The Role of Violence in The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh

The Pillowman - Martin McDonagh

“I suppose I walk that line between comedy and cruelty because I think one illuminates the other. We’re all cruel, aren’t we? We are all extreme in one way or another at times and that’s what drama, since the Greeks, has dealt with. I hope the overall view isn’t just that though, or I’ve failed in my writing. There have to be moment when you glimpse something decent, something life-affirming even in the most twisted character. That’s where the real art lies.” Martin McDonagh

The playwright Martin McDonagh has spoken about a ‘pacifist rage’ informing The Pillowman  and other works such as the Cripple of Inismaan and The Lieutenant of Inismore.  The brutality, twistedness and darkness of his piece de resistance, The Pillowman, is its most controversial aspect. Martin McDonagh’s plays, however, have been criticized for pandering to tastes shaped by the violent excesses of modern TV and film, an influence of which he openly acknowledges.

Martin McDonagh, if anything, suggests that violence is actually an intimate form of social intercourse between his characters. It forms characters, tells stories, and creates intrigue – violence therefore plays a central role in the telling of the story of The Pillowman.

The Role of Violence in The Pillowman:

Oscar Wilde had it right: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” Most critics of The Pillowman  are inclined to suggest that the universes of McDonagh’s plays are suspiciously amoral. But these interpretations can be overly simplistic and often ignore the active role audiences should have in creating their own moral frameworks.

For example, there is clear causal relationship between violence and empathy in The Pillowman. Upon your first viewing of the The Pillowman  you eventually, like in any dark play, ask yourself: with which character(s) do I, the spectator, morally align myself? Is it the authoritative, at times bullying and savage, cops, Tupolski and Ariel? Or do I side with the suspicious, unflinching writer, Katurian? Or his troubled and disabled brother?

Violence is a staple of theatre, from Greek tragedies to Shakespeare to Quentin Tarantino. At times it may disgust the critic – seeing it as a debased art form – and terrify an audience, but it is this violence that we act out on stage that helps us understand why people (or monsters) do such ghastly things in society.

The Pillowman  describes and portrays violence in order to fuel empathy for the offender and for those that suffer. Through its distinct cynicism, The Pillowman  uses violence to dismiss realism and to challenge the concept of the “well-made play”.

Unrelenting violence is the great creator within McDonagh’s The Pillowman.

The Pillowman  will open in Galway Town Hall Theatre and 19th February, in the Gaiety Theatre on March 2nd , The Everyman on March 16th,  and in The Lyric on the 24th of March in 2015.

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