If you ever find yourself doubting the power or importance of fiction, read Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman.
I vividly remember reading the play for the first time. I was on the lowest level of a residence hall with a friend of mine, the best writer I knew and, to this day, the most literary person I’ve ever met. He also, incidentally, knew more about literature than me and likely does to this day (something which I’ve never really forgiven him for).
Anyway, what I was saying was that we were in essentially a basement where we would often hang out to talk or, more often, write. One night, he let me borrow a copy of The Pillowman. And it was such a visceral, unforgettable experience that it made me realize just how fearless writing could be.
It also reminded me of the indescribable importance of stories, because that’s what this story is ultimately about – stories, and the terrible, terrible places the greatest stories often come from.
The plot is extremely simple – a man named Katurian is being interrogated by a policeman, Ariel, and a detective, Tupolski. We don’t know why at first, but it’s clear that Katurian is in danger, and the sense of dread mounts as Ariel and Tupolski discuss Katurian’s more than four hundred stories with unveiled disgust. It’s understandable, given that Katurian’s stories are almost without exception dark. And I mean dark, as in the stories tend to center on little kids who are hurt, tortured, or outright killed. We, the audience, are told some of these stories, and much like the masterful writing of Lolita makes us somehow comfortable reading a story about a pedophile (and has led it to be consistently ranked as one of the greatest novels of all time), Katurian’s sick fairy tale-esque nightmares are redeemed by their hypnotic force. We feel like we are being read to by a particularly cruel storyteller, who keeps us riveted with surprising twists and by stoking our curiosity about just how far the author is going to take us.
Frankly, the originality and horror – which far surpasses the comparatively pitiful scares in a modern horror movie – alone would make this worth reading. But the story of The Pillowman itself is just as creative, surprising, and riveting, a story that kicks into gear when we discover someone has been inflicting the torments described in Katurian’s stories on real kids. And since almost none of Katurian’s stories have been published, well, that considerably narrows down the possible suspects.
I don’t want to say anything more about the plot, because the gradual revelations are part of what make this such a unique text. I will say, however, that much like the stories within this story, the characters are themselves quite surprising. Ariel, for instance, at first seems like the archetypal brutal policeman who delights in inflicting as much pain on suspects as possible, while Tupolski is the more experienced, world-weary partner. It’s quite interesting how your feelings about them develop over the course of the play. As for Katurian, he is a bit of an enigma, someone whose monomaniacal obsession with his stories could be seen as either evidence of his dedication to his craft or a cold detachment from anyone he hasn’t imagined. Then there’s his mentally-challenged brother, Michel, who provides some of the sweetest, and most vile, moments of all.
Overall, I think the essence of The Pillowman is captured in the story Katurian wrote called “The Pillowman,” which we are told in Act I. It’s titular protagonist – a person made entirely of pillows, who feels both childishly innocent and bizarrely disturbing in his construction. His job is just as paradoxical, as he is responsible for doing something chillingly awful for a good reason (or at least, maybe it’s a good reason – that’s for you to decide). The story succeeds in being sweet and sad and sinister all at once, and the way McDonagh slightly tweaks the story at the end with an expanded version, so to speak, is genius.
My last advice is this – go into this play knowing it will be trying at times, but it’s worth struggling through parts that may upset you, because The Pillowman is one of the very few works I believe is absolutely perfect.
So go read it. Now.