Saturday, after the reverie of my champagne soaked Friday night, I slept off a small hangover and caught the N train to Broadway with J to catch the stage production of Martin McDonagh’s new play The Pillowman. I knew a little bit about the play before we settled in to the comfortable seats at The Booth Theater, but how can you not? With tickets costing nearly $100 apiece, it is much more difficult to take chances with theater tickets than it is with film tickets. The disappointment of wasting $10 is one thing, but dropping $100 to sit in a tourist-filled room, listening to another revival full of my grandparent’s music? Ok, well, I do like that sometimes (blush), but the economics of Broadway do not allow for a lot of variety or risk-taking. Over the past decade, most of the serious new plays don’t last very long on Broadway, but is that any surprise? Where is the seriousness anywhere else? Instead, the theater has become, like most disposable consumer products, the home of the comfortable re-hash, be it a musical adaptation of [insert pop song compilation/old film here] or the revived Broadway dinosaur starring a moderately famous film actor working out their stage chops. The compelling new plays are pushed to the far more vital (if less frequented) off-Broadway theater scene, if they are produced at all.
I like a musical now and again, Shakespeare is always interesting (more on that in a future post), but if Broadway is going to survive, it is commonly understood that it needs to nurture new, exciting plays– to create a climate where the theater can re-establish itself as a timely, living art form. So, when a new play arrives on Broadway that seems to push the envelope and challenge the status quo of the lame Broadway model, I like to put my money where my beliefs are, get my ass in a seat, and take it all in. So, when the lights went down on Saturday afternoon, I was ready for anything. I got greatness.
(**Spoilers and review after the jump**)
The Pillowman opens on a blindfolded man named Katurian (Billy Crudup) sitting in a spare room. He is to be interrogated by two policemen (Jeff Goldblum and Zeljko Iveanek) about his short stories and their relationship to a series of child murders in the “totalitarian state” in which they all live. Interestingly, only one of Katurian’s stories has ever been published. The rest, over 400 stories, have remained in a box, unpublished and unknown to the public. Only Michal (Michael Stuhlbarg), Katurian’s brother (who, because of his “learning difficulties” is like a giant child) has heard the stories. The stories in question all have one thing in common, a “theme” as the police describe it– they all describe the terrible suffering, maiming, or murder of children. The stories feel prescient; after the revelations of the recent child murders in Florida* and around the country, the artist’s desire to (often humorously) describe the suffering of children in the language of fairytale adds to the conflict. It seems hard to sympathize with a character who would create such things, but when confronted with the seeming censorship and misunderstanding of the totalitarian police, our reflex is to support the artist. Additionally, we learn that Katurian’s childhood suffering provided the inspiration for his written excursions into darkness. Imagine Fritz Lang’s M as told by Edward Gorey.
Immediately, the issues of art and responsibility for the impact of art are raised and as Katurian (and we) learn of the horrible truth about the child murders, the play examines the nature of storytelling, autobiography, and the sources of the creative imagination. But the most important point that McDonagh makes clear through his amazingly interwoven thematic approach to his plot is the way in which art is literalized– both by the state and by the reader. Literature and literalism share not only a linguistic root, but an overlap of meaning and a historically conflicted relationship. I can imagaine McDonagh coming up with these stories, these grotesque and comic fantasies, and then wondering what the world would make of him as an artist.
It is no coincidence the only people who experience Katurian’s stories are the ultra-literal minds of the totalitarian police and his own feeble minded brother, the absolute wrong people to truly appreciate his work. It is also quite funny to imagine McDonagh seeing his own audience this way– as literal minded critics who are failed writers themselves (with whom he shares a dark attraction to the art of storytelling) and with the mentally enfeebled audience whom he loves dearly but of whom he must snuff out the life when they can’t understand his art as an act of imagination.**
In fact, literalism seems to be the great intellectual disease of our time, especially in a post-election America that perversely literalizes the idea of personal freedom into political action (gay marriage bans) while creating metaphors out of real people (Terry Schiavo, anyone?). In this environment, one that creates month-long, invasive news stories about child kidnappings, the idea of a dark imagination hovering at the fringes of real life is both thrilling and rings terribly true. Many times, our own worst nightmares seem to be coming true around us. In his review in the The New Yorker, Hilton Als puts it this way:
“‘The Pillowman’ is, among other things, a play about the artistic process, and about how an author’s imagination can overtake us, for good or for ill… Katurian, like many fiction writers, considers the truth specious. Interrogators and prisoner are caught in a deadlock between reality and fairy tale. Like Pirandello, especially in ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’; McDonagh is interested here in exploring the intellectual components of fiction: what makes a story work and where the impulse to tell it comes from in the first place. “
This seems to me only half right. While McDonagh is certainly exploring the nature of storytelling, there is no real deadlock between reality and fairytale, only between the moral choices posed by interpretation. Again and again, Katurian shouts out his defense that “they’re only stories!” and he is absolutely right. The crimes committed in this play are not the stories that Katurian plots to save from being destroyed by the police (these ARE fairy tales and only so), but crimes of interpretation which inspire one in Katurian’s audience to murder and another, despite the knowledge of the author’s innocence, to torture. Dark ideas, dark action in the real world. But what is their true connection? Only the minds and imaginations of the audience, of those that ascribe their own interpretations to the tabula rasa of the stories themselves.
What is most thrilling is that, in this case, the artist himself becomes the victim. The stories, which function as terrible inspiration for his audience, act as a salve from darkness in the author; a painless, harmless way to address the horror that was instilled in him. But when placed in the world, the stories eventually lead to Katurian’s downfall. The stories that McDonagh presents are fables, but their morals seem to comment not only on Katurian’s own world view, but on the action on the stage. In this way, The Pillowman is self-reflexive and delicately woven, making its points and commenting on them at the same time, all the while maintaining an intense dramatic tension that aschews interpretation and draws the audience into the action of the story McDonagh has chosen to present, one Katurian himself might not have been able to imagine.
Leaving the theater after the play’s terrible climax, I was both deeply moved and still trying to grasp all of the layers that McDonagh had done so well to show me. I have not been able to get the play out of my head for days, and I am utterly convinced of its greatness. So much so, I am considering putting down another $100 to see it again. After all, who knows when Broadway will again find the will to bring new work that is this engaging, timely, and powerful to audiences starving for serious, excellent theater.
*Hearing the details of the terrible murder of Jessica Lundsford in conversation after the show only enhanced the tragedy. Her story and one of Katurian’s stories do share a terrible detail. But Katurian himself, despite the nature of his art, is completely incredulous of the fact that anyone could actually harm children. The reality of this overlap is an awful thing, and it certainly heightens the complexity and the stakes at work in The Pillowman.
**In Katurian’s act of fratricide, another child is murdered. Layers and layers…