Martin McDonagh is a master of the morbid farce. In his world, a slammed door can kill you, the vengeful lover is never ultimately harmless, and victims, er, characters don’t slip on banana peels so much as they do on blood and guts. But the audience is usually laughing all the way to the end, leaving the heavier moments of the play to stew in playgoers minds long after they go home. Which is why it is surprising to report that McDonagh’s new play Hangmen actually becomes rather heavy before it ends, but is no less finely wrought than his emotionally detached work that readers may be accustomed to.
Martin McDonagh, an Irishman, is a particularly harsh critic of the concept of Irish stoicism. In his plays, characters frequently suppress any emotionality that they feel until they are completely stoic individuals. It makes them immune to the too common tragedy of the world, unable to see that the violence in their lives is frequently their own fault, and incapable of finding that emotionality that may be necessary under times of duress. These traits are not specifically Irish, however, and many of his plays features characters who live in circumstances that merely breed the same kind of emotional detachment, and the consequences that this ethos and the subsequent glamorization of it in our society lead to.
Here, the play focuses on Harry, England’s second most notorious hangman at the time when the death penalty is abolished (1965), and his attempts to live some kind of life of normalcy. But the disregard for human life that he had to cultivate to do his job properly has become embedded in his own personality, and when possibly dangerous problems arise for him and his family (due to certain people’s anger over his previously held position, as well as certain comments that he made about his job to a local paper), he is unable to cope with and attempt to solve them in the way that any sane human would be able to. What follows is a blisteringly funny portrait of chaos and masculinity run amok that is as sharp and cruel as anything McDonagh has written before.
When the funniest moment of a play is when a certain character accidentally suffocates to death, you know that your playwright hasn’t exactly gone sentimental on you, but what separates this play from a lot of work by the same author is in its few touches of actual anger and sorrow. With other McDonagh plays like The Lieutenant of Inishmore or A Behanding in Spokane, the violence spins out of control and the audience is reduced to hysterics. It is only once you are safely at home and turning it over while trying to sleep (or writing about it in your blog) that you realize just what you were laughing at. Here, however, the very first scene is a terrifying sequence that will leave you shaking before you start laughing. Additionally, a major plot involves the hangman’s daughter, a young girl who has not corrupted by emotional stoicism, and whose storyline ends extremely darkly, but certainly not to the amusement of the audience. It is a brutal reminder that McDonagh’s plays, while frequently ridiculous, do exist in the real world and can affect real people with real emotions. Finally, the play includes actually interesting political discussion about the death penalty and western justice that actually sounds like real people having a political debate (unlike the vast majority of mainstream movies and television).
Ultimately, it is a poignant, powerful, and frequently hilarious work that fits beautifully in with the rest of Martin McDonagh’s oeuvre, and is definitely worth adding to your reading list. The production that originated in London is supposed to be coming to Broadway in the 2016-2017 season, so if you live in New York, look out for it and don’t hesitate to go see it. You won’t be sure if the tears you have at the end are from laughing or crying.