Review: The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh
Posted on June 25, 2010
by Adam Burgess
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As New York Times columnist Ben Brantley said of McDonagh’s work here: “comedies don’t come any blacker than ‘The Pillowman.’” The vast majority of the play is set in a police station interrogation room, where a young man is being tortured into admitting to crimes that he did not do. The crimes, all (except two) are against children, and all were actually committed by the main character’s mentally challenged older brother, who was himself tortured and abused as a child by the brothers’ parents. The play works as a piece of meta-fiction, telling a story about story-telling and the misperceptions about writers’ and dramatists influence on their readers.
As a reader, I absolutely enjoyed all of the many ways which McDonagh played with the idea of writing and the power of written expression & emotion. The plot twist at the end, involving the reality behind the abused brother’s crimes, is fantastic. Also interesting is the idea that true writers can, in their last few dying seconds, completely re-write their life story as their body is shutting down. Because that’s just what writers do. I also enjoyed the two policemen’s hidden back stories, one of which became a bit obvious as the plot wove on, but was still interesting. The impetus behind their actions – behind all actions, really- are well conceived and realistic. What would drive a boy to murder his parents? What would drive a man to torture children? What would drive a writer to develop story-after-story about the death and suicides of little boys and girls? And what would make policemen enjoy abusing their prisoners and sentencing people to death without so much as a lawyer present or a trial offered?
It is difficult not to put something in the “bad” column, because that makes me seem either 1) bias or 2) unable to do my job correctly, that is, comprehensively and objectively. But there is so much to like in this play, and so little to dislike. I suppose one criticism may be that, for a play, it is written much more like a novel. There was very little stage direction, which one comes to expect from a play though, in reality, more dramas are being written without stage direction, leaving this up to the directors’ creativity. Still, it did seem pointed, particularly as I started reading Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” the day after I finished “The Pillowman” and the difference is conspicuous. Another minor criticism is the denouement with the children. The question is, why would Michal (the “slow” brother) lie about what he did to them? Was he truly that confused – did the stories get jumbled in his head and, therefore, so did his actions toward the children? Or was he trying to write his own story, and using his brother and the policemen as an audience? It is hard to say, but a final resolution here would have been nice (if, perhaps, too clean for such a dark comedy).
The Final Verdict: 4.5 out of 5.0
I truly enjoyed this play, morbid as it may have been. It was like a love-child of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Banks’ The Wasp Factory. The examination of effects of literature on human action is always a fascinating on here and, while any direct connection can be dismissed relatively simply, what happens when the readers happen to be mentally underdeveloped or emotionally damaged at the outset? Does this change the impact that literature might have on their actions, based on perception and an inability to keep separate fact from fiction and reality from fantasy? This play also says much, I think about the idea of truly understand literature and all its idiosyncrasies – the way a book can be misread and misunderstood because the reader lacks comprehension in terms of satire, allegory, metaphor, parody, leitmotif, and psychological exploration . It’s a brilliant play, also, because character interaction and monologues are moving and each moment seems to do more to advance the plot.
Published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2004.
Source: Owned Copy