Rat-Catching Greetings from Hamelin (c.1930) by postaletrice.
- Play title: The Pillowman
- Author: Martin McDonagh
- First performed: 2003
- Page count: 70
The Pillowman is a black comedy by Martin McDonagh. The central character named Katurian, an abattoir worker, is arrested for reasons initially unknown to him. The core setting for the events of the play is a police interrogation room in an unidentified totalitarian state. The police engage in unorthodox and often brutal methods to extract detainees’ confessions. Katurian, who is also a writer, quickly realizes that he is being interrogated about the recent murders of several children. The police investigators attempt to establish a link between the short stories written by Katurian and the gruesome murders. The plot itself unfolds through a series of fairy-tale style stories, many of which have quite adult themes including child abuse and violence. These stories are a mixture of original works written by Katurian with “The Pillowman” being a primary example but there are also his reworkings of traditional fairy tales, for example, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. McDonagh combines macabre tales with tension breaking black humour resulting in a play that was a great theatrical success. The work poses key questions such as the value of art, and if art imitates life or if the truth is the reverse.
Ways to access the text: reading.
An online source of The Pillowman may be found at www.joculartheatre.com/scripts/
The play is also available via the Open Library website.
There is no audiobook version of this play. As McDonagh is a contemporary writer, I would recommend purchasing one of his other works if you enjoy this play.
Why read The Pillowman?
A horrible writer.
Katurian K. Katurian is a bad person and a bad writer too. Or is he more than that? McDonagh’s presentation of the lead character is loaded with unexpected twists and is also quite ironic. Katurian has a menial job at a local abattoir but considers his true profession to be writing. Yet, of his approximately four hundred stories, exactly one has been published and this is Katurian’s eccentric twist on the tale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. He has mundanely renamed the classic as “The Tale of the Town on the River” and the ingenuity of this new tale relies on a reader’s familiarity with the original. Even though success has eluded Katurian in real life, he has written a semi-autobiographical story embellished with the fiction that he already published a book when just a teenager. Katurian believes assuredly in his art to the degree that his own life and even the lives of others are of less value than his collected stories! As Katurian lives in a totalitarian state, one may presume that his writings are serious political allegories or openly seditious works. On the contrary, when Katurian is questioned by the police about his stories he is adamant that they have no political content or social commentary whatsoever and that he will gladly edit/censor his work to remove any hint of offending material. In short, McDonagh presents a possibly delusional egotist with limited or at best undiscovered literary abilities who seems to serve as a mockery of certain writerly types. However, Katurian as a character, horrible and all as he may be, is possibly representative of a bigger debate in the world of art.
Once upon a time …
In The Pillowman, McDonagh utilizes the narrative frame of a police interrogation but the dialogue is interspersed with fairy tales. “Once upon a time” is an unmistakable opening line hook that ultimately leads the reader to the crimes at the centre of the play, namely, horrendous child murders. McDonagh’s technique of inserting little stories serves a varied selection of purposes within the play. For instance, the proud writer, Katurian, narrates many of his tales to the police officers who serve as his newfound audience. However, in the context of a criminal investigation, one’s attention is more keenly focused on the power of storytelling, the responsibilities of an author, the blurry line between fiction and fact, and the problem of interpretation. While “The Pillowman” is indeed one of the most striking tales, there are seven other tales told within the play. McDonagh is known for his confronting style of drama which has ample amounts of violence and expletives and these little fairy tales are fittingly adult themed and gruesome. Fortunately for the reader, the hyperbole of some scenes deliberately tips the play into wonderfully comic moments, an alchemy that few other writers could achieve.
An allegorical play.
