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The Pillowman (and Other Stories)

Once upon a time last week my friend Meg emailed to ask me if I had plans for that night. I didn't, so she kindly invited me out of my little apartment and we went to see the Wilma Theater's production of the newest Martin McDonagh play, The Pillowman. McDonagh is a London-Irish prodigy-type person. He's the only playwright to have had four plays running simultaneously on London's West End since Shakespeare, and that was when he was 27.

So I was excited. I wore a crazy, flouncy dress and Meg wore a dress and pants and legwarmers (she gets cold easily). As we queued up to enter the cozily small theater an announcement came over the PA: "The running time of this show is two hours and forty-five minutes." Meg and I looked at each other. Oy, we said with our eyes. An old guy, the usher, caught the look as he handed us programs.

"You won't be happy when you leave, either," he said drily. "It's not a happy play."

Well, no. The Pillowman is about this guy, Katurian, a writer, who's been taken into police custody in an unnamed totalitarian state where he gets questioned and tormented because the effed-up content of a few of his short stories exactly matches the description of three recent child murders. Practically everything that happens in The Pillowman is dark and, as promised, not happy, and the whole thing ends rather badly for old Katurian. Plus, nearly three hours is a long time to sit in a little theater seat. But I'll tell you something: We weren't bored. And I think it was because of all the stories.

The police stack Katurian's stories in front of him on a table: his life's work. There are 400 of them. And since the content of the stories is what's in question, we get to hear a lot of them. Some were reminiscent of fairy tales, others were like morality tales, and most of them were creepy and horrible and, uncomfortably enough, deeply, darkly funny at the same time. I was mesmerized listening to all of them, waiting to find out what happened in the end. Yeah! They were those kind of stories, where something happens! (Have I mentioned that Martin McDonagh is also really handsome? What are the chances?)

Seeing this play got me thinking about the pleasure of listening to stories, and the fact that telling them is like casting a spell. I'll spare you any theorizing about it because a) I hate that; and b) that was the genius of what McDonagh did. There were a lot of crisscrossing messages darting around on stage, plenty of interesting things to think about regarding how fictional fiction really is, and about the power we give it, or it gives us — and whether that power is always a good thing. But on another, much more primal level, we were being told stories. Like little kids, my friend and I and the other people in the audience got to sit in the dark and listen. There's a satisfaction in that that no amount of intellectualizing can provide.

That same night Meg told me that a bar here in Philly was about to host what they were calling a fiction slam. The organizers were seeking fiction writers, entertainers, and "b.s. artists" to come and perform an original story for no longer than five minutes so that the audience, or maybe a few judges, could choose a winner, which means that you get to go and sit in the dark and drink and listen. Which proves that someone in Philadelphia is an even bigger genius than Martin McDonagh.

The end.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Pillowman: A Play
    Used Trade Paper $8.00

One Response to "The Pillowman (and Other Stories)"

    Bolton November 7th, 2006 at 1:41 pm

    Martin McDonagh is terrific! I've still never seen one of his plays (the last one done in Portland was something like $30 a ticket), but he was one of the last playwrights whose work I read in college. Riveting, hilarious, deliciously dark stuff — and his Oscar-winning short film (which is available on DVD) is excellent, too.

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