The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh
During final evaluations with one of my scriptwriting students (an advertising scriptwriting class), I asked him what kind of writing he admired. He mentioned the Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh. I’d never heard of McDonagh, so I asked him to recommend a play. He recommended The Pillowman. I read it and was blown away.
Act I opens with a classic prisoner’s dilemma. Two police officers are interrogating a man, a writer, Kataurian for his alleged role in a crime. His brother, they say, is in an adjoining room, also being interrogated. As they interrogate Katurian, their questions focus on a handful of his short stories, of which he has written hundreds. Katurian recounts stories for the officers, unsure of what they’re after. The stories are delightfully cruel and unsettling, like modern Grimm’s fairy tales. Katurian is obviously proud of the stories, though the literary nuances are over the heads of his audience. The officers are more concerned with plot points. During the interrogation, we begin to hear the screams of Katurian’s brother through the wall. In Act II, the two brothers are now together in a cell. Katurian is horrified to learn the truth of his brother’s confession.
I won’t give any more away, because part of the delight is the way in which McDonagh metes out pertinent information little by little, orienting us then reorienting us. We feel we are in the hands of a master manipulator. And as the story grows darker and darker, we feel like we’re somehow being implicated in the crime. Because as the story unfolds, we learn that it’s not just the writer and his brother on trial for a crime. The writer is on trial for his unrelentingly cruel imagination. The stories are on trial—the morality of bringing such darkness from one’s imagination into the world.
The Pillowman leaves one equally dazzled and unsettled. The sparseness of the form is remarkable, as is the quality of each of Katurian’s stories nested throughout the play. They get progressively darker and progressively better, ensuring that we can’t look away. There is a lot to pull us along. The Pillowman is a psychological thriller of the highest order.