Review of The Pillowman
If you asked Stuart or me to name a few things I like in a story/play/movie, etc., you might be surprised that one of the first things we both list is “creepy.” I seriously like creepy stuff. When something I read makes me skin crawl in a good way, I read it over and over and over.
The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh, is that kind of play. Dark, skin-crawley goodness that keeps making you go, “What? Wait, WHAT?!” and reading back over passages to make sure you read it correctly. Oh, you did. It’s that creepy. The back cover of my copy compares McDonagh’s writing to that of Kafka, the Brothers Grimm, and Stoppard (who, if you’ll remember, we reviewed on this very blog.)
The play is about a writer, Katurian, who has been brought into a police station for interrogation. Katurian is a composer of short stories, and very disturbing ones at that, and someone has been bringing those stories to life in vivid, gruesome detail. The police believe it is Katurian himself- after all, someone who writes such sick stories must have that sickness living inside him. They’re determined to get a confession out of him before they execute him in a few hours (because no matter what he says, they know he’s guilty), and they’ve got his mentally-challenged brother going through the same treatment in the room next door.
The Pillowman is one of those plays where you think, “Something’s got to give. Things can’t possibly, actually keep going the horrible way that they’re going.” But they can, and McDonagh makes sure they keep going there. He’s a brave writer, one that is focused on telling the story that matters instead of pleasing an audience. Of course, that makes it sound like the play is unsatisfactory. It’s not. What it is, is real. For Katurian, his fate is sealed no matter what he says to the policemen. He will not be saved, and with every page, things get steadily worse for him.
Three of Katurian’s stories were chosen by the murderer for recreation: a young boy whose toes are sliced off, a little girl who chokes on her own blood after swallowing pieces of apple filled with razor blades, and a second young girl who is determined to be like Jesus to the point where her sadistic foster parents nail her to a cross. Even with the creations coming from his mind, Katurian seems a fairly balanced person, despite his shocking childhood. It is revealed a little ways into the play that he and his brother were part of an experiment at the hands of their parents: Katurian was pampered, loved, and given every opportunity while his brother was locked into a single room and tortured daily, to the point where he suffered severe brain damage.
The fascinating thing about The Pillowman is the main question it asks: is Katurian guilty? While the reader/audience knows that he did not kill those children, the murderer took inspiration from Katurian’s stories. Had the stories not existed, perhaps the murderer would not have had the need to reenact them and the entire play would not have happened. However, this same question is asked in the story of the title name. The Pillowman is another story of Katurians, in which a man made entirely of pillows takes it upon himself to go to young children and inform them of the terrible things they’re going to experience later in life. He then assists in their suicide, should they choose to end their lives. He doesn’t enjoy the job, but his reasoning is that he would rather spare a child a lifetime of unhappiness for a single moment of discomfort or fear. It’s a haunting question, but The Pillowman forces you to look it straight in the face as the play goes on.
After reading The Pillowman, I’m desperate to see it onstage. It’s quite wordy, with huge, multi-page monologues of storytelling, and I want to see if that works onstage. In the right hands, it could be captivating. In the wrong ones, or perhaps as a fault of the playwright, it could be terribly boring. There are also parts of the stories and Katurian’s life that are acted out and I would love to see them, too. Variety called it “McDonagh’s least forgiving, bravest play,” and add to that the dash of creepy that pervades the play, and I’m there.
TUPOLSKI: Your surname is Katurian, yes?
TUPOLSKI: See, we’ve got your first name as Katurian.
KATURIAN: My first name is Katurian.
TUPOLSKI: Your name is Katurian Katurian?
KATURIAN: My parents were funny people.
TUPOLSKI: Hm. Middle initial?
KATURIAN: Are you trying to say I shouldn’t write stories with child-killings in them because in the real world, there are child-killings?
TUPOLSKI: We like executing writers. Dimwits we can execute any day. And we do. But, you execute a writer, it sends out a signal, y’know? (Pause) I don’t know what signal it sends out, that’s not really my area, but it sends out a signal.
KATURIAN: They moved house soon after that and though the nightmare sounds had ended, his stories stayed strange and twisted but good, and he was able to thank his parents for the weirdness they’d put him through.
KATURIAN: Did you sign anything?
MICHAL: Huh? You know I can’t sign nothing.
KATURIAN: Then maybe we can still get out of this.
MICHAL: Get out of what?
KATURIAN: Get out of being executed for killing three children, Michal.
MICHAL: Oh, get out of being executed for killing three children. That’d be good.