- Play title: The Beauty Queen of Leenane
- Author: Martin McDonagh
- Published: 1996
- Page count: 66
The Beauty Queen of Leenane, released in 1996, was Martin McDonagh’s first play. The setting for the work is a cottage nestled in the mountains of Connemara in County Galway, Ireland. In this remote spot live Maggie (Mag) Folan and her middle-aged, single daughter Maureen. Their relationship is acrimonious. Maureen is her mother’s carer and the two women eke out an existence. There is an upheaval in both women’s lives when Pato Dooley returns from England and begins romancing Maureen. Mag resents the development as she fears being left alone by her daughter or worse, being sent to a retirement home. In contrast, Maureen fantasizes about her prospects of starting a new life with Pato in England or the United States. Soon, reality and fantasy blur in McDonagh’s black comedy and we witness a shocking act of violence. The play deals with themes such as emigration, Irish nationalism, madness, dependency, hatred, and escape.
Ways to access the text: reading.
The play is quite easy to source online. One free source is the Open Library. If you are already a member of Scribd then you will also be able to read the play via their website. The work is reader-friendly and relatively short.
To my knowledge, there is no audiobook version or full recorded performance of this play available online.
Why read The Beauty Queen of Leenane?
Cruelty, Irish style.
Mag and Maureen are equally difficult women, but only one of them is capable of truly monstrous acts. Both characters are poised to be cruel but for wholly different reasons. Mag is effectively trapped in the house and her most basic needs like a decent, edible meal or an occasional day trip are entirely dependent on her daughter’s temperamental nature. In counterbalance, Maureen resents the situation she finds herself in as carer and says that she is just a “skivvy” (7) for her aged mother. The exceptional cruelty and violence that occurs in McDonagh’s play gives expression to years of bitterness and feelings of entrapment. There is a well-known precedent for such depictions of cruelty in Irish theatre, namely J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. However, Synge’s character of Christy Mahon who claims to have murdered his authoritarian father is really a teller of tall tales whereas McDonagh’s scorned woman takes real and terrible action. The echoes of Playboy (abbrev.) which are numerous in Beauty Queen (abbrev.) help to frame the abundance of familial violence as something distinctly Irish, as if only families on this wind-swept and rainy island in the North Atlantic can explode with such flinty hatred.
An audience familiar with McDonagh’s later plays will know that fairy tales often influence his writings. This is most apparent in The Pillowman, however Beauty Queen also bears the mark of fairy tale influence, specifically in its multiple allusions to the tale of Cinderella. The similarities can be seen quite readily: Maureen has two sisters whom she hates and a cruel mother who treats her like a parlour maid and who repeatedly attempts to stop Maureen going to meet the man of her dreams at the party. Maureen is certainly an unconventional Cinderella and as the play progresses, she appears to be starring in a macabre tale rather than a Disney classic. Through the incorporation of a classic fairy tale into his play, McDonagh manages to combine and balance a fascinating mix of realism and fantasy and the result is quite modern. Like many fairy tales, McDonagh gives us a story that is captivating and timeless.
The Fairy Tale Escape of a Middle-Aged Cinderella.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane was McDonagh’s first big success and actually his first foray into the theatre world and it assuredly sets his tone and style of writing. If one is not already familiar with any of McDonagh’s work, then deciding on how to react to Beauty Queen is probably the biggest challenge. The play opens on what appears a realistic scene depicting a mother and daughter relationship set in rural Ireland, but events quickly take us into surreal territory. The play is humorous but also unsettlingly violent at times, and one must come to grips with the provocative action on display before fully appreciating the story. The violence is not wholly gratuitous since it propels the storyline forward and aids our interpretation of events. Many theatre critics and academics have provided authoritative, well-argued interpretations of Beauty Queen often with an emphasis on the grotesque and I will refer to some key points from their interpretations when providing a new reading of the play. In this essay, Beauty Queen will be viewed primarily from the standpoint that it is a loose adaptation of the classic tale of Cinderella. Therefore, I will look at the themes of Cinderella, namely servitude, dreams, romance, marriage, and escape. It is escape that will hold the most prominent position since Cinderella is a young woman who escapes her evil stepmother and heartless stepsisters to a new life, just as Maureen in Beauty Queen hopes to escape her dreary existence of caring for an antagonistic, elderly mother, having already been abandoned by her unsupportive sisters who fled the family home years previously.
