06 May 2006

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh

And I have sometimes wondered if it wouldn't make better sense to teach budding playwrights, instead of the usual Dramatic Technique, two rules grounded in human nature: if you wish to attract the audience's attention, be violent; if you wish to hold it, be violent again. It is true that bad plays are founded on such principles, but it is not true that good plays are written by defying them.

--Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama (1964)
The Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has sometimes been compared to Quentin Tarantino, but the comparison seems superficial to me, because though McDonagh's writing can be brutal and grand guignol, sometimes in the same jokey or fatalistic way as Tarantino, McDonagh's dramatic sense is different -- less an echo of low-budget movies than a continuation of a line of violence going back to Euripedes and Seneca (perhaps the exemplar of this style is Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, where a certain glee accompanies the gore).

McDonagh's recent play The Pillowman seems at times to be about the effect of violence on society, the place of art in a repressive state, the power of stories to do this-that-and-another-thing, etc. The nihilistic genius of the play, though, is that while it suggests these ideas, it denies them -- it denies not just the possibility of "answering" such questions, but the usefulness of bothering to ask them at all.

Theatre audiences and critics have been conditioned to expect plays to deliver messages, and many good playwrights have mangled their art by bowing down to this condition. One of the problems with the messages delivered by most contemporary plays is that they're predictable and shallow -- war is bad, love is good, people should be nice to other people who aren't exactly the same as they are, etc. One of the results of ticket prices being so phenomenally expensive is that audiences expect what they see to give them either a lot of spectacle or some sort of education, though if you've just paid $85 for a seat, what you probably most want is a reinforcing of your current ideas under the guise of education, so that way even if you aren't entertained, at least you feel smart and righteous. (Yes, I'm generalizing horribly.)

McDonagh sets one trap after another in The Pillowman for anyone seeking easy meanings -- the play opens in a police interrogation room and within only a few lines, we begin to feel political undertones as the interrogated character, Katurian, insists he respects the police and will help them in any way, and meanwhile the police insult and threaten him. Soon we learn that Katurian is a writer who has written 400 stories, and it is because of his stories that he is being interrogated.

Here is where a playwright seeking to comment on the evils of dictatorship would show us how unjust it is for a writer to be imprisoned for writing subversive material. McDonagh has set us up to expect this. Then he changes our expectations: Katurian is being interrogated not because his stories are subversive to the totalitarian regime, but because they are almost entirely about the brutal torture and murder of children.

Now our expectation is slightly different -- "Ah ha!" we say. "This is a play about how violent writing should not be censored! Just like Martin McDonagh's violent plays should not be censored! He's writing about himself!"

Except soon we discover that Katurian's stories read like blueprints for some recent murders of children that the police are investigating. "Well," we say, "obviously the play is about how even if a writer writes violent stories, they shouldn't be blamed for how crazy psychopaths interpret them."

All of this happens within the first scene of the play, the first 30 pages of a 104-page script. The writing is sharp and smart, playing with the expectations that have been built up -- one of the interrogators asks Katurian, "Are you trying to say, 'Go out and murder children?'" and Katurian replies, "No! No bloody way! Are you kidding? I'm not trying to say anything that all! That's my whole thing." But we know better, of course -- we know that no writer can fail to say anything, that all writing is contingent on its political and cultural and historical situation, that even if we don't want to subvert the regime, by being good people who write good words we'll subvert it despite our intentions. McDonagh even has some fun with Kafka allusions, giving his interrogated writer a name beginning with K (and continuing on -- it's a lame joke, but his first, middle, and last names are the same. "Your name is Katurian Katurian Katurian?" one of the interrogators asks. "Like I said," Katurian replies, "my parents were funny people." To which the interrogator says, "Mm. For 'funny' I guess read 'stupid fucking idiots'." Katurian says, "I'm not disagreeing"). A few pages later, one of the interrogators paraphrases one of Katurian's stories to him, to which the writer replies, "That's a good story. That's something-esque. What kind of 'esque' is it? I can't remember. I don't really go in for that 'esque' sort of stuff anyway, but there's nothing wrong with the story."

After the first scene, The Pillowman becomes far more interesting, veering off into grotesque surrealism as we learn exactly how Katurian's stories are connected to the actual murders. The plot constantly undermines the expectations it creates, short-circuiting all the simple "meanings" we've been conditioned to notice with every jerk of the knee, until what we are left with are the bare, raw emotions of complex characters. The situations are often absurd, exaggerated, and revolting, but they continually force us to pay attention to what is going on beneath their beguiling and bloody surfaces -- to the misplaced desires and shattered dreams that push each character into being who they are. Easy social ideas are suggested and undermined, simplistic psychological motivations are offered for various actions and shown to be empty even when they're accurate, and political stereotypes are employed not for comment and explication, but as one more example of a too-easy answer.

Some reviewers of the New York and London productions of the play were taken in by the surface elements, perhaps because of choices made by the directors and actors and designers, perhaps because of the critics' own inability to see beyond the expectations they brought into the theatre. Even as generally astute a critic as Michael Feingold at the Village Voice missed the point entirely, complaining, "The notion of a state that pervades its citizens' lives every hour or every day seems to be outside McDonagh's imaginative powers." Michael Billington, another generally good critic, said in The Guardian, "McDonagh's subject is clear: the dangerous power of literature." Ben Brantley at the New York Times, an often more plodding critic than either Feingold or Billington, gets much closer to the heart of the play:
What "The Pillowman" is celebrating is the raw, vital human instinct to invent fantasies, to lie for the sport of it, to bait with red herrings, to play Scheherazade to an audience real or imagined. For Mr. McDonagh, that instinct is as primal and energizing as the appetites for sex and food. Life is short and brutal, but stories are fun. Plus, they have the chance of living forever.
Do stories last forever? Hardly. But longer than one human life sometimes, and by the end of the play, the possibility and desire for such longevity is where the real drama -- and the real violence -- of The Pillowman emanates from.

5 comments:

  1. Nice review, Matt. I've not read any McDonagh but the more I hear about him the more interesting he sounds.

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  2. The Pillowman is something of a rarity these days - a play that's as effective on the page as it is on the stage. What reading it might not convey is how sidesplittingly funny it can be - I read it more than a year before seeing it and loved it both times, but didn't really laugh when I read it; on stage, it's hilarious, always keeping the edge of the knife to the throat at the same time.

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  3. (perhaps the exemplar of this style is Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, where a certain glee accompanies the gore)

    For the last class of a course I took some years ago on revenge tragedies, we watched the double feature of Julie Taymor's Titus and Alex Cox's Revengers Tragedy. It was fantastic. And I think my brain has never quite forgiven me for attending.

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  4. I recently saw a performance. The use of language was exhilerating.
    Loved the stories within the story
    device. The entire experience was fantastic and wonder filled.

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  5. I just saw this play. A colleague commented at interval that he was with the policemen - the writer ought to be shot for crimes against literature. I thought it unbearably smug (a WRITER claims that WRITING is worth torture and torment? Get off the prawns).

    Yes, he does good dialogue. But what a load of poisonous sentimental tosh.

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