The Pillowman Essay

On By In 1

Katurian disclaims any subversive intentions. He tells his interrogators: "A great man once said, 'The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story,' and I believe in that wholeheartedly. Or was it, 'The only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story."' He could be speaking for the playwright. Mr. McDonagh's view of theater is all about the medium, not the message. Here's Katurian again: "I say, keep your left-wing this, keep your right-wing that and tell me a story!" (I've elided one of Mr. McDonagh's trademark expletives.) "No ax to grind, no anything to grind. No social anything whatsoever."

This is a popular idea at a time when many serious artists seem to have ceded the landscape of ideological entertainment to the likes of Mel Gibson and Michael Moore. It is taken for granted that a movie's opening weekend box office, its stylistic allusions to other movies or the potential romantic alliance of its stars are more relevant topics for discussion than any artistic aspirations it might have. The same mindset infects Broadway, now a tag-along, unhip member of the culture clan, on a smaller scale.

But is this a healthy ideal? Entertainment can, after all, aspire to do more than merely serve up narratives diverting enough to keep us hooked for a couple of hours. (Or in the case of the egregiously overwritten "Pillowman," three.)

Mr. Shanley's "Doubt" presents a potent counterargument. It, too, has a gripping narrative, about accusations of sexual abuse leveled against a priest in a Bronx Roman Catholic school in 1964. But here storytelling is in service to a wider, more mature vision: "Doubt" is as deeply, if subtly, imbued with ideas of larger resonance as any play to be seen on Broadway in the last decade.

Mr. Shanley has an abiding belief that theater, despite its marginal status in popular culture (or, paradoxically, because of it), can illuminate ethical and spiritual questions that are of both immediate and eternal relevance.

This may strike a discordant note in today's self-conscious, irony-saturated cultural landscape, in which sincerity is automatically suspect. The idea that theater should say something, and not necessarily with a smirk, may seem quaintly old-fashioned. It harks back to the ethos of this country's great theatrical moralist, Arthur Miller, whose dramas grappled, sometimes bluntly, with moral questions of immediate currency.

But it derives from an essential truth about the artistic endeavor. Great writers are driven to write to give enduring form to their perceptions about human life and thought, not just because they have a particular knack for prose or dialogue, style or structure. (Although you wouldn't necessarily know this from reading lavishly praised, extravagantly self-conscious novels that get so much ink -- and use so much -- today.)

Good art does not, of course, deliver messages like moral telegrams. The scandal over charges of sexual abuse that has recently plagued the Catholic Church may appear to be Mr. Shanley's inspiration for "Doubt," but the play, which is partly based on his experience at a similar school, is no hand-wringing tract about the abuse of power and religious hypocrisy.

Just before it opened off Broadway last fall, Mr. Shanley decided to append a parenthetical phrase to the play's pleasingly trenchant title: it is officially called "Doubt, a Parable." Mr. Shanley wanted to prod audiences to look beyond the play's surfaces, to experience it not merely as a he-said-she-said drama with narrow topical currency, but also as a broader commentary on the state of the cultural and political discourse in America, and indeed on the dangerous human tendency to take refuge in certainty when the truth may be more complicated and elusive.

After the play won the Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Shanley told The Times, "People who have great certainty can be a force of good, but can also be incredibly destructive." And in an essay he wrote for The Los Angeles Times, which now serves as the introduction to the play's published text, he describes the poisonous cultural environment he was reacting against. "We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment and of verdict," he wrote.

Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), the nun who relentlessly pursues her suspicions about a priest's sexual misconduct, is the embodiment of the certainty that Mr. Shanley finds disquieting. With unshakable faith in her cause, she ignores all suggestions that the incident in question might involve a more nuanced or different truth. When another nun, who has come to question her role in the process, points to a paucity of actual evidence against the priest, Sister Aloysius replies fiercely, "But I have my certainty."

That certainty will have potentially devastating consequences: Sister Aloysius comes close to destroying a handful of lives, including, just possibly, her own. The play is a quiet indictment of the reverence for righteousness that has become an unhealthy hallmark of American culture in recent years.

And yet Mr. Shanley isn't just writing an op-ed piece in theatrical form. The play gets at a deeper, more universal truth. To be in doubt is not comfortable, as anyone can attest who has ever awaited lab results, fretted over a test score or stood vigil over a silent telephone, awaiting a call. It's a psychological itch, and you want to scratch your way to certainty. But it is often the first step on a path to greater spiritual or moral wisdom, a deeper compassion, a breaking free from constricting dogma.

