Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan: Satire or Comedy? An Archetypal Inquiry

In his Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye asserts that all narratives fall within four mythoi: comedy, romance, tragedy or irony and satire.(162) While some narratives are very simple to classify, even if they vary in places from the archetypal patterns of the mythoi that Frye sets out, others, especially more modern works, fall somewhere in between. Frye argues that  comedy can blend into satire at one end of the spectrum, or into romance at the other, and tragedy moves from romance to bitter, ironic realism. (162) However, even with the blending, narratives still should fall mainly within one mythos or another. As Frye asserts, “the distinction between an ironic comedy or a comic satire…is tenuous, but not quite a distinction without a difference.” (177) Finding that line for Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, is the aim of this essay.

The popular term for much, if not all, of Martin McDonagh’s work is “black comedy.” According to the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, black comedy is “a form of drama which displays a marked disillusionment and cynicism. It shows human beings without convictions and with little hope, regulated by fate or fortune or incomprehensible powers.” (87) While this is a workable and accurate description of the worlds McDonagh creates, it does not provide much insight into an archetypal analysis of his work against Frye’s mythoi.

Critics of McDonagh’s plays have referred to them as satire. Jose Lanters argues in his essay “ The Identity Politics of Martin McDonagh” that it is “through the erasure of boundaries between the trivial and the profound, the fragmentation of identity, and the radical destabilization of traditional norms, including those relating to gender and sexuality, that McDonagh’s postmodern plays engage satirically with the foundation of Irish nationalism.” (9) It is not hard at all to believe this assertion when considering The Lieutenant of Inishmore, where the plot turns around the murder of an Irish Liberation Army enforcer’s cat and four men end up gruesomely killed on stage because of it.

Others of McDonagh’s plays go to similar extremes which can only be seen as satire. In The Beauty Queen of Leenane a 40-something spinster murders her mother for burning a letter from a man she was in love with. Two brothers drive a priest to suicide to try and bargain for their souls and force them to make up from their warring in The Lonesome West. Neither of the brothers is a very sympathetic character. One killed his father over a criticism of his hair and the other covered it up for the price of his brother’s half of their inheritance. Likewise, neither Maureen nor Mag, the protagonists in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, are very likable. Maureen starts off sympathetic, dealing with a mother that seems horrible, but considering she ends up taking a poker to her and calling it an accident. Whether it is the hopelessness of these characters lives that have driven them to these depths of amorality or if they are just generally unlikeable, it is hard to empathize, and McDonagh’s satire of the supposed pious, friendly, eloquent Irish common-folk is biting.

A Skull in Connemara is a bit less gruesome, even though it involves grave digging and the crushing of bones. The plot revolves around a man who digs up graves every year for the church so that new people can be buried. This year it is time to dig up his wife’s grave. Officially she was killed seven years before in a drunk driving accident, but the town gossips all think he killed her deliberately. Mick, the widower, gets to her grave, only to find she is already gone. When Mairtin, the boy helping him, lets slip that he has seen her bones, Mick assumes he dug her up for sport and plots to kill him for disturbing her. When Thomas, the local cop, arrives and accuses Mick of killing his wife, providing her cracked skull as evidence, Mick confesses to having killed Mairtin by bashing in his head, but insists he never touched his wife. In a scene which is a distinct echo of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, Mairtin then walks in with a bloody head, proving Mick did not kill him at all. The play closes with Mick bent over his wife’s skull, cradling it, still insisting he never touched her, and, unlike in The Beauty Queen and The Lonesome West, for all that the parish may be convinced Mick is a murderer, the audience, or reader, is left with serious doubts. Still, even with the sympathetic protagonist, A Skull in Connemara comes off as much as a satire as a comedy, ridiculing the corrupt country police and drunkards and standards that say drunk driving is not as bad as murder.

