“Existence can only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon.”
WARNING: This review discusses details that some might feel reveal too much. If you are afraid your experience of the production will in some way be spoiled by the revelation of significant plot twists or striking images, let this opening be enough to inform you that you should go and see this play for yourself. That is, unless you are easily offended, shocked, or frightened…
Back in late 1999, the Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art brought the British Young Artists of the Saatchi collection to New York and pissed off both Giuliani and the religious right in one neat swipe. Thanks to their tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign, the show came with an actual warning label attached. Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman harkens back to this shock-happy era, and the corresponding “Cool Britannia” theater movement of “in-yer-face” dramatists such as Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Martin Crimp. And its own thematic concern (one that goes back to Plato), summons that very BYA warning: if certain works of art are dangerous (mentally or physically), should they be allowed? Are artists responsible for the re-presentation or imitation of their aesthetic representations?
On the night I attended the show, I witnessed first-hand how this play might be dangerous to one’s physical health (more on that later). But central is the effect of a particularly violent, tortured art on the characters themselves, deftly dodging back and forth over the lines of art and life itself.
Here is the set-up: A writer, Katurian Katurian Katurian (played by Billy Crudup, and yes, his initials are K.K.K.), is interrogated by police about his short stories in connection with three gruesome child-murders/abductions. If you think Basic Instinct and Kafka’s “The Trial,” with a strong dose of the Brothers Grimm, you aren’t too far off the mark. Katurian is desperate to convince his interrogators that his writings have no political content, implied or otherwise, but they are more concerned with the violent imagery in his unpublished works, which we learn are imitated in the three cases in question.
WARNING #2: Here come the spoilers.
In the numerous reviews that have already come out, and in theater-goer gossip about the play, everyone talks about how something in the first act will shock you out of your wits. We quickly learn, through the one recounted story that Katurian admits is autobiographical, his artistic talents are the result of his parent’s child-rearing-as-aesthetic-experiment. A child prodigy as a storyteller, his writings take a morbid twist when at age seven his nights become filled with the sounds of torture in the room next to his, a room he can’t access. When seven years later he receives a bloody note informing him the torture next door was real, and that his brother is the victim, he chops down the door to find his proud parents, who tell him to turn over the bloody note, revealing a prize for a short story contest he has won. However, Katurian’s tale continues, the writer returns to his childhood home years later, and revisiting the room he discovers…the actual bones of his tortured brother.
And just at this moment of horrific stage spectacle, a man a few rows ahead of me began to have a heart attack.
Ah-ha, so this is the surprise everyone has been alluding to! A Pirandello-twist, where the effects of the story break out in the audience. But quickly the screams for “House lights!” and “A doctor, please, help!” interrupt the performance, as people scramble to get the man to emergency care. Not an intended part of the play. But is it responsible?
When the play resumes, the nightmarish plot twists and turns through a fairy-tale forest of partial truths and parallel narratives. Perhaps Katurian’s brother Michal (Michael Stuhlbarg), held by the police in the next cell, isn’t really being tortured – indeed, the investigator Tupolski (Jeff Goldblum) tells his colleague Ariel (Zeljko Ivanek) that the blood on his suit is too obviously stage-blood—but Michal’s retardation is the result of the torture by their parents, who were killed by Katurian as a fourteen-year-old to rescue his brother. Perhaps Michal, who can’t read but has heard his brother’s macabre stories, has mimicked them in “real” life.
What is the responsibility of the writer then? Why, to kill his brother and admit to the killings himself of course. A writer chooses to take responsibility for the murders he imagined, rather than have the stories destroyed for their power to influence others to kill. In the world McDonagh’s play conjures, the difference between the good cop and the bad cop ultimately isn’t who will torture you, but who will destroy your stories.
WARNING #3: This is not a comedy.
Now as for the “dark-comedy” genre tag everyone is giving Pillowman. No doubt, laughter is in great supply. But enough of this notion that it’s a comedy just because you laugh. A guy runs away from home to avoid killing his father and fucking his mother. He kills his real dad at a crossroads and marries his real mom in his adopted town. Now that’s funny. And that’s tragic.
Sophocles expects his audience to know that Oedipus has killed his father and is married to his mother. So if you are worried now that you’ve learned too much about Pillowman to get the full effect, don’t worry; it isn’t some cheap melodrama that isn’t more than the sum of its tricks.
Of the many stories-within-the-story, the one that gives the play its name is about a man made of pillows, who when people’s lives are filled with hopeless despair (and are, perhaps, the cause of others’ despair), goes back to their childhood before their troubles begin, and—telling them of the inevitable horrors to come—offers them the option of suicide. Would you off yourself in the midst of a happy childhood to avoid the misery of adulthood? Would you choose not to experience any moments to avoid the worst?
The story is a reversal of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence proposition: If a spirit came to you and told you that you have lived and will live this and every preceding moment an infinite amount of times, would you praise it as a angel or curse it as a demon? Rather than Nietzsche’s “would you be eager to live it again?”, McDonagh’s Pillowman asks “Would you rather not have ever suffered?”
We learn at play’s end that Michal was visited by the Pillowman, just before his parents started to torture him, but he chose to go on living—and to be both the victim of and perpetrator of torture—so that one day his brother’s stories would be told. Life, no matter how awful, would be worth it, as long as there were the stories. Destruction of the aesthetic phenomenon is here the greatest fear, for McDonagh seems to agree with Nietzsche, that existence—with all its meaningless suffering—can only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon.
FINAL WARNING: This is not a rustic Irish play.
The totalitarian state in which Katurian lives has at most a vaguely Eastern European context, implied only by the characters’ names; but Katurian’s brother Michal and their interrogators, Tupolski and Ariel, have names that could just as easily be those of New Yorkers. This might be a shock for those familiar with the plays with which McDonagh has made his reputation, starting with The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which premiered in Galway in 1996 before a run at London’s Royal Court and then New York productions, initially at the Atlantic in ‘97 before its Broadway run in ‘98 with the original Irish cast.
But the London-born-and-raised McDonagh’s Irish identity has always been too complicated for the label of heir to Synge or Sean O’Casey (though he did spend summers in the west of Ireland). And so while some championed his work as an Irish answer to Cool Britannia, it is tempting to see ironic post-colonial exploitation in the very Irishness of McDonagh’s previously produced plays.
With its ruthless stylized violence, from a pen-knife stabbing at the face to electrocution and suffocation, Pillowman continues the in-yer-face aesthetic experiments of the mid-90s British dramatists, testing the limit first crossed by Edward Bond’s Saved, but in a manner free from ideology, a theater of catastrophe as prescribed by Howard Barker. Suddenly much more of a “British” dramatist, with Pillowman McDonagh takes no overt ideological position, and the play’s cultural indeterminacy—a setting that is no place, therefore anywhere; at no particular time, therefore anytime—is too vague to offend. The landscape (not to mention linguistics) no longer so sharply defined in relation to the real, it is eerily similar to the post-apocalyptic space of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed or Caryl Churchill’s Far Away.
While there is much that is British about this National Theatre production, director John Crowley adapts his original London production for Broadway with a brilliant all-American cast (whose widely published accolades are all richly deserved), making clear how thoroughly McDonagh escapes the trap of ethnicity—perhaps to ultimately transcend the limits of national identity and lay claim to the title tragedian.
The National Theatre of Great Britain’s production of The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh, directed by John Crowley, is at the Booth Theater, 222 West 45th St. (between Broadway and 8th Ave.), Manhattan. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200.
For more info: www.pillowmanonbroadway.com.