Bloody Irresponsible

Hosted by

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

It's about two thirds of the way through Martin McDonagh's play The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and the stage is covered in blood. Not just a bit of blood - but literally gallons of blood.

And not just blood.
There's a severed head.
And a torso.

And technically it's...believable. This isn't a papier mache head dashed with a bit of corn syrup and food coloring - this is cinema-quality gore.

But here's the really odd thing. Even with all that death and destruction, I'm not moved.

How can I be witnessing this much carnage and not be moved?

McDonagh's play revolves around the cat owned by a short-tempered lieutenant in a splinter group of the IRA. We're in his father's home and surrounding us are the bodies of his former comrades who he believed killed his beloved Wee Thomas. The dark comedy is a strange heir to a long line of Irish drama surrounding “the troubles” of Irish independence.

With so much history and gore on stage, why aren't I moved?

To go old school, let's look who got us into the whole western theater mess - the Greeks. The ancient Greeks actually had a law banning the spilling of any blood on stage - human or animal. So from the Greeks we get that wonderful gift - offstage action - think Oedipus gouging his eyes, Medea killing her children, the list goes on - but horror of the deed is conveyed to us not through our eyes but through our ears. Language recounts the atrocity and through the mouth of an actor, we learn not only what happened but we also get a glimpse of that character's soul as they process the violence. The horror happens not onstage but in our minds. We go from passive spectator to imaginative vessel creating, and possibly exorcising - our own demons. At least that's the way Aristotle saw it.

Which leads me to the new school hint to what's run afoul with all this blood: Violence on stage is a bit like nudity: it raises the stakes and grabs an audience's attention but . . . ultimately it's cheap if it doesn't have a point. This blood is there to entertain, to titillate, to get a cheap dark laugh, rather than being a window into the character's souls or a commentary on a country that had been plagued with so much violence it had become barbaric. There is no insight for the characters and no catharsis for the audience.

Don't get me wrong - I love a Tarantino film as much as the next guy but there's something a little too cheap and easy about the way McDonagh spills this gore on stage. The history of Irish drama is filled with violence and betrayal but McDonagh's stage full of blood doesn't quite live up to its birthright.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore plays through August 8 at the Mark Taper Forum.

For info on the play text the word “Curtain” to 69866.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on violence and nudity onstage at

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Banner image of (L to R) Chris Pine and Brett Back in The Lieutenant of Inishmore: Craig Schwartz