The Broadway premiere last season of Martin McDonagh's brilliant and brutal play, The Pillowman, generated an outpouring of heated conversation and almost universal critical acclaim; yet this profoundly insightful and unsettling play raised many questions that still have not been fully explored. The Pillowman draws together a Kafkaesque sense of the arbitrary, identity-dismantling detachment of the law, with a Borgesian feel for the rhythm and material of our unconscious and fantasy lives. The play is laced, too, with shocking black humor that is accessible and recognizably human. Most of all, The Pillowman is a beautifully written, horrifying rendering of some of our deepest existential predicaments. Its exquisite layers turn in on themselves, laying bare some of our thorniest postmodern irreconcilables -- our inability to ever fully apprehend ourselves and others, and the imperative and potential impossibility of connection with others; our potential for sadism and perversity on one hand, and goodness on the other; our inability to wrestle control over ourselves and our fates; why the innocent suffer. McDonagh is dealing in the very issues that force us as societies to contemplate censorship, and to create institutions and social structures that make us intelligible to ourselves, that strive to control our unwieldy impulses and give us a sense of stability.
I recently asked two of The Pillowman's Broadway cast members, Billy Crudup and Michael Stuhlbarg, to help me begin to explore the provocative nature of McDonagh's work.
The Pillowman is set in an unnamed authoritarian state, and depicts the police interrogation of a writer (played by Billy Crudup), and his mentally impaired brother (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), about child murders that simulate the writer's gruesome stories. Interwoven with the police interrogation are scenes from the brothers' abusive childhood, and the writer's fairy tale-style stories, suggesting the dark skeins of connection between all three sets of narratives.
The writer, Katurian, has a day job in a slaughterhouse, where he spends his time not killing animals, but expunging bloody remains, or as he says, "I … clear stuff." Hence we understand that producing violent stories may, at one level, allow Katurian to purge psychological detritus from his abusive childhood. We meet the writer's brother, Michal, who is permanently mentally impaired by years of secret parental torture in the locked room adjoining Katurian's. This experiment generated "sounds of abomination" which the child Katurian was told were only nightmares, and which were intended by his parents to imbue Katurian with the haunted psyche necessary for the production of great art. Amusing and even more unsettling, the play's horrific stories and recollections are often related in a darkly comic and ironic narrative style.
Audience members and critics found that the play raised a number of questions about the links between suffering and creativity, between fiction and reality, and about the complex role of narrative in our lives. The interviews below strive to articulate and apprehend some of the play's dynamics in conversation with the actors who played its central roles.
What attracted you to this play and to this character?
I read so much stuff that's incredibly predictable, where your work as an actor is typically to fill in a life that's not created by the writing. What the writing does, usually, is create a narrative. It doesn't routinely create three-dimensional characters. Martin's writing, to the contrary, gives you everything, in every line, in every pause; he's a prodigy. After maybe four or five pages, I didn't even know what the story was about; all I knew was this was something I probably wanted to do. I didn't have an immediate take on the character; I wasn't drawn to something specific in him. I just knew that this was material that would give me enormous opportunities as an actor to grow and learn and act.
Had you ever played a role like this before?
I've played characters who were in dire circumstances. I haven't played a character like this because no character's been written like this. He's singular. I've played people who are articulate the way he is, people who are smart in the way that he is; I've played people that are suffering. But I've never played someone who was as grotesquely distorted by his own history.
This is a huge role. How did you manage it?
You know when I read it originally, it's funny, there are those mountains of stories. But when you're reading that, you kind of go, oh, here's a story. You don't think, I have to internalize this; I have to motivate this in the same way as everything else. I was sort of getting into the stories; I didn't think of the practical -- and this happens to me all the time in movies -- when I'm like, ok, he jumps out a window, blah, blah, blah. And then, you're doing it and you're thinking, what the fuck am I doing here?! I don't want to jump out of a window! So there was a practical effect of, wow, now I really need to, not just memorize, but internalize this.
How did you manage to live within the macabre and comic world of this play for eight months?