Against these four plays (excluding The Pillowman which is not one of McDonagh’s “Irish” plays and in a very different tone than the other five), The Cripple of Inishmaan stands out almost as an anomaly. At a recent production, an audience member was overheard calling it a very “sweet” play. Unlike the others, it offers a hope of redemption. Unlike the others, there is very little blood and no gore, and no one is murdered or suspected of being murdered at all. No one hates anyone with a vicious enmity or acts from true malice. Many of the characters are far more multi-layered than the satirical caricatures McDonagh draws in his other plays. There is a simple poignancy to many scenes in the play that is far more akin to Synge’s Riders to the Sea than to The Playboy of the Western World. Others contain the same irreverent humor, some of it darker—such as jokes about dead cats and geese, and making fun of the crippled boy—but still more in line with comedy than biting satire, especially as those with the darker humor actually turn out to have kind hearts underneath.

So where does that leave The Cripple of Inishmaan? McDonagh’s other Irish plays are all set in the relative present—the last two or three decades, at least. The Cripple of Inishmaan, on the other hand, is set in 1934—another anomaly as it has McDonagh considering the distant past. The Americans have come to the neighboring island of Inishmore to film The Man of Aran, and all of Inishmaan is talking about it. The young people are all eager for a part in the film, hoping to become movie stars and get to go to America. None are more eager than Billy Claven, an orphan boy raised by two spinster women who has the misfortune of being the village cripple. Billy has lived his life on the island being pitied and looked down upon as the village idiot, though he is actually quite intelligent and self-educated. His reading and thinking are just considered further oddities about him by the other villagers, however, and he gets gently mocked for them as well as for his deformities. In an effort to get Babbybobby Bennett to row him to Inishmore to see the filming and get his shot to go to America, Billy shows him a letter from the local doctor which says he has tuberculosis and has only three months to live. Babbybobby’s wife died of tuberculosis and, feeling sorry for Billy, he agrees to take him. Billy is chosen by the director to go to Hollywood for a screen test for a role in a film, and Babbybobby is forced to return back to Inishmaan and tell Billy’s aunties that Billy has gone to America with only a letter to them saying goodbye. He keeps the news of Billy’s illness from them, but everyone else on the island soon learns of it.

In the second act, Billy’s aunties are worried sick something has happened to him, but everyone keeps the news of his illness from them. In a monologue filled with rhetoric and pathos, Billy dies in the second scene of the act. The town gathers to watch the showing of The Man of Aran—highly unimpressed by it—and Billy’s aunties find out through a slip of the tongue of the local gossip that Billy was dying when he left. Just as they have broken down in grief, Billy appears and we learn that the dying scene was his screen test in Hollywood, and that he was never sick at all. He wrote the letter himself to fool Babbybobby into rowing him. Babbybobby is not amused by this, as his heart went out to Billy, genuinely touched by his predicament which mirrored his dead wife’s so closely, and he beats him in a fit of anger. Billy survives the beating beyond some head wounds, however, in the second reversal, just when it seems he is safe, the doctor reveals he really does have tuberculosis. Knowing that he is dying, Billy finally gathers up the courage to do the one thing he never could before going to America and asks Helen, the local hellion of a girl who pegs eggs at priests, to go out walking with him. When she laughs at him, he decides to commit suicide, but is prevented by her returning, having changed her mind. She agrees to go out walking with him, and gives him his first kiss. As she leaves, he is taken over by another fit of coughing, covering his hand with blood, and that is where the play ends.

Frye states that comedy focuses on the social group, setting up an arbitrary law or humorous society and setting out to reform it. (163). He also contends that the total mythos of comedy has a ternary form. There is some golden age of society in the past. Something upsets this society and places a comical one in its place. The hero rebels against it, and the hero’s society rises up at the end to replace the society, but the replacement is really just a return to the golden age of what was before the disruption. (Frye 177) In contrast, satire is driven by content, not form, so such a structure cannot be purely derived. Satire is a militant irony which makes its moral norms clear and measures the grotesque and absurd against assumed standards. (Frye 223) Satire requires two things: “wit or humor founded on fantasy or a sense of the grotesque or absurd” and an object of attack. (Frye 224) Frye further sets forth the idea that each mythos has six phases, three of which are shared with the mythos before it and three with the one following. (177)

In phase one of both comedy and satire, the existent society remains at the end of the play. No change occurs on a social level; the hero’s society does not replace what came before. This is the most ironic form of comedy, because the humorous society triumphs.(Frye177) In the first phase of satire, the existent society also remains, but the occurrence of its absurdity arises “as a kind of backfire or recall after the work has been seen or read.” (Frye 226) This phase of satire takes for granted that the world is full of anomalies, injustices, follies and crimes and the best way to survive it is to keep your mouth shut. (Frye 226)

