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The Pillowman is about a writer, Katurian and his disabled brother, being tortured and questioned about a series of child murders, based violent stories Katurian has written. The critical moment occurs when Katurian learns of his brother’s part in murdering the children and how he felt betrayed by Katurian’s stories. The setting is in a police station interrogation room in an unnamed totalitarian state.
Structure: The Pillowman has a climactic structure. There are only four characters that are focused on, and nearly all the action takes place within a police station in a linear timeline. While the primary action and setting take place in time, there are reenactments that take place on stage while the main characters are either telling the stories or discussing the past.
Act I, Scene 1: Ariel and Tupolski interrogate Katurian in a police room about his stories. Ariel “tortures” Michal, and tells Katurian that Michal has just confessed to killing three children, in association with Katurian, which Katurian denies.
Act I Scene 2: Katurian tells the story of his childhood, both the alternate ending he wrote and the actual version.
Act II Scene 1: Katurian and Michal are together in a cell, Michal reveals that he had not been tortured, but cooperated with Ariel to pretend he was. Michal then admits to killing the children, claiming that Katurian told him to do it with his stories. Michal also claims that the last child was murdered following the story “The Little Jesus,” which is one of Katurian’s most violent tales. Michal tells Katurian that he has read “The Writer and the Writer’s Brother.” He is deeply upset and harbors resentment that Katurian changes the real version of events the way he did, wishing instead that Katurian had written a happy ending for the two brothers. Katurian lulls Michal to sleep by telling him a story and then smothers him to save him from execution. He resolves to confess to the crimes on the condition that his stories be spared.
Act II Scene 2: Katurian tells the others the story of the Little Jesus.
Act III Scene 1: Katurian writes his confession, including the three child murders as well as the murders of Michael and his parents. He begs to save his stories from being destroyed. Katurian is unable to answer questions about the third murder. The little girl is found alive, and the detectives realize that Katurian was not actually involved. Katurian is still executed for murdering Michal and his parents. Just as Ariel is about to torch Katurian’s stories, however, Katurian stands up and tells how he used his last seconds to tell himself a story about how The Pillowmancame to Michal when he was young. This story was going to end with Ariel burning the stories, but Katurian was shot before he could finish. In actuality, Ariel decides to save the stories.
Katurian: Katurian is a writer that cares for his disabled brother Michal. As a child, Katurian excelled and wrote happy stories, until he began hearing strange sounds at night. His parents told him that they had been pretending to torture a child for years to make him a better writer as part of an experiment. Katurian eventually broke down the door, found his brother who had been tortured by their parents and then ends up smothering their parents. After that Katurian takes care of his brother but also writes extraordinarily violent and gruesome stories about children. Katurian cannot comprehend his brother’s crimes, so he kills him himself, and confesses to the murders in an effort to preserve his stories.
Michal: Michal is Katurian’s brother. He is disabled and suffers mentally due to the abuse he experienced as a child. Michal is responsible for the murders of the children and bases them on Katurian’s stories, believing that his brother told him to do it. Michal looks up to Katurian and even idolizes him, but is also angry with him for writing a story about the two of them where Michal is dead, and neither of them ends up happy.
Ariel: Ariel is a detective that is questioning Katurian and holding Michal. Ariel is violent and much more apt to physical violence than Tupolski and has a vendetta against people who commit crimes against children since he suffered trauma as a child at the hand of his father, who like Katurian, he ended up smothering. He is a detective in a totalitarian state and has a considerable amount of power and control over Katurian and Michal. Although, not much is given about the state of where they live so where his status would be in the overarching world of the play is unknown. Ariel claims at the beginning to be “bad cop,” and the two play off of each other well. However, despite his aptitude for violence, he ends up being the one that experiences more compassion for Katurian and what he has endured.
Tupolski: Tupolski is the lead detective against Katurian and plays the “good cop” between himself and Ariel. Tupolski is cold and doesn’t seem to care about what happens to Katurian or Michal. He sees himself as being detached from the world and the people that he wished to save. Like Ariel, Tupolski is also a detective and holds a substantial amount of power and elevated status over Katurian and Michal, but his overall status is unknown. It is assumed that being in the totalitarian state that they are in, both he and Ariel have a decent amount of power over those under investigation/convicted and pedestrians.
Language: The language in The Pillowman is, on the surface, straightforward. All of the characters speak in short sentences and often repeat each other: “Katrina: I don’t cut stuff. I just clear it. ARIEL: Oh, you don’t cut stuff. You just clear it.” Despite the seemingly simple syntax structure, each character is a wealth of complex motives and feelings. None of the characters are invested in using excessive or flowery language, opting to toss in the word “fucking” when possible, Ariel and Tupolski especially.
Sound: I didn’t notice any particular specific sounds noted within the play, however, I do know that two significant productions were scored. All of the transitions are simple, and many happen while the narration is occurring on stage. A sound couple potentially elevates the stakes of the violent actions that take place, but could also deter from the well-crafted language if not done properly.
Environment and style: The Pillowman is set in an interrogation room of an unnamed police state. The world is rather dark and dreary given the overall content of the play.
