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The Pillowman

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
by Martin McDonagh

I got an email suggesting that I read some of McDonagh's work and I realized that for all his many brilliant plays, I hadn't blogged one. SO.. It's been a while since I picked up a McDonagh play. I was fortunate enough to see The Pillowman on Broadway, twice. It was amazing. It was the best play I'd seen on stage until I saw the most recent La Bete.

It was a joy to pick up The Pillowman after a few years away from it. The performances were still in my mind but not so fresh that I couldn't create new images as I read. One thing that definitely stuck with me was Jeff Goldblum's voice. His inflections are hard to forget.

I think McDonagh's work is hard to categorize. This is a drama. But it's hilarious. But the comedy is so dark you find yourself wondering, was it okay that I just laughed at that?

The Pillowman
is, appropriately, about the power of stories. The power of the written word. The purest form of entertainment, because it gets into your brain and grabs your imagination. The play begins in an interrogation room where the writer Katurian Katurian Katurian (his parents were cruel. no, really.) is being accused of a crime. Jeff Goldblum asks him to stand and read aloud one of his short stories. Katurian is confused by this, but agrees, stating, "This feels like school somehow." Jeff Goldblum responds:
Mm. Except at school they didn't execute you at the end. (Pause.) Unless you went to a really fucking tough school.
So, now Katurian is scared and confused. On top of this, his brother is being tortured in the room next door. All he can think is that perhaps he has angered someone with the tone of his stories, which range from gruesome to horrifying. Jeff Goldblum carries on the role of not necessarily 'good' cop but 'better of the two' cops with his sardonic humor. He tells Katurian:
We like executing writers. Dimwits we can execute any day. And we do. But, you execute a writer, it sends out a signal, y'know?
After some more scare tactics, Katurian learns that he's under investigation for the murder of a series of young children. He is the prime suspect because the murders were carried out in ways that mirror the action of a few of his short stories. He claims innocence but the cops are not convinced.

Fast forward to the top of act two: both brothers are now in one room and we have the opportunity to learn about their dark upbringing that turned Katurian into the writer he is now. Through the character of Katurian, McDonagh emphasizes the importance of the writer's work outlasting the life of the writer:
It isn't about being or not being dead. It's about what you leave behind. Right at this moment, I don't care if they kill me. I don't care. But they're not going to kill my stories. They're not going to kill my stories. They're all I've got.
*SPOILER ALERT* If you haven't read the play, you may want to skip the end of this post.

So, it turns out that Katurian's innocent-seeming, mentally-challenged brother decided to act out some of his big brother's stories, which, in turn, killed two children. Katurian is dumbfounded and asks him why he couldn't have acted out some of his nicer stories? Michael tells him he didn't write any.
Michal: So, what, I could've done ones that wouldn't've been so horrible? Like what? Like 'The Face Basement'? Slice off their face, keep it in a jar on top of a dummy, downstairs? Or 'The Shakespeare Room'? Old Shakespeare with the little black pygmy lady in the box, gives her a stab with a stick every time he wants a new play wrote?
Katurian: He didn't do all those plays himself.
Bahaha. The more plays I read, the more I realize that nearly every one has either a Shakespeare joke or reference of some sort. I cannot imagine having such a profound effect on society that your influence is still present EVERYWHERE after hundreds and hundreds of years. Amazing.

I respect McDonagh so much for his limitless imagination. Within The Pillowman, he has created multiple stories, most of them horrific, but so creative. His dark macabre sense of humor is a welcome change from the fluffy Moliere I was reading earlier this week (posts to come). 

Reading the cast list from the original British version led to an interesting exercise for me. Having only seen the Broadway production, I tried to read through this time with the British casting in mind. It's a very different play. For example, imagine Jeff Goldblum saying:
I'm just tired of everybody round here using their shitty childhoods to justify their own shitty behavious. My dad was a violent alcoholic. Am I a violent alcoholic? Yes I am, but that was my personal choice. I freely admit it.
Now, re-read the line with Jim Broadbent in mind.

Totally different, right?

Tomorrow's Play: Essential Self-Defense by Adam Rapp

1 comment:

Brian said...

Thank you for pointing out the theme about the power of stories. What I found simulataneously exciting and frustrating about the play was that each story which Katurian summarizes sounds like it would be an amazing read. But then I remembered it was a play and those stories didn't actually exist - which just added to the loss and horror felt at the end.

In order to cheer myself up, I am going to go back to your review of Iphigenia and read it in the voice of Jeff Goldblum.


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