The Wearing Down of the Green

It is hard to believe that “The Cripple of Inishman” was written only a few years ago by a contemporary Irish playwright, Martin McDonough. The play, which has just opened the Geffen’s new season looks, feels and sounds like something Lennox Robinson or Lady Gregory might have dashed off for the Abbey Theater in the early part of the century. It not only is rooted in rustic, begorah Irish culture but reveals all the makeshift qualities of play-construction that we associate with that earlier, more primitive period.

A downtrodden cripple boy from the Aran Isles, hearing that Robert Flaherty is filming “Man of Aran” in his vicinity, persuades a local boatman to ferry him over to the illustrious director in the hope that a Hollywood breakthrough will rescue him from the unrelieved misery of life in his stultifying hometown. Miraculously, he gets the prized opportunity and pulls up his roots. But in cruel Hollywood, the dream crumbles, and, after a painful sojourn in the harsh new world, he returns to Inishman.

There, he is brutally admonished for having faked the circumstances of his departure and, discovering that he was spurned even by his own parents, decides to weight himself down with cans of peas and throw himself into the brine. A pugnacious local girl with a violent egg fetish and a predilection for fisticuffs takes pity on the cripple and, offering to be his main squeeze, dissuades him from his watery fate. However, it is clear that the cripple is in the final stages of tuberculosis, and so the union will be short-lived. Curtain!

This is a perfect scenario for a silent film starring Clara Bow and Lon Chaney and directed by Eric von Stronheim. Chaplin, skillfully blending pathos, bathos and high farce comedy, could have turned it into a masterpiece. But, as a contemporary stage offering, it gives the term “the Irish troubles” an entirely new connotation.

Without the Irish playwrights, there would be no English theater to speak of. Subtract Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, O’Casey, Beckett and Behan from the mix, and the pantheon of British theater collapses. The greatest of the Irish playwrights managed to shake the dust of Old Sod from their boots and triumph in John Bull’s Island, but there have been just as many who remained stuck in the mire of Gaelic whimsy.

McDonough writes comedy as if Ireland were a sitcom and its natives, pasteboard characters being sweated over by a staff of TV hacks. It’s not so much that the narrative is threadbare and contrived that gets one’s goat; it’s the fact that a modern Irishman in the midst of one of the most historical developments in the history of that country — the attempted reconciliation of north and south — can find no more pertinent subject matter than a maudlin tale of a pixie-like cripple who finds love with a wild termagant in a Gaelic backwater. What is old-fashioned in “The Cripple of Inishman” is not the period or the setting, but the artistic objectives of the playwright: to amuse with wordplay, to distract with eccentricity and to manipulate our feelings with twists and turns motivated by the crassest kind of sentimentality.

Joe Dowling’s production emphasizes rather than conceals the transparency of the construction and the obviousness of the plot. Instead of “naturalizing” these characters and creating sympathy for their trumped-up dilemmas, he allows them to bound about like archetypal stage Irishmen and women in a travesty of a turn-of-the-century folk comedy.

The tearaway success of this play on Broadway only confirms the long-held suspicion that the mecca is often as gullible as the backward townsfolk of Inishman, and that one can never assume that the alleged capitol of American theater is any more discerning than the regularly disparaged hinterlands of Philadelphia, Seattle, Minneapolis or, for that matter, Los Angeles.

Charles Marowitz is theater critic for The Jewish Journal