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May 25, 2007


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Brian S

Wow....couldn't possibly dissagree with her more.

I don't understand why Katurian has to be a "good" writer for the play to work. I don't think he's a good writer, and the play works just wonderfully for me.


If he's not a good writer-- if his stories have no value, if their preservation locked in a cabinet for 50 years is worthless-- what's the point of the end of the play?

Alison Croggon

Thanks for the link, Isaac. Well, my feeling really was, if the stories suck, why are we listening to them for three hours?

Brian S

I see it as possibly the only record of this man's life- the only evidence that this man existed at all. The government in the play was supposed to go about like he never existed. Now, his stories will live on....and possibly inspire someone else down the road to commit similar crimes. The cycle of killing and sbuse could in fact stop right there, but the stories live on. This particular cycle of killing and abuse could be picked up by someone else down the line. For the first time in any work of art I found myself rooting FOR censorship. YES, please burn those stories....but then they didn't.

Now that I think about it, the only person who needs to think Katurian is a brilliant writer is his brother. Which he does.

Aaron Riccio

I though the stories were good, in a bizarre cross between O. Henry and Rod Serling. The NY staging helped evoke the squeamish quality by making it like a children's pop-up book, but these were never meant to be literature. They were genre affairs, barely moralizing shock stories for a culture stuck under an authoritarian regime. To me, the play works as a study of these two brothers, and on a larger level, as a study of whether tis nobler to live a life of suffering for another than to never live at all. I recognize I'm by far in the minority here (especially since I was not a Lieutenant of Inishmore fan -- what a "bloody" farce), but these are some strong issues to take with the script.

Alison Croggon

I'm not sure you're in the minority, Aaron - this play won the Olivier and was nominated for several Tonys, so it's certainly had plenty of support. Here the stories are genealogically linked (by the MTC, admittedly) to Kafka, Goethe and JD Salinger, which hardly strikes me as an unliterary heritage. The final story explicitly echoes stories by both Borges and Marquez. And I truly do think - as far as one can - that they are intended to be heard like Kafka's parables: I don't think the writer takes up all this time with stories that he has deliberately written to be mediocre.

You're forgetting too that Ariel decides to preserve the stories, because he is moved by them etc. And that the other cop has his own crippled literary pretensions, and that it's strongly hinted that he wants to destroy the stories not because he disapproves of them, but because he is envious of them. There are lots of flags in the text which point to a proposed value of the writing.

What made me choke was precisely that sentimental question of "whether tis nobler to live a life of suffering for another than to never live at all". So this fictional boy really will choose to endure years of torture, just because he loves these stories? I don't buy it, at any level, metaphorically, literally, ethically, aesthetically... That's the thing that offended me: to me it's a total misrepresentation of a very complex equation between reality, imagination, pain and art. I mean, I find it astounding that a writer, of all people, can claim that literature trumps the torture of another person and makes all that pain worthwhile. I don't think it's true, and I also think it's obscenely vain.

J Cale

The torture is a fait accompli, so the stories are only a way to make sense of it - if any could be made at all.

And that's the dark, hopeless point of the play - that in an authoritarian regime where parents/government get to torture whoever they want so the majority can grow up to be better off (more talented in this case), the best the majority can hope to do is spin a little bit of art out about it and then laugh on their merry way.

And McDonagh succeeded in getting people who could afford to pay for a Broadway ticket to laugh at that. It's a sick joke.

Which is why I don't think it's exactly fair to say that McDonagh claims "that literature trumps the torture of another person and makes all that pain worthwhile."

That's unfair.

McDonagh is up to something much more cynically critical of a society that watches "Survivor", "Big Brother" and "The Weakest Link"while ignoring plague, famine and pestilance elsewhere.

As to the quality of the writing - what does it matter what the audience thinks of the quality? It's immaterial. The only "people" who need to care about the writing are in the play. Those watching the play are only bringing their subjective judgement to it. And for me, I have to say, the worse I think Katurian's writing is, the more corrosive the play's critique of the sad role art has fallen to in an authoritarian society where Abu Garhib and the sordid hanging of Hussain somehow seem made of the same cloth.

Last, the thing about the complex equation between reality, imagination, pain and art. That's your equation. An equation worth hearing and having, but not, unfortunately, the only one.

Alison Croggon

I've never claimed mine is the only way of looking at things. It just happens to be my way of looking at things. That's why I wrote that particular review quite overtly as a personal response.

