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Martha Lavey on The Pillowman

by Martha Lavey

I remember the first time I read Martin McDonagh’s work ten years ago. Ian Rickson, the now out-going artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre in London was working at Steppenwolf at the time, directing Mojo. While here, Ian handed me McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy and a fourth play, The Cripple of Inishmaan. The Court had produced the trilogy and Ian thought Steppenwolf might be a good match for McDonagh’s work. I read the plays and was knocked out by the playwright’s voice: the dazzling command of language, the pitiless humor, the daring in his plotting of event and the sheer exuberance in creating characters extreme in their absurdity and vivid in their humanity. The abundance of life in the plays was irresistible. And indeed, the playwright and his plays have been celebrated and produced widely in the English-speaking world. Steppenwolf produced The Beauty Queen of Leenane in 1999 under the direction of ensemble member Randy Arney, with Laurie Metcalf and Rondi Reed sharing the role of Maureen, and Rick Snyder in the role of Pato. The Pillowman marks the return of this extraordinary playwright to the Steppenwolf stage. While a fan of the playwright since my first reading of those plays ten years ago, I am newly impressed by his critical intelligence and theatrical acumen in play in The Pillowman. The dexterity in the treatment of character, plot, and language are as assured as ever. The key shift that I discern in The Pillowman is the willingness, on the part of the playwright, to turn his merciless gaze back on himself: to question the motives and responsibilities of an artist trafficking in the dark zones of human nature. Because while, as I have noted, McDonagh’s plays have been celebrated and produced, they have also been questioned: does their black humor add to our understanding of the human condition? Does the violence in his plays startle us into a wakefulness about humanity or, on the contrary, does the violence cooperate in a banalization of cruelty? And what are the limits (are there limits?) to what we can or should permit our artists? Does the production of violence deepen our compassion by marshalling our resistance to it? Or does it inure us to its effects? With The Pillowman, McDonagh takes the questions on, full-face. The central character of the play is a writer, Katurian Katurian. One might read him as the author in the work. We discover Katurian in an interrogation room in an unnamed totalitarian state being questioned by two detectives, Ariel and Tupolski. They do not disclose why they are questioning him. We learn that they are also holding Katurian’s brother, Michal–older than Katurian but because mentally incompetent, under Katurian’s care. Michal is being held in an identical and adjoining room. These facts set up the central themes of the play that will be played out through a series of manifestations. The primary theme being sounded in this opening is the structure of duality: two rooms, two brothers, two detectives (ironically dubbed by one as “good cop/bad cop.”) Central to the duality is the figure of the writer (himself a double: “Katurian Katurian.”) As the story of the writer emerges, we understand that his formation as an artist has been forged by another duality: his parents have systematically subjected him to an experiment. For the first seven years of his life, his parents “showered nothing but love, kindness, warmth, all that stuff.” Stories are the delight of the young boy’s life and writing, his first love. In contrast to the sunny atmosphere of his first seven years, the following seven years are haunted by the sounds of torture emanating from a locked room adjoining the young Katurian’s bedroom. Katurian’s parents describe these nightmare sounds as a function of the young boy’s “wonderful but overactive imagination.” The frolicsome tone of his first stories is supplanted by a dark intensity in his writing. On his fourteenth birthday, his parents gleefully reveal that it is they who have been simulating the torture next door. It is an “artistic experiment” and the experiment is a success: the young writer has just won his first short story competition. Again, the kernel themes are expressed and elaborated: another pair of adjoining rooms, a pair of brothers (one real/one imagined?), the presentation of good parents/bad parents, the opposing childhood years (happy first seven years/troubled succeeding seven years). And at the center of these dualities is the writer whose first success is forged by the forces of these dualities. The structure of a duality as the central fact of the artist’s life is a theme that McDonagh will amplify with increasing complexity throughout The Pillowman. Always in play are the pairings of the good and the bad, the real and the imagined, fright and delight, the totalitarian and the unlicensed, the intelligent and the naïve, public and private, parent and child, individual and state. The adult Katurian is recounting these incidents of his childhood in the form of a story told to an unspecified audience (To whom is he speaking? To the detectives? To us, sitting in the theater?) What we experience is the writer’s story of the story he has been told – his parents’ explanation for the bizarre bifurcation of his childhood experience into the first seven years of benevolence and the following seven years of dark foreboding. What follows is the writer’s story of his investigation into that family myth: he discovers the real story of his childhood. He is the detective of his own past. Because the play turns so continuingly on the delivery of story and then the upending of that story, and then the production of a counter-narrative, it would spoil the fun to reveal any more of its plot. What is important to bear in mind throughout the play’s twists and turns is the both playful and complex manner in which McDonagh embeds his kernel themes throughout. In every evolution of the plot, McDonagh pressurizes the tension between a series of dualities. In this insistence on the dual character of every experience (behind one narrative is another, opposing story; in every act of creation is an annihilation), McDonagh poses a challenge. Can the good exist without the bad? Can art be born from unalloyed felicity? Can creativity be legislated? Or is all creativity–indeed, all story, every narrative of human experience– the story of a twinning? A continuous tumbling through mutually defining oppositions? What I admire in The Pillowman is how entirely robust a self-examination it produces of the playwright. He stares straight on into the dark territory of his own writing and wrangles that turf in the terms most personal and meaningful to him. He addresses, through the vehicle of his playwriting, the concerns that his playwriting invokes: what is the responsibility of the playwright? How does an individual’s imagination– how does the artist?–articulate with the common good? Is that parameter legislatable? Should it be? And if repression produces its opposite–its dual force–is repression, in fact, the force that pressurizes chaos into being? Is it true that in the end of all, for McDonagh, as for all writers, “the first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story?” The Pillowman is a fantastic ride a great yarn, thrillingly told. It is also a provocative reflection of our current social climate: our complex, multi-cultural, global society bristling with issues of free speech, with authorship, with conundrums and dualities at every turn. The Pillowman makes its own rigor of thought similarly complex. It is fantastic fun. It is a great story.