It's so gratifying to be a part of something that stood out in any way. And a lot of my self-esteem is wrapped up in my sense of self as an actor. When something you're in is exactly the kind of thing you want to be in, it's so rewarding. But I couldn't really go to the depths of depravity that the play offers night after night. My experience of it was the same as the audiences' the first time we read it; "Oh my God, that's horrific." After that though, you can't take it in any more. You asked me before we started about what it's like being a parent and being immersed in this show. I would say there was a millisecond in rehearsal when it occurred to me that I was a parent, and then it was gone -- totally other place. We would come outside after the show, and I've never been in such a different place than the audience after a show. I'm kind of relieved that the night's over, or thrilled if the audience gave it a good response. And night after night the response was utter stupefaction. I was always like, it's ok, I understand, I get it (puts his hand on my shoulder reassuringly). I don't get left in the place that the audience does. For my character, too, there's a complete event. I'm able to finish the emotional through-line that my character starts. The audience doesn't get to finish. They are provoked by this ending, and provoked by the sudden death of Katurian, who is the person they've been following the whole time.
You have two brothers. Did you draw on your own sibling relationships to represent any aspect of your stage relationship with Michal?
I have an older brother and a younger brother. I'm sure I must have been drawn to it in no small way because I recognized the relationship that Martin was describing. And I don't think I can avoid bringing my own experience. But Katurian has a very different relationship to Michal than I have with my brothers. He's walking such a tight line between guardian/protector/parent and little brother. Which is odd. Because when you have those sibling feelings, if I want to beat the shit out of one of them… as a parent those feelings don't come up in the same way. That's not a feeling I would have as a parent. I have different feelings of frustration, but not the same as I have with my brothers. And it has to do with having an innate sense of protection for a child that I don't have for my brothers. I have a sense of support, but Katurian has to be both the parent and the brother. There's this competing agenda which makes for a really interesting…. You put that relationship into a circumstance like the one that they find themselves in, and you have a real spark.
As you consider the material and flow of this play, do you think that McDonagh seems to have surprising access to the life of the unconscious?
That's a great line. I've looked for a way to say just that, and never come up with it. Yep. It's almost like he takes it for granted. Just the way he speaks and talks about things, the observations that he makes.
Virginia Woolf says that to write well you need to fish there, to drop a line in the waters of the unconscious.
Yes. You're absolutely right. And I would say as an actor, why did my character want to do that? What does it mean that I wanted to do that? And that's not what Martin does at all; Martin would just say that's what you did. The implication is everybody does this. He believes that's just the way people think. But most people just don't access it the same way.
Is a natural feel for the fluidity of the human mind and soul part of McDonagh's genius?
It was one of the hardest things for me to -- I struggle with it in acting anyway -- but it relates directly to what we were just talking about. I have a natural proclivity to try and find the logical transition from one moment to the next. So I have a kind of story that's happening in my head, that I can say, oh, it's this moment that he observes that takes him to this moment. And Martin's writing moves way too fast for that. There's that moment when I smack Michal's head on the ground. And it's shocking to the audience because they haven't seen the transition that goes on in Katurian's head because Martin didn't write it. The anger and the hostility go hand in hand with the confusion and bewilderment and sadness that precede that moment.
So your character just goes somewhere on the wave of his competing emotions, without thinking.
That's right. My question to John [Crowley-the director] would be, I'm having trouble getting to this next moment because I'm busy in the preceding moment. I'm still, as an actor, experiencing let's say the shame of a previous moment. So, I'm ashamed of something, and to go from being ashamed, to in control and assertive would be a difficult transition. I would want the logical progression in my head so I could get there. And Martin doesn't write that. He just goes to the next place. And so, as an actor, I mean there's tremendous joy to be had from doing that, and trusting in the play in that way, and not trying to make the logical progression from one thing to the next. But it was hard for me to do. This material was difficult in that way because it's written by somebody who just goes that way, and does it with incredible dexterity. And obviously it's also very truthful. And the fact of the matter is there are those intellectual signposts if you go back and look, but he's done such an incredible job of constructing those in a non-linear fashion. People often asked, why did Michal tell Katurian that he did "The Little Jesus" story? [Michal lies to Katurian about enacting one of Katurian's most violent stories.] And it's like people can't imagine that it could be something so obvious as that two minutes ago he got his head bumped on the ground.
Something so obvious as a child saying, I'm going to tell you something awful to get back at you.
Exactly. That's right. And it's not the exact preceding moment, so people don't put that cause and effect together. But that' s what I mean by saying it's non-linear. There's a reason why Michal does that, although it doesn't precede that moment. And that's why Martin's such a genius.
Isn't that often the way the mind works? Something percolates and we respond a little bit later.
At that point in the text, too, it says Michal's character doesn't respond necessarily to the pain of having his head hit against the floor, but he's stunned by the idea that you've done it.
That's it. And it also means that he's out of sync with Katurian in a way that he didn't realize. Michal didn't see the problems that were brewing (laughs). This is so fun to talk about!
