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Michael Stuhlbarg (Michal) and Billy Crudup (Katurian) in Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman." Photo: Joan Marcus

Profound Pathologies: A Defense of The Pillowman
By Jonathan Kalb

The Pillowman
By Martin McDonagh
The Booth Theatre
222 W. 45th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200


In April, Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman opened on Broadway to mostly favorable reviews. The judgment of several thoughtful critics, however, has been that this play, while clearly more ambitious than McDonagh's previous, luridly sensationalistic work, really amounts to an empty shell. Because the "Irish" plays that made his name traded on gratuitous brutality and facile thriller effects, he has won huzzahs from all sides for apparently having something to say this time--about the relationship between creativity and violence. Nevertheless, Caridad Svich, in her essay on, says "there is something hollow at the heart of this play." Michael Feingold writes in the Village Voice that the play merely "dabbl[es] its toes at the edge of an ocean of big ideas"; its comically non-realistic totalitarian setting is evidence of a weak imagination and its central drama of two brothers merely "a curious case."

Most prominently, Charles Isherwood, in a New York Times essay urging 2005 Tony Award voters to choose John Patrick Shanley's Doubt over The Pillowman for Best Play (which they ultimately did), writes that McDonagh's work has "a hollow, inhuman quality." "Truths, of any kind, are not actually being explored in it," he says. "Look behind the diverting façade of his vivid, sardonic writing, and no real insights emerge." Isherwood denounces what he sees as McDonagh's callous disregard for insight per se, seeing in the play a "teasing manifesto proclaiming meaninglessness as a prime virtue in entertainment."

Even its fans would concede that The Pillowman is an infuriating and sometimes repellent creation. It uses contradiction and sarcasm to pose very tough questions about our appetites and assumptions about art and artists. It may not be easy or straightforward but it is lucid, searching and anything but hollow. Its twists and complications, its games with truth, even its trendy sensationalism and nihilism, are all in the service of larger and more important aims. As to whether McDonagh himself understands all his play's depths, that is immaterial. Any strong text--from Shakespeare to Chekhov to Kafka--knows more than its author, holds meanings its author didn't deliberately insert like measured ingredients, and it's not always necessary for decades or centuries to pass for that to become evident.

For anyone who doesn't know by now, The Pillowman is about a writer named Katurian Katurian Katurian (played by Billy Crudup) who says he doesn't believe literature should have any social purpose, coded or explicit: "I say if you've got a political axe to grind . . . go write a fucking essay . . . The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story." He has been arrested because some ghoulish murders of children in his town bear striking similarities to his lurid, and mostly unpublished, stories. As he and his brain-damaged brother Michal (Michael Stuhlbarg) are interrogated, with comic brutality, by a sardonic, bickering good cop/bad cop team named Tupolski (Jeff Goldblum) and Ariel (Zeljko Ivanek), the audience hears a handful of the stories and multiple versions of the brothers' background--some enacted in marvelous, cartoonish, Victorian-flavored vignettes on a platform upstage.

Billy Crudup (Katurian), Zeljko Ivanek (Ariel) and Jeff Goldblum (Tupolski) in Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman." Photo: Joan MarcusMcDonagh is as interested in interrogation and storytelling as in terror in this work. Knowing he will be executed, Katurian wants only to save his stories (and, at first, his brother), whereas the cops want the truth about the child-murders, or at minimum a confession. One has the feeling that the prime reason McDonagh set the action in a totalitarian state was to give the cops the plausible option of shooting Katurian with impunity at any time. This circumstance is darkly funny. Since neither Katurian nor the cops seem to take his execution fully seriously, it's never clear from moment to moment what's truly fearful and what's mock-fearful in the prison. Fear is just an atmospheric backdrop to the amusingly improbable circumstances, which treat the product of a lowly writer--art--as a threat comparable to terrorism. The actual focus is on the writer and the interrogators as his reader-critics.

Katurian's principal audience before his arrest was his retarded brother, to whom he had read his stories aloud. The interrogating cops, having found and read his manuscripts, are his new audience. In a diabolical irony, the loving brother turns out to be the more depraved reader. Locked up alone with Katurian, Michal admits to the child-murders. His prime response as a reader, then, has been to commit copycat violence (or so he says), and he recommends that Katurian burn most of his stories as a prophylactic measure for the future: "it wouldn't take long weeding out the ones that aren't gonna make people go out and kill kids, 'cos you've only got about two that aren't gonna make people go out and kill kids, haven't ya?"

The cops, for their part, also find the stories sick even though they spend their days torturing and executing people, activities with documented methods and procedures in their world (as in certain parts of ours). As state-sanctioned murderers, their job is evidently to maintain the state's monopoly on violence; they fancy themselves as indignant deputies of social decency. They aren't quite philistines--sardonic Tupolski has writerly ambitions himself--but they do sometimes come off as figures for the sort of literal-minded readers who can't handle irony or ambiguity and who try to pin authors down to settled purposes and meanings. This point becomes pivotal when the interrogation turns into a literary debate, with Tupolski opining about what qualifies as funny and sick, Ariel reviling even imaginary violence ("You know what? I would torture you to death just for writing a story like that"), and Katurian refusing all responsibility beyond "telling a story."

