The Point of 'The Pillowman'?

It seems to be a question that fascinates reviewers of this play by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. You can treat yourself to any number of suggestions from reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic, the only constant among them being the differences of opinion.

Appreciation ranges anywhere from interpreting it as gratuitous horror (‘I left at interval’) to acclaiming it as a work of profound genius.

Probably like so much of what attracts widely divergent views, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Craig Ilott takes up a daunting challenge to bring this fascinating piece of black comedy to the main stage of Belvoir opening at the end of this month.

Ilott is adamant that McDonagh is telling a rollicking good story and that it has no moral application whatsoever. It’s there for the story. So what of the apparent allusions stated or implied that are so evident in the play? These, according to Ilott are the hallmark of a great mystery writer which he asserts McDonagh undoubtedly is, first and foremost. They are all red herrings to distract the audience from the outcome and lead them a merry chase.

The multiple stories told within the play are reminiscent of Grimm’s fairy tales. They aren’t so much the stories from the Brother’s Grimm but they bear their style. That collection of folk tales was originally of morality tales. While pitched at children their resonance was with the adults who told them.

Many, such as Hansel and Gretel, are every bit as gruesome as McDonagh’s but many are simply curious. However, as Ilott notes in relation to McDonagh, they all have a twist in the tail. ‘Dummling and the Three Feathers’ could well have been the prototype for Shakespeare’s ‘Lear’ not that it was but the parallels are certainly in evidence.

So what then of the ‘The Pillowman’?

Ilott agrees that whether McDonagh had a hidden agenda or not it is in the nature of us all, as the audience, to try to find one. We search out the meaning in everything; it’s what gives life purpose. In all theatre we try to discover what it is the playwright is telling us, what is the moral. Just as primitive man made sense of his world in the paintings he composed, so we now fathom those images conveyed by the words of the storyteller.

Ilott concedes that if there is a message concealed in the imagery of ‘The Pillowman’ it might be the role of the writer himself, the one who is fated to hold the mirror to society and in the words of Robbie Burns, ‘To [show] ourselves as others see us’. It implies that it might be a curiously Narcissistic play and perhaps that is the true answer to the conundrum. It would certainly explain the many references to other dramatists both in the plot’s construction and language. The hero himself describes his constructs as ‘something-esque’ that has been taken to be a reference to Kafka but might well refer to any of the dramatists to whom he has intentionally alluded.

Perhaps the five stories told within the play itself are in fact expressions of the five contentions that can be laid at the artist’s door. The first, ‘The Applemen’ is fairly obviously about sacrifice for the greater good. The last, ‘The Little Jesus’, seems resurrectionist albeit with human intervention.

In the intervening four, of which ‘The Pillowman’ is one, perhaps the key to the ‘purpose’ behind this drama can be found. They are undoubtedly parables but of what? The opening concept of the greater good resonates an Aristotelian approach to drama. Each of the subsequent stories may paraphrase one of the arguments justifying drama revived at various times. By some accounts it became quite heated following Shakespeare’s ‘Titus Andronicus’. It revived in the eighteenth century in regard to ‘morality’ plays or as the German poetics were wont to term them, ‘didactic dramas’. Even Victor Hugo bought into the debate in ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ when he had the poet philosopher, Gringoire, express his position.

What Ilott sees as simply a good story might well be exactly that. The supposed red herrings however are not so much disguises laid across the path as the path itself. The story has become the vehicle for an analysis by example of what drama should be and hence, by extension what McDonagh holds it to be, ‘none of the above’.

Drama, in the unusual form of argument adopted by McDonagh, seems to be proposed as being redemptive. As expressed in the final tale it concerns the differentiation of life through experiencing the situation and perspective displayed in drama. It thereby expands the viewer’s appreciation of his or her own existence. Through witnessing the journey they become more receptive even if not actually better people for the pain or joy of it.

It promises to be a night to remember if Craig Ilott and his cast and crew succeed in their combined efforts. He assures us that audiences won’t be allowed to get dragged out in the horror which after all we were wont to relish as children because it’s going to be so much fun in the telling.

There is one very obvious departure that McDonagh makes from his counterparts in the Brothers Grimm that will no doubt become apparent on viewing the play.


The Pillowman opens June 4 at the Belvoir St Theatre. For further information»

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