In the second phase of both comedy and satire is when existent society remains. In comedy the hero runs away or escapes from it to some other society or reality. This phase can stand on its own, but is often a subset of another phase. (Frye 180) In satire, the existent society is pointed out by a successful rogue who makes the society look foolish, but sets up no positive standard to reform it or for it to follow to change. (Frye 229)

The third phase of both comedy and satire is the last phase in which they overlap. In comedy it is the least satirical and what Frye calls the “normal” phase which follows the basic plot of comedy. (180) The basic plot of a “normal” comedy as follows: A young man wants a young woman. Something—a parent or other societal blocking force—stands in their way. Near the end, some twist in the plot allows the hero to have what he wants and he gets the girl and a happy society replaces the existent one. (Frye 163) In satire, the third phase sees the existent society replaced by a happy society, but this is done by attacking even common sense, and generally society is seen in a different light at the end. (Frye 234-5) After the third phase, the last three phases of comedy overlap with romance and are not suited to a discussion of The Cripple of Inishmaan. It is with the first three phases, in both mythoi, we must contend ourselves.

In considering the plot of The Cripple of Inishmaan, it is possible to set it out thus: Billy wants Helen. His aunts do not approve, and his handicaps stand in his way of being with her, if only in his mind as they keep him from being able to muster up the courage to ask her to let him court her. Conversely, instead of the girl, Billy’s heart’s desire could be said to be to get away from Inishmaan, and, again, his aunties are stopping him, telling him there is no way he is going to Inishmore to even see the filming. Likewise, Babbybobby initially stands as an opposing force, refusing to take Billy in his boat until Billy shows him the forged note from the doctor saying he is dying, at which point Babbybobby turns into an accomplice who aids Billy on his quest. In either scenario, Billy technically gets what he wants. At the end of the play, in a surprising reversal, Billy gets the girl. Before that, he gets to Inishmore and from there to  Hollywood. In a way, Hollywood is a substitute for Helen, who he thinks he cannot have. When Hollywood ultimately rejects him, Billy returns to Inishmaan, but he has the courage to approach Helen now, and ultimately wins her. In this way, The Cripple of Inishmaan seems to follow the plot of a comedy fairly closely.

However, comedy tends to imply, if not outright demand, a happy ending (Frye 167), and with the ending of the play being on the note of Billy’s bloody hand, a reminder that he is dying after winning the girl, the ending cannot be called truly happy so much as bittersweet. On the other hand, Billy will die knowing what it is to be loved and wanted, rather than alone in America, and if one must die that is a better way to do it, so in that manner it could be called a happy ending, even if not what is traditionally thought of as such.

Whether the ending is happy or not, the society cannot truly have been said to have changed greatly. There have been some shakeups with Babbybobby being arrested for beating Billy (McDonagh, Cripple, 59) when he was not arrested for pegging stones at Johnnypateenmike’s head (50), but there is no great change. There is something of a scapegoat ritual implied in Babbybobby’s arrest. While Billy’s aunties have cared for him and brought him up, they were also blocking forces and smothering ones, treating him like a broken child. Johnnypateenmike calls him all sorts of names referring to his deformity, from “bad-leg boy” (11) to “cripple boy” and “oul limpy” (26) rather than referring to him by name. Helen taunts him saying his parents killed themselves to get away from him (16), mocks him for his fear of the sea (18), and laughs when he says he wants to go to the filming for a chance to be in it (20). Even Bartley, Helen’s younger brother who is generally a good-natured idiot who treats Billy as a friend, still laughs at the idea of him being in the film (20-21) and is astounded a cripple boy could come up with the scheme he did in fooling Babbybobby (55). But the only remark Babbybobby ever makes is a short lived objection to cripple fellows coming in his boat (24), and for the rest of the play we see him being kind to Billy, gentle with Kate and Billy’s other auntie, Eileen, and running off Johnnypateenmike when he is trying to interfere with Billy’s business. Babbybobby seems the kind one who sees Billy as a person, and argues to his aunties that Billy had a right to go to Hollywood because it is his life now and he hopes he enjoys his time in America. (39) In the end, however, it is Babbybobby who beats Billy’s head in with a lead pipe for lying to him, and Babbybobby who is arrested for his mistreatment of Billy, arguably made the scapegoat for all of the other characters’ myriad mistreatments of the boy through the many years of his life. The last scene of the play, though it ends on a bittersweet note, begins with joyous celebration. Billy has returned home, Babbybobby has been arrested, life will go on as it should.

The second phase of comedy is also implicit in the plot. As the society does not change, Billy, at least for a while, leaves it. Even with Billy gone, life continues on the island as it has. The aunties are more depressed, and Kate is slowly going “loopy,” but for the rest, Billy’s disappearance, and presumed death, are just new topics of gossip to slip in between Bible pegging and feuds over geese and cats. Billy returns to the society, having found Hollywood to be, ultimately, no different. He was not wanted there, either, and we return to the first phase of comedy. There is no rogue setting out to show society what it is and force them to see it, but not offer a way to change, so the second phase of satire does not fit. Because the existent society does not change, but settles back into the patterns it always has had, neither the third phase of comedy or satire applies to the play, and the analysis must rest on whether this is an ironic comedy in the first phase, with a moment of second phase thrown in, or a satire of the first phase which follows a similar plot arc to comedy.

Frye sets up several different character groups within the mythos. In comedy, he finds four main character types: the eiron, the alazon, the bomolochoi, and the agroikos. (Frye 172) The eirons generally include the hero and heroine and often the character involved in hatching schemes to bring about the hero’s success. (Frye 173) The hero in comedy often tends to be rather neutral and unformed, and the heroine can follow this pattern as well. The other eirons could encompass tricky servants, confidantes and amateur detectives. (Frye 173) In satire, the eiron is also the hero, if there is one, or the character who takes the attitude of flexible pragmatism and avoids illusion, and is thus the most difficult to satirize. (Frye 226)

Billy Claven is the hero of The Cripple of Inishmaan, if the play has a hero at all. It is his story the play traces and it is his quest to find a life better than the one he has been living that drives the plot of the play toward more than the daily gossiping of the other characters. However, it is Billy’s discontent that defines him, his desire for something greater. He does not go to Hollywood because of a great desire to be an actor or to live in California, per se, but to get away from Inishmaan. Hollywood was a better choice than drowning, which he has often considered as he says, “just to end the laughing at me, and the sniping at me, and the life of nothing but shuffling to the doctor’s and shuffling back from the doctor’s and pawing over the same oul books and finding any other way to piss another day away.” (McDonagh, Cripple 58) He is not as fully realized as a tragic hero, where the action of the play is focused so heavily on the individual, but it would not be accurate to call him unformed.

More closely, Billy resembles the eiron of satire. He sees the world around him, and recognizes the absurdity of it. Where his aunties pander to and soothe Johnnypateenmike, the local gossip and newsman, to be sure they get any decent news—even if the news about the film is the first decent bit they have heard in twenty years—Billy calls him out on the foolishness of running around talking about “feuds o’er geese and ewe-maiming be lonely fellows.” (McDonagh, Cripple 63) He tells Babbybobby that there are plenty of others in town just as crippled as he is, but it is not on the outside it shows. He is the outcast in many ways, and this makes him the observer and often times the voice of reason. In the end, though, he does not want the society to change so much as he wants to be accepted into it, to be a part and parcel of what he sees around him and treated with respect, not as if he is broken.

One of the key elements of satire is the disappearance of the hero (Frye 228), and that is a crucial element of The Cripple of Inishmaan. However sympathetic, many of Billy’s actions do not fit the idea of a hero. He abandons his aunties, driving one of them—Kate—mad with her anxiety over him. He lies to Babbybobby, fooling him into believing he is dying of the same thing Babbybobby’s wife died of just to get a ride to Inishmore, preying on his sympathies, and for all that he tells Bobby he feels bad about it, he still justifies it and in telling another character about it sounds very proud of his own cleverness. Unlike many of McDonagh’s other protagonists, we can understand the reasons Billy embarks on this course of action, even sympathize with him and dismiss it as not all that bad, comparatively, but his actions still are not those of a traditional hero and more akin to those of a satire’s protagonist.

