‘Och sure open the aul’ mouth there sure. Just for the crack you know’: Language and Existential Unrest in Modern Irish Tragicomedy



Though they may be the source of considerable amusement to audiences, tragicomic characters do not tend to use the word ‘comic’ to describe the fraught realities of their own lives. Indeed, the very task of finding an appropriate vocabulary to define their angst is one that poses substantial difficulties. There is an inner fragility behind a superficially comic veneer; the challenge for the playwright is to articulate this anxiety. This essay examines characters who are attempting to assess their place in a world with which they are fundamentally out of sync and, in doing so, tracks the difficulties they encounter in communicating this turmoil. In exploring how Ireland has grappled with its own fluctuating sense of identity throughout history, the essay begins by identifying some comparisons between a national mood of existential unrest and the characteristic traits of the tragicomic genre. While tragicomedy is not exclusive to Irish theatre, it resonates time and again in the works of the nation’s dramatists. Its significance will be investigated in three plays by three Irish playwrights: David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue, Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce. This essay makes a case for the plays’ similarities in their use – and abuse – of language as a constituent part of the tragicomic genre and argues that the violence inflicted upon language is an extension of the violence witnessed onstage. Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and the form’s theories on the limitations of language, will be invoked as a point of reference for the plays. The resentment that results from the characters’ common experiences as outsiders in their respective communities demonstrates how internalised feelings of inferiority pave the way for a specific kind of restlessness – unmoored and volatile – that acts as a catalyst for the savagery that ensues. The essay concludes with an assessment of the role of laughter in circumstances wherein responses expressed through language alone are ultimately inadequate.

Keywords: Irish drama, Tragicomedy, Existentialism, Comedy, Theatre, Drama

How to Cite: Doorley, N. (2020) “‘Och sure open the aul’ mouth there sure. Just for the crack you know’: Language and Existential Unrest in Modern Irish Tragicomedy”, Studies in Arts and Humanities. 5(2). doi: