The Cripple of Inishmaan

Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie

By Albert Williams

William Butler Yeats once advised his friend and fellow writer John Millington Synge to visit the Aran Islands and give voice to “a life that has never found expression.” Ever since, artists have found inspiration in these isolated islands off the west coast of Ireland–and in the people living on them. Synge, who sojourned in the Arans every summer from 1898 to 1902, recalled eavesdropping through a hole in the floor of his bedroom on the conversation of the servant girls below, saying that it gave him “more aid than any learning could have” as he sought insight into these peasants’ squalor and heroism. His subsequent writings–notably the 1907 reminiscence The Aran Islands and two great plays, The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea–made the Arans something of an international landmark; in 1934 Hollywood filmmaker Robert Flaherty made a documentary, Man of Aran, that focused on the islanders’ rough, dangerous lives.

Synge’s plays also helped create a whole genre of Irish drama whose influence is still felt: bittersweet, rough-hewn tragedies and comedies whose hallmarks include lilting cadences and lyrical imagery, political pronouncements and nationalistic paeans, outbursts of “natural” sexual passion and brutal yet almost farcical violence, and an endless parade of colorfully named eccentrics. But Synge’s plays themselves are hardly formulaic or easy: the irreverent Playboy of the Western World prompted a riot at its 1908 Abbey Theatre premiere, and its subsequent popularity was partly the result of directors who played up its rustic romanticism and soft-pedaled what Abbey actress Marie Nic Shiubhlaigh called the work’s “nastiness.”

Few will misunderstand the nastiness of The Cripple of Inishmaan, Martin McDonagh’s mordantly funny 1996 tragicomedy, receiving its local premiere from Northlight Theatre a year after its U.S. debut at New York’s Joseph Papp Public Theater. McDonagh, a skillful young British playwright of Irish descent and a fast-rising international star (Steppenwolf is staging his Beauty Queen of Leenane this summer), has turned the cliches of Irish drama on their heads, creating a work that, in director B.J. Jones’s deftly acted production, is at once accessible and aloof, hilarious and bleak. McDonagh’s small-minded, superstitious characters and the wretched, hopeless conditions under which they live are troubling long after the play ends, yet The Cripple of Inishmaan is too harsh and gritty to be “touching” in the usual sense; McDonagh’s sardonic, crisply rhythmic comic writing is informed by his awareness of life’s darkest, most painful aspects as well as of the literary conventions he undercuts.

The play is set in 1934 on the Aran island of Inishmaan, delicately conveyed by set designer Mary Griswold and lighting designer Michael Philippi in a neat, flagstone-floored shop framed by high cliffs and a seemingly endless ocean. It’s the kind of oh-so-Irish setting that makes viewers coo with complacent pleasure–a pleasure that McDonagh encourages in the opening scene. The hero first appears in a poetic image, silhouetted against a cloud-streaked sky on a hilltop reading a book, that immediately establishes “Cripple Billy” Claven as a shy, sensitive soul. He’s the natural recipient of the audience’s sympathy, especially when he comes down off his perch and shuffles center stage, his paralyzed left arm twisted into his chest and his left leg dragging. Orphaned when both his parents died in a mysterious boating accident–were they emigrating to America, Billy wonders, or committing suicide to escape the burden of raising him?–the lame, lanky teenager lives with two 60ish spinster sisters, Kate and Eileen, in their combination home and store, where canned vegetables are piled into pyramids, ready for customers who never come.

Scorned or pitied by the locals–both intolerable reactions to Billy–he desperately wants to escape Inishmaan. But then so does just about everyone else in this impoverished, godforsaken place. The shop’s only patrons are the teenage Bartley, who inquires endlessly after candy from America (but chocoholic Eileen gobbles those in secret, literally eating away her potential profits), and Johnnypateenmike, a vulgar old gossipmonger who trades local news for fresh eggs. A forerunner of today’s mass media, Johnnypateenmike specializes in a motley mix of fact and rumor–his favorite tales concern deformed farm animals and family feuds–gussied up with loud declarations of patriotic pride. On this fateful day he has news of real consequence: an American film crew has landed at the neighboring island of Inishmore to make a movie about the area. It’s Man of Aran, and Billy sees in the occasion a chance to leave Inishmaan. So do Bartley and his sister Helen, a violent virago who vents her frustrations on Bartley and Billy by repeatedly pinching and punching them. It’s a habit, she explains, that she acquired to discourage the attentions of lecherous priests. (“Getting clergymen groping your arse doesn’t take much skill,” says Bartley dismissively. “Have you ever had your arse groped?” retorts Helen, competing with her brother even in this sordid area. Responds Bartley quietly: “Not me arse, no.”)

When Helen and Bartley convince a local fisherman, Babbybobby, to ferry them to the film site, Billy tags along. Helen and Bartley each has something to give Babbybobby for the ride: Bartley can help row, and Helen offers kisses. But Billy can only plead for sympathy, revealing that he has a fatal case of tuberculosis by showing the fisherman a doctor’s note. The lad wants a last chance at life, and he gets it: the trip to Inishmore lands him a Hollywood screen test. Off he goes to America, much to Helen’s disgruntlement and Eileen and Kate’s dismay: they feel abandoned by the boy they’ve raised, not realizing–Billy has pledged Babbybobby and Johnnypateenmike to secrecy–that he’s dying.

What happens to Billy in America, and the impact on his friends and family at home when Man of Aran is released, occupies the second half of The Cripple of Inishmaan. Packed with multiple twists worthy of O. Henry on a binge, the protracted ending evolves naturally out of McDonagh’s assault on the audience’s expectations. Of course we want Billy to find fame and fortune–and to be cured of his TB, find out the truth about his parents’ death, and win the heart of Helen. McDonagh sets all these conflicting possibilities in motion, then resolves them with a chilly yet compassionate sense of truth in the unpredictable yet inevitable final result.

Along the way the playwright has mischievous, slightly malevolent fun with his characters and their language, creating variations that defy the cliches of Irish drama. Flaky Kate and flinty Eileen, for instance, are reworkings of the indomitable waiting women of Synge’s Riders to the Sea–but when Kate (who sometimes talks to rocks) begins repeating the phrase “Not a word” over and over like one of the keening widows in Riders, Eileen sharply cuts her ritual short. And McDonagh’s take on that staple of Irish drama, the bond between loving son and sainted mother, is the relationship between Johnnypateenmike and his mammy–a whiskey-swilling hag whose seemingly unquenchable thirst the son indulges in hopes the booze will knock her off (not that she shows any signs of fulfilling his fantasies). A fisherman’s widow, Mammy hardly fits the image of the noble survivor: “It was a shark ate Daddy,” she says mellowly, watching Man of Aran’s extended shark-fighting sequence while swigging from her flask. “But Jesus says you should forgive and forget.”

Billy, meanwhile, is the classic misunderstood misfit turned prodigal hero, whose rising and falling fortunes recall the farcical career of Christie Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World; his beloved Helen is reminiscent of Synge’s tempestuous termagant Pegeen Mike. But Billy and Helen’s bantering is articulated in a feisty, often foulmouthed idiom Synge wouldn’t have used even if he’d heard it from his (perhaps apocryphal) servant girls; a glossary in the program offers translations of such colorful epithets as “bollocks” (balls), “fecking eej” (fucking idiot), and “shite gobbed fecking bitch fecker” (you figure it out). Nor has McDonagh much use for the rustic rhapsodies of Irish verse: Helen’s wry response to another character’s alliterative speech is, “That sentence had an awful lot of Rs.”

Northlight might have played McDonagh’s subversion of the Irish-drama form for easy parody, but instead the fine cast keep their characters and actions credible. Jones has assembled some of off-Loop theater’s best veteran actors: Maureen Gallagher and Ann Stevenson Whitney as Kate and Eileen, John Mohrlein and Mary Seibel as Johnnypateenmike and his mammy, John Judd as the sympathetic fisherman Babbybobby, and Rob Riley as the town doctor, who diagnoses Billy’s TB. The younger generation is portrayed by Ann Noble Massey as the rage-filled bully Helen, P.J. Powers as her Linus-like brother, and, most memorably, Martin McClendon as Billy. McClendon–who seems to get better with every performance–makes fine use of his tall, thin frame and long, malleable face to create a winning yet foolish Billy who seems to physically and mentally deteriorate before our eyes. He makes us understand Cripple Billy’s pain without ever suggesting there’s a way for us to “feel” it, reinforcing McDonagh’s strategy of stirring our emotions in order to expose the false expectations underlying them. The Cripple of Inishmaan is sharp-witted, surefooted theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.