genuinely harrowing experiences.
A talented melodramatist, McDonagh understands the delight we take in scenes of abject humiliation, and he’s been well rewarded for his knowledge. The Beauty Queen of Leenane, his multiple-Tony-winning dark comedy about a middle-aged daughter with a psychiatric past knocking off her crone of a mom, was one of the most successful dramas on Broadway in the last decade. Likewise The Pillowman, a thriller with unfocused ambition dealing with an imprisoned writer accused of murdering children in the same brutal manner depicted in his stories, opened earlier this month on Broadway to reviews that might have been written by the show’s publicists.
A “spellbinding stunner,” exclaimed Ben Brantley of The New York Times, sacrificing his usual slash and dash for the hard sell of “this season’s most exciting and original new play.” Though there were a few dissenters (most notably the Voice‘s Michael Feingold and, during the play’s London run, The Guardian’s Michael Billington), it’s been widely hailed as “the best play of the season.” The Post‘s Clive Barnes, offering another four-star review, praised the “extraordinary,” “dazzling,” “macabre fantasy” of “the best English-speaking playwright of his generation.” Somehow amid all the blurb-able hype, Barnes caught his breath to pose a telling question: “[W]ho said child torture, murder and mutilation can’t be funny?”
No high-minded moralizing for the Post‘s chief theater critic, who seems only too happy to go along with the cruel twists of McDonagh’s imagination. And why shouldn’t he? Horror can be great fun when well deployed. McDonagh might not have Hitchcock’s touch, but he’s adept at creating an unsettling mix of humor and suspense.
The trouble is that McDonagh’s work sets up higher expectations. The Pillowman‘s open- ing scene centers on the interrogation of a writer, Katurian, who assumes he’s being detained because of the gruesome content of a few of his stories—a veritable catalog of ways to persecute and dismember children. Set in a jail of an unspecified totalitarian state that’s presided over by two bruising police officers, the play kicks off with a menace that’s a strange jumble of Kafka, Pinter, and BBC sitcom.
McDonagh barely convinces us of one scenario before he’s racing off to another. Katurian, as it so happens, is being held not for his writing but because someone has been acting out his tales. That person is revealed to be his mentally handicapped brother, who’s also imprisoned and who ultimately admits to the crimes. From there the action turns—amid a parade of beatings and murders—to the question of whether Katurian’s fiction will survive his own inevitable execution. But by sharing Katurian’s stories with us (they’re spookily enacted while narrated), McDonagh makes it impossible to care whether they’re destroyed or not. There’s a reason that all but one of these recipes for slaying kids have remained unpublished: Written in leaden prose, sensationalistic in their gore, and unrelievedly grim in a manner that even the Brothers Grimm would consider an artistic botch, they’re simply not very good.
Employing his usual bait-and-switch tactics, McDonagh toys with hefty themes (the plight of the artist in an autocracy, the traumatic roots of creativity, the fatalistic repetition of family violence, the content of art in a psychotic society). Yet he seems committed to only one: the inalienable freedom of the necessarily (if troublingly) amoral storyteller.
Averse to political correctness and sanctimony of any kind, McDonagh is rather vain about the special place of the artist in society. An instinct for spinning (and enjoying) tales may be, as the play suggests, hardwired into our human makeup. Yet not all stories survive—nor should they. The ones that do speak to us in coded ways about the hopes and terrors of existence. Literature lasts not because of its political or moral freight (dimensions McDonagh considers irrelevant), but because it captures and provokes consciousness in a compelling aesthetic form. While it’s surprising that The Pillowman avoids any consideration of this deeper imperative, it’s downright depressing that the majority of daily reviewers, suckered by McDonagh’s chic (and hollow) nihilism, failed to even notice.
Equally sinister in his own vacuous fashion, LaBute is enjoying a moment of success comparable to McDonagh’s. With Fat Pig earlier this season garnering some of his best reviews and This Is How It Goes being heralded for attracting Stiller to Off-Broadway, the trendy playwright (and lauded screenwriter) keeps churning out notoriously mean-spirited fables. His style is to jerry-build a situation of delicate conflict and keep pressing at it until it cracks under the weight of his polemics. Unlike McDonagh, he’s drawn to hot-button issues—the stigma of obesity in Fat Pig, the sneaky racism of seemingly progressive whites in This Is How It Goes—but he’s not so much interested in making moral points as in dramatizing the worst in human nature.
Though he possesses a devilishly good ear for the clipped inanity of contemporary chitchat, he only sketches in the details of the worlds he’s writing about. Everything is generalized, from the dating culture of Fat Pig, where Tom gets razzed for courting the outsize Helen, after whom the play is so delicately titled, to the small-town no-man’s-land of This Is How It Goes. Obviously fully furnished realism isn’t required. Yet the cartoonishly half-baked settings only make the author’s vitriolic parables seem that much more suspect.
Trying to get around the problem, LaBute shakily sets up an unreliable narrator for This Is How It Goes. The character of Man (the Ben Stiller role), an ex-attorney who’s returned to his Midwestern hometown to become a novelist, addresses the audience directly. The play, which revolves around his relationship with an interracial married couple he knew in high school, represents, like Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the work he plans to write. Did the African American husband beat up his white wife? Did Man steal her away or was the husband conspiring with Man to get her off his hands? All of this uncertainty is supposed to feed into LaBute’s theory of the rampant duplicity of human relations, particularly as it concerns people of different races and genders. But it’s hard to accept such a noxious view when the deck’s this shamelessly stacked.
Stylists of little substance, McDonagh and LaBute possess keen instincts for pacing, diabolic wit, and vicious panache. The sound and fury they unleash on our stages is clearly enough to seduce many. But shouldn’t we expect it to signify more than nothing?