The nature of the violence in fairy tales is distinctive. The violence depicted in Beauty Queen is quite reminiscent of the shocking events depicted in the Grimm’s original version of Cinderella. For example, the notably macabre twist where two women’s eyes are plucked out by birds. In The Juniper Tree, one more of the Grimm’s unsettling tales, we meet yet another evil stepmother who decapitates a little boy – “his head flew off and fell among the red apples” (257). Grotesque is the word that best describes such acts of violence, and this label is an essential interpretative inroad to McDonagh’s work. Furthermore, the origin of the anger behind the violence is usually the clue to understanding fairy tales and this also proves to be the case in Beauty Queen. Maureen’s rage is what propels her to escape, but the rage comes from deep psychological trauma.
The grotesque is a shared characteristic of Beauty Queen and fairy tales. Several writers and critics have recognized the presence of the grotesque in McDonagh’s various plays and its significance, but they have not yet established a link with fairy tales which will be explored here. In an essay entitled “Disconcert and Destabilise the Prisoner,” Ondřej Pilný looks in detail at what exactly qualifies McDonagh’s work as an exemplar of the grotesque, and he outlines his perspective as follows:
“I have suggested elsewhere that the aesthetic of Martin McDonagh’s work may be summed up by the term grotesque entertainment, and it will perhaps be useful to repeat its chief characteristics here. These include the staging of graphic, often gratuitous violence, offensive language, ubiquitous black humour and the provision of crude – but hardly resistible – laughs. What is typical is the lack of depth of character psychology, and in accordance with the traditional notion of the grotesque, the mixing of disparate generic and thematic elements.”(Pilný 162)
In Beauty Queen, one finds all the elements of the grotesque listed by Pilný. For example, Maureen delivers the gratuitous violence when she uses a poker to break a piece off her dying/dead mother’s skull. Such an act mimics the often-fantastical violence of fairy tales. Mag is similar to a fairy-tale villain because we never gain even the slightest glimpse into her psychology. She presents an impenetrable, malign surface just like the evil stepmother of Cinderella. There is an abundance of black humour in the play, for instance, Mag’s promise to Ray not to open Maureen’s letter when she says, “may God strike me dead if I do open it” (47) and later her broken promise leads to her death. One also finds an extensive range of thematic elements in Maureen’s circuitous story. A crucial element of the argument of this essay is that McDonagh embeds a fairy tale (intentionally or otherwise) within the structure of a traditional Irish play and this implant facilitates the delivery of the characteristically grotesque elements referred to by Pilný. Gayanne Ramsden writes of how “The English nineteenth century art critique, John Ruskin, in his Stones of Venice, said that the grotesque had two elements: the ludicrous and the terrifying” (1). This sums up one’s experience of Beauty Queen since it is indeed a mix of humour and violence. The broader significance of the grotesque in Beauty Queen as outlined by critics and academics will be assessed further in the body of the discussion.
The last point to address in this introduction is that some readers will be sceptical of the idea that it was McDonagh’s intention to retell Cinderella in play format or even to make a sustained allusion to Cinderella. While McDonagh’s intentions would be enlightening, they do not preclude one from interpreting the play based on what it strongly resembles. Therefore, authorial intention will not be addressed in this essay. The story of Maureen Folan bears an undeniable and uncanny resemblance to the classic fairy tale of Cinderella. In fact, the fairy tale and play form a palimpsest effect. The points of correspondence as well as the differences between the works are pregnant with significances. The Cinderella story is generally understood to be a fixed text; however, the original story is quite old and has been adapted by several famous writers through the centuries such as Charles Perrault in 1697 and then again by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812. McDonagh’s play is not a strict retelling of one specific version of Cinderella but an addition to a long history of rewrites. The proven malleability of the fairy tale allows scope to create a collage of existing story points with some modern additions. There are three elements in Beauty Queen that perfectly match Cinderella’s story and they are that a young woman is placed in degrading servitude to a mother/mother figure, that she is obstructed from attending the party/ball, and finally, that she embraces the prospect of marriage (as an escape route).
Cinderella – a tale of escape.