The question of whether McDonagh’s play, The Pillowman, is an allegory is probably the most important question one can ask about this work. As most readers are aware, an allegorical work has two layers of meaning beginning with the surface, literal meaning and then the secondary level or less obvious message that the story represents, for example, a typical kind of character, situation, or idea. The classification of McDonagh’s work is vital as it goes to the heart of a play which asks if Katurian’s seemingly harmless short stories are responsible for a series of child murders. If one classifies The Pillowman as an allegory, then it is accordingly a didactic work. This contrasts with a purely imaginative work, something written solely to please or amuse at an artistic level. If McDonagh’s play is an allegorical work, then this indicates authorial intent because such works are purposely constructed to be readable on two distinct levels. As Gary Johnson writes in, The Vitality of Allegory, “the author’s rhetorical purpose is the governing force behind allegory.” However, for an author to state openly that a work is allegorical and that the ‘true’ meaning is x, y, or z is to somewhat miss the point. A reader’s interest in the text helps reveal the second level of meaning, which for example in a work like George Orwell’s Animal Farm is ruined for modern readers as they expect allegory. As Johnson writes about allegory, “the author’s intention becomes knowable through the details of the text and its construction.” In fact, Johnson outlines three criteria that one may use to assess if a work is allegorical, and these are “;1) the author, his or her intention, and the context of composition; 2) the text itself; and 3) readerly concerns.” In the absence of McDonagh’s stated meaning of his text, we may rely more heavily on textual evidence and the readerly concerns noted by Johnson. “Readerly concerns” include the problematic topic of allegoresis which effectively means that a reader may choose to interpret a work allegorically, based on a plausible argument, even if the author did not intend it as such. A play, if actually allegorical, works well at both levels of communication, the literal and the representative. Also, as Johnson states, “allegory, unlike metaphor, is a concept that we can apply only within the context of a narrative” indicating that one does not look for just individual comparisons but a sustained approach where an idea is transformed in the narrative. For instance, the most well-known example comes from John Bunyan who takes the idea of Christian salvation and transforms it into a story of a man’s extraordinary journey in The Pilgrim’s Progress. It must be noted that to treat McDonagh’s play as allegorical is not without its complications, yet such an interpretative approach offers one of the most satisfying resolutions to the play’s meaning. The argument for the play as an allegorical work rests on two key pillars, namely, how Katurian is represented in the work and the use of numerous fairy tales within the play.
Even though this essay will focus on Katurian and the fairy tales, it would be a flawed exercise if it lacked any indication of McDonagh’s personal view since authorial intent is so important to allegory. As previously noted, the playwright has not stated that The Pillowman means a particular thing or should be interpreted in a certain way. However, in an interview with Patrick Pacheco of the Los Angeles Times in 2005, McDonagh expressed his views on creativity, responsibility and culpability as follows.
“In terms of the larger issues he [Martin McDonagh] raises about creativity and the writer’s moral responsibilities, he says, there are no easy answers. ‘I think it does say that creativity is beautiful and worthwhile for its own sake,’ he says, ‘But in terms of responsibility? I don’t think that Martin Scorsese can be held responsible because John Hinckley saw ‘Taxi Driver’ many times and became obsessed with Jodie Foster. If something happened to a child after a person saw ‘Pillowman,’ I’d definitely feel guilty about it, but I wouldn’t be culpable.’”
McDonagh’s views seem clear, he makes plain that an artist does not have responsibility for how his/her work is interpreted. He also states that a work of art may be “beautiful and worthwhile for its own sake” which would eschew an expectation that art should instruct in some way. Yet, he is acutely aware of the predicament that artists are placed in regarding a kind of enforced responsibility for their art. This does not prove that The Pillowman is allegorical, but it shows that McDonagh was sensitive to the situation someone like Katurian finds himself in.
To be explicit, this essay is working from the assumption that McDonagh allegorizes the predicament of a writer unreasonably being held responsible for his/her work. There is compelling evidence that Katurian is not only a writer within this particular story but also allegorizes the archetypal figure of the writer, albeit an unflattering example. The evidence for this view is extensive. Firstly, the play is set in a totalitarian state, unnamed, and therefore representative of any such oppressive regime and consequently, any writer in said state is a representative of free speech in the form of artistic freedom. Even detective Tupolski defines Katurian by his profession alone, saying “we like executing writers … you execute a writer, it sends out a signal, y’know?” As Katurian is being interrogated and tortured on account of his own stories, art itself is being put on trial in the play. The main questions being asked of art are, what does it mean? (i.e., the true/hidden meaning), what does it cause? (in this case, possibly murder!) and what is its worth? (human life according to Katurian). The artist as the original source of the work is considered to have ultimate responsibility.
