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The Pillowman: Artistry in a totalitarian regime

March 8, 2022
The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh, 2003

The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh, 2003


Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” is an enquiry into the freedom of an artist in an oppressive totalitarian regime. Katurian, a writer, is interrogated by two brute and somewhat foppish policemen in custody about his role in the recent chain of children murders who were killed in ways elucidated by Katurian in his works. But what eventually unravels is Katurian’s own dark past, his dysfunctional family, and the character of his retarded brother whom he loves so much. Martin’s comment on the state of freedom of artistic expression is central piece as he sketches the life of a distressed writer whose sole outlet of chaos and insanity is through his pen, and who is prosecuted by the state for his artistic creativity. There are multiple thorny questions such as: Where should we draw the line for artistic expression and capital crime? How even to describe artistic expression? Is it okay for songwriters to openly use profanity or filmmakers to increasingly include explicit scenes of violence, brutality, and sexuality? What is reasonable and what isn’t?

Constructs and techniques

Pillowman is a short play consisting of only three acts with a total of 5 scenes. The majority of the play unfolds in a single interrogation room with a couple short scenes as flashbacks. The conversation between Katurian, the writer and presently the defendant, and the two policemen, Topleski and Ariel, leads the story as Martin introduces plots, subplots, imageries, and symbols (some of them pretty dark) through it. Undoubtedly, Katurian’s “stories” are a fantastic tool to analyse the writer himself and offer a window into his mind. Katurian’s fictional stories are the unifying element that links together and resolves other actions and events, particularly of his brother, Michal Katurian.

The papers didn’t say

The Kafkaesque authoritative state in which the unfortunate Katurian finds himself in, is disturbingly reminiscent of Orwell’s Big Brother. There is an undertone of an overpowering presence beyond the control of anybody willing to speak their hearts or minds out, Katurian being the representative of this class. He is brutally manhandled by the two policemen even when it’s obvious they are overstepping their respective roles and capacities. The effective quenching of mass media as is evident in the lines, “The papers didn’t say” and “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers”. The indication that the newspaper is the only channel for state information/news for the citizens is unwelcomed and concerning.

Katurian’s stories

Katurian’s stories are dark and poignant. Be it the story of the three gibbet crossroads wherein the third criminal couldn’t find out his supposedly heinous crime or the evil story of the applemen with their razor embedded craved applemen. Or the tale beside the river where Katurian offers a dark origin to the crippled boy in Pied Piper. Then, there is the absolutely villainous story of the little Jesus, the story of a little girl crucified by her foster parents or the controversial pillowman. Although all these stories are fantastic in their own rights, I personally liked the one with no child-killings; “The little green pig” wherein a group of farmers paint a green coloured pig pink for conformity with the other pigs. Later on, due to a special green rain all pigs turned green except for the pink pig because his paint was “unpaintoverable” (yes, I’m quoting), thus the uniqueness of the little green pig was sustained.

Bits and pieces

Pillowman is a great piece of work, worthy of study at multiple levels, from multiple perspectives. I, with my fairly limited literary rigor, can barely do justice to a work of fiction like The Pillowman. In this post, I have only attempted to cover this play’s impression on me. I was suggested this play by Upasak sir as part of prep for writing a script for interhostel short-film making competition.

Basil | @itbwtsh

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