Love/Hate Relationships: Comparing Shepard and McDonagh

34210013So let’s see if I can stir some of your folks up.  For me Buried Child is a play Martin McDonagh would have written if he was a better playwright.

Don’t get me wrong, I love McDonagh but there is something hollow about his work. The emptiness may be a result of his nihilism or buried in the style of his writing and it has not affected my desire to produce his work.

Buried Child has many of the characteristics that we attribute to McDonagh today. The play is laden with special technical needs. There is a one-legged man; we smash bottles on stage; we need to shave someone’s head every night; there are extraordinary acts of physical violence and mounds of carrots and corn. Like McDonagh’s skulls and religious statues or simple pools of blood and a dead cat, there are technical challenges that both authors bring to the table.

Both authors are talking about human life engendered in the nations or region of their birth. Both playwrights use an almost Commedia-like set of stock characters, in unique situations for each play, living out each of their place in the sun.

When I think of a Martin McDonagh play, I am always stuck by how awful the character are. McDonagh populates his plays with overwhelmingly bad people. They are, and seemingly have always been, cruel and violent. They have little empathy for their fellow men and are a laden vindictiveness and envy. They are loathsome and their actions in the play are relentlessly violent…and humorous. Still, I always find myself loving the characters.  They are likable in their awfulness. I am charmed by Martin or even the more brutal characters in Lieutenant or Pillowman. Katurian is reprehensible. His art is more valuable than human life. He deserves his death and yet I am  engaged in his plight, I love who he is. I thought the Luna Theatre production of Pillowman this winter captured this contrast quite well.

IMG_9341 (2)Shepard accesses a stock group of characters. Dodge is the father in Fool for Love, he is Weston in Curse. Vince and Tilden are simultaneously Wesley and Eddie  Emma, the sprite young daughter in Curse is Shelly, leaving the family. Yet each situation delves into the damage of their lives from a different angle. The stock characters have flexibility allowing the audience to learn how their individual damage manifests and its consequences.

McDonagh, at his best, is talking about his vision of his home. He considers the experience of being an Irishman and more specifically someone from the barren world of western Ireland. My summer driving though Ireland exposed me to the beauty and the brokenness of Connemara. I understand that source material more clearly after that adventure.

Shepard’s characters are almost the opposite. I find them difficult to love or connect with. Personally, they feel like people I do not want to ever be with. I don’t want to  live in Dodge’s or Weston’s house, I don’t want to room with anyone of True West or Fool for Love. These are people who hurt others even as they are hurting, whose violence is as internalized as it is externalized. I feel pity for them but I don’t like them. I am entranced by the impact of their morality on their guilt but still am uncomfortable with them as people. They are beings rooted in goodness, even if their behavior is reprehensible.

IMG_2518Shepard is talking about his relationship with the country, and the region, he grew up in, just as McDonagh does but his world is not static. He is always talking about the characters in their current state related to their much healthier past.

In Lonesome West, the brothers have been fighting forever. They are violent, hateful and destructive and although they are rapped in the same room and share many of the same activities, they have been and always will be at war. In True West, their current violence and spite is something imposed on them by their actions, environment or …. They were once OK, they were once creators, builders, lovers and now in the culture they live in, they have become broken and dangerous.

McDonagh is an enlightenment thinker, seeing man as evil from the start and society just an outcropping of that evil.

Shepard is a Romantic, even in his powerfully drawn lack of nostalgia, he sees the human spirit, natural and healthy and that life damages it.

28550039Working on Buried Child, even this early in the process, brings these ideas into clarity. Over and over in Shepard we see the image of the once was and the now is. We see a beautiful lamb in Curse of the Starving Class and then we see its carcass. We hear about the love represented in Halie’s pictures and in the images of Tilden and the child and then we see the corpse.

Bradley has had a prosthetic because he lost his leg while Cripple Billy is deformed from the start.

The old women in McDonagh seem to be perpetually as they appear bitter, cutting, crafty while Shepard’s women were once healthy mothers and lovers.

This may all just be a product of the European and American identity. The European world is steeped in history and an ancient past. The roots of a people in Ireland go back thousands of years. The American experience is less than 250 years old (600 if you consider Columbus) and we set upon the land as immigrants and conquerors. McDonagh may just be channeling this sense of ancestry. There is a cause in Shepard. An inciting incident that transforms the lives of his characters and we meet them well into the consequences of that choice or action. Their lives play out before us in a painful contrast between what they believe the world to be and what it is as a result of their actions. They live with a lie of the mind and then the truth is revealed, or unearthed, they are transformed again. For Shepard the struggle is a cycle, a repetitive devolution. Wesley becomes Weston as the past catches him and Wesley’s son will experience the same struggle and transformation.

xxxxIMG_8175As far as language goes, both writers are masterful. McDonagh use clever turns of phrase steeped in his native dialect to drive the humor and the action. His is a rough poetry that dances in the ear. Shepard grapples with language like a loves and while creating a surface poetry, he layers the lovely colloquial lyric over subtext infused with the sin of the family. The cleverness of McDonagh’s characters as they speak, their dark witty repartee helps us fall in love with them while Shepard’s poetry is icing covering a rotten festering cake. I just don’t want to eat that cake even as I recognize what it might have been and how beautiful it is.

Working on Shepard over and over forces Iron Age to encounter this cycle as well. Our romantic (or once romantic) heart struggles with its own idealism and our hopeful despair is a perfect match for one of Americas greatest playwrights.

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