The Politics of Place in McDonagh’s The Pillowman

The Pillowman Martin McDonagh

“McDonagh’s removal of a location becomes a significant dramatic choice.”

Andrew Flynn, Artistic Director of Decadent Theatre Company.

The Pillowman  (2003) by Martin McDonagh is seen as the odd man out among his plays. Why so? It’s because The Pillowman  lacks any mention of a defined, geographical place and, considering the rest of plays, one would expect this to be a clue to the intention behind storytelling of Martin McDonagh.

The Oeuvre of McDonagh and their Sociocultural Settings

The overwhelming majority of Martin McDonagh’s work possess the name of a real, terrestrial place – The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, A Skull in Connemara, A Behanding in Spokane. Unlike the bare title of The Pillowman, the titles of these pieces places the reader in the spatial surroundings of the plot, almost instantaneously.

Geographical specificity expresses themselves in these pieces in every respect. The people’s names, for example, in A Skull in Connemara are Gaelicized: there is Mairtin, Maryjohnny, Mick and Tomas – character names don’t get any more Irish than that. Language is another important element that signifies locality. The Irish idiom, our colloquialisms and the Gaelic tongue are used throughout all his plays, apart from A Behanding in Spokane  set in America.

McDonagh’s The Pillowman  dispenses with the concept of location in this virtuoso demonstration of storytelling. For McDonagh, the sociocultural environment is unimportant. The story requires only the knowledge of modern power systems, interpersonal settings, and institutions such as the church, family, and government for its impact.

The Pillowman : Setting the Scene

The Pillowman’s  title, setting and character references give no geographical or sociocultural coordinates. There is no locality to the title of The Pillowman. And the backdrop of the performance is simply the cold, murky and paranoid underworld of an unnamed totalitarian state. In the playtext, McDonagh only sites two locations to be definitively staged in performance, an interrogation room with a cell next door and Katurian and Michal’s childhood bedrooms.

Katurian – or, to give the character his full name, Katurian Karturian Katurian (“My parents were funny people,” he explains) – and his older, mentally disabled brother, Michal, are the two main characters in The Pillowman. The siblings are in adjacent, colourless cells, where they are being interrogated by Tupolski, the so-called “good cop” with a grievous past, and his “bad cop” partner, the aggressive Ariel. The monikers perhaps suggest an Eastern European locale at a time of totalitarian misrule. However, Ariel and Katurian sound almost Shakespearean. One thing is for sure: you cannot be certain where the play is set.

Why is the setting in The Pillowman  such a big issue?

Well, if there is no consistency in the setting of The Pillowman, the question is: what is it then that holds the play together? Clearly, it is the power of story and the manner in which it transcends its physical, sociocultural, and political surroundings. As Miriam Haughton (‘Merging Worlds’, Focus 2012writes:

“McDonagh unleashes a tragedy that is informed and influenced by the prevailing structures associated with these places, not the places themselves. The Pillowman  critiques the ideas that serve human exchange and manage social interaction; the structures and practices of the family, law and nation and all their associated myths, traditions and dogma that haunt the places they embody.”

The Pillowman  does not identify a country, culture or a society but presents established institutional places for action to unfold in and for audiences to decode. McDonagh’s dark dramatization of these places questions the pervasive power in these mundane structures. The Pillowman  attempts to question the histories and narratives that have informed the management of places – the family home, the police station or Michal’s “special school” – and the behavioral tendencies resulting from our perception of space.

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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