The core theme of the Cinderella story is escape and not romance as many erroneously believe. This is a more sombre reading of the classic but a defensible one. It is true that the beautiful, young woman is enchanted by the prince at the ball but equally true is that she spends just a few hours in his company before accepting his marriage proposal. The romance blossoms prematurely and this may be explained by the backdrop of Cinderella’s home life where her father disregards her and allows her to be treated abominably by his new wife and stepdaughters. It is also of relevance that Cinderella is still mourning the death of her mother. In short, an emotionally vulnerable and ill-treated young woman manages to elude her tyrannical stepmother to go to the ball and upon meeting the charming prince her gold-plated destiny is secured in the most serendipitous manner – cue the fairy tale ending! In Perrault’s and the Grimms’ versions of the tale, there is an often-overlooked acknowledgement that Cinderella must still forgive or avenge her prior mistreatment. In modern parlance, closure is needed, and Perrault depicts a reconciliation between Cinderella and her family, but the Grimm’s depict an alternative, dark, gruesome fate for the stepsisters. In comparison, Maureen in Beauty Queen has long sought to escape her dire domestic situation and suddenly a prospective marriage conveniently serves as an exit route. In contrast to Cinderella’s tale, Mag thwarts Maureen’s romance by denying her the chance to attend the ‘ball’ on the second night. It is Maureen’s need to expel her anger over her mistreatment that leads to extreme violence, and this is her form of closure. Marriage is ostensibly the primary goal of both Cinderella and Maureen, but marriage also doubles as a protective shield against the travails of life and crucially offers an escape from an old life. The pain of the old life exerts a force on both women’s decisions. Neither woman knows her prospective husband sufficiently to marry him and if one removes the rose-tinted glasses of fairy-tale-land then the desire to marry is unmasked to be a coldly practical choice.
In keeping with the fairy-tale story, Maureen has two sisters just like Cinderella. These sisters contribute significantly to the horrible conditions of Cinderella’s life. The Grimms detail how Cinderella’s stepmother “had brought two daughters into the house with her, who were beautiful and fair of face, but vile and black of heart” (140). They subsequently treat Cinderella as little more than a “kitchen-wench” (140). Maureen similarly resents her idle siblings who offer no assistance in caring for their mother. Maureen taunts Mag, saying, “Do you see Annette or Margo coming pouring your Complan or buying our oul cod in butter sauce for the week?” (6). Mag nonetheless appreciates and possibly values her lost daughters above Maureen since she keeps them in mind – “The dedication Annette and Margo sent we still haven’t heard. I wonder what’s keeping it?” (7). A simple radio request overshadows Maureen’s daily graft and sacrifice. When one looks to the Brothers Grimm and Perrault, one reads of quite different fates for the cruel sisters. Perrault writes that Cinderella forgives their unkindness and, in the end, they become friends. In a quite different and grotesque ending, the Grimm’s recount how pigeons pecked out the eyes of both sisters on Cinderella wedding day, “And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived” (148). In Beauty Queen, it is the day of a funeral rather than a wedding that offers the chance for Maureen to reconcile with or avenge herself on her sisters. The fact that Maureen does not engage with her sisters on the day of their mother’s funeral is testament to the deep-seated wound. A hypothesis for Maureen’s grudge is that neither sister came to her aid in the immediate aftermath of her mental breakdown in England thus leaving her to the mercy of her mother. Being abandoned by her sisters results in her loss of freedom as well as feeling emotionally hurt. Escape is the antidote to the poisonous predicament Maureen finds herself in. Maureen first seeks escape in marriage but later finds it via murder.
Servitude – The beginning of a contract.
A significant aspect of Cinderella’s story is how she came under the guardianship of an evil stepmother. The Grimms and Perrault hold to the familiar tale of how a young woman’s natural mother dies, and her father subsequently remarries. Perrault describes this second wife as “the proudest and most haughty woman that was ever seen” (79). McDonagh captures the same aura of narcissism in his description of Mag when she sits alone in her kitchen “staring at her reflection in [a] hand mirror. She pats her hair a couple of times” (12). Mag is just as selfish and self-absorbed as the fairy-tale stepmother and just as willing to take advantage of someone in her care. Cinderella is mistreated while still grieving her dead mother and Maureen who has just returned from England after a mental breakdown is mistreated by Mag. Less apparent to readers are the legal contracts that make possible the subjugation of these young women. The remarriage of Cinderella’s father means that she is under the legal guardianship of her stepmother who subsequently treats the young woman as a chattel. In Maureen’s case, it is mental illness that necessitates a guardianship contract for an adult, explained by Mag to Pato as follows – “I did have to sign her [Maureen] out of [Difford Hall] and promise to keep her in me care” (35). The initial depiction of Mag as a harmless, old woman is quite deceptive. In fact, Mag callously takes advantage of Maureen’s weakness i.e., her breakdown, to ensure that she remains in a subordinate situation, slaving away in the house. The psychological blows endured by Cinderella and Maureen are clear and therefore the actions of their evil guardians appear even more malignant when exposed. Maureen’s bondage is prolonged, and this serves to illuminate why she eventually resorts to such abhorrent measures to gain freedom.
