The Beauty Queen of Leenane

  • Play title:The Beauty Queen of Leenane  
  • Author: Martin McDonagh  
  • Published: 1996  
  • Page count: 66  

Summary. 

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, released in 1996, was Martin McDonagh’s first play. The setting for the work is a cottage nestled in the mountains of Connemara in County Galway, Ireland. In this remote spot live Maggie (Mag) Folan and her middle-aged, single daughter Maureen. Their relationship is acrimonious. Maureen is her mother’s carer and the two women eke out an existence. There is an upheaval in both women’s lives when Pato Dooley returns from England and begins romancing Maureen. Mag resents the development as she fears being left alone by her daughter or worse, being sent to a retirement home. In contrast, Maureen fantasizes about her prospects of starting a new life with Pato in England or the United States. Soon, reality and fantasy blur in McDonagh’s black comedy and we witness a shocking act of violence. The play deals with themes such as emigration, Irish nationalism, madness, dependency, hatred, and escape.

Ways to access the text: reading

The play is quite easy to source online. One free source is the Open Library. If you are already a member of Scribd then you will also be able to read the play via their website. The work is reader-friendly and relatively short.

To my knowledge, there is no audiobook version or full recorded performance of this play available online.

Why read The Beauty Queen of Leenane?

Cruelty, Irish style.

Mag and Maureen are equally difficult women, but only one of them is capable of truly monstrous acts. Both characters are poised to be cruel but for wholly different reasons. Mag is effectively trapped in the house and her most basic needs like a decent, edible meal or an occasional day trip are entirely dependent on her daughter’s temperamental nature. In counterbalance, Maureen resents the situation she finds herself in as carer and says that she is just a “skivvy” (7) for her aged mother. The exceptional cruelty and violence that occurs in McDonagh’s play gives expression to years of bitterness and feelings of entrapment. There is a well-known precedent for such depictions of cruelty in Irish theatre, namely J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. However, Synge’s character of Christy Mahon who claims to have murdered his authoritarian father is really a teller of tall tales whereas McDonagh’s scorned woman takes real and terrible action. The echoes of Playboy (abbrev.) which are numerous in Beauty Queen (abbrev.) help to frame the abundance of familial violence as something distinctly Irish, as if only families on this wind-swept and rainy island in the North Atlantic can explode with such flinty hatred.

Fairy tales.

An audience familiar with McDonagh’s later plays will know that fairy tales often influence his writings. This is most apparent in The Pillowman, however Beauty Queen also bears the mark of fairy tale influence, specifically in its multiple allusions to the tale of Cinderella. The similarities can be seen quite readily: Maureen has two sisters whom she hates and a cruel mother who treats her like a parlour maid and who repeatedly attempts to stop Maureen going to meet the man of her dreams at the party. Maureen is certainly an unconventional Cinderella and as the play progresses, she appears to be starring in a macabre tale rather than a Disney classic. Through the incorporation of a classic fairy tale into his play, McDonagh manages to combine and balance a fascinating mix of realism and fantasy and the result is quite modern. Like many fairy tales, McDonagh gives us a story that is captivating and timeless.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

The Fairy Tale Escape of a Middle-Aged Cinderella.

Introduction.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane was McDonagh’s first big success and actually his first foray into the theatre world and it assuredly sets his tone and style of writing. If one is not already familiar with any of McDonagh’s work, then deciding on how to react to Beauty Queen is probably the biggest challenge. The play opens on what appears a realistic scene depicting a mother and daughter relationship set in rural Ireland, but events quickly take us into surreal territory. The play is humorous but also unsettlingly violent at times, and one must come to grips with the provocative action on display before fully appreciating the story. The violence is not wholly gratuitous since it propels the storyline forward and aids our interpretation of events. Many theatre critics and academics have provided authoritative, well-argued interpretations of Beauty Queen often with an emphasis on the grotesque and I will refer to some key points from their interpretations when providing a new reading of the play. In this essay, Beauty Queen will be viewed primarily from the standpoint that it is a loose adaptation of the classic tale of Cinderella. Therefore, I will look at the themes of Cinderella, namely servitude, dreams, romance, marriage, and escape. It is escape that will hold the most prominent position since Cinderella is a young woman who escapes her evil stepmother and heartless stepsisters to a new life, just as Maureen in Beauty Queen hopes to escape her dreary existence of caring for an antagonistic, elderly mother, having already been abandoned by her unsupportive sisters who fled the family home years previously.

