The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh

Act Three (Excerpt):

Katurian: “I think that’s probably about the worst title I ever heard. It’s got about two commas in it. You can’t have two commas in a title. You can’t have one comma in a title. It might even have a full stop in it, that title. That title’s almost insane.

Tupolski: (Pause) Maybe it’s a title that’s just way ahead of its time.


Where do I start? This book literally changed my life. I was sitting in a Theatre Studies class back in Uni, talking about my idea to write a play about a man and his disabled brother, about the issues they would both face and the struggle of taking care of someone while trying to live your own life. Someone casually suggested I read ‘The Pillowman’ as inspiration – as I hadn’t had any exposure to a play like the one I wanted to write. She even brought in her copy for me to read the very next day.

I’d never heard of Martin McDonagh or his plays. I remember sitting down to read at my desk, by my laptop with a blank word doc open (this was research after all) and ended curled up in bed eagerly flipping through the pages on this dark storytelling adventure.

Immediately I was impressed by McDonagh’s natural ability to write convincing dialogue, talk about ‘taboo’ subject topics and complex staging ideas. Martin McDonagh literally embodies everything I want to be as a playwright. He is not afraid to talk about issues which may seem ‘perverse’ or ‘strange’, he considers the stage in his stage directions but is not bound by them and he immediately builds whole worlds with a few mere sentences – enticing the reader, and audience, to want more.

When I finally closed the book, my mind went into overdrive. There are playwrights out there who want to talk about the same issues as me, and are successful. They put themselves out there for all to see, challenging the audience to think about topics in a subtle way and educating them on what they think, before they have had a chance to think it! After reading ‘The Pillowman’, I couldn’t read other plays the same way – they didn’t talk to me or challenge me as they used to. My course at Uni started to delve into Transgressive Theatre’ which again, fed my ideas of breaking traditional theatre boundaries and challenging the audience.

But enough about me and my experience, here is why YOU should read this!

I re-read ‘The Pillowman’ for the 32 plays challenge and the main theme that always stands out for me is storytelling.

Our innate human need is to communicate – whether it be through music, art or drama. The chosen medium for ‘The Pillowman’ is storytelling. Our main character Katurian, is an incredibly talented writer who can create realistic worlds with a few paragraphs or short stories however, the content of those stories usually include a dark, twisted plot with a hard moral learnt at the end (Katurian’s short story The Tale of the Town on the River demonstrates this perfectly – this wiki shows all the short stories). McDonagh uses words and imagery to captivate and shock the audience, yet this play isn’t all doom and gloom – it is actually considered a black comedy. The dialogue between the officers and Katurian is often comical, largely due to the power struggle between the officers and the naturalistic dialogue of confusion, empty threats and assumed knowledge.

The play begins with Katurian blindfolded and confused in an interrogation room with two very angry policemen. The good cop, bad cop officers openly exclaim they are “high-ranking police officer[s] in a totalitarian fucking dictatorship. What are you doing taking my word about anything?” A sense of hopelessness settles over Katurian as he strains to make sense of his situation. His disabled brother whom he has cared for all his life, Michal, is in the next room being tortured. His instant reaction is to protect his brother and plead to the police to let him go, Katurian understands the police are angry about his stories, but he has no idea why.

“Listen, I don’t understand what I’m doing here. I don’t know what you want me to say. I don’t have anything against anybody … I just write stories. That’s all I do. That’s my life. I stay in and I write stories. That’s it.”

Excerpts from Katurian’s stories are read aloud throughout the play, the profound ability that McDonagh displays crafting these sub stories into deep, expansive worlds in a few paragraphs is incredible. As a reader and audience member you want to explore the stories further as the characters are instantly engaging and the worlds created seem real and as if they have existed for hundreds of years, all accomplished with a few spoken paragraphs from a story excerpt.

‘The Pillowman’ contains many issues and comments on society with these short stories (which I won’t spoil for the reader) but the theme at the very heart of the play it is about storytelling and how our words can greatly affect those around us, even more so than our actions.

“Every story you tell me, something horrible happens to somebody. I was just testing out how far-fetched they were.”

This book will always have a special place in my heart (and bookshelf) for opening a whole new aspect of theatre to me and allowing me to embrace my natural urge to talk about issues in a shocking and unconventional way whilst also challenging the audience think about the production long after they have read or seen it.

Loved: How much this play and Martin McDonagh’s playwriting style has had a positive and profound impact on my own writing and approach to theatrePillowman

Hated: I don’t think there is anything I hate about this play except . . . the book cover of my copy is pretty lame

Debated: How this would look on stage. I would love to see a production of this in the theatre as I believe there are some interesting and potentially difficult staging directions to overcome and portray to the audience.



One response to “The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh

  1. Pingback: A Raisin in the Sun | Love. Hate. Debate. Review.

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