Maureen’s incarceration in Difford Hall is her first loss of freedom. The young woman’s breakdown signaled her inability to cope with her new life including the discrimination she encountered at her cleaning job. Mag’s power to have her adult daughter discharged into her care is Maureen’s second, catastrophic loss of freedom. Just like in the fairy tale where Cinderella is demeaned by the tasks she must carry out and by the dirty clothes she is forced to wear, Maureen is also degraded by her new and involuntary role as carer/cleaner. She already worked as a cleaner in Leeds, cleaning toilets, and then later in her mother’s house she is left to wash the kitchen sink that smells of her mother’s urine. The war of attrition that Mag wages against her daughter is an echo of the discrimination that Maureen experienced in England. The venom that is stored in Mag’s personality is given voice when Maureen suddenly and unexpectedly gets a chance to restart her life in middle age. Mag quite cruelly links Maureen’s state of undress the morning after her romantic tryst with Pato to the attire available to patients in Difford Hall mental institution, saying, “None of your own clothes they let you wear in there either, did they? …Only long oul gowns and buckle-down jackets” (34). This reminds one of what Cinderella’s family did, “They took her pretty clothes away from her, put an old grey bedgown on her, and gave her wooden shoes” (140). The “little black dress” (54) that Maureen buys to go to the party is much like the gown Cinderella is gifted in the story and has the same transformational properties – from skivvy to potential bride. Mag’s humiliation of her daughter is not simply a show of power, but it also serves to actively sabotage Maureen’s chances of romance with Pato. Difford Hall is the invisible chain that binds Maureen to her mother’s house in the form of a written agreement even though it is some twenty years old. Mag re-enslaved her daughter on a premise that sadly is still valid for Maureen as it involves her shameful past.
Servitude – Her mother’s skivvy.
The resentment grown of long servitude is an important aspect of the Cinderella story that McDonagh brings to a violent crescendo in his retelling. Maureen is in perpetual servitude to her mother’s needs, is unable to have a normal social life, and is demeaned by her mother’s critical comments. These story points reflect the tale of Cinderella but slight nuances in the retelling are also informative. For example, Mag fulfils the role of the evil stepmother despite the fact that she is Maureen’s biological mother. The true biological tie casts Mag in a darker light since her lack of maternal love is more blatant. Mag mistreats her daughter and as a result, Maureen feels that she is little more than a “skivvy” (7) who is at Mag’s “beck and call” (19). This matches the fairy tale where Perrault writes that Cinderella was made do “the meanest work of the house” (79), while the Brothers Grimm recount how Cinderella’s stepmother and half-sisters, “led her into the kitchen. [And] There she had to do hard work from morning till night” (140). One may view Mag’s habit of emptying her potty of urine in the kitchen sink as humorous, yet Maureen invariably cleans up afterwards. The other principal factors in Maureen’s story are how she is continually thwarted from having a normal social life and is subject to critical comments. Mag fails to communicate Ray’s invite to the party and when Maureen finds out then she accuses Mag of “Arsing me around, eh? Interfering with my life again? … Is it one evening out you begrudge me? (19). In the Brothers Grimm version, the stepmother first sets Cinderella several virtually impossible tasks to complete before the possibility of permission to attend the ball is considered, but finally denies the girl the opportunity anyway, saying “Thou art dusty and dirty and wouldst go to the festival?” (142). It is noteworthy that the refusal is accompanied by hurtful and undermining comments about Cinderella. Perrault similarly writes of how the stepmother and sisters made fun of Cinderella, “it would make the people laugh to see a Cinder-breech at a ball” (83). In Beauty Queen, Mag likewise berates her daughter, first branding her a “whore” (20) for desiring to go out and meet a man. Then later, Mag paradoxically belittles Maureen due to her obvious lack of sexual experience, saying – “You still do have the look of a virgin about you you always have had. You always will” (51). McDonagh repeats an element that we view in the various versions of the fairy tale, namely how Mag as the evil guardian capitalizes on Maureen’s inexperience so that the maximum pain may be inflicted. A sexually naïve, middle-aged woman caught in the trap of domestic servitude must feel such barbed comments quite deeply. Whereas Cinderella may sublimate her anger once she is safely married to the prince, Maureen cannot avail of this nobler outlet since her mother appears to have successfully sabotaged her chances of finding a husband. Maureen’s anger bubbles and foreshadows the violence that is to come.