The nature of the violence in fairy tales is distinctive. The violence depicted in Beauty Queen is quite reminiscent of the shocking events depicted in the Grimm’s original version of Cinderella. For example, the notably macabre twist where two women’s eyes are plucked out by birds. In The Juniper Tree, one more of the Grimm’s unsettling tales, we meet yet another evil stepmother who decapitates a little boy – “his head flew off and fell among the red apples” (257). Grotesque is the word that best describes such acts of violence, and this label is an essential interpretative inroad to McDonagh’s work. Furthermore, the origin of the anger behind the violence is usually the clue to understanding fairy tales and this also proves to be the case in Beauty Queen. Maureen’s rage is what propels her to escape, but the rage comes from deep psychological trauma.

The grotesque is a shared characteristic of Beauty Queen and fairy tales. Several writers and critics have recognized the presence of the grotesque in McDonagh’s various plays and its significance, but they have not yet established a link with fairy tales which will be explored here. In an essay entitled “Disconcert and Destabilise the Prisoner,” Ondřej Pilný looks in detail at what exactly qualifies McDonagh’s work as an exemplar of the grotesque, and he outlines his perspective as follows:

“I have suggested elsewhere that the aesthetic of Martin McDonagh’s work may be summed up by the term grotesque entertainment, and it will perhaps be useful to repeat its chief characteristics here. These include the staging of graphic, often gratuitous violence, offensive language, ubiquitous black humour and the provision of crude – but hardly resistible – laughs. What is typical is the lack of depth of character psychology, and in accordance with the traditional notion of the grotesque, the mixing of disparate generic and thematic elements.”

(Pilný 162)

In Beauty Queen, one finds all the elements of the grotesque listed by Pilný. For example, Maureen delivers the gratuitous violence when she uses a poker to break a piece off her dying/dead mother’s skull. Such an act mimics the often-fantastical violence of fairy tales. Mag is similar to a fairy-tale villain because we never gain even the slightest glimpse into her psychology. She presents an impenetrable, malign surface just like the evil stepmother of Cinderella. There is an abundance of black humour in the play, for instance, Mag’s promise to Ray not to open Maureen’s letter when she says, “may God strike me dead if I do open it” (47) and later her broken promise leads to her death. One also finds an extensive range of thematic elements in Maureen’s circuitous story. A crucial element of the argument of this essay is that McDonagh embeds a fairy tale (intentionally or otherwise) within the structure of a traditional Irish play and this implant facilitates the delivery of the characteristically grotesque elements referred to by Pilný. Gayanne Ramsden writes of how “The English nineteenth century art critique, John Ruskin, in his Stones of Venice, said that the grotesque had two elements: the ludicrous and the terrifying” (1). This sums up one’s experience of Beauty Queen since it is indeed a mix of humour and violence. The broader significance of the grotesque in Beauty Queen as outlined by critics and academics will be assessed further in the body of the discussion.

The last point to address in this introduction is that some readers will be sceptical of the idea that it was McDonagh’s intention to retell Cinderella in play format or even to make a sustained allusion to Cinderella. While McDonagh’s intentions would be enlightening, they do not preclude one from interpreting the play based on what it strongly resembles. Therefore, authorial intention will not be addressed in this essay. The story of Maureen Folan bears an undeniable and uncanny resemblance to the classic fairy tale of Cinderella. In fact, the fairy tale and play form a palimpsest effect. The points of correspondence as well as the differences between the works are pregnant with significances. The Cinderella story is generally understood to be a fixed text; however, the original story is quite old and has been adapted by several famous writers through the centuries such as Charles Perrault in 1697 and then again by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812. McDonagh’s play is not a strict retelling of one specific version of Cinderella but an addition to a long history of rewrites. The proven malleability of the fairy tale allows scope to create a collage of existing story points with some modern additions. There are three elements in Beauty Queen that perfectly match Cinderella’s story and they are that a young woman is placed in degrading servitude to a mother/mother figure, that she is obstructed from attending the party/ball, and finally, that she embraces the prospect of marriage (as an escape route).

Cinderella – a tale of escape.

