black humour and The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Last night we broke our usual routine and went out in the appropriately cold and rainy night to see The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Langham Court Theatre. This post is not a review, but it is a response, which I feel to write partly because I’m currently enjoying writing responses, and partly because I am curious about my response to the play. So you know, reviews of this production have been favourable.

I must say that my response is not only to the play, but also to the audience, and to the reception of the play in general (though I’m only going on a cursory awareness of its reception, and have not dug past general consumption into anything scholarly, though I did read the play for a literature class on contemporary theatre during my undergrad, which is partly what motivated me to go see it last night).

Martin McDonagh’s 1996 play is set inside the cottage of Mag Folan and her not-young daughter Maureen, and the play’s dominant concern is the nature of their life and especially their relationship, which director Judy Treloar describes in her program notes as “a hell on earth.” I consider this the dominant concern because while of course there is a lot more going on besides the mother-daughter relationship, this main theme is plenty on its own to make the play worth watching or reading.

On other levels, it would be interesting to explore, for example, how the play is about the political situation in Ireland and its relationship to the rest of the world. Or, you could look at the use of food and food branding and probably yield some ugly and awesome results, especially about how food functions within the play’s relationships (the other two characters are brothers who serve as–loosely–the new generation and the love interest), not just for its potential to nourish or punish, but also for its dissemination of cultural ideologies. For fun and Gothic gore, you could examine the connection between food and “wee,” or between food and fire. Or you could take a post-(fill-your-boots) approach and discuss the representations of media and communication in the cottage and really carry on about colonization, alienation, cultural assimilation, and globalization, and which characters represent which aspects of Ireland.

I’m not going to talk about those things, but I want to comment a little bit on the reception of the play as a so-called black comedy.

First, a little etymology:

Funnily, the Oxford English Dictionary does not offer a definition of “black comedy” specifically. Instead, the definition is embedded at number 12 in the long entry on “black.” Here, however, you find a link to “black humour,” which enjoys its very own entry, although the first definition given is in fact the term’s original definition, which I will tell you in a minute, which is likely lost in the tendency to identify black humour as an alternate term for black comedy. This may seem all boring to you, but I like it.

Just FYI–I am not going to get into the problematic of the term “black” as a descriptor for things that are meant to be negatively nuanced, though this is always a good topic, so someone else can go do it.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is, apparently, considered black comedy. Definition 12b of “black” in the OED reads: “Of comedy, a comic piece, etc.: presenting tragic or distressing situations in humorous terms; wry, ironic.” I take this to mean that this type of comedy is predicated upon otherwise bleak stuff, but its emphasis is still on comedy, perhaps sophisticated, but the funnier for it.

This definition links to a comparable definition under “black humour”–that entry’s second definition–which reads: “Comedy, satire, etc., that presents tragic, distressing, or morbid situations in humorous terms; humour that is ironic, cynical, or dry; gallows humour.” Here, the emphasis shifts slightly with “cynical” and “dry,” because these suggest potentially less productive comedy in that its humour-as-(albeit sophisticated)-humour might ultimately fall short because it kind of points you in the direction of the fact that you’re going to die, and so you might as well laugh rather than scream. So, it’s less knowingly funny and more, well, inevitable, but it’s still humour.

Here is the thing. While I went last night ready to be entertained in this vein, apart from a few–really just a very few–moments of what I would consider genuine black comedy as such, I really did not find the play to be funny. Instead, I thought it was pretty much totally terrifying and deeply disturbing. The rest of the audience laughed abundantly throughout, while I sat steeping in some combination of despair, shock, and gloom–none of which amounts to a disagreeable experience for me, but it did set me apart (I felt) from the others. Not that I need to feel included–it just was a noticeable experience. They all seemed so eager to laugh, ready for each opportunity, and even greedily abandoned to it, which struck me as odd given their mean age and the context of the play. I do not consider myself to be all that young, but P and I were by FAR the youngest audience members attending last night. And I know this observation sets me up as a possible agist, and normally I make it my business to check out my expectations of people based on such social classifications to make sure that I can destabilize them; fuck political correctness–life is simply more interesting destabilized. BUT STILL. These are Relevant Social Issues here. Domestic violence. Elder abuse. Mental illness. How could these people find it all so delightful? Nearing the end, the play does start to present a rather revelatory, mad Gothic quality, and the more this emerged the more I relaxed. All in all though, I found it to be sincerely upsetting. (I am trying to write this without spoilers; I hope it is not too vague.)

It is clear to me that my response comes from attending the actual play, whereas reading it has a less dramatic impact; uninterpreted by actors, the lines are more accessible to a variety of interpretations, making their humour potential more available, and also less necessary. Furthermore, in the theatre, the proximity of all the humans to each other and to the humans on stage amounts to an atmosphere with visceral and emotional and not just intellectual qualities, and so the drama of the drama for me quite overcomes the comedy, black or otherwise.

This seems a good place to include the OED‘s first definition of black humour:

1.Med. The humour black bile (see bile n. 3); an unnatural, disease-causing humour derived from or resembling this; now hist. and rare. Later also (in extended use): a depressed, angry, or sullen mood.

To me, this definition is more suited to the feeling of the play. Its humour is a lot more like a bilious sickness than a set of ironic jokes. And yet, they laughed. So much. It’s just curious. It being a community theatre, maybe many of the people in the audience know the actors so they laugh at the conflation of these real people with these acted roles? Maybe these laughing members of the audience enjoy an otherwise totally tame existence (likely, given the demographic and the locale, and there I go again with my assumptions) and last night’s laugh-o-rama was a form of desperately-needed social sadism? On the other hand, maybe they have madness in their families and buried bodies in their yards? In the end I don’t need to know. The depth of the play really comes from its irreconcilable pressures.

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2 Responses to black humour and The Beauty Queen of Leenane

  1. Kate Miller says:

    I saw this play and didn’t laugh once. Saddened, horrified, hopeful even, but never amused or even ‘entertained.’ At times it felt as though I was entering into a black tunnel, on rollers, with no windows and only the faint smell of rank earth to alter the sense of dread that prevailed. Beats me how the audience remained so light-hearted throughout. Perhaps they decided not to enter the insight tunnel?

    • owl says:

      Sorry for such a delayed reply, Kate! I think you are right–and very nicely expressed, I might add. This kind of audience to me seems determined to just have a laugh rather than a think. Perhaps it is a symptom of a consumer mentality: we are informed that this is a black comedy, therefore we are laughing, darkly. In bleaker moments though I think sometimes people just cruelly enjoy the plight of others, in typical scapegoating fashion. There it is happening to them, and not to me, thus my social order is safe for now. SIGH


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