The grotesque in Beauty Queen.
Mag resembles Cinderella’s stepmother in malignancy but only via references to the grotesque may one fully appreciate the exaggerated characterization of this crone. In the Guardian newspaper, Sean O’Hagan wrote that McDonagh’s “two key signatures: [are] an exaggerated-to-the-point-of-grotesque cast of characters who skate dangerously close to caricature, and a humour that emerges from an almost casual, but never less than vicious, cruelty.” McDonagh explained his tactic of pushing conventional boundaries to O’Hagan, saying, “I think you can see things more clearly through exaggeration than through reality.” What audiences eventually see is summed up in O’Hagan’s quote that McDonagh’s “work has been primarily concerned with taking a scalpel to the remarkably enduring myth of an Arcadian Ireland that he, like Synge before him, has laid bare to reveal a dark, insular place of suppurating spite, internecine family feuding and simmering violence.” What one garners from these assorted quotes is how a monstrous character like Mag, who indeed verges on a caricature of a fairy-tale witch, simultaneously manages to communicate a realistic message to an audience. Through his use of the grotesque, McDonagh is signalling that this is not the frequently romanticized Ireland of the céad míle fáilte (one hundred thousand welcomes) but a much darker, grim place where selfish mothers sometimes deliberately destroy the lives of their children. The strange cruelties that we witness in the play are familiar because they are borrowed from over-the-top storyline twists in fairy tales. What is more, the ending of the play where Mag’s head is split open is a form of homage to Synge’s Playboy who ‘splits’ his father’s skull, but the punishment is arguably deserved in Mag’s case. McDonagh dismantles the old cliché of the sainted, Irish mother-figure by placing her firmly in her grave.
Beauty Queen is an amalgam of diverse elements which finally produces an immoral message. In The Grotesque in Contemporary Anglophone Drama, Ondřej Pilný writes that “Generally speaking, the grotesque is defined by the blending of radically incongruous elements, together with the simultaneous repulsion and fascination it triggers” (3). The incongruous elements included in Beauty Queen are a traditional Irish play format reminiscent of Synge’s work, shocking violence, and a story lifted straight from the classic tale of Cinderella. Pilný comments that, “The unhinging of the familiar world that is communicated by the grotesque has a tendency to inspire insecurity and terror in the audience” (6). In Beauty Queen the grotesque is not merely a label for the style of writing, namely the mixing of elements that Pilný lists, but it is equally about the grotesque characters previously referenced by O’Hagan who live within the four walls of the Folan family home. On account of these multiple facets of the grotesque, we certainly become ill at ease when watching the unfolding action. The action of the play flits unpredictably between realism and cruel fantasy. For example, homely conversations about Complan or the weather merge uneasily into threats signalled by things as simple as turning on an electric kettle or a lingering look from a daughter to a mother in a silent house. We empathize with Maureen because escape from Mag is her only hope, but her extreme methods quickly repel and disgust us. Pilný writes of how “the grotesque may be seen to solicit engagement with vital present-day issues” (21). McDonagh achieves this when he opens a modernly framed conversation on why a daughter would act so abominably towards her own mother. In truth, Maureen’s hopes are not extravagant, she merely wants independence, marriage, and a future. Is this why the playwright abstains from passing moral judgement on Maureen and allows her to eventually walk free? It is the grotesque elements of McDonagh’s play that facilitate the delivery of an underlying immoral message to the audience.