One complication in how Katurian is represented in the play is that McDonagh makes it decidedly ironic and as such, comedic. For instance, Katurian is clearly representative of the figure of the writer, an almost hallowed figure in the context of oppressive regimes, yet he denies his work has any message at all and pre-emptively agrees to any censorship that may be requested of him. Additionally, Katurian is glad to abide by the obviously quite restrictive “guidelines” within which artists would work in a country under dictatorship. In regard to him possibly having a “political axe to grind” he responds that he has “no axe to grind, no anything to grind. No social anything whatsoever.” Katurian goes to the extreme of saying that if parts of his work seem even remotely political that, “I’ll take it straight out. Fucking burn it.” McDonagh’s presentation of Katurian in this manner serves to amuse a reader and deflate the heroic status of writers but the irony needs further analysis. One solid interpretation is that Katurian’s ironic presentation, his utter inability to imagine his work has hidden meaning, actually shields him, and it accentuates our impression of him as the wronged party. In broad overview, if one accepts that Katurian allegorizes the archetypal writer then the salient point is that despite his total innocence, he is condemned for his work and can say nothing to absolve himself. It is a depiction of the writer being put in an absurd situation. In this light, McDonagh is sympathetic to a writer’s plight and Katurian does indeed represent a dilemma beyond or outside his own story, the second level of signification in allegory.
McDonagh places a quite noticeable emphasis on allegory in the play. For instance, Tupolski asks Katurian specifically about his story, “The Little Apple Men,” remarking that the father in the tale, “he represents something, does he?” This begins a discussion about how one may interpret a work versus what the author intended. Tupolski, who as a police detective in a totalitarian state has an unusual level of power to conclusively interpret things, tries to pin Katurian down regarding his stories’ core message. According to Tupolski, the stories have a common theme, namely, “some poor little kid gets fucked up” and they all have “murdered children in [them].” Katurian counters with the rhetorical statement, “do you think I’m trying to say, ‘Go out and murder children’?” Yet, in the context of a police investigation, the stories are indeed seen as allegorical, as hiding a clue. On a formal level, one may say that stories are either mimetic/representative or didactic/instructive and this point comes to the fore in Katurian’s interrogation. As the writer is professing his innocence, he asks Tupolski, “are you trying to say I shouldn’t write stories with child killings in because in the real world there are child killings?” As such, Katurian is simply stating that his stories are mimetic in contrast to stories that instruct their readers in some way. When Katurian and Tupolski discuss the story, “The Three Gibbet Crossroads,” the detective observes, “it is saying to me, on the surface I am saying this, but underneath the surface I am saying this other thing” which is clearly a definition of allegory. As the interrogation progresses, Tupolski manages to establish not only Katurian’s main theme which is seemingly child murder but also to ascertain that he chose the topics for his own stories because The Libertad did not request them. There is of course a differentiation to be made between Katurian’s stories being allegorical and the stories being the actual cause of murders. Yet, in the most exhilarating twist of the play, allegory is suddenly transformed into a horrific recipe for murders when Katurian’s brother, Michal, says, “all the things I did to all the kids I got from stories you wrote and read out to me.” It is not the stories’ content alone but Katurian’s parental style of reading aloud to his brother that solidifies the idea that the message they impart is pedagogical. Tupolski also sees Katurian’s stories as the cause of the crimes, a sort of manual, “a hundred and one ways to skewer a fucking five-year-old.” By literally acting out the stories, Michal creates manifold problems for Katurian but also highlights certain issue for the reader. For example, Katurian’s tales are indeed in the genre of fairy tales which are, generally speaking, moralistic tales told as instruction to children, and yes, Michal is childlike in many respects. Thus, McDonagh creates the writer’s nightmare scenario where not only do the police link his artistic tales to murder but a child-like figure interprets them as murder manuals and acts them out!
