Pillowman Probes Dark Side
Writer Natalie Goldberg tells a story of her friend, also a writer, who, when once held up in an alley, actually shouted “Don’t shoot me! I’m a writer!”
What kind of argument is that?
Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, directed by senior Jon Levin, jumps into its gripping and deeply disturbing plot with a figurative hold-up in the alley, except instead of a mugging, it is a death threat at the hands of a totalitarian dictatorship. It proceeds to ask why, indeed, a writer feels entitled to such self-righteousness.
Along the way, it touches on the psychological power of torture, how storytelling can keep you from getting executed (or not), and whether it’s really worth it to let happy little kids grow up into miserable adults. This is not your average absolute-virtue-of-free-speech drama.
The show opens on Katurian Katurian Katurian, played by senior Adam Kander, a semi-successful writer of short stories, as he is brutally interrogated. The interrogators, police officers Ariel and Tupolski (played with no holds barred by seniors Scott Melamed and Jesse Garrison, respectively), take on good-cop/bad-cop roles that serve to introduce the audience to Pillowman’s laugh-out-loud, quotable dark humor. Like all seemingly archetypal roles and situations in the play, even Ariel and Tupolski are not only what they appear to be.
Their victim, Katurian, would have continued to labor in obscurity like any other self-respecting, mediocre writer, had he not been dragged blindfolded to headquarters. And like any other writer faced with an accusation, he claims innocence, and ignorance.
“All I do is write stories,” he protests. A writer’s “first — and only — duty.” To be safe, he also claims neutrality: “I’ve got no axe to grind…I’m not trying to say anything at all.”
It is unclear as to whether Katurian’s stories have only been moderately successful because of the political nature of the society in which he lives, or because of the stories’ actual content — as Tupolski points out during the interrogation, almost every one of his stories incorporates the gruesome death of a small child.
In one, a small boy’s toes are cut off in the road and he bleeds to death; in another, a girl ingests apples in the shape of men with razor blades stuck into them; in the most terrible of all, a girl who decides she is an incarnation of Jesus is whipped, crucified and buried alive by her abusive foster parents.
Most of these gruesome tales could be safely relegated to the juvenile horror section of the bookstore, were it not for what the police present to Katurian as “evidence” — a box of toes, apparently discovered in his home. The police claim a connection to a series of child murders that were carried out by methods uncannily similar to those in Katurian’s stories. They then reveal that they have his brain-damaged brother, Michael, in custody in the next room.
One of the show’s immediate strengths is that at this point, barely 20 minutes into the nearly three-hour running time, several clichéd possibilities of what the drama could be have been are eradicated.
It is not: a) an episode of CSI, b) a made-for-TV-movie about book-burning during World War II, or any number of c)’s. Then what is it? Without chewing the scenery, Levin’s nearly airtight cast pushes suspense and philosophy simultaneously, leaving the audience delightfully unsatisfied and laughing uncomfortably.
Beginning with the toes, the show is brimming with false endings, but not of the cliffhanger-and-resume variety. Rather, they serve to constantly redefine the story and its purpose.
Until the toes, for example, the audience has no reason to believe that Katurian is anything more than a victimized artist living under a corrupt government. When the toes are discovered, Katurian is necessarily transformed into a murderer.
When Michael admits not only to the murders, but to following the text of the stories exactly, Katurian is transformed back into artist — but he can no longer claim to be “saying nothing.” These transformations function on multiple levels; we lose absolute faith in Katurian just as he is forced to doubt himself.
The purpose and nature of storytelling is a problem that Katurian must face regarding his own stories. Kander painfully and excellently portrays the writer’s conflict: When his work has been interpreted in exactly the “wrong” way, by exactly the “wrong” person, it is a grave problem.
Misinterpretation may also jerk a writer out of neutrality and merge the forces of his work and his political and personal life. There are many wrenching trajectories to watch in The Pillowman, but one of the most moving is Katurian’s as he allows his stories to stop being merely an outlet for his and his brother’s ravaged childhoods, and admits them as almost a character, something that takes action.
Sophomore Sam Sax goes on to portray Michael’s frustrated, sincere but troubled character without relying on stereotype. He especially hits hard the tragic split between Katurian’s realization and Michael’s failure to recognize the stories’ weight, although Michael is the person most directly impacted by their potential to galvanize — “They’re just paper,” he says to Katurian.
By the time Katurian recognizes this about his work, the audience has already been introduced to the actual story of The Pillowman, Michael’s favorite.
The Pillowman, Katurian retells to Michael in their cell, is a man made entirely of pillows, who travels the world and gently coaxes young children to commit suicide, in ways cleverly disguised as tragic accidents. As the play progresses and Katurian is forced to grant his stories more and more political weight, we also see him admit his closeness to this character.
The difference is that when the Pillowman allows children to die, it is with the certainty that they will avoid the misery of adult life — clairvoyance which Katurian has no chance of enjoying. His own rescue and care of his brother, after all, has “led” to the alleged murder of three children.
A fun question to ask after the curtain call is “what was the most disturbing part?” You could reply that it was Katurian’s smothering of his parents, who tortured their first son, Michael, in a secret room next to Katurian’s bedroom for seven years; you could note “The Little Jesus,” Katurian’s story of the girl who is eventually crucified and buried alive, and whose actions Michael claims to have copied exactly in murdering a little mute girl; and there are dozens of other moments.
But as in all art of extremes, The Pillowman demands that its director and cast accept those extremes as a norm, and find revelation elsewhere. Levin’s directing job accomplishes this neatly, and does what it can to convince the audience of such a terrifying norm.
Because this is theatre, the norm is of course established externally: through the bareness of the scenery, the life-size storybook scenes and minimal references to the idea that any kind of societal oppression might be the source of Katurian’s and Michael’s troubles. But it also works from the inside, and perhaps the most glowing (or glaring) proof that the audience has accepted the horror as normal is in the many moments when genuine laughter rises and falls just before someone is about to be shot or tortured. The coziness of Little Theatre afforded the audience the opportunity to glance uneasily at their neighbors in the lag time.
The Pillowman ultimately offers no answers as to the absolute value of a writer’s work, not even for Katurian himself. What Levin and the cast do accomplish, in keeping with “the spirit of the thing,” to quote the play, is a deft handling of extremes — they achieve a balance between shock and suspension of disbelief such that the world of the story is naturalized, but the audience that finds itself there still has the awareness to look around nervously.
May such discomfort go with us.