- Bread and Butter to Boiling Oil: From Wilde’s Afternoon Tea to The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996), the first play in his highly successful Leenane Trilogy, is packed with references to foodstuffs and forms of aggression acted out through manipulation of foods. For example, three of the four characters evince strong unexplained dislikes for Kimberley biscuits; Coleman Connor is reported to have been made sick for a week after consuming a packet of Kimberley or its confectionary shelf-mate, the raspberry sponge Mikado; and Mag’s frustrated desire to have someone make her a cup of lump-free Complan (a powdered milk drink and nutritional supplement popular in Ireland) drives her daughter Maureen to fury and beyond. This food-packed drama is played out within the walls of what the stage directions describe as “a rural cottage in the west of Ireland.”1 Yet, this is a setting historically more evocative of hunger, of populations reduced by starvation and of wiry inhabitants locked in perpetual battle with the deleterious effects of British colonialism and a miserly Mother Nature.
Thus, the question arises: from whence does McDonagh’s relatively gluttonous—and often glutinous—picture of the West of Ireland come? Is it the natural consequence of the once-burgeoning prosperity brought about by the Celtic Tiger economy? Or is it something more directly connected to the history of Irish theater? Although McDonagh claims not to have read Synge before writing this trilogy, the parallels between McDonagh’s “western plays” and Synge’s Playboy of the Western World have been well documented by Shaun Richards and others.2 Chris Morash describes McDonagh’s plays as “copies that have forgotten their originals. . . . By creating an image that audiences are invited to see as ‘traditional,’ [i.e. Syngean] and then removing from it the last vestiges [End Page 106] of ‘traditional’ value, the plays stage the contradictions of a society that continues to nurse images of itself in which it no longer believes.”3
Oscar Wilde’s influence on McDonagh is largely unexplored, though there have been passing comments that suggest the connections have been noticed. For instance, the English critic Charles Spencer put down McDonagh as being “like Wilde,” in that “he seems to have nothing to declare but his own genius.”4 The director Dominic Dromgoole minimizingly adds “even Wilde” only at the end of a list of five Irish playwrights in whose works McDonagh’s own are “drenched.”5 But the two men—despite the disparity of social status and the 116 years that separate their births—share much in common: playwrights of Irish background living in London for whom tremendous success came at an early age. The foundation of much of Beauty Queen’s mother-daughter conflict can be derived from the social downgrading of aspects of The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), and a development—even an expansion to the point of obsession—of the famous scene in Act 2 in which two young society women trade insults during the preparation and consumption of the most decorous of English afternoon teas.
Few would immediately associate Oscar Wilde’s ample-girthed, Anglo-Irish effeteness with western Irish, hardscrabble subsistence, but the Dublin-born playwright had close familial connections to the worst ravages of poverty and hunger in Ireland. Owen Dudley Edwards writes, “The Great Famine and its revelations of human responsibility for human suffering were probably the greatest individual legacies in creative response which Wilde inherited from his parents.”6 Indeed, both of Wilde’s parents had highly praiseworthy involvement in “the great dislocation of 1845–9.”7 Few men can have had a more comprehensive grasp of the horrors of Irish starvation than Wilde’s father. Before opening a private ophthalmic practice, Sir William Wilde (1815–76) served as medical advisor to the Irish Census of 1841 and then as assistant commissioner for the 1851 version, two dates enclosing a horrific rip in the fabric of Irish history, when the population—devastated by death and emigration—plummeted from more than eight million to less than seven million. Apart from earning him a knighthood, Sir William’s work...