The core theme of the Cinderella story is escape and not romance as many erroneously believe. This is a more sombre reading of the classic but a defensible one. It is true that the beautiful, young woman is enchanted by the prince at the ball but equally true is that she spends just a few hours in his company before accepting his marriage proposal. The romance blossoms prematurely and this may be explained by the backdrop of Cinderella’s home life where her father disregards her and allows her to be treated abominably by his new wife and stepdaughters. It is also of relevance that Cinderella is still mourning the death of her mother. In short, an emotionally vulnerable and ill-treated young woman manages to elude her tyrannical stepmother to go to the ball and upon meeting the charming prince her gold-plated destiny is secured in the most serendipitous manner – cue the fairy tale ending! In Perrault’s and the Grimms’ versions of the tale, there is an often-overlooked acknowledgement that Cinderella must still forgive or avenge her prior mistreatment. In modern parlance, closure is needed, and Perrault depicts a reconciliation between Cinderella and her family, but the Grimm’s depict an alternative, dark, gruesome fate for the stepsisters. In comparison, Maureen in Beauty Queen has long sought to escape her dire domestic situation and suddenly a prospective marriage conveniently serves as an exit route. In contrast to Cinderella’s tale, Mag thwarts Maureen’s romance by denying her the chance to attend the ‘ball’ on the second night. It is Maureen’s need to expel her anger over her mistreatment that leads to extreme violence, and this is her form of closure. Marriage is ostensibly the primary goal of both Cinderella and Maureen, but marriage also doubles as a protective shield against the travails of life and crucially offers an escape from an old life. The pain of the old life exerts a force on both women’s decisions. Neither woman knows her prospective husband sufficiently to marry him and if one removes the rose-tinted glasses of fairy-tale-land then the desire to marry is unmasked to be a coldly practical choice.

In keeping with the fairy-tale story, Maureen has two sisters just like Cinderella. These sisters contribute significantly to the horrible conditions of Cinderella’s life. The Grimms detail how Cinderella’s stepmother “had brought two daughters into the house with her, who were beautiful and fair of face, but vile and black of heart” (140). They subsequently treat Cinderella as little more than a “kitchen-wench” (140). Maureen similarly resents her idle siblings who offer no assistance in caring for their mother. Maureen taunts Mag, saying, “Do you see Annette or Margo coming pouring your Complan or buying our oul cod in butter sauce for the week?” (6). Mag nonetheless appreciates and possibly values her lost daughters above Maureen since she keeps them in mind – “The dedication Annette and Margo sent we still haven’t heard. I wonder what’s keeping it?” (7). A simple radio request overshadows Maureen’s daily graft and sacrifice. When one looks to the Brothers Grimm and Perrault, one reads of quite different fates for the cruel sisters. Perrault writes that Cinderella forgives their unkindness and, in the end, they become friends. In a quite different and grotesque ending, the Grimm’s recount how pigeons pecked out the eyes of both sisters on Cinderella wedding day, “And thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived” (148). In Beauty Queen, it is the day of a funeral rather than a wedding that offers the chance for Maureen to reconcile with or avenge herself on her sisters. The fact that Maureen does not engage with her sisters on the day of their mother’s funeral is testament to the deep-seated wound. A hypothesis for Maureen’s grudge is that neither sister came to her aid in the immediate aftermath of her mental breakdown in England thus leaving her to the mercy of her mother. Being abandoned by her sisters results in her loss of freedom as well as feeling emotionally hurt. Escape is the antidote to the poisonous predicament Maureen finds herself in. Maureen first seeks escape in marriage but later finds it via murder.

Servitude – The beginning of a contract.

A significant aspect of Cinderella’s story is how she came under the guardianship of an evil stepmother. The Grimms and Perrault hold to the familiar tale of how a young woman’s natural mother dies, and her father subsequently remarries. Perrault describes this second wife as “the proudest and most haughty woman that was ever seen” (79). McDonagh captures the same aura of narcissism in his description of Mag when she sits alone in her kitchen “staring at her reflection in [a] hand mirror. She pats her hair a couple of times” (12). Mag is just as selfish and self-absorbed as the fairy-tale stepmother and just as willing to take advantage of someone in her care. Cinderella is mistreated while still grieving her dead mother and Maureen who has just returned from England after a mental breakdown is mistreated by Mag. Less apparent to readers are the legal contracts that make possible the subjugation of these young women. The remarriage of Cinderella’s father means that she is under the legal guardianship of her stepmother who subsequently treats the young woman as a chattel. In Maureen’s case, it is mental illness that necessitates a guardianship contract for an adult, explained by Mag to Pato as follows – “I did have to sign her [Maureen] out of [Difford Hall] and promise to keep her in me care” (35). The initial depiction of Mag as a harmless, old woman is quite deceptive. In fact, Mag callously takes advantage of Maureen’s weakness i.e., her breakdown, to ensure that she remains in a subordinate situation, slaving away in the house. The psychological blows endured by Cinderella and Maureen are clear and therefore the actions of their evil guardians appear even more malignant when exposed. Maureen’s bondage is prolonged, and this serves to illuminate why she eventually resorts to such abhorrent measures to gain freedom.

