The function of comic characters in THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN

Essay, 2004

10 Pages, Grade: 14/20 (= dt. 2,7)




Funny Characters


Appendix: List of Works Cited


Martin McDonagh’s drama The Cripple of Inishmaan was first published and performed in 1996. Playing on the island of Inishmaan off the Irish west coast in the year 1934, it deals with a physically handicapped but mentally healthy young man called Cripple Billy, who suffers from his disability and lack of respect by the local people. One day, despite his environment in which nothing develops in favour of his dream to be treated as a normal man[1], it is he that is given a chance by a Hollywood film manager to get away from that island and come over to America. There he is supposed to play a crippled film protagonist. However, he doesn’t get his place in the film after all. Seeing that somewhere else, life is none the better for him, he returns to Inishmaan where at least some people care for him, and where he has one more try to win the heart of one certain girl that he has been loving for a long time. The story ends with Helen’s agreeing to go for a walk with him: first she strikes his wounded, bandaged face hard, then kisses him “briefly” (p. 82). This is a funny but open ending: whether Billy finally gets what he yearns for is unlikely but not impossible.

Reviews of McDonagh’s drama have found various meanings of the play; similarly, many approaches of the function of comedy have been there. Comedy can serve as mere entertainment, it can have a political or socio-critical purpose, and much more. I do not disagree with Pilný when he states that The Cripple of Inishmaan “ironise[s] the very notion of Irish dramatic realism.”[2] However I think there is more in that drama: it comprises several functions of comedy, among those the one to get particular characters with a more complex meaning out of the background. A main means is playing with stereotypes and surprising effects to question these.

Funny Protagonists

I would like to discuss three comic elements in detail, namely

- unusual behaviour of some characters (especially Johnnypateenmike),
- stupidity and aggression (especially Helen),
- awkward relationships between some protagonists (especially between Johnny and his mother).

Unusual behaviour of the characters. Various characters in the play behave strangely, but one is quite striking: Johnnypateenmike, the “newsman” (moreover a gossip) of the island—where hardly anything ever happens—, ‘earns’ his food with storytelling. His news is so boring that not even local people want to hear it, but they give him food for it after all even though they feel being fooled. (This overlaps with the topic of stupidity.) He tries to get his mother drunk dead, which also plays with the cliché of Irish people’s drinking. However it is he in the end that is reported by Billy’s foster aunt Kate to have saved baby Billy as his parents wanted to drown him because they could not bear a crippled child. Having played a major comic role with his sponger behaviour throughout the drama, Johnnypateenmike eventually turns out to be a man with moral values—a sharp contrast. So it is unlikely that this comic character serves only for entertainment. The comic element seems to be a means of focusing the character.

Stupidity and aggression. If you cannot use your brains, you use your body to get along in everyday life. British colonists used to think that the Irish were intellectually underdeveloped savages who could do nothing but drink and exchange blows. Joking about the Irish has remained part of British humour, particularly in England, though nowadays you find as well the Irish laughing about jokes that they tell themselves on the foolishness connected with them because they know what they really are.


[1] Cf. Billy’s monologue to Bobby in scene 8: “Well, there are plenty round here just as crippled as me, only it isn’t on the outside it shows. (Pause.) But the thing is, you’re not one of them, Babbybobby, nor never were. You’ve a kind heart on you.” (p. 66)

[2] Pilný 2004: 228.

Excerpt out of 10 pages


The function of comic characters in THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN
University of Aberdeen
States of Mind: Contemporary Irish and Scottish Literature
14/20 (= dt. 2,7)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
417 KB
The essay was originally submitted with the title "The Function of Comedy in THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN". Although acknowledging "some astute observations", the corrector downgraded it for being "too narrowly focussed" at the time. The change to the title is to compensate the gap between possible expectations and the actual content of the work.
CRIPPLE, INISHMAAN, Contemporary, Irish, Literature, Irland, Literatur, Humor, Humorforschung, Drama, Humour
Quote paper
Daniel Knauer (Author), 2004, The function of comic characters in THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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