If you’ve ever seen a Martin McDonagh play, you know that he finds humor in the most unlikely places and his macabre dark comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore is no exception. Now being staged by the Chicago theater gem, AstonRep, audiences find themselves roaring with laughter at the very unfunny problem of the plague of Irish terrorism known as “The Troubles”. Scene after scene weaves together the horrific and the mundane, situating extreme violence in the most domestic of settings. Rivals, friends, and lovers kill with cold-blooded indifference in a simple country cottage beneath a framed embroidery reading “Home Sweet Home”. It’s so extreme that it’s funny, but is it too extreme to be real?
When a community is gripped by violence, reality gives way to the surreal. Rather than a distant threat, violence erupts in the midst of daily life and can quite literally come knocking on your door. This is the grotesque reality of our play that McDonagh brings ruthlessly to life. Set in 1993 on the island of Inishmore, County Galway, the time is five years before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement that brought the end to open hostilities. But in 1993 the tide against violence was shifting as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and mainstream republican leaders were beginning to realize that “the long war” for independence from Great Britain was unwinnable. Violence as a means to an end was slowly giving way to “peaceful and democratic means.” But as historians tell us, “this ascendancy of politics over violence was not easily achieved.”
The difficulty of a return to peace is in evidence in Belfast today. I was fortunate enough to tour Northern Ireland in June with a group led by Northern Ireland native, Gareth Higgins. Gareth is a storyteller and peacemaker who introduced us to many people devoted to peace building. When asked about the state of the peace process one community leader put it plainly – at least we’ve stopped killing each other, he said. We felt the tension across Belfast first hand when Gareth led us on a peace walk, the first of its kind as far as we know. We made a ten mile trek from East to North Belfast, from republican communities decorated with graffiti celebrating the martyrdom of those who fell in the fight against British rule through neutral territory in the center of town to Clonard Monastery in the north overlooking one of the many Peace Walls that divide neighborhoods to this day.
It’s easy enough to read a history of The Troubles and think: that could never happen in my community. When you are there, however, walking through divided neighborhoods, it’s hard not to think of divided neighborhoods in our cities and towns. At memorials for fallen soldiers, I felt the futility of wasted lives and wondered uncomfortably about our own monuments to our own war dead. At Clonard we were told that one of the signs of continued tension is that politicians in the current government do not speak to each other, not even socially. The Americans in the group felt slightly chilled because that description fits our own congress all too well.
At Clonard Monastery we heard the story of Father Alec Reid, a Redemptorist Priest who lived and worshipped at Clonard for almost forty years till his death last year. An image of Father Reid kneeling over a British soldier who had been murdered by an angry mob is iconic in Northern Ireland. In spite of the horror he witnessed, Father Reid was instrumental in convincing Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein to renounce violence and pursue negotiations. And he brought Adams together with government leaders to pursue a peace plan, talks which took place in a parlor at the Monastery for many years. Our group sat in that parlor, awed by Father Reid’s quite persistence in talking with violent men over tea, listening and talking and persisting in his invitations to the parlor until they agreed to drop their policy of violence.
The unexpected effect on audiences of seeing The Lieutenant of Inishmore, of laughing out loud and groaning at the absurdity of the nearly cartoonish violence on stage is very much like my visit to Belfast. One leaves the theater with the unsettling feeling that perhaps we are not as insulated as we would hope from the plague of violence. Because as ridiculous as the reasons McDonagh puts in the mouths of his mad murderers, we begin to wonder if there is any reason for killing that isn’t both ridiculous and slightly mad. Is there any cause, no matter how just it seems to us, that can transform the absurdity of violence into a sensible strategy? As the violence escalates till the play’s end, when the stage is so littered with bodies and blood that it resembles a cartoonish version of a Shakespearean tragedy, each of the perpetrators is solidly convinced that he is doing the right thing for the right reasons. What would shake their faith in the legitimacy of their violence? That is an interesting enough question, but the play dares us to engage with a deeper one: What would shake our faith in violence, for peace at home and abroad depends upon our answer.
Join the Conversation
Suzanne will be leading a talkback following the 3:30 p.m. matinee of the AstonRep’s presentation of The Lieutenant of Inishmore on Sunday, November 2 at the Raven Theatre. More information on the talkback and how to purchase tickets is available. Céad míle fáilte!