McDonagh’s play is a black comedy but one which incorporates several genres, and each is inscribed with a clue to a final interpretation. On the topic of genre, Pilný warns that we should not regard “any incongruous mixing of genres in a play as grotesque” (3). Beauty Queen has already been shown to qualify for the label of grotesque, but it is of note that Pilný does not list fairy-tale as a genre that Beauty Queen incorporates, hence the current analysis. However, he does make important observations about, for example, McDonagh’s use of the traditional Irish play format. Many critics have noted McDonagh’s indebtedness to J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World because Beauty Queen seems to take many self-conscious cues and borrowings from the older work. Both plays deal with a disgruntled, adult child who commits parricide to escape an authoritarian parent and the common setting for the plays is rural Ireland. Still on the topic of genre, Pilný asserts that Beauty Queen “offers a sitcom reiteration of Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire and the innumerable narratives of the Irish exile” (157). This point on narratives of Irish exile deserves emphasis since exile and escape are merely two interpretations of the same physical act, namely leaving. Since McDonagh must have been conscious of his use of a traditional format then its covert message would also have been apparent to him. This brings one to the crux of what McDonagh achieves with his modern, Irish play in contrast to the tradition he consciously works within. Pilný notes that “the overall approach in Irish drama criticism tends to be determined by the notion of Irish drama essentially holding a “mirror up to nature/nation” (163). It is true that much of Beauty Queen is realistic, but this realism is constantly undercut by scenes that are close to fantasy. Pilný explains this twist by writing, “there is another sense in which McDonagh clearly operates as a satirist, his plays in fact ironise the very notion of Irish dramatic realism” (166). One example of such satire in Beauty Queen is that the Irish have traditionally viewed imperialist England as the fairy-tale big-bad-wolf who robbed a nation of its true potential thus leading to generations of exiles whereas McDonagh’s play shows us that unadulterated escape is the true underlying wish of many young Irish people. Maureen repeats an anti-English platitude to her mother, saying, “If it wasn’t for the English stealing our language, and our land, and our God-knows-what …” (9), but she still desperately seeks to flee her homeland for England or the United States despite her nationalistic protestations. If escape is there in the DNA of Beauty Queen, namely its make-up of various genres and their hidden messages then escape is surely the most important message of the play.
Escape via emigration.
In Beauty Queen, emigration is posited as the ultimate escape. In the case of Ireland, notable decades of mass emigration included the 1950’s and 1980’s. However, as signaled in McDonagh’s play, emigrants did not always succeed in their new lives. Those like Maureen who failed were destined to return home in shame, whereas others like Pato continued to live and work in England but without any success or accomplishment. In the tale of Cinderella, the young woman does not travel to a distant land but finds a lifestyle of such luxury by marrying the prince that she no longer has any material worries. In effect, she is transported to the land of milk and honey. In Beauty Queen, the fantasy land is always located outside the island or Ireland. For instance, Ray Dooley hopes to get a job in London or Manchester and his brother Pato will soon be relocating to Boston where their successful uncle has already lived for many years. Home is not a place in which to become a success but rather a place to remain only if one is an abject failure. It is the transformative quality invested in emigration by consecutive generations of Irish people which holds the fairy-tale element. Not only that, but the further away the destination then apparently the greater the prospect of success. This belies the reality of re-location as sadly shown by Maureen’s return home. The play explores the magic invested in the idea of leaving Ireland, but the covert message is that there is nothing to stay for in the first place.
Romance – The Prince.