Maureen’s incarceration in Difford Hall is her first loss of freedom. The young woman’s breakdown signaled her inability to cope with her new life including the discrimination she encountered at her cleaning job. Mag’s power to have her adult daughter discharged into her care is Maureen’s second, catastrophic loss of freedom. Just like in the fairy tale where Cinderella is demeaned by the tasks she must carry out and by the dirty clothes she is forced to wear, Maureen is also degraded by her new and involuntary role as carer/cleaner. She already worked as a cleaner in Leeds, cleaning toilets, and then later in her mother’s house she is left to wash the kitchen sink that smells of her mother’s urine. The war of attrition that Mag wages against her daughter is an echo of the discrimination that Maureen experienced in England. The venom that is stored in Mag’s personality is given voice when Maureen suddenly and unexpectedly gets a chance to restart her life in middle age. Mag quite cruelly links Maureen’s state of undress the morning after her romantic tryst with Pato to the attire available to patients in Difford Hall mental institution, saying, “None of your own clothes they let you wear in there either, did they? …Only long oul gowns and buckle-down jackets” (34). This reminds one of what Cinderella’s family did, “They took her pretty clothes away from her, put an old grey bedgown on her, and gave her wooden shoes” (140). The “little black dress” (54) that Maureen buys to go to the party is much like the gown Cinderella is gifted in the story and has the same transformational properties – from skivvy to potential bride. Mag’s humiliation of her daughter is not simply a show of power, but it also serves to actively sabotage Maureen’s chances of romance with Pato. Difford Hall is the invisible chain that binds Maureen to her mother’s house in the form of a written agreement even though it is some twenty years old. Mag re-enslaved her daughter on a premise that sadly is still valid for Maureen as it involves her shameful past.

Servitude – Her mother’s skivvy.

The resentment grown of long servitude is an important aspect of the Cinderella story that McDonagh brings to a violent crescendo in his retelling. Maureen is in perpetual servitude to her mother’s needs, is unable to have a normal social life, and is demeaned by her mother’s critical comments. These story points reflect the tale of Cinderella but slight nuances in the retelling are also informative. For example, Mag fulfils the role of the evil stepmother despite the fact that she is Maureen’s biological mother. The true biological tie casts Mag in a darker light since her lack of maternal love is more blatant. Mag mistreats her daughter and as a result, Maureen feels that she is little more than a “skivvy” (7) who is at Mag’s “beck and call” (19). This matches the fairy tale where Perrault writes that Cinderella was made do “the meanest work of the house” (79), while the Brothers Grimm recount how Cinderella’s stepmother and half-sisters, “led her into the kitchen. [And] There she had to do hard work from morning till night” (140). One may view Mag’s habit of emptying her potty of urine in the kitchen sink as humorous, yet Maureen invariably cleans up afterwards. The other principal factors in Maureen’s story are how she is continually thwarted from having a normal social life and is subject to critical comments. Mag fails to communicate Ray’s invite to the party and when Maureen finds out then she accuses Mag of “Arsing me around, eh? Interfering with my life again? … Is it one evening out you begrudge me? (19). In the Brothers Grimm version, the stepmother first sets Cinderella several virtually impossible tasks to complete before the possibility of permission to attend the ball is considered, but finally denies the girl the opportunity anyway, saying “Thou art dusty and dirty and wouldst go to the festival?” (142). It is noteworthy that the refusal is accompanied by hurtful and undermining comments about Cinderella. Perrault similarly writes of how the stepmother and sisters made fun of Cinderella, “it would make the people laugh to see a Cinder-breech at a ball” (83). In Beauty Queen, Mag likewise berates her daughter, first branding her a “whore” (20) for desiring to go out and meet a man. Then later, Mag paradoxically belittles Maureen due to her obvious lack of sexual experience, saying – “You still do have the look of a virgin about you you always have had. You always will” (51). McDonagh repeats an element that we view in the various versions of the fairy tale, namely how Mag as the evil guardian capitalizes on Maureen’s inexperience so that the maximum pain may be inflicted. A sexually naïve, middle-aged woman caught in the trap of domestic servitude must feel such barbed comments quite deeply. Whereas Cinderella may sublimate her anger once she is safely married to the prince, Maureen cannot avail of this nobler outlet since her mother appears to have successfully sabotaged her chances of finding a husband. Maureen’s anger bubbles and foreshadows the violence that is to come.

