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Book Report: The Cripple of Inishmaan

Your Humble Blogger has been hearing wonderful things about Martin McDonagh’s plays for some years now, but had never got around to reading any of them. Or, you know, going and seeing one, which would involve leaving the house, so you know that’s not going to happen very often. It turns out, though, that the community theater that gave me the opportunity to act a couple of years ago put on The Cripple of Inishmaan, and I went, and it was entertaining. Not particularly well-crafted, from a structural point of view, but the jokes were funny, and the language was marvelous. I left it thinking that I’d like to read the play.

So I did, eventually, and I think my snap judgement was more or less correct. The individual lines are better than the play, the characters are pleasant to spend time with but aren’t particularly memorable, and the structure is clumsy. But oh, the language.

There’s a thing that some playwrights can do (and some prose writers, in a different way) where they create a way of speaking, a rhythm and vocabulary and style and grammar and syntax, that is their own creation entirely, but is somehow incredibly truthful to the particular time and place they’ve chosen. The people in Oscar Wilde’s plays, for instance, speak an English that nobody ever spoke, but you want them to have spoken that way, and the Wilde-speak his characters use evokes his scenes better than better dictation could have done. David Mamet, as his best, does this as well, creates characters and scenes of dialogue that sounds naturalistic without being naturalistic. It requires a combination of observation and imagination; if the slang, the sentence structure, the rhythm is not close enough to the thing itself, it won’t strike home, but if it’s too close, it won’t strike deeply.

I’ll quote the opening few lines, where two old biddies are puttering in a small country shop on the island of Inishmaan circa 1934:

KATE: Is Billy not yet home?

EILEEN: Not yet is Billy home.

KATE: I do worry awful about Billy when he’s late returning home.

EILEEN: I banged me arm on a can of peas worrying about Cripple Billy.

KATE: Was it your bad arm?

EILEEN: No, it was me other arm.

KATE: It would have been worse if you’d banged your bad arm.

EILEEN: It would have been worse, although it still hurt.

KATE: Now you have two bad arms.

EILEEN: Well, I have one bad arm and one arm with a knock.

KATE: The knock will go away.

EILEEN: The knock will go away.

KATE: And you’ll be left with the one bad arm.

EILEEN: The one bad arm will never go away.

KATE: Until the day you die.

These people aren’t talking, they’re engaging in a duet. The language is not meant to be strictly accurate to the patterns of Irish conversation, but they evoke not just the actual speech of actual Irishmen, but the dialogue of comic Irishmen, the dialogue of dramatic Irishmen, the dialogue of poetic Irishmen—the rhythms create an essential Irishness for the audience that is easy to slip into and difficult to shake off.

I’ve got some more of his plays in my hands, and from what I’ve heard some of them add craft to talent, which should be wonderful.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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