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Interrogating McDonagh

by Gabriel Greene

Martin McDonagh’s characters, whether they hail from the most untamed parts of western Ireland or the unnamed totalitarian state in which The Pillowman is set, place a high value upon words. Like the 36- year old British playwright (of Irish descent) from whose mind they are sprung, the characters trade in playful language, even when the words are in service of matters that are deadly serious. The opening scene of The Pillowman finds two police officers interrogating a writer, Katurian, who has been brought in for questioning because of his words; his dark stories involving graphic violence against children share unsettling details with actual crimes that have occurred. Over the course of the play, during which time Katurian’s fate becomes increasingly unclear, the one saving grace for the writer is the hope that his stories–his words–will survive him. Mindful of the restrictive government under which he lives, Katurian insists his stories aren’t meant to be parables or allegories; they are simply stories: “The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story.” Those familiar with McDonagh’s past plays (Steppenwolf produced The Beauty Queen of Leenane, his breakout play, in 1999) know that storytelling par excellence is McDonagh’s hallmark. Beyond the plays themselves, which present classically-structured stories laced with sharp dialogue and dark, surprising twists, McDonagh’s characters find themselves immersed in the act of storytelling. The Beauty Queen’s Maureen, engaged in a horrific tug-of-war with a domineering mother intent on sabotaging her life, creates her own narrative for herself, constructing an imagined happy ending that, when exposed to the light of day, drives her to the brink of madness. In The Cripple of Inishmaan(the first installment in a second, as yet-unfinished trilogy), Cripple Billy (as he is known to the town), stricken with a defect that limits his mobility, dreams of escaping to Hollywood with the crew stationed on Inishmaan to film Man of Aran. The film, an American construction about the life of Irish islanders, fails to impress the locals when it is screened (“What’s to fecking see anyways but more wet fellas with awful jumpers on them?”). Just over a decade ago, McDonagh lived with his brother in London, subsisting on payments from the dole (welfare) when not working as a civil servant. He began writing scores of short radio plays, none of which were produced. Inspired by childhood trips to visit family in the west of Ireland– and particularly by the voices and language he heard during these vacations–McDonagh began writing stage plays set in the area known as Leenane, sending them off to virtually any theater that would accept them. The Druid Theatre, a small company tucked away in Galway, saw in Beauty Queen a rich, dark voice that recalled another great Irish writer, J.M. Synge. (Synge’s masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World, like McDonagh’s The Lonesome West, focuses on possible patricide amongst the denizens of western Ireland.) That initial production paved the way for tremendous success for McDonagh; at age 27, the young playwright had four plays running simultaneously in London’s West End, and to date, four of McDonagh’s plays have reached Broadway, where each was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Despite McDonagh’s commercial and critical success, not everyone was impressed by his work. In particular, some questioned the authenticity of the trilogy’s depiction of the west of Ireland, especially in the hands of a man born and raised in England. One Irish academic proclaimed McDonagh to be as Irish as the Asian Chicken McNuggets at McDonald’s were Asian. McDonagh suddenly found himself in the position of weathering a barrage of criticism surrounding the legitimacy and appropriateness of his stories; it is perhaps not surprising, then, that McDonagh returned with The Pillowman, a play in which his protagonist endures similar claims (albeit in a much more torturous fashion). The Pillowman is a departure for McDonagh in certain respects–it trades western Ireland for a totalitarian state, and humble cottages for bleak interrogation rooms. Nevertheless, the work bears many similarities to McDonagh’s previous plays, particularly in its deft combination of horrific acts and brutal comedy. Katurian’s stories have a distinctly dark flavor, courtesy of the way in which his parents raised him. Children are often mistreated in his stories, or–if they are at all happy–are doomed to grow up to become miserable adults. The Pillowman, the “hero” of one of Katurian’s stories, offers adults a way out of their despair that is simultaneously an act of murder and of mercy. In the play, murder and mercy are often in uneasy co-existence; in a bleak society with little hope of happiness, can the two be separated? Katurian’s interrogation at the hands of detectives Tupolski and Ariel is a brand of storytelling in itself; the detectives spin their narrative, attempting to push Katurian into agreeing with their “official” version of events. As Katurian’s developmentally-challenged brother Michal becomes drawn into the nightmare, Katurian is forced to place comparative values on human life–doomed to be fleeting, ephemeral–and one’s words, which may live beyond one own’s time. Like Katurian, McDonagh seems concerned with leaving behind a literary legacy. “We’ve all only got a small amount of time to leave something decent behind us,” he told The New York Times in 1998. McDonagh announced this year that he would stop writing plays in order to more fully concentrate on making movies. (His short film Six-Shooter earned him an Academy Award in 2006.) But his writing continues to illuminate a fascinating subset of humans, a group linked by isolation and despair, attempting to overcome both through the power of storytelling.