In the play, Pato Dooley represents the prince of the Cinderella tale. Just as Maureen is an odd Cinderella figure, Pato is equally miscast as the prince who invites her to the ball. In Perrault’s text, “the King’s son gave a ball, and invited all persons of fashion to it” (81) whereas the Grimms write that “the King appointed a festival which was to last three days, and to which all the beautiful young girls in the country were invited, in order that his son might choose himself a bride” (142). One immediately senses the deflating and mocking adaptation of this story in Beauty Queen since Ray is the gormless messenger instructed by Pato to invite Maureen and her mother to his “uncle’s going-away do” (14). Nevertheless, Pato indeed renews his connection with Maureen but the aura of success that surrounds him soon dissipates. In Scene Five, the letter from Pato to Maureen reveals much, chiefly that Pato’s story is not that of a successful Irishman in England. Instead, he lives in a bedsit with a shared telephone in the hallway and at his work he endures poor wages, unsafe working conditions, and racial abuse. He has no friends and usually drinks alone, and we learn that his sexual encounters with women have sometimes been marred by impotence. Though the play is set in the 1990’s, Pato’s story bears a strong resemblance to the fate of many Irish, economic migrants to Britain in the 1950’s. These migrants, especially men, often led lonely, unsuccessful lives in England and were often too ashamed to return home. Such stories have been recorded in a documentary entitled The Forgotten Irish, directed by Maurice Sweeney. There is also a salient link to McDonagh’s own background because as O’Toole writes in The New Yorker, “McDonagh’s father, a construction worker, and his mother, a cleaner and part-time housekeeper, met and married in the nineteen-sixties, in London, where they had moved from Ireland in search of better wages.” Therefore, the playwright is depicting his knowledge of real-life migrant stories including all the failure and heartbreak. It is as a consequence of Pato’s failed dreams in England that he decides to take up his uncle’s offer and accept a job in Boston. Apart from Pato’s good looks, he is not a princely marriage prospect but simply a lifeline for a desperate woman. Both he and his middle-aged ‘Cinderella’ are seeking their fairy-tale endings via escape routes of various kinds from emigration to marriage.
The illusion of true romance is viciously undercut in Beauty Queen. The classic tale of Cinderella is romantic chiefly because the prince will accept no bride other than the ravishing girl he danced with at the ball and whose glass slipper he retained as a future test to identify her. Maureen holds no such exclusive spot in Pato’s heart since she faces competition from Dolores Hooley/Healey who is younger and prettier. After Maureen’s first night at the ‘ball,’ she comments on Pato’s “stray oul hands” (25) that “were straying over that Yank girl earlier on in the evening” (25). Pato even recycles his seductive move on Dolores when later fondling Maureen breasts. This scenario is far removed from the idyllic picture presented by the Grimm’s who wrote that “The prince went to meet her [Cinderella], took her by the hand and danced with her. He would dance with no other maiden, and never left loose of her hand, and if any one else came to invite her, he said, ‘This is my partner’” (144). Pato finally betrays his connection with Maureen when he gets engaged to Dolores and moves to Boston. The prince turns out to be a cad!
Romance – dreams.
Beauty Queen is concerned with fairy-tale escapes and such escapes materialize in Maureen’s waking and sleeping dreams. Ever before Pato returns from England, Maureen fanaticizes about her mother’s murder as a literal release from servitude. This occurs when Mag recalls a story from the news where “The fella up and murdered the poor oul woman in Dublin” (10) and Maureen relishes being able to antagonize her mother by saying, “If he clobbered you with a big axe or something and took your oul head off and spat in your neck, I wouldn’t mind at all” (11). The humour of the scene mixes uncomfortably with the underlying hatred that makes such comments freely expressible. Later, when Mag angers Maureen by trying to stop her meeting Pato, we learn of Maureen’s secret dreams too.
“I have a dream sometimes there of you, dressed all nice and white, in your coffin there, and me all in black looking in on you, and a fella beside me there, comforting me, the smell of aftershave off him, his arm round me waist. And the fella asks me then if I’ll be going for a drink with him at his place after.”(McDonagh 20)
Maureen’s rescuer in both her waking and sleeping dreams is “the fella.” This mythical stranger is a combination of killer and lover. He is a figure who is sexually attractive and violent. Maureen eventually superimposes a version of this dark stranger onto Pato. It is Pato who is Maureen’s long-awaited chance to lose her virginity, to rid herself of her mother, and to start a new life. Pato also eases any secret guilt Maureen may be harbouring when he advises that a care home is indeed good enough for Mag based on his own mother’s experience. Unfortunately, Pato fades in comparison with the potent sexuality of ‘the fella’ since Pato suffers from impotence and is furthermore a tragic figure since he also needs rescuing proven by his reliance on his uncle’s job offer. Only via emigration for a second time and to a different continent does Pato hope for eventual success in life. When Maureen’s dreams of a rescuer finally crumble then she must find a method to free herself.
Fantasy tinged with reality.