We see many judgments imposed on Katurian’s art such as interpretation and causation. However, Katurian alone largely decides on the estimation of his art’s value. If McDonagh is allegorizing the predicament of the writer then a major question is if the artist’s sacrifices, especially the ones listed in this play, are worth it for the particular piece of art in question. The value of Katurian’s mostly unpublished stories becomes a major topic for contemplation in the play. At the start, we are told of Katurian’s evolution as a writer being largely dependent on his parent’s “artistic experiment.” He heard the “muffled screams of a small, gagged child” etc. which resulted in his nightmares and consequently, “his stories got darker and darker and darker.” As a sidebar, one could argue that if Katurian’s new, darker tales are the result of nightmares then McDonagh is giving a nod to the well-known allegorical trope of the dream vision (nightmare in this case) which results in an allegorical story. In regard to Katurian’s artistic skills, it is notable that it was specifically his parent’s “love and encouragement” that helped improve his writing and not the distress caused by the experiment which simply changed the subject matter. Ultimately, it is only Katurian who believes that his stories have true, artistic value. After all, they are unpublished bar one and even though his brother is a fan, it is important to remember that this brother is not only mentally retarded but also a killer. Katurian’s own amorality comes to the fore when he states that he would prefer to see his brother and then himself sacrificed “and I’d have it be the stories they saved.” As Katurian declares, “it isn’t about being of not being dead. It’s about what you leave behind.” McDonagh is exposing the dark underbelly of the ruthless artist and this is made more explicit when, in a second major twist in the play, Katurian agrees to confess to all the murders, to secure the survival of his story collection. It is paradoxically the inclusion of the stories with the file of a serial murderer which will guarantee their fame. As such, stories that have no discernible current value except to the egotistical writer, Katurian, are invested with an artificial value because they become, in criminal terms, the guidebook for a killer. McDonagh is obviously mocking many writer’s misplaced belief in their own work’s value but he is also describing how a story may forcibly become an allegory, after the fact. Katurian deliberately but falsely merges the identities of the killer with the writer thus transforming his tales into a prelude to murder. As the dark tales existed before the murders then they cannot be representative of real-life events but in contrast, they cause the actions they depict, copy-cat style. Earlier, when Michal confessed then Katurian’s stories were metamorphosed before the writer’s eyes, totally outside of his control, but now he manipulates the bad situation to falsify authorial intent – as if it were always hidden inside the stories like a horrible worm within the fairy-tale apple.
The decision by McDonagh to present the play as a collage of strange fairy tales makes the work highly distinctive, instructive, and complex. In general terms, fairy tales are told by parents to their children for entertainment, to impart a lesson or moral (allegorical nature), and to send them to sleep. As such, an authority figure imparts a life lesson to a child, to the next generation. The original author of such tales obviously holds ultimate authority to craft the specific message. One may assuredly name the stories in McDonagh’s play as fairy tales because they invariably begin with the classic line, “once upon a time.” Additionally, not only are some of the tales already known to readers and therefore are established as having allegorical meanings but some of the new tales are interpreted by characters as also being allegorical. Therefore, Katurian tells a selection of fairy tales, some plagiarized and some original, but all with clear messages. An analysis of the individual stories represents a change of focus in this essay from the allegorical representation of the writer, which is the overarching idea behind the play, to looking at the clues contained in the stories themselves. The list of tales told in the play are as follows:
Act One, Scene 1.
“The Little Apple Men.”
“The Tale of the Three Gibbet Crossroads.”
“The Tale of the Town on the River” (aka The Pied Piper of Hamelin).
Act One, Scene 2.
“The Writer and the Writer’s Brother” (semi-autobiographical tale of Katurian’s childhood).
Postscript to above story where Katurian tells, “more self-incriminating details of the truer story.”
Act Two, Scene 1.
“The Little Green Pig” (Michal’s failed attempt to tell this tale).
“The Little Green Pig” (Katurian’s full version).
Act Two, Scene 2.
“The Little Jesus.”
“The Story of the Little Deaf Boy on the Big Long Railroad Tracks. In China” (Tupolski’s story).
“Footnote to a story” (Katurian’s 7 and ¾ seconds story of the “Pillowman” and Michal).
