So, I got curious. According to Wikipedia, MacDonagh was born and raised in London with “both London and Irish citizenship.” However, what immediately got my attention was the fact that he is considered one of England’s most gifted playwrights. At the present time, Martin has four plays which are simultaneously running in four theaters in London; an event that has not occurred since the time of Shakespeare! His work has recently received the Lawrence Oliver Award and he his scripts are the most “sought after” in both London and Hollywood. When I looked at a list of his published works, and found not a single familiar title, I immediately ordered six of his plays. Here are two of them.
It turns out that MacDonagh is considered a master dramatist by the London critics and his popularity in America is growing. He is especially adept at a kind of drama described as ensemble performance in which a group of actors deliver a complex scene filled with wit and dialect with flawless timing. So flawless, in fact , that the audience often breaks into applause.
Another significant characteristic is the presence of dark humor and a good bit of cruel activity. The audience finds themselves “tricked” into laughing at bizarre situations or being amused by cruelty. For example, consider MacDonagh’s play, “Hangman.”
The setting of “Hangman” is a popular bar which is owned and operated by a London bartender (and executioner) named Hennessy. Regulars in Hennessy’s bar drink and discuss local politics. The time of the play is 1964 and the favorite topic for discussion is the recent abolishment of hanging. It soon become evident that Hennessy is a bit envious of England’s most famous hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint, who has a much larger number of executions than Hennessy. Eventually, it becomes evident that Pierrepoint’s prolific record is partly due to his service as the official executioner for German war criminals. Hennessy feels that the war executions gives Pierrepoint and “unfair advantage.” In addition, several of Hennessy’s executions are controversial because the victims may have been innocent. (Pierrepoint is an actual person with a filmed biography.)
One of the customers at Hennessy’s on this day is a suspicious fellow named Mooney who wants to rent a room above the bar. His behavior is suspicious and he seems to have an unhealthy interest in Hennessy’s teen daughter, Shirley. When Shirley turns up missing, the customers become alarmed and discuss the possibility that she may be the victim of a child molester. Two of Hennessy’s regular customers are policemen, and when Mooney shows up, suspicions increase. Within a short time, Mooney is seized by Hennessy who, egged on by his customers, conducts his own investigation. In the midst of this “trial,” Albert Pierrepoint makes a surprise visit (which has a bad effect on Hennessy who becomes convinced of Mooney’s guilt and the play ends with a bizarre execution. Then, Shirley, the missing daughter, returns. She has actually spent the afternoon with Mooney (who actually considers killing Shirley, but relents).
“A Behanding in Spokane” is one of MacDonagh’s most popular plays. The play got my attention immediately because I “misread” the title. Then, I realized the title was meant to confuse the reader. Given the state of affairs with Isis and the monthly terrorist reports of beheadings, it is a natural mistake to misread the title. Yes, it is “behanding,” not “beheading.”
“A Behanding in Spokane” only has four characters and moves rapidly. The setting is a hotel room in “anywhere, America.” The protagonist, a man named Carmichael is a middle-aged man who is missing his left hand. We quickly learn that he leads a nomad’s existence, traveling from one obscure town to another in his quest for his missing hand. His only possession is a large suitcase. Within a few minutes, we learn that Carmichael has a gun which he has fires at the beginning of the play at someone who is locked in the closet. When a young woman (Marilyn) arrives with another suitcase, we learn that Carmichael has her boyfriend locked in the closet. As it turns out, Marilyn has brought Carmichael a hand and she now asks for the release of her boyfriend (Toby), a young black man who tied up and gagged.
At this point, the action becomes increasingly surreal as Marilyn produces a hand (it is the wrong color) and we learn that Carmichael’s search has produced an endless supply of decaying hands which he keeps in the mysterious suitcase. When finally opened, the suitcase delivers an avalanche of hands in varied colors and sizes. The play ends in a series of nerve-wracking activities, including a set rigged to burst into flames with half of the cast hand-cuffed to a radiator in a gasoline-soaked room.
“A Behanding in Spokane” has become cult piece of black comedy with Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell in the Broadway production. A collection of scenes from the play are currently on Youtube. In addition, MacDonagh has written other black comedy pieces such “Pillowman” and “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” which are currently running in London and New York.