Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was the biggest film winner at the 2018 Golden Globes, scooping four awards including Best Picture and Best Screenplay. It was an epochal moment for the writer-director, not least because he is on record as saying that films saved his life and one senses that his theatrical work was initially conceived as a means to break into the film industry. Despite this, McDonagh is arguably the most brilliant living playwright and his stage work offers a clear blueprint for what came later.
Incredibly, the writer’s first six plays were written in an intense 10-month long period between 1994 and 1995. McDonagh had left school at 16 and spent several years unemployed while living in South London. Eventually, he secured a low-level position in the civil service but gave it up to have a go at writing. With no formal training and a social life that consisted largely of watching films and eating takeaway, he produced a trilogy of plays set in and around County Galway, an area the writer knew well from holidays as a child.
McDonagh has said he has a “respect for the whole history of films and a slight disrespect for theatre” not least because of the ludicrous amount of money required to actually attend a show in the West End or on Broadway. Perhaps as a result of this attitude towards the form, the plays proved uniquely provocative but immensely popular. Indeed, in 1997 he became the first playwright since William Shakespeare to have four plays running simultaneously on the professional London stage.
The first of McDonagh’s plays, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, set the tone in 1996. The tale of an aging spinster and her domineering elderly mother, this was a work influenced as much by the films of Quentin Tarantino as the plays of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. Dark, violent and grotesquely funny, McDonagh’s debut was a critical and commercial success. The writer received criticism in some…