This selection of stories may be used to address, though from a slightly different angle, the now familiar questions about the interpretation, causality, and value of art. To begin, one may focus on two of Katurian’s ‘borrowed’ and highly allegorical tales which are “The Little Jesus” and “The Tale of the Town on the River.” In a quite similar fashion to the desired effect of a biblical parable, “The Little Jesus” depicts a child who takes Christ as a literal example of how to live one’s life, which is indeed the core of Christian teachings. This tale is instrumental in the play as it illustrates how children may too literally and therefore erroneously interpret a story. The second story is based on The Pied Piper of Hamelin and the moral of the original tale is simply that any bargain made in good faith should be honoured. If the Pied Piper was paid his dues, then the people of Hamelin would have had nothing to fear. However, Katurian distorts the moral lessons of both the life of Jesus and the Pied Piper’s predicament to create new, quite adult tales for entertainment. The story of Jesus’s blood-sacrifice for all humanity becomes a literal guide for the stages of torture to punish a misguided child, while the Pied Piper is transformed from an aggrieved rat-catcher into a deliberate child snatcher. Of course, if one seeks allegorical meanings in the new stories then it is certainly not that Katurian intends them as torture manuals. To understand the new tales, one may look instead to the “artistic experiment” that Katurian’s own parents conducted on him resulting in “darker and darker” tales. It is a writer who has been psychologically programmed in this manner who distorts moral allegories into twisted, gratuitous tales of horror. In another example, Katurian’s tale of “The Little Apple Men,” the story initially appears to be one of poetic justice where a cruel father inadvertently dies due to his own greed, but the twist at the end makes it into a blood fest. When one looks at the issue of causality then Katurian’s parent’s experiment of exposing him to a nightly soundscape of horror serves to transform good into bad in moralistic terms. For instance, one of Katurian’s first stories, “The Little Green Pig,” where a little piglet “liked being a little bit different, a little bit peculiar” becomes in many ways the template for the darker tales where children are made distinctly ‘peculiar,’ one copies the example of Jesus a little too ardently and the other has his toes cut off, and both tales share the theme of suffering. Therefore, we cease to look for the stories’ representational merits and begin to consider why they are shaped or reshaped by Katurian in his specific style with the theme of child murder, as Tupolski points out. The cause behind reshaping perfectly moral, child-appropriate tales into malign tales of horror is apparently Katurian’s own childhood where suffering was normalized. Jesus’s example becomes devoid of any meaning while the already disabled child of the original Pied Piper tale suffers a new cruel injury to make him so. As such, the second layer of meaning below the literal meaning of Katurian’s stories is the quite hopeless message that suffering is inevitable. In these examples it is not that he creates allegories but more that he destroys or dismantles some of them and forces us to look not at art’s causality, but the causality of Katurian’s art.
One of Katurian’s tales deals implicitly with the role of the writer. “The Tale of the Three Gibbet Crossroads,” which Katurian describes as “a puzzle without a solution” is arguably an allegory of the writer’s predicament in society. Like Katurian, the man in the gibbet has been imprisoned for an unspecified crime. The crime is evidently not murder or rape like the other prisoners because the man’s gibbet placard elicits a quite different reaction from passing people. Whatever the crime, it is equally abhorred by both good and bad citizens, nuns and highwayman alike. An important clue to the allegorical meaning is that Katurian says “because there is nothing worse, is there? Than the two things it [the story] says.” We are told that the gibbet prisoner, “knows he was guilty of the crime they put him in there for, but he cannot remember what the crime was.” The prisoner cries out at the end of the story to be told his crime but receives no answer. By deduction, it is clear that not remembering/not being told the crime is one of the two bad things. If the second bad thing is being murdered, for example, then the obvious objection is that he will die a slow death anyway in the gibbet. Therefore, the second awful thing that Katurian refers to is the prisoner’s previously acknowledged guilt. As such, the tale allegorizes the writer’s predicament. The man in the gibbet shows us the surface level of meaning, visible and clear, but the placard is the hidden meaning, what Tupolski calls “a pointer” which is essentially how all others, everyone except the writer (gibbet prisoner), interpret his life’s work. Any writer is inescapably guilty of producing the work that bears his name but has no control over how others interpret it. For example, if Katurian was indeed the man in the gibbet then “child murderer” would be written on his placard. Katurian himself comments on his story, saying “that’s a good story. That’s something-esque” which is comically vague as it means the story is ‘in the style’ of something. One possibly fitting term would be Kafkaesque as it would describe the illogical and nightmarish predicament of both the man in the gibbet and the writer he represents. McDonagh continuously portrays Katurian as naïve or possibly obtuse to the import of his own stories, a case of structural irony in the play, forcing the reader to interpret the situation more fully. In regard to the allegorical meaning of stories, Tupolski’s own tale, “The Story of the Little Deaf Boy on the Big Long Railroad Tracks. In China” is one where the detective shoehorns an allegorical meaning into the text to the bemusement of Katurian. The contrast between the two tales is that the Gibbet prisoner tale works well on both levels of signification whereas Tupolski’s tale requires that he laboriously explain the correlation between himself and the old man in the tower proving the tale an allegorical failure.
