I think the most successful aspect of The Pillowman was the playwright’s ability to evoke laughter from the darkest areas of my mind. My favorite line comes when the characters are discussing the effects of childhood rape on Ariel by his father. Tupolski explains, “Then Ariel murdered his father, with a pillow, right?” Ariel stood despondent in the corner. “Although, I guess you could say it was self-defense,” Tupolski continued, “I just call it ‘murder’ to tease him.” Reading it on this piece of paper, there’s nothing funny about it. The subject matter that surrounds it is all that’s abominable, and the words themselves aren’t funny. Yet, as the actor said that line, I found myself laughing louder and more deeply than I have in a long time. Why would writer Martin McDonagh choose to use humor in his play? I would say it came from necessity: to watch two-and-a-half hours of child abuse, child rape, child murder, profanity, and good old-fashioned torture would have been abysmal.
Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Humor is an almost physiological response to fear,” and this play proved that. McDonagh most likely wanted to confront his audience with this material but use humor to ironically depict it and to make something so confrontational somewhat accessible. In a strange way, the “Little Jesus” segment of the play, at least to me, was made more disturbing because of the use of humor throughout. It was as if the levity of the laughter made the fall back down into the sickening story that much more dramatic. I can see why in other college productions, the scene had been cut. But if it had here, the symmetry and rhythm of McDonagh’s play as well as the fearless humor would have been cut short.