This play is so emotionally challenging in that just when your heart is open to the kids in the stories something horrible happens to them.
Why do you think that McDonagh chose to portray brutal stories about children?
Well he has this horrifying mixture of wanting to manipulate people and being good at it. He has that instinct to make his writing active. He wants to force the audience, or the reader, to interact. I think he has a real distaste for an erudite observation of literature, responses like, "Ooo, it's lovely the way those sentences move together"; or, "So and so is a wonderful writer because his prose is charming." He wants to pick people up, rattle them around, throw 'em against the wall a little. And one of the ways in which he does that is by making us available. And there's something, you know…
Yes, a little sadistic about his desire to rattle people. And because he knows he's good at it…. It's one thing to want to do it and just be sort of ok at it. It's another to know that you're dastardly proficient, and take advantage of that in the most exotic way. I mean, when he wrote these stories he was a late teenager. And so he mustn't have known the extent of his virtuosity. He mustn't have known the potential they had to uproot people, but he must have had that sadist in there somewhere. Because that's one of the tenets of those stories, to wickedly twist people. He must have had that urge as a teenager to rattle somebody, to wake them up, you know.
That sounds very much like a teenager, doesn't it ?
That's absolutely true. That's what happens when you put the feelings of a teenager into the craftsmanship of a genius. And to have the hubris to imagine that an audience could observe two people sitting on a floor telling a story for twenty minutes. That story better be fucking good. I never had the experience of losing the audience during any of those stories. And the ones with the tableaux, people were on the edge of their seats. [Many of the stories in the play were represented as tableaux above the main stage where the interrogations occurred.] And those were John Crowley's idea. Also, I would have loved to be a part of the audience to see the moment when Katurian turns out to the audience. I love that kind of theatre. It's such a surprising moment in what looks to be an interrogation drama. You don't know where you are. And he refuses to let the audience ever know more than he does. And the whole play, every time the audience learns something, he's setting them up for something else. It starts in the beginning; you don't know what people are talking about.
As an audience member one really identifies with Katurian in his confusion.
That's right. You don't know yet what world you're in. You don't know what time it is. You don't know who these people are. You don't know what the climate is. So the audience isn't located anywhere but in the set. And that's a very vulnerable place to be as an audience. So then at the end of that, to completely change the vocabulary of the theatre experience by turning out and talking to the audience is just wicked. I felt like I spent so much time talking to the audience, which was another exotic experience.
What do you think Katurian's speeches to the audience suggest?
John talked about that. I would ask a very actorly thing to ask, who am I in this moment? And we decided that I wasn't Katurian; I wasn't Billy. I was Katurian's ideal. If he could imagine the perfect way in which his stories would be conveyed, this would be it. However, it's an uncomfortable transition to make from being fixed in the reality that you're creating to playing an ideal.
And that creates a dialogue between reality and the ideal.
And that's the other thing that Martin's doing. I think he's just trying to use as much of the environment of the theatre as possible. I think he, again, is really averse to this sense of people watching with a detached drunken glee, you know, half full on steak frites, and dozing off midway through. And one way to do that is to talk to them directly. It's really uncomfortable if you watch and somebody turns to you and all of the sudden engages you. What was reassuring was that I would still find people sleeping.
That was reassuring to you ?
It was reassuring because it became less about me. Every time you hear somebody sleeping in the theatre you think, I'm horrible. I have spoken the truth. And so when you realize with a play like this that people are sleeping, well, some people just have to sleep. And it was nice to see the tapestry of the audience faces, going from, like a seventy-year-old couple utterly rapt in the second row, thrilled by the experience; to some dude sleeping, to somebody crying, to somebody pissed-off that somebody's crying. All this is happening so close together.
Seeing the faces breaks a wall for you. Does that make it more energizing, more intimate with the audience?
It's a different kind of experience, a different kind of performance. There's a certain insulation you have when you put up that fourth wall, which is nice. You don't have to worry about their judgment yet. But when you're talking to them, you get contact. And it's hard to keep doing it when that immediate feedback isn't good. There's no chance for me to address that, to start a dialogue with it. I just have to continue with the thing that may be provoking distemper or exhaustion.
Do you think that the character Katurian represents something fundamental about the struggle of being human or of being an artist?