In conclusion of the analysis of the fairy tales, two of them reveal the value of Katurian’s story collection, to him. As previously noted, Katurian believes steadfastly in his stories’ significance as artistic works. Much like a Russian doll effect, we find references to stories within stories like hidden treasures. Indeed, one observes that almost all aspects of the play exhibit elements of doubling, outer and inner layers, mirroring effects, and these add to the interpretative possibilities of the work. Katurian’s story, “The Writer and the Writer’s Brother” is an interesting example because it contains a reference to a story by Michal, “a story that was better than any of my [Katurian’s] stories.” When Michal finds and reads this ‘outer shell’ story, “The Writer and the Writer’s Brother,” then he is unhappy about having been depicted as dead but Katurian protests that it has a “happy ending” because Michal had left behind an artistic legacy in the form of a story. However, earlier in the play, it was revealed that Katurian “burnt the story [Michal’s], and covered his brother back up.” Even in this tale, Katurian is a ruthlessly ambitious writer who imagines burning the work of a better writer and covering over the dead body even when it is his own brother. The placement of stories within stories, mixing fact and fiction, serves to blur the lines of reality. The existence of Michal’s story, described by Katurian as “the sweetest, gentlest thing” raises the possibility that “The Little Green Pig” is not actually Katurian’s work but a story stolen from his previously gifted brother despite the assertion that it was burned. We witness a scene where Michal attempts to recite this story but gets confused due to his brain damage. Even if Katurian’s own work is actually derivative, the fact remains that he will take any step necessary to preserve his story collection. Firstly, Katurian agrees to confess to all the murders in exchange for the police’s promise to save his stories. However, the police discover the flaws in his confession proving that he did not kill any children. Then, police officer Ariel advises Katurian that they can only prove he killed his own brother and that, “in light of the extenuating circumstances, I doubt it highly that you would be executed for it.” Rather than accept this obvious escape route, Katurian perversely insists that he killed his parents, thus tilting the scales against his chance of living, only so that his stories will be saved. Then, in the last 7 and ¾ seconds of Katurian’s life, he concocts a story where the previously mentioned “Pillowman” visits Michal as a child, offering him a way out of his future miserable life. Michal, now a puppet-like figure in Katurian’s “footnote to a story,” decides emphatically to suffer the coming cruelties just so his brother will ultimately create his stories. Katurian not only sacrifices his own life for his story collection but he embeds within his own tales the idea that his brother also willingly sacrificed himself, saying, “’cos I think I’m going to really like my brother’s stories.” It is no longer art for art’s sake, but life for art’s sake.
As has been explored in this essay, McDonagh clearly deals in allegory. The naïve narrator, Katurian, is in many respects a monstrous creation. Yet, his obtuseness, his utter inability to see hidden meanings in his own work acts as the perfect foil because others indulgently invest his work with any meaning that suits their purpose, and in the case of the police, the hidden meaning becomes child murder. The playwright also creates an exceptionally clever twist in the story by first exhibiting how the writer loses control over how his work is interpreted, denying any of the suggested meanings asserted by police, to later forcibly reshaping his work into allegory by merging author and murderer. Although a shocking work in some respects, it is a commendable play.
One of the most striking stories within the play is that of “The Pillowman.” The role of this character is to convince little children who are fated to have “horrific” lives to commit suicide. However, the Pillowman first meets these unfortunates as adults. He is intuitively summoned to their sides when they are on the point of committing suicide. This detail serves as proof that such individuals will assuredly reach this crisis point in their lives. It is then through fairy-tale magic that the Pillowman reverses time to just before their life problems begin, and at this crucial and fleeting moment, he must convince the child that death is the better option. The Pillowman story is consoling to detective Tupolski who remarks, “there was something gentle about it.” Tupolski describes his own family’s loss in the briefest manner, “son drowned. (Pause.) Fishing on his own. (Pause.) Silly.” The detective highlights the three comforting aspects of the fairy tale, namely that the child didn’t die alone, that it was “the child’s choice, somehow” and consequently this stopped the death being “just a stupid waste.” Yet the Pillowman is an exceptionally ambiguous figure who serves mainly to signify that some lives are indeed totally irredeemable, not actually worth living.
