Unlike his “Irish” plays previously seen over here, Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman at least has the dignity of aspiring to be about something. The plays set in Ireland were essentially just brutish thrillers and comedies, in which cruelty and stupidity were the only substance. The Pillowman, however, is set in an imaginary totalitarian country, and its hero is a writer of horrific children’s stories being interrogated by that country’s police because his (largely unpublished) stories bear a disturbing resemblance to a series of horrific crimes visited on children.
This is, at least, a daring and intriguingly complex idea for a play, and one that bears painful links to contemporary reality of a kind not visible in McDonagh’s earlier works. Look up the career of the Soviet writer Yevgeny Shvarts, and you’ll see how easy it is for a spinner of fairy tales to get in trouble with a police state. Shvarts’s tales, however, are rather gentle parables with encoded anti-totalitarian messages; his troubles were purely political. Katurian (Billy Crudup), McDonagh’s writer-hero, tells an altogether different kind of tale, one that combines the darkness and violence in traditional folktales with a modern, sardonic fatalism suggesting a mix of Kafka with the gleeful nastiness of Terry Southern. Katurian doesn’t aspire to the resourceful child heroes and cheerful escape scenarios of Lemony Snicket.
But the big, searching questions—how far is an artist entitled to push the boundaries, what rights does the state have over work that breeds copycat crime—don’t get explored in The Pillowman. Like his stories, Katurian himself is a highly peculiar case, a child of eccentric, abusive parents; his only passion in the world is the care of his brain-damaged brother (Michael Stuhlbarg). He has made virtually no attempt at a literary career: He works a menial job as a cleaner in a slaughterhouse, and his stories are more a product of compulsion than of a need to communicate. Far from opening onto any political vistas, his situation suggests the material of McDonagh’s earlier plays (the parent-child hostility from Beauty Queen, the latent hatred between brothers from The Lonesome West) repeated the other way round, in fancier garb, with a good-cop-tough-cop team to add a framework of suspense.
It’s not particularly big news that cops in totalitarian states, or even in our besmirched democracy, have been known to take out their own sadistic impulses on prisoners. But the routine between Katurian’s captors (Jeff Goldblum and Zeljko Ivanek) is so abstract and free-wheeling that the state itself hardly seems to exist at all except as a convenient setup for the story. The notion of a state that pervades its citizens’ lives every hour or every day seems to be outside McDonagh’s imaginative powers. And such a state can hardly function as a “once upon a time” stratagem, given how much we all know about its tactics from recent history. A Soviet Bloc émigré well-known in the theater once told me: “One day my wife went to a reception at a foreign embassy and I didn’t see her again for 11 years.” To me, that single sentence is far more chilling than anything in The Pillowman. The drama of the two brothers and their deceased parents is too much a closed system of its own to rank in the world as anything but a curious case; the drama of the two cops versus the artist is dealt with too superficially to be anything but a poking up of old ashes from some previous fire. And Katurian’s stories, mimed in inset scenes while the characters narrate them, are tiny slices of cruelty that don’t leave you caring whether they will or won’t survive his execution. (There’s a reason why plays with artist heroes rarely risk showing us the hero’s work.)
To think of the afflictions visited on countless artists, great and small, because some ruling body disliked their work—from the days of Bulgakov and Meyerhold to the time of Salman Rushdie—puts The Pillowman more clearly in perspective: It’s a little thriller, with a little mild effectiveness, dabbling its toes at the edge of an ocean of big ideas. That McDonagh doesn’t plunge in, but instead stays locked in his own patricidal and fratricidal fantasies, is more saddening than anything else. A government jail leaves a Sinyavsky or a Solzhenitsyn free to think; the jail of his anger leaves McDonagh acting it out repeatedly, for the diversion of those hooked on a similar cycle.
Within the play’s limitations, and its own tendency to get too hyper too early, John Crowley’s production is lucid, cleanly paced, and effectively acted (though in reality any suspect in a totalitarian police station who behaved as assertively as Crudup would be shot in his first five minutes of detention). Stuhlbarg, despite his shakily written role (he becomes rational whenever information’s needed), gives the mental case a genuine, touching depth of character. Goldblum shifts among the nice cop’s varied stratagems with easy charm, and Ivanek’s vulnerable goon is his best stage performance in some time. To Crudup’s credit, he handles not only the role, but the details of the many stories he narrates, with conviction and clarity. It’s even possible to feel some respect for him at the end, despite all McDonagh’s efforts to make us dislike the character; few authors have ever punished their surrogates so harshly for their creativity.