January 21, 2004: McDonagh, Pillowman

Matinee. National Theatre, Cottesloe. Directed by John Crowley

A brilliant, articulate, chilling play. McDonagh’s ostensible subject has shifted from the West of Ireland to an anonymous though seemingly European totalitarian state, but his true, perennial subject remains unchanged. I say that by way of recognizing this author’s unquestionable authenticity, without being able necessarily to say what that subject is, exactly. It has something to do with the instinct for violence and the resultant, self-destructive chaos that lives and thrives in the hearts and souls of “normal” human beings.

This is a play that tells a fascinating, gripping story — though that could be said almost equally about The Beauty Queen of Linnane or any other of his plays I’ve seen. But this story is about a man who tell stories, writes stories, himself — stories “with a twist” — that is, stories, gruesome or horrifying as they are, that end with a reversal so ironic that they make a kind of quantum leap into a further dimension of cruelty or sadness, or a more profound sense of just deserts. The central character, Katurian, has been apprehended by the police because the stories he writes bear a remarkable resemblance to a series of apparent child murders that have come to their attention. They have also taken into custody Katurian’s elder brother, a damaged, seemingly spastic “dimwit,” who is being held in a separate detention room. Tupolski and Ariel (why Ariel, for heaven’s sake?), good cop and bad cop, respectively, who it seems have read all, or almost all, of Katurian’s four hundred stories, want to question him about the uncanny resemblance of his fiction to the gruesome realities they are invest­igating. Katurian steadfastly maintains his innocence of any of these murders — in a long, brilliantly  written dialogue with the two policemen that raises some fascinating ramifications having to do with the question of whether art — whether in the form of a short story or some other kind of narrative — encour­ages people to commit actual crimes like those described in the fiction.

But McDonagh is finally not interested in the kind of issue that makes for a lively classroom discussion. That is, not interested in what ideas or issues stories may give rise to. As Katurian himself explains to the police, he just writes stories, and they are free to draw their own conclusions. And then, in a real-life twist, it turns out, in the next scene of Act I, in which Katurian and his brother Michal (pron. “Michael”) are placed together in Michal’s detention room, that Michal, who has heard Katurian tell his gruesome stories and has even read the rest of them when Katurian was out, is in fact the murderer of the children, having acted out exactly the murderous acts described in Katurian’s fiction. A strong hint to this effect has been set in the lobby of the Cottesloe Theatre, where, at the counter where tickets are sold and books and programs are paid for, there are copies for sale of Bruno Bettelheim’s probing (and, I believe, controversial) book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Katurian’s fiction is cast in the elegant short form of such tales, and we are, I presume, meant to be thinking of the horrific tales of the Brothers Grimm. I myself was thinking of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, partly because of their elegant conciseness, partly because of their short and lucid dramatic arc, and partly because, in his own, much less gruesome and in fact charming way, Wilde employs the same narrative “twist,” in which things “come home,” as we like to say. The Greeks called it anagnorisis, a structural reversal late in the action of the play that turns the tables thematically and heads us straight for what we somehow feel is an inevitable ending — though that inevitability has been engineered by means of that sudden, seemingly unsus­pected and unprepared-for reversal that is the hallmark of the superior dram­atist, who is above all a master of storytelling. The ancient word fable comes to mind.

In this play, there is an anagnorisis toward the end of each of the two acts. At the end of Act I, Katurian tells his sleepy brother a story that puts him to sleep. Katurian then proceeds to murder his brother out of vengeance, it seems, for carrying out in real life the murderous acts that Katurian only described in harmless fiction but that have moved Michal to act them out in reality. He does this murder by suffocating Michal with his pillow — an act that reenacts Katur­ian’s murder of their parents in vengeance for the condign seven year-long “experiment” they conducted in which Katurian was lavished with gifts and his writing talent was nourished, while Michal was tortured in unspeakable ways, the sound of which agonies were audible to Katurian — who eventually discov­ered what was happening, killed his parents, buried them outside by the wishing well, and took Michal under his protection.

McDonagh in this brilliant sequence thus manages to confound entirely the question of how acts of human violence may be explained. Is it a rotten child­hood that does it — that makes people violent themselves? Ariel tells half of the story of his unhappy childhood, in which his father systematically abused him every night, sexually; but Tupolski identifies that merely as a story that Ariel routinely tells to accused prisoners. Where does the truth lie? At every turn, McDonagh’s fascinating story generates urgent but consistently unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, questions, even while the audience is gripped and fascinated by the next narrative element.

The reversal in the second act comes in the form of a kind of unreal sequence after Katurian has been executed for the murders of his parents, he having pretended to have also killed the children; but the police have seen through this ruse. Katurian has made a bargain with them that he will confess the “truth” of the murders if, after they execute him, they will not burn his stories but will seal them for fifty years and then make them available. He trusts these sadistic, untrustworthy men to honor this agreement. After he is shot, while Ariel stands with the sheaf of stories by a wastebasket in flames, as if ready to burn them all, despite the agreement, Katurian rises from the dead and tells one more story, a story he had been writing in his mind at the countdown of seconds before Tupolski pulled the trigger.

The story is a kind of master narrative, having to do with a revisiting of the “Pillowman story” told earlier. The pillowman, a man made entirely of pillows, goes back in time to visit the children who later will go through all the agony they eventually suffer, trying to persuade them to commit suicide then and there, rather than go through all the torture that life subsequently holds for them. Only a few choose to do it. In the master narrative, a kind of final recapitulation not only of the pillowman story but of all the horrendous stories that Katurian has written, the pillowman visits the child Michal before their parents begin their experiment and gives him the choice of committing suicide, as a way of avoiding the horror and tragedy yet to come. Michal declines to kill himself, because if he does so Katurian will never write the kind of stories he eventually comes to write. And, Michal explains, he really liked those stories. And so, we deduce, the parental experiments began and Katurian and Michal went on in the way we have seen. And yet there is a bright spot, as Katurian finishes his story. Despite the order that Ariel gets from Tupolski to burn the stories, after the execution of Katurian he relents, puts the stories in Katurian’s file, and seals them up.

It is a kind of happy ending, appealing perhaps to our sense — a very old idea, this one, after all — of the immortality of art. McDonagh, master storyteller him­self, has blithely given us a story “with a twist.” We suppress a sardonic laugh, perhaps, knowing that the exploration of violent impulses in this play has been so deep and unremitting that only a reversal of this kind, which perhaps begs the whole question of the relationship between the art of fiction, a mediating art, always, and the unmediated act of life-destructive violence. Finally, there are no answers here, and we are left to ponder the depths of treachery in the human soul.

The acting, I will briefly add, is extremely good, the direction clear and crisp. The dramatizations of the autobiographical accounts by Katurian, which occur behind scrim at a second, higher level within the seemingly featureless walls of the detention rooms, are superbly well done. This production has served McDonagh’s bleak vision of humankind in a way that could hardly be exceeded.

A final, quite unintended irony may be discovered at the bottom of the final page of the program: an advertisement for Amnesty International, which explains its vision “of the world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” How far away we are from achieving that vision may be estimated in the harrowing stories McDonagh has seen fit to tell in this play.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book