McDonagh creates an eerie doppelganger effect in the tale. The Pillowman is a fairy-tale figure yet in frank terms, he is a child murderer, in a story depicting the capture of a child murderer. The implicit comparisons between true-life child killer and storybook figure are aplenty. For example, just as Michal somehow wins the confidence of little Andrea Jovacovic and Aaron Goldberg whom he then murders, the Pillowman also has “to look soft and safe, because of his job.” The indistinguishability of fictional and real killer is also enhanced by Katurian’s particularly unsettling introduction to the Pillowman tale, “once upon a time … there was a man who did not look like normal men. He was about nine feet tall.” Naturally, adult men may look scarily tall to little kids and then there is the problem of a costume worn deliberately to trick kiddies. As Michal has brain damage, he may also act somewhat strangely in the eyes of an unknowing child. Michal even says that the Pillowman reminds him of himself because, “you know, getting little children to die.” In fact, Michal and the man made of “pink pillows” have a shared pessimistic belief that “all children are going to lead horrible lives.” Furthermore, a pillow is the preferred murder weapon in the play as evidenced by the smothering dead of Katurian’s parents, Ariel’s father, and eventually Michal himself. In this way, the kindly Pillowman’s costume takes on quite morbid connotations. The doubling effect constructed by the playwright tends to rob the soft, kindly Pillowman of our trust and enhance instead the idea of a horrible, malignant figure moving from the page into real life.
Despite the elaborate costume of the Pillowman, he is clearly a traditional allegory of death. The distinction is that he is the Grim Reaper for children, a specialized and peculiarly dark occupation. One cannot submit to the illusion that this character is saving children from horrific lives because his sole task is to extinguish life. As a comparison, one may refer to Edgar Allan Poe’s depiction of the figure of death in his story, “The Masque of the Red Death.”
“The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat.”
This classic figure of death as described by Poe is one with which we are more familiar. One may also look to Hans Holbein’s famous woodcuts of The Dance of Death, especially “The Child” which depicts a skeletal figure who pulls a small child by the hand from his parent’s peasant hut. In the case of the Pillowman, it is for the reader to look behind the deceptive mask and reveal the ghastly figure. What belies the Pillowman’s compassionate representation are the chilling descriptions of common causes of child deaths, like road accidents, suffocation, and accidental poisonings which become in the context of the story, quite deliberate means of disguising child suicides. These methods which are decidedly violent, slow, and distressing betray the true teleological aim of any figure who allegorizes death and that is to snuff out life dispassionately. McDonagh’s macabre, artistic creation has a clear warning for children– don’t talk to strange men even if they’re wearing a cute costume!
Allegories of death are quite traditional and certainly out of vogue so surely McDonagh is aiming for more in such an innovative play? In a work that incorporates dark fairy tales, the playwright confronts the reader with a fairy tale of extraordinary potency. In the context of recounting fairy tales, where the child’s pillow would ideally cushion their sleeping head in peaceful dreams after listening to a story, it is the Pillowman who comes with horrific tales of twisted and cruel fates. All effective fairy tales teach an important lesson to children about the future, about the slings and arrows of the adult world to come. However, this dark figure must impart a horrific tale so mesmerizing to a child that it not only sends them to sleep but makes them choose eternal sleep. What the Pillowman proves is that he can spin a story of such rhetorical force that it has almost universal appeal, much like the Brothers Grimm, yet always seems crafted specifically for the one little child that hears it. The twist in the fairy tale is that the child who listens to the Pillowman almost invariably dies. In conclusion, it is the ‘ultimate’ story in the realm of dark fairy tales.
Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Bantam, 1988.
Johnson, Gary. The Vitality of Allegory. The Ohio State University Press, 2012.
McDonagh, Martin. The Pillowman. Faber and Faber, 2003.
Pacheco, Patrick. “Laughing Matters.” Los Angeles Times, 22 May 2005.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Masque of the Red Death. Project Gutenberg, 2010.