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Reviewed by:
  • The Cripple of Inishmaan, and: Tarry Flynn
  • Michael C. O’Neill
The Cripple Of Inishmaan. By Martin McDonagh. Royal National Theatre, Lyttelton, London. 12 June 1997.
Tarry Flynn. By Patrick Kavanagh. Adapted by Conall Morrison. Abbey Theatre, Dublin. 16 June 1997.

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Figure 1.

Helen (Aisling O’Sullivan) in Royal National Theatre of London’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, directed by Nicholas Hytner. Lyttelon Theatre. Photo: Gautier Deblonde.

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Figure 2.

Billy (Ruaidhri Conroy) in Royal National Theatre of London’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, directed by Nicholas Hytner. Lyttelon Theatre. Photo: Gautier Deblonde.

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Figure 3.

James Kennedy and Pauline Flanagan in Abbey Theatre of Dublin’s production of Patrick Kavangh’s Tarry Flynn, adapted and directed by Conall Morrison. Photo: Amelia Stein.

The legacy of Irish provincial life casts a long and sometimes flickering shadow across two deeply felt comedies staged in the national theatres of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland last summer. At the center of both Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan and Conall Morrison’s adaptation of Patrick Kavanagh’s novel Tarry Flynn are young, misfit heroes who, like countless others in Ireland and its fiction, try to escape the rural existence that has defined them. Cripple Billy Claven, the title character of McDonagh’s widely praised play, seeks his refuge in the movies; Tarry Flynn composes poems to wildflowers and insects as he works the thankless fields of County Cavan. Informing each of their struggles, however, is the cultural legacy from which both McDonagh and Morrison have drawn, which is embodied in startlingly different styles in these two highly literate and insightful productions.

The play is set on the remote island of Inishmaan, which John Millington Synge described in 1903 in The Aran Islands as possibly the most primitive place left in Europe. The Cripple of Inishmaan contrasts Synge’s portrayal of a pure, almost prelapsarian Irish life with a petty and comic existence suddenly—and deceptively—given meaning when Hollywood film director Robert Flaherty and his crew of Americans arrive to shoot Man of Aran on location in 1934. McDonagh’s characters see in the filming only an opportunity to escape to Hollywood and the good life in America. To the islanders’ amazement, Cripple Billy, the outcast and orphan of Inishmaan, is hired by Flaherty and travels to Hollywood for a screen test bursting with [End Page 257] Irish clichés and stereotypes about the disabled that sends Billy packing for the reality of home, where in turn he unmasks the lies surrounding his birth and the death of his parents.

McDonagh has created a range of richly defined characters, all of whom are recognizable relatives of the Irish types that Synge helped reinvent in The Playboy of the Western World and that Patrick Kavanagh satirized in Tarry Flynn. The two maiden aunts, Kate and Eileen Osbourne, raise Billy Claven as their own son, smothering him with their good intentions and their worries for his health; under stress, Kate begins speaking to stones, and Eileen, to cope with her Irish fatalism, sneaks sweets from behind the counter of her shop. Johnnypateenmike, the local bachelor busybody, trades gossip for eggs, and still tends to his ninety-year-old mother, who has a habit of drinking so much she cannot climb the stairs to bed and taunts her son by calling him “the most boring oul fecker in Ireland” (The Cripple of Inishmaan [London: Metheun, 1996], 35). Bartley, Billy’s dim-witted friend, expresses his need for adventure by begging for a telescope to look at the cows and rocks.

The National Theatre has assembled a brilliant cast for The Cripple of Inishmaan, most notably Aisling O’Sullivan as the beautiful and foul-mouthed Helen whom Billy adores, and Owen Sharpe as Bartley, the younger brother Helen torments. Fine character performances are turned in by Ray McBride as Johnnypateenmike and by Anita Reeves and Dearbhla Molloy as Billy’s aunts. In the title role, Ruaidhri Conroy is so convincing as the...

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