The grotesque in Beauty Queen.

Mag resembles Cinderella’s stepmother in malignancy but only via references to the grotesque may one fully appreciate the exaggerated characterization of this crone. In the Guardian newspaper, Sean O’Hagan wrote that McDonagh’s “two key signatures: [are] an exaggerated-to-the-point-of-grotesque cast of characters who skate dangerously close to caricature, and a humour that emerges from an almost casual, but never less than vicious, cruelty.” McDonagh explained his tactic of pushing conventional boundaries to O’Hagan, saying, “I think you can see things more clearly through exaggeration than through reality.” What audiences eventually see is summed up in O’Hagan’s quote that McDonagh’s “work has been primarily concerned with taking a scalpel to the remarkably enduring myth of an Arcadian Ireland that he, like Synge before him, has laid bare to reveal a dark, insular place of suppurating spite, internecine family feuding and simmering violence.” What one garners from these assorted quotes is how a monstrous character like Mag, who indeed verges on a caricature of a fairy-tale witch, simultaneously manages to communicate a realistic message to an audience. Through his use of the grotesque, McDonagh is signalling that this is not the frequently romanticized Ireland of the céad míle fáilte (one hundred thousand welcomes) but a much darker, grim place where selfish mothers sometimes deliberately destroy the lives of their children. The strange cruelties that we witness in the play are familiar because they are borrowed from over-the-top storyline twists in fairy tales. What is more, the ending of the play where Mag’s head is split open is a form of homage to Synge’s Playboy who ‘splits’ his father’s skull, but the punishment is arguably deserved in Mag’s case. McDonagh dismantles the old cliché of the sainted, Irish mother-figure by placing her firmly in her grave.

Beauty Queen is an amalgam of diverse elements which finally produces an immoral message. In The Grotesque in Contemporary Anglophone Drama, Ondřej Pilný writes that “Generally speaking, the grotesque is defined by the blending of radically incongruous elements, together with the simultaneous repulsion and fascination it triggers” (3). The incongruous elements included in Beauty Queen are a traditional Irish play format reminiscent of Synge’s work, shocking violence, and a story lifted straight from the classic tale of Cinderella. Pilný comments that, “The unhinging of the familiar world that is communicated by the grotesque has a tendency to inspire insecurity and terror in the audience” (6). In Beauty Queen the grotesque is not merely a label for the style of writing, namely the mixing of elements that Pilný lists, but it is equally about the grotesque characters previously referenced by O’Hagan who live within the four walls of the Folan family home. On account of these multiple facets of the grotesque, we certainly become ill at ease when watching the unfolding action. The action of the play flits unpredictably between realism and cruel fantasy. For example, homely conversations about Complan or the weather merge uneasily into threats signalled by things as simple as turning on an electric kettle or a lingering look from a daughter to a mother in a silent house. We empathize with Maureen because escape from Mag is her only hope, but her extreme methods quickly repel and disgust us. Pilný writes of how “the grotesque may be seen to solicit engagement with vital present-day issues” (21). McDonagh achieves this when he opens a modernly framed conversation on why a daughter would act so abominably towards her own mother. In truth, Maureen’s hopes are not extravagant, she merely wants independence, marriage, and a future. Is this why the playwright abstains from passing moral judgement on Maureen and allows her to eventually walk free? It is the grotesque elements of McDonagh’s play that facilitate the delivery of an underlying immoral message to the audience.