I think that Martin distills reality. It's almost as though nothing that happens could happen. It's so fantastical. But the question of how we're affected by our parents, Martin can't explore in a kind of kitchen sink drama. He has to have had his parents torture one of the children, while duping the other. You know that's how he's going to explore how we're affected by our parents. So I think in a very large sense he's exploring the trajectory of being a human being, and a reflective human being at that. Katurian is somebody who's interested in ensuring that the suffering that he and his brother endured won't be for naught. I don't think there's one audience member who ever expressed to me that this was something that they got. But for my own internal story, and it may be my own desire to make Katurian really good, the reason he needed to save his stories, over his brother, was so that his brother's suffering wouldn't be for naught. The reason he was a good writer, the reason he wrote good stories, was because his brother suffered. So every one of those stories is a monument to his brother's pain. And there are little clues in there that suggest that.
McDonagh has so many layers going here, so many different narratives.
This play is so dense. It's brutal in that way; it's as brutal as the stuff that happens in it. I know that it's not consistent in its message. He says so many contradictory things about what it is to be a writer. Every time he makes some grand statement, or every time one of the characters makes a grand statement, they almost immediately undercut it. Martin seems really reluctant to hold on to some sort of aphorism.
There's a lot of Christ imagery in the play. Almost all the characters seem to be crucified by being human. Do you think that McDonagh is suggesting that life is a crucifixion at some level?
You said it well when you said that everybody is crucified in some way. I have never thought about it that way. I've thought that everybody's suffering. What we're talking about when we talk about crucifixion is an exotic fall. It's brutal, but from it you're the son of God (laughs), so he's not just suggesting torture. I think when we're talking about everybody being crucified, there's a celebration in it too. Christians reenact the crucifixion as a pageant. And it's like the most glorious death.
It makes us Godly, too.
Yes, exactly. It brings us immortality. There's something celebratory in the kinds of torture that these people endure. It's fantastic. It's supernatural.
And it exposes their humanity, our humanity, at a deep and pathetic level.
I think that's a great way of thinking about it. I never thought about it that way. So he might be suggesting that we all go down in a horrible, brilliant ball of flames. Which is kind of a fun way to think about life (laughing). It's a worldview.
Does the play suggest that part of the struggle of the artist, your character, is to leave some truthful representation of his experience behind so that we can see what being human really entails?
Yeah. I think Martin is fixated on that; that one of the ways that we learn about life is through the voices of good writers, and good artists. And he's really concerned with proficiency and with virtuosity. So it's not just an apt observation, it's an apt observation described in a unique, thrilling, compelling, fantastical way. He's not subtle about his talent in this play. I mean, he just lets those curves loop; he's spreadin' paint everywhere.
Many of the stories in the play force us to confront our capacity for evil and suffering. Is there anything in the play that redeems us or gives us hope?
Well, the stories are resurrected right from the fire. But I think the play is a thorough exploration of our potential for injuring one another, and injuring ourselves. And sometimes it's not such a hopeful idea, but it's a very truthful one. And so there's value in understanding the realities of the world that we live in. The amount of decency and love and pathos in the world is thrilling because we have the potential for being nothing but bestial. And we've spent a lot of time creating a society to protect ourselves.
The censorship battle in the play represents an effort to protect ourselves from ourselves.
That's it. And it takes place in a prison, the primary place that we protect ourselves from brutality. We incarcerate those that we think are most capable of brutality.
What do you think is the significance of "The Pillowman" story in the play?
The fact that The Pillowman suffers is just so wrong. The fact that Martin couldn't imagine a superhero who didn't suffer, who suffered so badly that he had to commit suicide. I guess it's suggesting there is no way to protect ourselves.
What attracted you to this play and to this character?
When I read the play through the first time, I found myself laughing almost immediately. Martin is very particular about how he puts words down on the page. He'll vary the slightest word like "ah" or "uh" with one h or two h's at the end. I love that kind of stuff. I was a fan of his writing before, and I knew when I picked up the play that it was going to be written very well. And I think it kept me guessing as well; and although it does talk about very dark subjects, it had so much humor. Something with a sense of humor always draws me. And I knew there were actors I respected who were going to be in the play before I auditioned. So, I knew it was going to be a special play. I didn't really know anything about this character. And as I read it, I grew to feel affection for him and pity for him, and became excited about the prospect of working on the challenges that the role of Michal presents, having been tortured from the age of eight to fifteen, and what parts of his brain in particular were affected or damaged, challenges like that.
How did you develop your sense of what was damaged in him?