As Billy’s love interest, Helen McCormick is as close to a heroine as The Cripple of Inishmaan comes. However, she has none of the traits of an eiron in either mythos. She is neither the arm candy of the hero or the “she stoops to conquer” spunky heroine who turns up most often in traditional comedies. (Frye 173) Nor is she a pragmatic character who avoids illusion, as in Frye’s mythos of satire. If anything is she far more a caricature of the stereotype of the young Irish spitfire. She curses liberally, throws eggs at priests who molest her in choir practice, kicks her boss in the shins when he says things she does not like, murders geese and cats for payment, and beats up her younger brother when the mood suits her. The men in town are all half-afraid of her, including Babbybobby (24), despite the fact that she is nothing more than a slip of a girl. After spending the play mocking Billy and breaking eggs on Bartley’s head, however, she reverses herself and turns out to have a heart of gold, revealing she got Bartley a telescope for his birthday—the one thing he has always wanted and never had—and agreeing to go out walking with Billy. (70) She still has the attitude, but there is a softness to her. Even so, she does not resemble a traditional heroine in any way, and can easily be seen as a satirical character, inverting stereotypes instead of living up to them.

Another character group in comedy and satire is the alazon group. In comedy, these are the blocking figures, generally the heavy father, or his surrogate, or the pretentious, foppish coxcomb, full of bluster and words instead of threats and anger. (Frye 172) In satire, the alazons are likewise the blocking characters, often deceiving or self-deceived members of society. They represent conventions which are humorous and generally stereotypical. (Frye 227-28) The closest to a father figure Billy has is Johnnypateenmike, who takes a particular interest in the boy, even if it is somewhat rude most of the time. Johnnypateenmike definitely fits the bill for the blustering coxcomb character. He is the local gossip, though he prefers newsman, carrying his news, gleaned from the papers and his neighbors, around town in exchange for payment in kind—of eggs, lamb, loafs of bread, peas, or whatever else he can con out of people. While the alazon in comedy often serves the role of blocking the hero from getting what he wants because he is a rival for the affections of the heroine, Johnnypateenmike, having no interest in Helen at all, seems more of a blocking figure to Billy’s quest to find a place where he is part of a community and accepted. With his taunts and gossiping, he does not make life on Inishmaan easy for Billy. It is Johnnypateenmike who tries to find out what Billy and Babbybobby are up to, ostensibly to inform people Billy is trying to leave the island and why (26), and Johnnypateenmike who is the one who lets the cat out of the bag regarding Billy’s supposed case of tuberculosis. (53)

However, like Helen, Johnnypateenmike has a reversal in the last scene, where it is revealed that he is not quite the heartless fellow he has been portrayed to be the whole play. When Billy asks about his parents, trying to pin down the real story of their deaths, Johnnypateenmike tells him that they drowned themselves, yes, but not to get away from him, but so that he could have their insurance money, because they could not afford the medical treatments needed to save him. (64) It is later revealed, however, that this story is an even greater kindness than laying gossip to rest. Kate and Eileen give us the true story: Billy’s parents were not trying to kill themselves at all, and had no sack of stones tied around their hands. Instead, they had Billy tied in a sack of stones, and threw him out into the sea. Johnnypateenmike saw it, and swam out in rough seas to save him, and Billy’s parents drowned by accident. (69) Further, throughout the play Johnnypateenmike has been accused of stealing his mother and father’s life savings to “piss it away in the pubs.” (33) Kate and Eileen reveal Billy’s parents had no insurance money at all, and that Johnnypateenmike actually stole the money to pay for the medical treatments that saved Billy’s life. (69) Thus, while Johnnypateenmike seems to play the role of a blocking alazon, in truth, comedically speaking, he turns out to be an eiron, stepping in to save the day in some ways–first saving Billy’s life and then giving him the gift of the belief in his parents’ love, which likely plays a part in giving him the courage to approach Helen. He is no longer unlovable. His parents died for him. Perhaps the girl he loves will give him a chance.