I do think though that's a pretty crap (even cynical) justification for putting people through three hours of bad stories. It's a piece of theatre, after all. When you think of the people who have written (and are writing) amazing work in the worst of political circumstances, under real threat of death - beginning say with Mandelstam or Akhmatova or Bulgakov under Stalin - it gets incredibly crap.


someone should do a good play about Mandelstam (or really about the Mandelstams, because to talk about Osip without his wife whose name's spelling I can't remember right now is to commit a crime against history). Or some sort of dramatic setting involving his poems.

J Cale

The people in the audience I saw it with seemed to enjoy the play A LOT. In fact, they were absolutely ENGAGED with the story and stories in ways that does not happen very often in most theatre - in the US anyway.

YOU thought it was crap mostly because you have a moral disagreement with what you percieve to be the author's point of view about the role of art.

I'm sure that there's plenty of great work done under horrible horrible circumstances that never gets done. That's not McDonagh's fault.

Alison Croggon

Sorry Isaac if I'm wasting your space - but -

J Cale - If you read my review, which I'm beginning to doubt, you will see that I totally acknowledge that it's entertaining, and that other people enjoyed it.

Eg: "There are at least a couple of outstanding performances which warrant the storm of applause at the end. I'm sure that The Pillowman will be greeted with as much enthusiasm here as it was in London and New York and, well, good luck to McDonagh. As Prospero says at the end of The Tempest, the project of the players is "to please", and it seems that McDonagh certainly knows how to do that."


"The Pillowman has some killer one-liners and draws freely from the kind of to-and-fro banter exemplified by Abbot and Costello. And therein, I think, lies the authentic charm of the play, which this production exploits with elan: it's a comedy with grand guignol dressing."

Yes, I did think it was crap because I had an ethical (not a moral) problem with what I perceived in what the author was saying about writing. Did I ever say otherwise?

It's Nadezhda Mandelstam, Isaac. There was a play here a while back about them, but that was pretty crap too, for almost opposite reasons...

Alison Croggon

Actually, that ethical problem wasn't the only criticism I had - that was just where I lost sympathy altogether. Primarily, I didn't think it wasn't that well-written. Which might also point to ethics/morals, but in the terms that McDonagh himself was framing - check out the references to Wilde and Handke earlier in the review.


Thanks! I always have trouble remembering the spelling.

For my taste, I think a dramatic presentation of their life/works would have to be abstraccted dramaturgically... like a song cycle of his poems or something, I dunno. Just not a biography on stage. those are dull dull dull!

J Cale

Allison, I read your review very carefully. And respect it. But you also called the show "tosh". Your reasons were fine, but I take issue with what you think McDonagh is up to and really just tell us what you think any writer should be up to - which is fine, but you are being moralistic.

I think you also missed why McDonagh's PILLOWMAN is so alive for audiences today and I suspect these things are connected.

Did you feel similarly about other McDonagh plays? Or is it just this one?


I just read the the play. I think it's a mostly rivetting and often brilliant play but ultimately unsatifying and shallow. I don't take issue with Alison's analysis but my dissatisfaction was in other areas.

A couple of thoughts:

Katurian assumes he and his brother are doomed so the only thing he thinks he can save is his art. This lowers the stakes considerably because he has no difficult choices to make, no moral or existential dilemmas. As a consequence he has no journey. At the end of three hours K is the same as when he started and this is why the play feels like it hasn't explored any of the themes it has set up (aside from the brief lopsided argument that Katurian has with his brain damaged brother about whether K shares a responsibility for the murders).

I also thought the revelation that the torturer Ariel was also a victim of child abuse and had killed his father was for me a cringeworthy piece of plotting and took away any potential for ambiguity in the resolution of the play. A's decision to save K's stories made no point about the value of art or the artist, but merely that he had taken pity on K because he realised that K was a kindred spirit. This felt phoney and contrived.

In spite of these reservations I still think it's a superior piece of entertainment and I'd love to see a (decent) production.


I don't know that the quality of the stories bothered me, actually. Katurian only had one published, and he wasn't able to get anyone who wasn't his brother to pay attention to the others; to me, the stories served as a window into the workings of his character, which may have taken a bit too long, but I didn't particularly mind.
When he decided to have Michal live at the end, instead of saving himself from torture, I didn't feel that moment to be out of line. It didn't read as a sermon about the worth of art; rather, I felt that, if someone had offered the choice to Michal, that's probably the way it would have happened, considering the way he idolized his brother and the way the stories seemed to justify pain.

That's not to say her review was bad: I liked it a lot, and it's bookmarked now, as it's a very intelligent counterpoint to my enjoyment of the play.

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