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Book Report: The Pillowman

I’m not sure what to write about The Pillowman. It’s a… fascinating play to read. I wish I had seen it. I actually wish I had seen both the London version and the New York version; it’s easy to imagine David Tennant and Billy Crudup playing the writer, but the lead cop was played by Jim Broadbent and Jeff Goldblum, who are more difficult for me to imagine in the same role. Also, of course, this play like others of Martin McDonagh’s, was evidently screamingly funny while it was screamingly horrific, which honestly did not come through in the playscript.

So. Mr. McDonagh is a writer who, for this work, came up with a story that is just about the most appallingly revolting thing you could imagine, and which (perhaps just by virtue of being imaginable) has elements of uncomfortable realism in it, while being disorientingly unreal. The main character is a writer who comes up with stories that are just about the most appallingly revolting things you could imagine, and which (perhaps just by virtue of being imaginable) have elements of uncomfortable realism in them, while being disorientingly unreal. Which is not to say he is writing about himself. One of the underlying jokes of the piece is that the law has come down on him because of the one story, out of hundreds he has written, that somebody somewhere was willing to publish. Mr. McDonagh by this point is a highly successful writer—but then, supposedly he wrote all of his celebrated plays in a short time long before he got anything produced.

Lately, I’m afraid, I have been reading plays and then thinking what’s the point? Not the point of reading them, but the point of, well, of writing and producing them, I suppose. What is the audience supposed to get out of it? I don’t mean, I think, whether they are supposed to learn and grow and become better people, although that may be part of it. No, I mean—well, I read Equus recently, and while there is certainly a voyeuristic thrill from watching the sheer fucked-upness of the boy, and I suppose a sense of accomplishment when we are able to trace it back to what fucked him up, I just don’t really get it as a play. I felt much the same about Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and still do, really. I didn’t feel that about Richard III, of course, which is mostly because it is Shakespeare! but also because I fully buy in to the premise that it matters who is King and how they get to be King. Well, and I admit it is because I love the character, and want to watch what happens to him, and do find watching what happens to him fulfilling because it fulfills (if you’ll allow me to claim it) the nature of Richard himself.

Anyway, I was going, in a roundabout way, to say that I don’t think what’s the point about The Pillowman. I’m not sure I know what the point is, mind you. Mr. McDonagh is having too much fun twisting the point around to ever let it, well, come to a point. I’ll note that once I understand as a reader that everything you see or hear is likely to be false, that this scene’s revelation is the subject of the next scene’s revelation that the earlier revelation wasn’t so, I can’t be properly surprised anymore, even by the bits that are surprising. But I don’t think that falseness is itself the point. I think the point is that…

Well, I don’t know. But I would say this: In Mr. McDonagh’s world, not only of this play but of the others I’ve read, and probably including the movie as well, stories are always both fundamentally false and fundamentally true; storytelling is both fundamentally evil and fundamentally necessary for survival. You can’t trust anybody who tells stories, but you certainly can’t trust anybody who claims not to tell stories, and you really really can’t trust yourself, because your own stories are the worst betrayers of all. But when you are not telling stories, then you’re really in trouble.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


John Crowley was thinking along precisely these lines recently.

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