Satirically, however, Johnnypateenmike fits the bill of an alazon quite well. If alazons in satire represent conventions which are humorous and stereotypical in nature (Frye 227-28), then Johnnypateenmike is quite a good stereotype of the local gossip and braggart. He is something of a drama queen, demanding people listen to his news his way of delivering it, and pitching fits when they interrupt or fail to properly appreciate his news, no matter how small. (McDonagh, Cripple 8) He makes news from the smallest bits of gossip, to the point that Eileen remarks to Kate that “Johnnypateen tells if a horse farts.” (35) Even his own mother calls him “the most boring oul fecker in Ireland.” (33) Despite this, Johnnypateenmike is undeterred in seeing himself as a great man, a brilliant man, an orator of great skill (11) and a great newsman. (33) He is an overblown portrait of the small town gossip, a man overblown with a sense of his own importance, and perhaps a not-so-subtle poke by McDonagh at the supposed stereotypical eloquence of the Irish peasantry.

Babbybobby could possibly bee seen as an alazon in attempting to keep Billy from the filming at first (McDonagh, Cripple 24) and later in his beating him for returning. (59) However, Babbybobby is ultimately the character who helps Billy get to Inishmore, which is what gives him his shot in America. (27) He shows real sympathy and kindness when he believes Billy is dying. (28) He stands up for Billy’s decision to go to America to his aunties, defending him by pointing out its Billy’s life and his choices. (39) With all of this support, Babbybobby cannot truly be seen as a blocking character.

Female alazons are very rare (Frye 173), and while Eileen and Kate could be considered blocking characters in some ways, they do not fit the other criterion of alazons for either comedy and satire. It is possible that they could be seen as stereotypical characters being satirized, but neither of them is quite large or loud enough. Johnnypateenmike’s Mammy, on the other hand, is not only a caricature of the querulous old woman, but also can be said to be a satirical picture of the Irish stereotype of drunkenness. Throughout the play she is referred to as Johnny’s “drunken mammy” (McDonagh, Cripple 11) It is a running joke through the play that Johnny is trying to kill his mammy with the drink, but it seems fairly obvious from their scenes together that she is just as determined to drink herself to death, and he is enabling her habit, but not forcing her to anything that she had not started on her own. (30) Mammy has little to do with Billy besides pity him, and she serves no blocking purpose or plot purpose in Billy’s arc, so her purpose seems to be for humor. As that humor is arguably a commentary on the drunken stereotype, it seems more likely that Mammy is a satirical element than one of comedy, as she fits none of Frye’s comic character groups.

Kate and Eileen, on the other hand, seem to fall mostly into the agroikos group of characters. In comedy, the agroikos are rustics, gulls and straight men who allow the comedy to roll right off of them. (Frye 175) In satire, the agroikos are still generally rustics, but are moreso the plain, common sense folk who provide foils for the alazons. (Frye 227) Kate and Eileen both have characteristics which are intended to be humorous: Eileen appears to be deeply religious, often referencing God and revering the Virgin Mary and not believing Helen about priests molesting her; Kate is simpler and has conversations with stones as she goes crazy. However, while Kate’s craziness is often very funny, it is not overblown, but shown as a deterioration of her nerves due to worry. While Eileen is sometimes says religious things which make no sense such as, “Did you ever go see the Virgin Mary thinking aloud? […] Is right you didn’t. And it didn’t do her any harm!” (20), she does not do so at the expense of common sense in general, nor is the level of religious zealotry heightened to the point of satire. At most, McDonagh seems to be perhaps poking gentle fun at uneducated faith and possibly at the idea of women with stereotypical weak nerves. However, Kate and Eileen seem to be more foils for Helen’s brashness and Mammy’s drunkenness and the rest of the insanity around them. For all their foibles, they are the rocks in the play, the ones who took Billy in when they had no reason to and treated him as their own. They put up with Johnnypateenmike’s gossiping, and serve to point out to the audience how ridiculous it is, which is the essential function of agroikos characters in satire.