I really just tried to start with what Martin put down on the page. And I would try to work backwards from there, things that we learn about him over the course of the play. There's some false information that's given out by the interrogators in the first act of the play, that perhaps mislead people as to who you're going to see when this character arrives, things about him being called spastic or being called retarded. And you learn that he's not retarded and he's not spastic; he was tortured for almost eight years, so his sense of right and wrong is perhaps damaged. Though he says that he knows what he did was wrong, he also says it was very interesting. "I chopped the boy's toes off and he didn't scream at all," he tells Katurian, and suggests that it happened just like in Katurian's story. So he knows these stories; he adores these stories, and I think something in him makes him want to act them out. But there must have been something in him that learned that doing these things to children was not such a good idea because he changes his behavior at the end.
Did you set out to represent a character that was authentically childlike in some part of his mind?
Yes, but it's interesting because the play changes. His language changes over the course of the scene in which you get to meet him. He starts out in perhaps a very simple place, and later on in the play, as the emotion grows and he and his brother get into discussions about things, his language changes and he becomes very direct, and as much a big brother as a dependent. He is a year older than his brother, and he becomes very direct and very aggressive in this scene.
And more sophisticated?
And more sophisticated, exactly. I think portions of his brain are damaged but part of him is still a mature man.
There's a surprising duality in your character's personality ─ at times the childlike component is most prominent, and at other times the adult component emerges with great strength.
And the angry parts surface as well, the parts in which he perhaps blames his brother for what happened to him.
What role do you think Katurian's stories play in Michal's life?
I think they are worlds for him to play in. I think they exist for him to escape into. They're great worlds to escape into. I think his natural curiosity about things that happen in the stories lead him down an unfortunate, dangerous, horrible path. Another aspect of Michal is that he generally wants to have a good time. The obsession with Katurian's stories, which he loves so much, was just a part of his life. There's another part of him that's quite cheeky and silly, and loving. He goes to school and he has also created a life for himself. He survived what happened to him.
How did you manage to live within the macabre and comic world of this play for eight months?
Well, fortunately or unfortunately, my character only existed in the second act of the play, so at the end of that scene he's gone. He lived his life, so to speak. So, there was something in that that allowed me to experience it while I was in it, but when I was done, I was really done. In that respect I didn't bring it home with me. But I did gain 30 to 40 pounds to play the part, so I felt like I was living in this other existence in that way. Because there was so much humor in the play, and all the other actors in the play were a joy to be with, the experience of playing it a long time was a wonderful one. Two show days were really trying, but I think all of us felt an obligation to make the best show we could every time we went out there. I remember very few moments that seemed uninvested.
Do you think that the black comedy in the play makes it more bearable or more jarring, or both?
I think both. I think the humor comes around and does make the evening bearable. There was, I imagine, an unsettling quality to the portrayals of both Tupolski and Ariel [the interrogators]. You never quite knew what their agendas were, and they were consciously trying to knock Katurian off guard. I think the humor was a necessary part of what was a very dark story. But the details of the darkness would also come back and slap that humor around as well. Or it would go too far. It would start out as something really funny, and then something really dark would come up just as soon. That's just the nature of this particular piece, in that it swung back and forth between humor and darkness. It was fun to watch in performance how different audiences would react differently to things. Some people would be laughing hysterically and other people would be seemingly offended that people were laughing at such serious topics.
Is there anything about confronting the play's awful narratives together, as well as experiencing the black humor in the show that might make us feel some kind of connection as human beings?
Those kinds of events are as old as theatre. There's something purging, cathartic in the experience of watching someone go through hardship. I think as a group, or as an audience, we can come out of the experience engaged and perhaps it, ideally, brings us all back to the common denominator that we're all alike in one sense. Maybe by showing someone going through pain it makes us feel a little bit better in the sense that someone or some character out there feels something as deeply, if not more so, or has gone through something even worse than we have. And we can empathize with that pain, and I think that draws us closer. When anyone shares their stories of survival we're interested because many of us have gone through difficult things.
Do you think that the play is about narrative and our relationship with narrative at some level?
I think Martin loves telling a good story. And this is a kind of theatre that I enjoy, being taken on a journey, as opposed to some kinds of theatre that are like, throw yourself in there and see what you experience, but that don't necessarily provide a cohesive journey. The other thing that I find interesting as well, is that at the end of the play when Katurian has been killed, the play has all but finished, the actor playing Katurian gets up and speaks directly to the audience. So it's like he's an actor playing Katurian. He gets up and finishes up the evening's story, and sort of puts a little coda on the end. It questions what it is that we've been through, if we're watching something that truly happened or if it's just a story that this character came up with.
The Pillowman will be staged this season at several theatres across the country, including ACT in Seattle, The Alley Theatre in Houston, and The George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey; and McDonagh will debut The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the U.S. this month, with New York City's Atlantic Theatre Company.