I first saw The Beauty Queen of Leenane when I was 17 and went with my grandmother to visit her sister in Los Angeles over spring break. I was a senior in high school, and I knew everything about everything. My great-aunt and her husband had season tickets to the theatre, and they gave us a choice of a traditional play or an avant garde production. We chose the avant garde, which happened to be The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
Unbeknownst to me, The Beauty Queen of Leenane had opened four years earlier at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway. The play’s world premiere was also the first play in the new theatre, back in February of 1996 – a joint production of Galway’s Druid Theatre Company and England’s Royal Court Theatre. By the time I saw it at the South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa, it had played on Broadway, in Australia, and all over Ireland.
I remember being very preoccupied with the sensation of taste and how the actor’s mouths formed words. I was hung up on the question of Kimberleys (“Me world doesn’t revolve around your taste in biscuits”) and the way both mother and daughter spat out the word spoon. I can’t comment on the quality of their accents, because I was 17 and had nothing against which to compare them, but they seemed fine at the time.
On a recent reread of the play, I was more concerned with the sensation of smell. The suspicious odor of the kitchen sink, the scent of something burning in the air. I even wonder if they shouldn’t have had a turf fire, instead of using coal to fire the range.
It’s also different this time because the place names resonate with me. The Dooleys throw a going away party for their American cousins at a hall in Carraroe, which is the town where I finally stopped for coffee and directions when I went for a drive along the coast road. Maureen wants to go shopping in Westport, which is the town I passed through two weekends ago on my way to the Grace Kelly Film Festival. And, of course, the family I crashed into with my rental car on my second day here was from Leenane.
In my Irish language course earlier this week, our instructor went on a brief tangent about the “Do Be Do Be Do” tense in Irish: you’ll hear older people, perhaps those who grew up speaking Irish but can switch to English as necessary, saying things like, “I do be going to the shops,” or “I do be watching the hurling.” Mag, the elderly mother in Beauty Queen, says early in the play, “I do be scared, Maureen.”
I went to a casual discussion about this play on campus with a bunch of PhD students, and I learned that Martin McDonagh is often perceived as “not Irish enough,” because he grew up mostly in South London. I also learned that the play’s violence was heavily influenced by 1994’s Pulp Fiction. And I learned that this play references the other two plays in The Leenane Triology: A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West.
My favorite critique of the play, however, comes from my grandmother, who attended the same LA production as me, all those years ago:
“If the ‘feckins’ had been left out, it would have lasted half the time.”