If there is truly a comic straight man in The Cripple of Inishmaan, it is the doctor. He also conceivably could play a agroikos in satire as the common sense character who points out the foibles and excesses of the other characters. As with Kate and Eileen, the doctor does this mostly with Johnnypateenmike in his attempts to get him to stop giving his mammy alcohol, and his refusal to give in to the gossip’s pleading requests to tell him what is wrong with Billy Claven. (29-31) The comedy comes from Johnnypateenmike’s ability to frustrate the doctor with his ridiculous assertions, such as God sending Billy tuberculosis for claiming he had tuberculosis when he didn’t “and making Johnnypateenmike’s news seem unreliable.” (61) There is nothing of excess in his character, nothing even of note beyond his frustration with Johnnypateenmike. He is a simple country doctor, caring for patients who rarely do as he says, but there is no insight given into his life or his character beyond that.

Finally, there is Bartley McCormick. If The Cripple of Inishmaan is a comedy, then Bartley undoubtedly fits into the bomolochoi group of characters. The bomolochoi are the buffoons, fools, clowns in a comedy who do not advance the plot but serve only to increase the comic mood or festivities. (Frye 175) The first mention of Bartley is an anecdote about a time he fell down a hole and Eileen’s declaration that Bartley is “an awful thick.” (McDonagh, Cripple 6) Bartley tends to live in his own world, more concerned about his sweeties, telescopes and the film than the events and gossip flowing around him. He interjects random comments that seem non-sequiturs, though usually only because the conversation has moved on and he has been pondering something said and only interjects when he has reached a conclusion. Oftentimes, if not always, he misses the irony of others’ remarks, taking them as literal. A combination of both occurs when Babbybobby is mocking Johnnypateenmike while watching The Man of Aran:

Johnny: Sure what manner of a story would that be, leaving a shark alone! You            want a dead shark.

Bobby: A dead shark, aye, or a shark with no ears on him.

Johnny: A dead shark, aye, or a shark kissed a green-teethed girl in Antrim.

Bobby: Do you want a belt, you, mentioning green teethed girls?

Johnny: Well, you interrupted me and me mammy’s shark debate.

Mammy: They should give the shark a belt, then leave the poor gasur alone.

Johnny: Why are you in love with sharks all of a sudden? Wasn’t it a shark ate             daddy?

Mammy: It was a shark ate daddy, but Jesus says you should forgive and forget.

Johnny: He doesn’t say you should forgive and forget sharks.

Bartley: Sharks have no ears on them anyway. (52)

While Bartley could be considered an exaggeration of the country bumpkin and a satirical commentary on the uneducated Irish peasantry, his place in the bomolochoi group seems fairly straightforward. However, Bartley does have one satirical function, and that is in further pointing out Johnnypateenmike’s own grandiosity and self-importance and how it can influence those around him. The village idiot, as Bartley is portrayed, nonetheless goes around quoting Johnnypateenmike on several occasions, both in telling about the filming of The Man of Aran (15) and later in telling a story about a goose and a cat. (18) That Bartley is not just repeating the stories, but using Johnnypateenmike’s exact words is both a further moment of satire on the town gossip and on Bartley as the fool, trying to be just like him to gain the prestige he assumes Johnnypateenmike must have.

So far, the plot of the play seems to follow the general arc of a comedy according to Frye. The characters waver from between comic groups to satirical groups, but seem to come out more heavily on the side of satire. It is clear that many traditional techniques of comedy are employed. The reversals are comparable to the illusions which the final act of comedy traditionally dispels. Indeed, Frye contends that one of the important themes of comedy is the creating and dispelling of illusions, whether illusions are caused by disguise, obsession, hypocrisy, unknown parentage, or some other factor. (170) In The Cripple of Inishmaan several illusions are set up and then dispelled. The largest, of course, is Billy’s death. The audience is led to believe, along with Babbybobby, that Billy is dying of tuberculosis. (25) In Act 2, Scene 2, Billy gives his death speech. (47-48) Eileen and Kate’s grief is real and heartbreaking, and just as there is a moment of wondering just where the play is going to go, Billy is revealed to be alive and have faked the whole thing. (55) Of course, then his illusion of being in perfectly good health is dispelled as it turns out he has tuberculosis after all. (61) However, the use of reversals and dispelling of illusions is not solely used in comedy. McDonagh himself has used it in other satires. In The Lieutenant of Inishmore the cat whose death caused all the bloodshed is actually alive. In A Skull in Connemara, Mick only thinks he has murdered Mairtin, when in fact Mairtin was only knocked unconscious.