In this way, the play sets up a deadly figural stalemate: the bloody-minded artist committed to unfettered indulgence of the imagination (and swelled with his arrogant integrity), versus the hypocritically bloodthirsty public (represented by Michal and the cops) bent on blaming the artist for society's antisocial impulses and craven tastes. Intelligent people can reasonably disagree about The Pillowman's sickening details, but this central conflict is rich and resonant--a cheeky contribution to a longstanding debate about the artist's responsibility to society that reaches back to Romanticism, censorship through the ages, and Plato's beef with poets in The Republic.

From the very first story of Katurian's told in the play--about razor blades hidden inside carved applemen--McDonagh broadcasts his Tarantinoesque predilections, stretching the envelope of what his audience will tolerate. This first tale, merely summarized, is seriously disturbing and regularly prompts walkouts, despite the scene's comic undertone. It places viewers on the emotional defensive, despite fascinating them like steaming dung or fresh road kill. Guilty pleasure thus becomes part of the discomfort of the play, as it does in Tarantino and Oliver Stone's better films. Why censure McDonagh, then, for employing an attraction/repulsion dynamic that has been part of our culture for decades?

In fact, The Pillowman tucks powerful ideas into its sensationalism. The play takes aim at venerable romantic clichés about the benefits of suffering for artists. Katurian tells several stories about his parents, whom he says he murdered when he was 14 after discovering their macabre scheme to make him into a great writer by exposing him (for 7 years) to the screams of his brother, imprisoned and tortured in an adjacent, secret room. In the version of events that Katurian writes, oddly enough, he doesn't kill his parents and only years later discovers his tortured brother's corpse along with a sweet and gentle story by him, "better than anything he himself had ever written," which he burns.

Virginia Louise Smith (Mother), Jesse Shane Bronstein (Boy) and Ted Koch (Father) in "The Pillowman." Photo: Joan MarcusThe specter of these deliberately abusive parents--oblivious to anything other than artistic cultivation--packs a huge emotional wallop in the theater, evoking universally familiar shibboleths about stiff upper lips and chins up. The two-story composite portrait of the artist as a young victim, however, is the enduring point of fascination. Its implication is that Katurian and his well-meaning, pathological parents believe (exaggerating an ethos of the entire post-Romantic era) that talent means exposure and openness to dark thoughts. Superior beauty, it seems, needn't itself be dark (since the better story is sweet and gentle), but the dead brother's greater talent suggests that real horrible experience is better artistic training than imagined horrible experience. Listening to screams isn't enough.

What, exactly, is McDonagh saying about the apprenticeship of the victim-artist? Nothing more or less than Conrad, Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky, Genet and every other modern author who has introduced creatively criminal protagonists and explored the possibility that barbarism may be inherent in civilization. In their fine 2003 book Crimes of Art + Terror, Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe trace this tradition, quoting Wordsworth's assessment that modern people suffer from a "savage torpor" out of which they need to be shocked. McDonagh is confronting (in Lentricchia and McAuliffe's words) the "sentimentality that asks us to believe that art is always somehow humane and humanizing, that artists, however indecent they might be as human beings, become noble when they make art, which must inevitably ennoble those who experience it." Surely the ambition to explode this cliché needs no defending in the age of the erudite Unabomber, the author-murderer Jack Henry Abbott, and the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's remark that the twin tower attacks were "the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos."

McDonagh does want people to ponder who is responsible for the violence Katurian's stories incite, to consider whether some sort of "bottom line" ought to exist in art beyond which distasteful artistic medicine should be considered poison (are the artists with us or with the terrorists?). He just has no answer to these questions, which is no doubt why his play has elicited such mistrust. The Pillowman actually makes something of a fetish out of open questions, and that lends it an evasive, insincere air. Tupolski, for instance, repeatedly lies about big and little matters, right up until the 10-point countdown to execution that only reaches 4. Ariel bizarrely reassures Katurian at one point, "you can certainly half-trust us." It's impossible to take anything either cop says about the investigation or the murders at face value. Nor is Michal wholly reliable. Now simple-minded, now anomalously sophisticated, he confesses to murdering three children in imitation of his brother's stories (and is "mercifully" murdered by Katurian for it--like Lenny in Of Mice and Men), but one of those kids then walks into the jail (painted green--a detail from a different story), raising doubts about whether any have really been murdered. By the same token, it's not at all certain that Katurian really murdered his parents as he claims. The specter of violent fantasies in children is a dominant theme in the play, and Katurian clearly has a histrionic side.

This is the sort of indeterminacy and deception that Plato so abhorred. He kicked the poets out of his ideal (and dictatorial) Republic because he considered them essentially liars, fashioning morally questionable images from fabricated materials. Since they wouldn't promise to depict only upright behavior or make their ethical views plainly apparent, they were dangerous to society--particularly one prone to sheepish imitation of the images it consumes. Two and a half millennia later, in the age of lip-synching, staged news, reality TV, and innumerable other simulacra, Plato's view may seem far away, but it has remained dear to censors, puritans, and all manner of patriarchal control freaks through the ages. McDonagh's remarkable conception retools that stark, ancient provocation for an ironic, spin-savvy age now facing a crisis of confidence (in some camps, at any rate) in its freewheeling liberal-democratic traditions. The Pillowman has no remedy in its pocket, but it offers a terribly precise diagnosis, with a Mephistophelian guffaw.


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