“The First Duty of A Storyteller”: Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman

Peter Campion

Patrick Lonergan, professor of Drama at NUI Galway and is the author of The Theatre and Films of Martin McDonagh (Bloomsbury), addresses the place of The Pillowman in modern society.

In 1949 the Russian authorities decided that it was time to arrest Boris Pasternak. They’d long been suspicious of his popularity overseas, and had become increasingly annoyed by his refusal to denounce other writers. Then there were the rumours about a new novel that Pasternak was working on: a book called Doctor Zhivago, which, they feared, was an attack on the Soviet way of life.

Yet at the last minute Pasternak was saved. By chance, Stalin heard of the writer’s imminent arrest and – perhaps on a whim – ordered the police to leave him alone. This was a remarkable occurrence: according to Peter Finn and Petra Couvée (authors of The Zhivago Affair), more than 1500 writers had been executed and more than 24 million books had been burned during Stalin’s reign.

The police could not disobey Stalin of course – but nor did they want to leave Pasternak alone. So they decided instead to arrest his lover, a young woman called Olga Ivinskaya – who was guilty of nothing but her association with the writer.  During weeks of interrogations, the police demanded that Olga betray Pasternak, but despite being placed under dreadful pressure she refused to do so. Her determination deepened when, after almost four months in prison, she realised she was pregnant with Pasternak’s child.

But the police were determined too. Eventually they told Olga that they would bring her to Pasternak, claiming he was being held in another cell. Yet instead of meeting her lover, she instead found herself left alone in a darkened room. She soon realised that Pasternak was not there, that she had in fact been locked into the prison morgue, with many dead bodies laid out on slabs around her. Soon she was taken to another room where she endured the fiercest interrogation yet – but she still refused to betray Pasternak.

She miscarried her baby a few days later; she was then sentenced to hard labour in the Gulag, only being released after Stalin’s death in 1953. Pasternak would later claim that he owed his life to Olga’s heroism; she would also inspire the character of Lara in Doctor Zhivago.

Such stories abound in recent European history. We might think of how the playwright Vaclav Havel was persecuted by the Communist government of Czechoslovakia, before becoming his country’s first president after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. We might think too of the Belarus Free Theatre, a contemporary group whose artistic director is forced to communicate with his actors by Skype – because if he returns to Minsk he faces certain arrest.

Such cases show that, wherever the powerful feel uncertain about their power, writers will be under threat. And when the powerful can’t control artists, they often seek revenge upon artists’ families. We might expect a writer like Pasternak to be willing to die for his art. But all too often, people like Olga must put their lives at risk too.

Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman addresses these topics head on, raising compelling questions about art, power, family, religion – and the relationships between all four. His play is made all the more poignant by the fact that, unlike a Havel or a Pasternak, his protagonist Katurian is a most unsuccessful writer: his stories have been read by almost no-one, and there is little prospect that they will be published. He is, after all, living in a totalitarian dictatorship where the police boast that they like to execute writers.

Katurian seems an unlikely revolutionary. “I say keep your left-wing this, keep your right-wing that and tell me a fucking story!” he shouts. “A great man once said ‘The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story’…  That’s what I do, tell stories”.  Katurian denies that his stories have any symbolic connotations, that they mean anything other than what is apparent on the surface. All he wants is to entertain his audience with the power of a well-told tale.

It’s important to place these assertions in context: they’re being made by a man who’s in a prison cell, being interrogated by two detectives who seem far more like criminals than Katurian does. And then there are those screams coming from the cell next door – who is making those awful sounds?

This is the set-up for a fascinating play that celebrates the power of writers – not just as storytellers but as people who encourage us to think. Katurian’s stories are, the police claim, ‘a puzzle without a solution’: they stimulate our curiosity, our dread and, most importantly, our imaginations.

And those stories cut to the bone, both literally and metaphorically. Their violence is visceral and often sadistic, but they also uncover the roots of our culture, drawing on the Freudian undertones of the Grimms’ fairytales while exploring the place of suffering within Christianity. The play itself is a celebration of other plays, notably Harold Pinter’s One for the Road, a terrifying exploration of the relationship between writers and the powerful. It also echoes McDonagh’s other works, particularly The Lonesome West (a play about two warring brothers).

The Pillowman ultimately explains why writers are so feared. After all, Katurian’s sweetest story – about a little green pig – is by far his most dangerous, since it shows the value of the lone individual against the collective. Stories may turn a mob into an audience, but they also stimulate the individual to value himself or herself – and thus to interpret the world, rather than believing what we are told about the world by others.

So The Pillowman addresses Europe’s past but, in the wake of such events as the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, it is also confronting the world’s present. This is a play that reminds us that without freedom of speech we cannot have freedom of thought; it is a play that is both timeless and utterly contemporary. Tragically, The Pillowman seems unlikely ever to be irrelevant.

Decadent Theatre Company’s critically acclaimed production of The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh plays the Lyric Theatre Belfast for 4 weeks. If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy Owen Barnes’ piece on Martin McDonagh’s Anglo-Irish roots.

24 March 2015 – 19 April 2015
Tuesday – Saturday 7.45pm, Saturday & Sunday Matinees 2.30pm
Previews: Tues 24, Weds 25 and Thurs 26 March 7.45PM

Martin McDonaghbutton (13)The Pillowman Tickets

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