Likewise, McDonagh uses unincremental repetition to enhance the humor of the play, which Frye says belongs to comedy. (168) The running joke through the play is that “Ireland mustn’t be such a bad place so if…” certain people or groups want to come to Ireland: “the Yanks want to come to Ireland to do their filming” (11 & 15); “French fellows want to live in Ireland” (15); “coloured fellas want to come to Ireland” (25); “German fellows want to come to Ireland” (34); “cripple boys turn down Hollywood to come to Ireland” (56). Another motif that repeats, but does grow and change, through the play is the story of Jack Ellery’s goose and Patty Brennan’s cat. In Act 1, Scene 1, Johnnypateenmike informs Kate and Eileen that “Jack Ellery’s goose bit Patty Brennan’s cat on the tail and hurt that tail and Jack didn’t apologize for that goose’s biting at all, and now Patty Brennan doesn’t like Jack Ellery at all and Patty and Jack used to be great friends.” (8) The story grows throughout the four months the play encompasses from the goose and cat being missing a week and Johnnypateenmike hoping something awful has happened to them (33), to the goose and cat both having been found slaughtered (38), to learning Helen did the slaughtering for each of the men for payment (42), to finally Johnnypateenmike’s final bit of news that even though everyone thought Jack and Patty would wind up slaughtering each other over their animals’ murders, a child saw them in a hay barn “kissing the faces off one another.” (63)

However, while repetition may usually be used in comedy, it is used here for satiric effect. That the inhabitants of the village need other people coming to their country to think that it is “not such a bad place” holds up an unflattering mirror to the Irish Nationalism McDonagh also attacks in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. That their lives are so dull the saga of a goose and a cat is one of the most interesting things to happen to them becomes a commentary on these small insular societies, as well as an exaggeration of stereotype. Johnnypateenmike’s reaction of bafflement to the idea of two men kissing and “two fellas who don’t even like each other” (63) causes a pause for a moment for he and Billy to consider is actually an interesting moment as neither reacts with homophobia seen in other characters in other McDonagh plays, but more of just a moment’s pause and then they go on. Perhaps it is McDonagh’s insertion of a moment of realism that homosexuals have existed in every society throughout time, even in small Irish parishes on remote islands.

It is a very close call as to whether The Cripple of Inishmaan is an ironic comedy or a comic satire. The plot favors the comedy archetype. The characters favor satire. The plot devices used are traditional of comedy, but they are often used in satire as well, and, in the case of repetitive patterns of language, they are used in The Cripple of Inishmaan to satiric effect. Comedy is about structure. Satire is about content. While the aunties end the play celebrating, and Helen ends the play on a happy moment of having a nice boy like her rather than priests, and Bartley ends the play happy because he got his sweeties, and Johnnypateenmike ends happy because he gets to exit as the hero of the day, the audience and Billy are both left with the knowledge that the joy is only temporary, because Billy is apt to die soon, and likely die in a great deal of pain and agony. There is satire in that, as well, of the comic archetype all together. Comedies assume that everyone is going to live happily ever after at the end. (Frye 169) McDonagh does not leave his readers or audiences with that. Instead, he makes it very clear that there is no such thing as happily ever after, and that while this moment may be happy, despair is going to follow soon. With all of this combined, it seems fair to conclude that, while it has a far more gentle touch and far more endearing and empathetic characters than the other plays, The Cripple of Inishmaan is a comic satire, like McDonagh’s other works.

Works Cited

Cuddon, J.A. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. 4th ed. London: Penguin Books,     1999.   Print.

Dean, Joan Fitzpatrick. “Martin McDonagh’s Stagecraft.” Martin McDonagh: A Casebook. Ed.          Richard Rankin Russell. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957. Print.

Lanters, Jose. “The Identity Politics of Martin McDonagh.” Martin McDonagh: A Casebook. Ed.        Richard Rankin Russell. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

McDonagh, Martin. The Beauty Queen of Leenane. New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1996. Print.

—. The Cripple of Inishmaan. New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1997. Print.

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Synge, John Millington. The Playboy of the Western World. Public Domain Books, 2006.       Kindle.

—. Riders to the Sea. Public Domain Books, 2006. Kindle.