I was greatly intrigued by Katurian’s short story about the Pillowman, and why McDonagh chose it as the namesake of his entire production. I did not understand the story the first time I heard it, nor the second time, but only after it was explained to me by a friend. After putting some thought to it now, though, and looking at how it applies to the rest of the play, I’ve come to hold a little stronger grasp of it.
In Katurian’s story, the Pillowman is a character whose job it is to convince young children to commit suicide before they become adults. He assumes that all children are unhappy- and if happy, only deceivingly so- and that their unhappiness will only grow as they grow older, until eventually as thoroughly unhappy adults they will take their lives anyway. He sees it as his mission to rescue them from the tragedies of life. Unfortunately he is often unsuccessful, a fact that breaks his heart over and over again. He realizes that in order to keep his own heart from breaking thus he must go back in time and convince his own young boy-self to erase the possibility of adulthood tragedy by burning himself, the Pillowman, to death. It’s quite gruesome. But when he does this, he hears the piercing cry of the thousands of young children who never would receive the refreshing comfort of his soft and happy-looking Pillowman-self, and would go on to die later in life unhappy and alone. He disappears in smoke to the shriek their cries.
Since the play is titled The Pillowman, this story must in some clever way reverberate throughout it. Its theme of unhappy children is obvious: none of the characters in the story- Katurian, Michael, Michael’s three victims, Tupolski, and Ariel- has a pleasant, happy-go-lucky childhood with a good ending. The Pillowman’s assumption is right. However, he doesn’t seem to come to life in any individual character. Obviously none of the characters fully takes on the job of “designated Pillowman,” for none of them frequently goes back in time to convince young children to die. However, there are bits of Pillowman-personality in many of them.
For example, Katurian does kill Michael with the intent of saving him from later torture and brutal execution. And both Ariel and Tupolski have devoted their lives to protecting children from the sad tragedies of life. In these aspects of their lives these characters possess the vulgar heroism of the Pillowman. In other aspects they possess also his final irony. For Katurian’s murder of his brother only serves to come against him later as providing the authorities a reason to burn his stories, and Tupolski and Ariel, despite their best efforts, at the end of the day are still left with grief and tragedy on their hands.
The message of Katurian’s short Pillowman story- that is, the futility of attempting to dispel unhappiness from the world- thus becomes the message of the greater story as well. It’s a strange twist, and a strange method to reinforce a theme, but it certainly works. After watching The Pillowman there was hardly a feeling of hope or happiness within me.
(After doing some research I found that McDonagh very likely wrote the play immediately after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington D.C. Perhaps he was trying to convey that initial overwhelming dismay and disbelief in the goodness of the world. If so, this he quite convincingly achieved.)