The crisis that Sister Aloysius faces in the play's shattering final moment is one that everyone faces at one time or another: the discomfiting discovery that the world is not ordered as you thought it was.

It's hard to imagine Mr. McDonagh pronouncing on the meanings of "The Pillowman" in broad terms to match Mr. Shanley's, although the play's vague setting in an unnamed totalitarian state suggests that Mr. McDonagh, too, is more interested in allegory and parable than in literal truth.

But truths, of any kind, are not actually being explored in Mr. McDonagh's play. Look behind the diverting facade of his vivid, sardonic writing, and no real insights emerge. In his depiction of a man whose terror-haunted childhood turned him into a prolific fantasist with a need to transmute his pain into fictions, Mr. McDonagh seems to be exploring the connection between suffering and creativity. But the relationship is so luridly overstated that it's impossible to take seriously: "Torture a kid, create a writer!"

As it unfolds, the plot seems to refute Katurian's initial storytelling-for-storytelling's-sake manifesto. His tales have an all too powerful effect on actual events. But that is only because Katurian's brother is mentally deficient, meaning that no larger truths about the power of art to shape the course of events can be seriously extrapolated. And Mr. McDonagh seems to have set his play in that totalitarian state not to make a point about the subversive influence of art on tyrannical power structures, but simply so his cops can behave with the kind of casually outrageous brutality that would be absurd in a more civilized setting (and that he expects we'll find entertaining). It's Pinter without the point.

In the end, Mr. McDonagh treats the serious themes that hover at the edges of the play like unwelcome guests, banishing them to the murky shadows, while the party is given over to celebrating the lurid tales of sadistic parents and lonely children that are strewn like black roses across his elaborate plot. His story is too outlandish and synthetic to carry the weight of any larger meanings, and so the play has a hollow, inhuman quality. Mr. McDonagh's nihilistic vision is just put on to spook us, like a plastic Halloween mask.

Toward the end of the play, Katurian offers another opinion of the writer's craft that sounds suspiciously like Mr. McDonagh talking: "I think people who only write about what they know only write about what they know because they're too stupid to make anything up," he says. (I elided that forceful gerund again.)

It's a funny line, but the thought behind it is immature, and I think it points to a deficiency in Mr. McDonagh's work. There are more significant reasons that writers -- probably most of the great ones, in fact -- turn to observed or felt experience, or intimately studied history, for their source material. It's generally the best way to get at truth.

"Doubt, a Parable" is at the Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street, Manhattan, (212)239-6200. "The Pillowman" is at the Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street, Manhattan, (212)239-6200.

Continue reading the main story

Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman is a dark drama that takes place in a nameless totalitarian state. The play opens in a police interrogation room as two officers, Tupolski and Ariel, question a man named Katurian about some violent child murders. Katurian is a writer of twisted stories involving children, and several of the murders mimic ideas presented in his stories. The detectives also interrogate Katurian about his brother, Michal, who is described as “slow to catch on.” Throughout the interrogation, Katurian recites some of the stories that the police believe are connected to the murders. In one particular story, Katurian tells an inverted version of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” In the original tale, a boy is kind to the Pied Piper, who then cuts off the child's foot. The hobbled boy cannot keep up with the crowd and is the only child not led out of town. In Katurian’s version, the Pied Piper’s goal was to prey on the children. Katurian also tells of his childhood when he discovered that his parents had been torturing Michal for years. When he discovered this, Katurian smothered both of his parents with a pillow.

After being tortured by his interrogators, Katurian is left alone with Michal. Katurian, who has maintained both his and Michal’s innocence, is shocked to learn that Michal actually committed the murders. When he realizes this, Katurian tells Michal a bedtime story and smothers him. Katurian takes the blame for the murders and asks in exchange that his stories be saved. Tupolski, the calmer but more cynical of the two officers, is happy to accept the confession and execute Katurian. The hot-tempered Ariel, who was abused as a child, struggles with the fairness of it. In the end, Tupolski puts a bag over Katurian’s head and then shoots him. Posthumously, Katurian tells of his last thought, which is a variation on the story of The Pillowman. The Pillowman is a mythical creature who can travel backward in time and tell children of all the misery they will encounter later in life. He gives them the option of killing themselves to spare them the misery. When he visits Michal, he declines and agrees to be tortured by his parents so that Katurian will become a great writer. In the end, Ariel secretly saves Katurian’s manuscripts instead of burning them.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *