Critics don't usually use the term "edge of your seat" to describe theater, and for good reason. During plays, that's usually where I go to help myself stay awake: to slouch, to fidget, or to fumble about the floor for my Playbill or the coffee I smuggled in during intermission.
But at the Atlantic Theater Co.'s off-Broadway space this February, during a climactic scene of the play The Lieutenant of Inishmore, I was shocked to find myself on the edge of my seat for real. Three men enter a house, their eyes have been shot out by Mairead, a 16-year-old girl. They start shooting through the windows at Mairead and her new beau, Padraic—an Irish terrorist so merciless the IRA rejected him—but cannot see the couple as they sneak through the door. Padraic proceeds to kill the men off, one by one, two with shots to the head and another with a shot to the chest and subsequent torture. In the next scene, the stage is awash in blood as two other men slice up the bodies.
The writer of this sequence, Martin McDonagh, has spent the year basking in success: a New Yorker profile, an Oscar for his short film Six Shooter, acclaim for Inishmore, and the play's Broadway transfer, which opens May 3. His plays depict rural Ireland as a place where the monotony of life makes people bitter and jealous in the extreme—men beat up cripples and dig up their dead wives, and even the local girls soccer team sends the opposing goalie into a coma.
But what's most unique about McDonagh's plays is the presence of pure visceral thrills. Aside from the shootout in Inishmore, my most memorable theatergoing moment of the past year came in McDonagh's critically acclaimed The Pillowman, which closed on Broadway last September. In a scene straight out of a horror movie, a young child, thought to be lying dead, suddenly sits bolt upright with arms forward, zombie-style, causing the audience to shriek, and reportedly causing one man to have a heart attack. In McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a Broadway hit in 1998, a daughter pours boiling oil onto her mother's hand. At the climax of The Lonesome West, which flopped on Broadway in 1999,two brothers stand facing each other—one with a butcher's knife, the other with a shotgun.
When do you ever see this stuff onstage? Plays can be emotional, intellectual, uplifting, depressing, titillating, romantic, or cathartic. But, as McDonagh's plays helped me realize, rarely are they exciting, thrilling, or scary. Rarely do audiences witness a moment in which a person could either live or die. Such scenes typically take place behind closed doors or are staged as if the outcome is symbolic or inevitable.
Genres that fill rows of shelves in video stores—action and horror—are nonexistent in the theater listings. At plays we expect to see a kitchen, a living room, dysfunctional families, and parent-child relationships. Mystery and Grand Guignol—the gruesome style of stage horror popular in Paris in the 1890s and early 20th century—are relics of the past. Today, most attempts at suspense are too stylized to be genuinely scary.
Theater isn't completely bereft of excitement. In the 1990s, McDonagh was part of a wave of British playwrights that included Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, a movement dubbed "In-Yer-Face Theatre" for its unspeakable violence and depraved sexual acts. The brutal style of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Co. has been inherited by the playwrights Tracy Letts and Adam Rapp, whose Bug and Red Light Winter, respectively, were two of the creepiest off-Broadway plays of recent years. The new, wildly successful Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd also evokes shivers.
Shakespeare has his share of gory shows (Macbeth, Titus Andronicus), and many of his plays include battle scenes, though the stagings I've seen—soldiers running about, scattered explosions in the distance—tend to diffuse any sense of danger. And what about that phony sword fighting? The clink, clink, clink before someone takes it in the armpit. How about this: Hamlet slashes Laertes across the chest. Blood oozes. Cue the John Williams score. Laertes clutches a goblet and smashes Hamlet over the head. Hamlet throws a plate of hot coals in Laertes' face. Laertes kicks Hamlet in groin. Hamlet doubles over in pain. But watch out—he's grabbed a candlestick!
The list of things we never see on stage is staggering. "You never see plays in which the characters have to reload their guns," Inishmore's director, Wilson Milam, pointed out in the Washington Post. "There are a lot of great reloading moments in film, but I don't think there's ever been one on a stage." Where are the mobsters, the federal agents, the bulletproof vests, the bank robberies, the briefcases full of cash? Where's Jack Bauer when you need him?
Skeptics might argue that such subjects are simply not well-suited to theater. They require too many locations. Fake fistfights are hokey. Shooting and explosions require money and the proper expertise. Battle scenes look as silly as those in Max Fischer's high-school drama club Vietnam War play in the movie Rushmore. Theater works better when a messenger enters and describes the horrific news. That's how the Greeks did it, and that's how it should stay.