McDonagh’s play is a black comedy but one which incorporates several genres, and each is inscribed with a clue to a final interpretation. On the topic of genre, Pilný warns that we should not regard “any incongruous mixing of genres in a play as grotesque” (3). Beauty Queen has already been shown to qualify for the label of grotesque, but it is of note that Pilný does not list fairy-tale as a genre that Beauty Queen incorporates, hence the current analysis. However, he does make important observations about, for example, McDonagh’s use of the traditional Irish play format. Many critics have noted McDonagh’s indebtedness to J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World because Beauty Queen seems to take many self-conscious cues and borrowings from the older work. Both plays deal with a disgruntled, adult child who commits parricide to escape an authoritarian parent and the common setting for the plays is rural Ireland. Still on the topic of genre, Pilný asserts that Beauty Queen “offers a sitcom reiteration of Tom Murphy’s Bailegangaire and the innumerable narratives of the Irish exile” (157). This point on narratives of Irish exile deserves emphasis since exile and escape are merely two interpretations of the same physical act, namely leaving. Since McDonagh must have been conscious of his use of a traditional format then its covert message would also have been apparent to him. This brings one to the crux of what McDonagh achieves with his modern, Irish play in contrast to the tradition he consciously works within. Pilný notes that “the overall approach in Irish drama criticism tends to be determined by the notion of Irish drama essentially holding a “mirror up to nature/nation” (163). It is true that much of Beauty Queen is realistic, but this realism is constantly undercut by scenes that are close to fantasy. Pilný explains this twist by writing, “there is another sense in which McDonagh clearly operates as a satirist, his plays in fact ironise the very notion of Irish dramatic realism” (166). One example of such satire in Beauty Queen is that the Irish have traditionally viewed imperialist England as the fairy-tale big-bad-wolf who robbed a nation of its true potential thus leading to generations of exiles whereas McDonagh’s play shows us that unadulterated escape is the true underlying wish of many young Irish people. Maureen repeats an anti-English platitude to her mother, saying, “If it wasn’t for the English stealing our language, and our land, and our God-knows-what …” (9), but she still desperately seeks to flee her homeland for England or the United States despite her nationalistic protestations. If escape is there in the DNA of Beauty Queen, namely its make-up of various genres and their hidden messages then escape is surely the most important message of the play.

Escape via emigration.

In Beauty Queen, emigration is posited as the ultimate escape. In the case of Ireland, notable decades of mass emigration included the 1950’s and 1980’s. However, as signaled in McDonagh’s play, emigrants did not always succeed in their new lives. Those like Maureen who failed were destined to return home in shame, whereas others like Pato continued to live and work in England but without any success or accomplishment. In the tale of Cinderella, the young woman does not travel to a distant land but finds a lifestyle of such luxury by marrying the prince that she no longer has any material worries. In effect, she is transported to the land of milk and honey. In Beauty Queen, the fantasy land is always located outside the island or Ireland. For instance, Ray Dooley hopes to get a job in London or Manchester and his brother Pato will soon be relocating to Boston where their successful uncle has already lived for many years. Home is not a place in which to become a success but rather a place to remain only if one is an abject failure. It is the transformative quality invested in emigration by consecutive generations of Irish people which holds the fairy-tale element. Not only that, but the further away the destination then apparently the greater the prospect of success. This belies the reality of re-location as sadly shown by Maureen’s return home. The play explores the magic invested in the idea of leaving Ireland, but the covert message is that there is nothing to stay for in the first place.

Romance – The Prince.

In the play, Pato Dooley represents the prince of the Cinderella tale. Just as Maureen is an odd Cinderella figure, Pato is equally miscast as the prince who invites her to the ball. In Perrault’s text, “the King’s son gave a ball, and invited all persons of fashion to it” (81) whereas the Grimms write that “the King appointed a festival which was to last three days, and to which all the beautiful young girls in the country were invited, in order that his son might choose himself a bride” (142). One immediately senses the deflating and mocking adaptation of this story in Beauty Queen since Ray is the gormless messenger instructed by Pato to invite Maureen and her mother to his “uncle’s going-away do” (14). Nevertheless, Pato indeed renews his connection with Maureen but the aura of success that surrounds him soon dissipates. In Scene Five, the letter from Pato to Maureen reveals much, chiefly that Pato’s story is not that of a successful Irishman in England. Instead, he lives in a bedsit with a shared telephone in the hallway and at his work he endures poor wages, unsafe working conditions, and racial abuse. He has no friends and usually drinks alone, and we learn that his sexual encounters with women have sometimes been marred by impotence. Though the play is set in the 1990’s, Pato’s story bears a strong resemblance to the fate of many Irish, economic migrants to Britain in the 1950’s. These migrants, especially men, often led lonely, unsuccessful lives in England and were often too ashamed to return home. Such stories have been recorded in a documentary entitled The Forgotten Irish, directed by Maurice Sweeney. There is also a salient link to McDonagh’s own background because as O’Toole writes in The New Yorker, “McDonagh’s father, a construction worker, and his mother, a cleaner and part-time housekeeper, met and married in the nineteen-sixties, in London, where they had moved from Ireland in search of better wages.” Therefore, the playwright is depicting his knowledge of real-life migrant stories including all the failure and heartbreak. It is as a consequence of Pato’s failed dreams in England that he decides to take up his uncle’s offer and accept a job in Boston. Apart from Pato’s good looks, he is not a princely marriage prospect but simply a lifeline for a desperate woman. Both he and his middle-aged ‘Cinderella’ are seeking their fairy-tale endings via escape routes of various kinds from emigration to marriage.