If an audience treated Beauty Queen as pure fantasy like a fairy tale, then the play would have minor impact. The story must consistently tilt towards believability for it to be so unsettling. Pure fantasy is easily dismissed in a way that reflections of real life cannot be. In an article entitled “Murderous Laughter” in the Irish Times newspaper, Fintan O’Toole assesses this complex aspect of the play. Commenting on McDonagh’s plays, O’Toole writes that “The family, from The Beauty Queen of Leenane onwards, is a site for psychological and even biological warfare.” He goes on to write that “This is a world where the difference between the real and the unreal is increasingly hard to grasp.” This unsettling imbalance is achieved in Beauty Queen by the realism of the traditional, Irish-play format melded conspicuously to the exaggeration typical of fairy tale. In O’Toole’s article, his key point is that within the playwright’s style is the key to unlocking the truth of the depicted situation.
“At one level, then, the [Leenane] trilogy maps a very real and immediate Ireland. However grotesque the exaggerations, they inflate a recognisable truth so that it can be seen more clearly. But at another level, the world that is imagined in this way is also a version of one of the great mythic landscapes – the world before morality.”
Once again, elements of the grotesque in McDonagh’s play are essential to discovering the truth of the work. O’Toole makes the salient observation that within the Leenane trilogy is an Ireland free of morality, an amoral place. One may ponder if the story of an amoral place can still deliver a moral message for readers just as classic fairy tales usually impart a moral lesson despite, or thanks to, their sometimes-grotesque events. It is more plausible that McDonagh looks to highlight a stark reality rather than provide a take-away, moralistic lesson for his audience. One may readily appreciate the injustice of Maureen’s life at home with her mother yet withhold approval for her terrible actions. However, the playwright allows Maureen her eventual freedom without the repercussions for the vicious murder she committed. He creates the anti-Cinderella text where a mentally ill, middle-aged, virgin loses her mind and her man, kills her evil mother, and walks scot-free!
There is an obvious duality to Maureen’s character, the dark and the light sides. As the devoted daughter, she fulfils the role of Cinderella. Perrault writes of “a young daughter … of unparalleled goodness and sweetness of temper” (79) and in the Grimms’ version, Cinderella’s dying mother instructs her to be “good and pious, and then the good God will always protect thee” (140). Maureen is neither sweet nor pious, yet she is undeniably her mother’s only carer and has carried out this role unwaveringly for twenty years. It is only when we discover Maureen’s past in a mental institution, her unsavoury daydreams, and finally, her violent streak, that we understand the opposite, darker side of Maureen. The grind of Maureen’s life is much like Cinderella’s, but she summons up the fantasy through shocking violence rather than romance.
In this essay, it has been my endeavour to highlight how Beauty Queen is a reworking of the Cinderella story. The secondary material quoted, mainly reviews and essays on the play, has established the importance of McDonagh’s uses of the grotesque. It has been a small but crucial step to link the play to the genre of fairy-tale and credit the latter as a Trojan Horse that carries a secret cargo of the grotesque. The intricacies of why Beauty Queen manages to entice us in, while alternately repelling us is commendable to the grotesque.
McDonagh achieves much with his unusual story of Maureen and her mother. He dismantles the myth of the Irish family held together by sacrifice and blood bonds and he has additionally put the figure of ‘Mother Machree’ (the selfless Irish mother) in a mortuary. The play mocks the conventions of romantic love and reveals instead the coarse and often funny un-happily-ever-after stories of life. Maureen becomes an anti-hero due to her obscene attack on her mother and yet there is obvious meaning to her madness, namely that she carries a deep hurt in her heart that must be excised. The playwright delivers a humorous and violent depiction of Ireland that is modern and clever as well as being a refreshing re-working of a classic tale.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. “Cinderella.” Grimm’s Fairy Tales, translated by Margaret Hunt, Seltzer Books, 2017, pp. 140-148.
McDonagh, Martin. The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Methuen Drama, 1996.
O’Hagan, Sean. “The Wild West.” The Guardian, 24 March 2001.
O’Toole, Fintan. “A Mind In Connemara.” The New Yorker, 26 February 2006.
O’Toole, Fintan. “Murderous Laughter.” The Irish Times, 24 June 1997.
Perrault, Charles. “Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper.” The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. Translated by J. E. Mansion and Robert Samber, Dodge Publishing Co. 1922, pp. 79-93.
Pilný, Ondřej. “Disconcert and Destabilise the Prisoner: Martin McDonagh.” Irony and Identity in Modern Irish Drama. Litteraria Pragensia, 2006, pp. 154-170.
Pilný, Ondřej. The Grotesque in Contemporary Anglophone Drama. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.