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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The Pillowman

Martin McDonagh

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Pillowman

Title: The Pillowman
Author: Martin McDonagh
Genre: Drama
Written: 2003
Length: 104 pages
Availability: The Pillowman - US
The Pillowman - UK
The Pillowman - Canada
  • The Pillowman was first performed at the National Theatre in London on 13 November 2003, in a production directed by John Crowley and starring Jim Broadbent. The American premiere was at the Booth Theatre in New York, 10 April 2005, in a production directed by John Crowley and starring Jeff Goldblum and Billy Crudup
  • Winner of the Olivier Award for Best Play, 2004

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Our Assessment:

B : clever ideas, some decent dialogue

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B 22/4/2005 Scott Brown
The Guardian B 14/11/2003 Michael Billington
The Guardian C+ 7/2/2005 Lyn Gardner
The New Republic . 23/5/2005 Robert Brunstein
New York D 25/4/2005 John Simon
The NY Times A 11/4/2005 Ben Brantley
The Spectator F 22/11/2003 Toby Young
TLS . 28/11/2003 Toby Lichtig
USA Today A 10/4/2005 Elysa Gardner
The Village Voice . 12/4/2005 Michael Feingold
Wall Street Journal . 15/4/2005 Terry Teachout
The Washington Post . 7/5/2005 Peter Marks

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) gleefully uneven thriller (.....) McDonagh absolves neither the artist nor the art, instead declaring both monstrous while celebrating the comic abomination of it all. It's a metaphysical knot the playwright can't quite untie" - Scott Brown, Entertainment Weekly

  • "(I)n his new play he is shooting in the European dark. The result, while clever, has a feeling of hollowness. McDonagh's subject is clear: the dangerous power of literature. (...) (I)n the end, you sense that McDonagh is playing with big issues to do with literature's power to outlast tyranny rather than writing from any kind of experience." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "The Pillowman is less about whether violent imagery leads to violent acts, or even the power of literature and the threat it poses to such a state, and more about the making of the creative mind itself. This makes it both more and less interesting. (...) In the end, it seems a bit like a vanity project about Why Writers Are Very Important People by a Very Important Writer called Martin McDonagh." - Lyn Gardner, The Guardian

  • "Though hardly perfect in form, The Pillowman represents a real growth spurt for this extraordinary dramatist, an exponential leap in his imaginative powers. Much of the work is (perhaps by design) extremely derivative." - Robert Brunstein, The New Republic

  • "Somewhere in all masters of the genre there are redemptive figures or notions of the good; in The Pillowman, there is only the bad and the worse. (...) But what makes the play truly offensive, aside from an unhealthy dose of the improbable largely involving the brothers’ parents, is the smirking authorial self-satisfaction the play gloatingly exudes." - John Simon, New York

  • "Comedies don't come any blacker than The Pillowman, the spellbinding stunner of a play by Martin McDonagh (.....) (W)hat The Pillowman is about, above all, is storytelling and the thrilling narrative potential of theater itself. Let's make one thing clear: Mr. McDonagh is not preaching the power of stories to redeem or cleanse or to find a core of solid truth hidden among life's illusions. And he is certainly not exalting the teller of stories as a morally superior being." - Ben Brantley, The New York Times

  • "This is a hopelessly disorganised play in which the action keeps grinding to a halt so the main character can read out one of half a dozen or so interminable short stories. It felt less like an evening at the theatre than being trapped in a Creative Writing Workshop. I left in the interval" - Toby Young, The Spectator

  • "The Pillowman is an exceptionally funny black comedy (.....) In McDonagh's Kafkaesque world, random cruelty flourishes, as does the sense that fiction has a purpose which life lacks. (...) With his sharp insights into character, the nature of human suffering, and the juxtaposition of horror and absurdity, McDonagh has produced an engrossing theatrical spectacle." - Toby Lichtig, Times Literary Supplement

  • "But those who skip it will miss the best play of the season (...) Pillowman is the most brutal work yet from the celebrated author of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and also his most tender, examining how the redeeming and restorative powers of love and creativity can mitigate or be undone by darker impulses." - Elysa Gardner, USA Today

  • "The drama of the two brothers and their deceased parents is too much a closed system of its own to rank in the world as anything but a curious case; the drama of the two cops versus the artist is dealt with too superficially to be anything but a poking up of old ashes from some previous fire. And Katurian's stories, mimed in inset scenes while the characters narrate them, are tiny slices of cruelty that don't leave you caring whether they will or won't survive his execution." - Michael Feingold, The Village Voice

  • "The Pillowman is unlike anything else on Broadway and remains a crackling and sublimely twisted night out. (...) At times the scenes are so violent and shocking they're funny." - Peter Marks, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Pillowman is set in "a totalitarian fucking dictatorship", the writer Katurian K. Katurian ("My parents were funny people", he explains regarding the name) and his brother Michal in police custody. The play begins with Katurian being interrogated by the good cop/bad cop tag-team Tupolski and Ariel.
       Katurian hasn't had much success as a writer -- he works in an abattoir, and isn't exactly widely published -- but he's passionate about his writing. His work has now gotten him in trouble not because of any criticism of the state that could be read into it (though that doesn't help) but because he tends to write stories about horrible things happening to young children -- and now horrible things have started to happen to young children, as if someone were acting out his stories.
       Violence is part of the local interrogation method -- even when it's not expected to yield results. In this case it's not just violence against Katurian himself that's on offer, but his captors also have his developmentally retarded brother Michal to use against him -- and when Katurian hears his screams from a nearby cell it, of course, gets to him.
       McDonagh lets the story unfold slowly, revealing several unexpected layers. The interrogation scenario turns out to bear a striking similarity to earlier experiences Katurian had while growing up: when he said his parents "were funny people" he wasn't kidding (and Tupolski got it right when he chooses not to be amused: "For 'funny' I guess read 'stupid fucking idiots'"). The bizarre pedagogic experiment Katurian and Michal underwent in their formative years helps explain the dark, twisted stories.
       The mirrored scenarios (distorted, but nevertheless very similar) -- how their parents treat them, how the police treat them -- are, of course, also a reflection of the general approach such a totalitarian state has, just on a more personal level. Still, it's quite a bit McDonagh tackles here, and though it's cleverly done it doesn't work ideally.
       Katurian's stories come into play: they're recounted, in part or in full, describing what has happened to the poor unfortunate children (as well as what happened to Katurian and his brother). The extent they have to do with the crimes now actually being committed is soon revealed -- not that that makes the situation any simpler. Questions of truth, invention, and trust abound in the play, what with the stories seemingly coming to life and the suspects and interrogators responding in a way designed (but not always managing) to improve their position vis-à-vis the others -- saying often what the others want to hear, rather than the truth. The games people play -- and they're all playing games -- get at least some of them into considerable trouble; rarely do they in any way better the situation
       McDonagh's dialogue is fairly sharp and often (darkly) funny. Katurian trying to figure out what is going on -- and then trying to set the situation right, as best he can -- is fairly well done (and the stories are all fairly clever), but the play is a bit over-ambitious in its layers of surprise and connexion. An entertaining effort, if not a complete success.

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The Pillowman: Reviews: Martin McDonagh: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Drama books

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About the Author:

       Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh was born in 1970.

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© 2005-2010 the complete review

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