The illusion of true romance is viciously undercut in Beauty Queen. The classic tale of Cinderella is romantic chiefly because the prince will accept no bride other than the ravishing girl he danced with at the ball and whose glass slipper he retained as a future test to identify her. Maureen holds no such exclusive spot in Pato’s heart since she faces competition from Dolores Hooley/Healey who is younger and prettier. After Maureen’s first night at the ‘ball,’ she comments on Pato’s “stray oul hands” (25) that “were straying over that Yank girl earlier on in the evening” (25). Pato even recycles his seductive move on Dolores when later fondling Maureen breasts. This scenario is far removed from the idyllic picture presented by the Grimm’s who wrote that “The prince went to meet her [Cinderella], took her by the hand and danced with her. He would dance with no other maiden, and never left loose of her hand, and if any one else came to invite her, he said, ‘This is my partner’” (144). Pato finally betrays his connection with Maureen when he gets engaged to Dolores and moves to Boston. The prince turns out to be a cad!

Romance – dreams.

Beauty Queen is concerned with fairy-tale escapes and such escapes materialize in Maureen’s waking and sleeping dreams. Ever before Pato returns from England, Maureen fanaticizes about her mother’s murder as a literal release from servitude. This occurs when Mag recalls a story from the news where “The fella up and murdered the poor oul woman in Dublin” (10) and Maureen relishes being able to antagonize her mother by saying, “If he clobbered you with a big axe or something and took your oul head off and spat in your neck, I wouldn’t mind at all” (11). The humour of the scene mixes uncomfortably with the underlying hatred that makes such comments freely expressible. Later, when Mag angers Maureen by trying to stop her meeting Pato, we learn of Maureen’s secret dreams too.

“I have a dream sometimes there of you, dressed all nice and white, in your coffin there, and me all in black looking in on you, and a fella beside me there, comforting me, the smell of aftershave off him, his arm round me waist. And the fella asks me then if I’ll be going for a drink with him at his place after.”

(McDonagh 20)

Maureen’s rescuer in both her waking and sleeping dreams is “the fella.” This mythical stranger is a combination of killer and lover. He is a figure who is sexually attractive and violent. Maureen eventually superimposes a version of this dark stranger onto Pato. It is Pato who is Maureen’s long-awaited chance to lose her virginity, to rid herself of her mother, and to start a new life. Pato also eases any secret guilt Maureen may be harbouring when he advises that a care home is indeed good enough for Mag based on his own mother’s experience. Unfortunately, Pato fades in comparison with the potent sexuality of ‘the fella’ since Pato suffers from impotence and is furthermore a tragic figure since he also needs rescuing proven by his reliance on his uncle’s job offer. Only via emigration for a second time and to a different continent does Pato hope for eventual success in life. When Maureen’s dreams of a rescuer finally crumble then she must find a method to free herself.

Fantasy tinged with reality.

If an audience treated Beauty Queen as pure fantasy like a fairy tale, then the play would have minor impact. The story must consistently tilt towards believability for it to be so unsettling. Pure fantasy is easily dismissed in a way that reflections of real life cannot be. In an article entitled “Murderous Laughter” in the Irish Times newspaper, Fintan O’Toole assesses this complex aspect of the play. Commenting on McDonagh’s plays, O’Toole writes that “The family, from The Beauty Queen of Leenane onwards, is a site for psychological and even biological warfare.” He goes on to write that “This is a world where the difference between the real and the unreal is increasingly hard to grasp.” This unsettling imbalance is achieved in Beauty Queen by the realism of the traditional, Irish-play format melded conspicuously to the exaggeration typical of fairy tale. In O’Toole’s article, his key point is that within the playwright’s style is the key to unlocking the truth of the depicted situation.