Playwright’s biography: Martin McDonagh is a British and Irish playwright, screenwriter, and film director, born and brought up in London to Irish parents. He has been often described as one of the most important living playwrights in Ireland. He was born in Camberwell, London, to Irish parents who later moved back to Galway, leaving McDonagh and his brother to grow up in London, which may be part of his evaluation of dysfunctional families. McDonagh rewrote fairy tales, which seemed to have had a significant influence on his work. Despite having published eight plays, he isn’t all that interested in theatre, having stated that he prefers to work in film and that he has a “respect for the whole history of films and a slight disrespect for theatre” likely due to its lower capacity for accessibility.
Writing of the play: Despite having several productions produced in multiple non-English speaking countries, there don’t seem to be any printed translations available of The Pillowman. An early version of the play received its first public reading at the Finborough Theatre in London in 1995, however, this version is not available.
Past Productions: The Pillowman has been quite successful since being published in 2003. It premiered on 13 November 2003 at the Royal National Theatre. Directed by John Crowley, this production included notable actors, David Tennant as Katurian, Jim Broadbent as Tupolski, Nigel Lindsay as Ariel, and Adam Godley as Michal. After its success, it went on to Broadway in 2005 and then ran at Steppenwolf Theatre from 2006 to 2009. The Pillowman has also been notably produced in Paris, Lithuania, Iran, Ireland, Seoul, Hong Kong, Argentina, Australia, Türkiye, and Italy. The range of success it has achieved in a relatively short amount of time says a lot about the themes of the play and how it holds across many cultures. I believe a great deal of the range of interpretation stems from the nature of the subject matter, from the macabre nature of it and the trauma the characters have endured to the material in the dark stories that Katurian writes of and how they parallel themes of old fairy tales. Most of the past productions have chosen to set it in a contemporary world or to set it in some version of what I would consider “yesterday,” being not precisely now but at some point in our past. Other than this, there doesn’t appear to have been much artistic liberty taken in setting or style in past productions.
Other works: McDonagh’s first six plays are separated into two trilogies. The first trilogy, The Leenane Trilogy, is set in Leenane and includes The Beauty Queen Of Leenane (1996), A Skull In Connemara (1997) and The Lonesome West (1997), all of which are set in Leenane. The Beauty Queen Of Leenane is about a dysfunctional relationship between a spinster and a domineering mother. A Skull In Connemara is about a man who unearths skeletons of overcrowded cemeteries and finds the skeleton of the wife he was once accused of murder. And The Lonesome West entails two brothers arguing over the supposedly accidental death of their father. The second trilogy, The Aran Islands Trilogy, includes The Cripple Of Inishman (1996), The Lieutenant Of Inishmore (2001), and The Banshee Of Inisheer. The Cripple Of Inishman is about a disabled teenager trying to scheme his way into a fictional documentary. The Lieutenant Of Inishmore is a dark comedy about a leader of an Irish National Liberation Army splinter group who discovers that his best friend, who is a cat, is dead. The Banshee Of Inisheer was never produced or published.
Both trilogies precede The Pillowman in McDonagh’s career. However, given the date of the early version of The Pillowman, it is likely he was working somewhat concurrently on them. His first trilogy notably shares many themes, structures and types of relationships with The Pillowman. The most apparent being the concept of death and a gruesome end. But he also includes the familial dysfunction that Katurian and Michal have with the mother and daughter in The Beauty Of Leenane, as well as the two brothers, who may or may not have intentionally killed their father in The Lonesome West. After The Pillowman, McDonagh released two other plays: A Behanding In Spokane (2010) and Hangmen (2015). His last two plays don’t appear to share many themes with his earlier works.
Historical, cultural, political, religious background: Early in his career as a writer, Martin McDonagh composed fairy tales. These fairytales included “The Chair and the Wolfboy,” “The Short Fellow and the Strange Frog,” and “The Violin and the Drunken Angel.” While he was attempting to rewrite fairy tales he remembered from childhood, he realized that “there’s something dark about them that doesn’t quite come through.” Many of the themes in The Pillowman are common themes associated with old fairy tales, particularly those of the Brothers Grimm. In a conversation with Irish drama critic Fintan O’Toole in BOMB Magazine in 1998, 3 years after the first staged reading of the earlier version of The Pillowman, McDonagh retold the Brothers Grimm version of Little Red Riding Hood, where the wolf’s stomach is filled with rocks and sewn with green wire, leading to the wolf’s death. McDonagh’s commented that “[he] would love to write something as horrific as that if [he] could.” McDonagh uses similar dark imagery in The Pillowman, pulling violent and disturbing acts from children’s stories, but he also manages to go one step further. In addition to the gruesome stories, he includes the uses of a totalitarian state and what that sort of life can entail for its citizens and childhood trauma of the main characters and their own violent actions to overcome them. While an early version of The Pillowman was publically read in 1995, there is also a connection to the final version of the play and an independent movie, Closet Land, that was released in 1991.
Criticism of the play: The Pillowman has often been critiqued for being far too violent and sensational in its violence. However, I quite like The Pillowmanand the use of dark fairytale imagery. It builds on the themes and nature of those stories and, in a way, offers its critique of them and the quality of dark or violent storytelling. The play has also been described as being ultimately hollow at its core. Personally, I think being hollow is a part of McDonagh’s goal. The lives of the characters have to real meaning as they are woven intricately between fiction and reality. Despite the fiction of the world within the play, they are all ultimately just fiction themselves. One part of the play and McDonagh’s writing of it that I am particularly attracted to is how he only intentionally scratches the surface of the psychology of those suffering from childhood abuse. The play is not exclusively about the abuse they have suffered and how it has affected them, which could have easily altered the story into something much different.
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