“At one level, then, the [Leenane] trilogy maps a very real and immediate Ireland. However grotesque the exaggerations, they inflate a recognisable truth so that it can be seen more clearly. But at another level, the world that is imagined in this way is also a version of one of the great mythic landscapes – the world before morality.” 

Once again, elements of the grotesque in McDonagh’s play are essential to discovering the truth of the work. O’Toole makes the salient observation that within the Leenane trilogy is an Ireland free of morality, an amoral place. One may ponder if the story of an amoral place can still deliver a moral message for readers just as classic fairy tales usually impart a moral lesson despite, or thanks to, their sometimes-grotesque events. It is more plausible that McDonagh looks to highlight a stark reality rather than provide a take-away, moralistic lesson for his audience. One may readily appreciate the injustice of Maureen’s life at home with her mother yet withhold approval for her terrible actions. However, the playwright allows Maureen her eventual freedom without the repercussions for the vicious murder she committed. He creates the anti-Cinderella text where a mentally ill, middle-aged, virgin loses her mind and her man, kills her evil mother, and walks scot-free!

There is an obvious duality to Maureen’s character, the dark and the light sides. As the devoted daughter, she fulfils the role of Cinderella. Perrault writes of “a young daughter … of unparalleled goodness and sweetness of temper” (79) and in the Grimms’ version, Cinderella’s dying mother instructs her to be “good and pious, and then the good God will always protect thee” (140). Maureen is neither sweet nor pious, yet she is undeniably her mother’s only carer and has carried out this role unwaveringly for twenty years. It is only when we discover Maureen’s past in a mental institution, her unsavoury daydreams, and finally, her violent streak, that we understand the opposite, darker side of Maureen. The grind of Maureen’s life is much like Cinderella’s, but she summons up the fantasy through shocking violence rather than romance.

Conclusion.

In this essay, it has been my endeavour to highlight how Beauty Queen is a reworking of the Cinderella story. The secondary material quoted, mainly reviews and essays on the play, has established the importance of McDonagh’s uses of the grotesque. It has been a small but crucial step to link the play to the genre of fairy-tale and credit the latter as a Trojan Horse that carries a secret cargo of the grotesque. The intricacies of why Beauty Queen manages to entice us in, while alternately repelling us is commendable to the grotesque.

McDonagh achieves much with his unusual story of Maureen and her mother. He dismantles the myth of the Irish family held together by sacrifice and blood bonds and he has additionally put the figure of ‘Mother Machree’ (the selfless Irish mother) in a mortuary. The play mocks the conventions of romantic love and reveals instead the coarse and often funny un-happily-ever-after stories of life. Maureen becomes an anti-hero due to her obscene attack on her mother and yet there is obvious meaning to her madness, namely that she carries a deep hurt in her heart that must be excised. The playwright delivers a humorous and violent depiction of Ireland that is modern and clever as well as being a refreshing re-working of a classic tale.

Cited Works.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. “Cinderella.” Grimm’s Fairy Tales, translated by Margaret Hunt, Seltzer Books, 2017, pp. 140-148.

McDonagh, Martin. The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Methuen Drama, 1996.

O’Hagan, Sean. “The Wild West.” The Guardian, 24 March 2001.

O’Toole, Fintan. “A Mind In Connemara.” The New Yorker, 26 February 2006.

O’Toole, Fintan. “Murderous Laughter.” The Irish Times, 24 June 1997.

Perrault, Charles. “Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper.” The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. Translated by J. E. Mansion and Robert Samber, Dodge Publishing Co. 1922, pp. 79-93. 

Pilný, Ondřej. “Disconcert and Destabilise the Prisoner: Martin McDonagh.” Irony and Identity in Modern Irish Drama. Litteraria Pragensia, 2006, pp. 154-170.

Pilný, Ondřej. The Grotesque in Contemporary Anglophone Drama. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

The Pillowman

Rat-Catching Greetings from Hamelin (c.1930) by postaletrice.

  • Play title: The Pillowman   
  • Author: Martin McDonagh  
  • First performed: 2003 
  • Page count: 70 

Summary. 

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.  

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.   

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 Pillowman.” 

“The Little Green Pig” (Katurian’s full version). 

Act Two, Scene 2. 

“The Little Jesus.” 

Act Three.  

“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.  

The “Pillowman.” 

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.  

Works Cited.  

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.