The Pillowman

The Pillowman

The Pillowman

By Martin McDonagh
Directed by Les Waters
Main Season · Thrust Stage
January 12–March 11, 2007

Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

Get ready for an edgy and enthralling evening with The Pillowman, which blends black comedy and mystery until “whodunit” is the least of your concerns. A man tells creepy stories to entertain his mentally challenged brother—but then grisly murders that mirror these tales slice through town, and two cops come knocking. The Pillowman mesmerized audiences during its recent London and Broadway runs—don’t miss Berkeley Rep’s production.

Creative team

Martin McDonagh · Playwright
Les Waters · Director
Antje Ellermann · Scenic Design
Anna R. Oliver · Costume Design
Russell H. Champa · Lighting Design
Obadiah Eaves · Original Music and Sound Design
Michael Suenkel · Stage Manager
Dave Maier · Fight Director
Madeleine Oldham · Dramaturg
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Janet Foster · New York Casting


Tony Amendola · Tupolski
Nancy Carlin · Mother
Erik Lochtefeld · Katurian
Brigette Lundy-Paine · Little Girl
Matthew Maher · Michal
Andy Murray · Ariel
Brendan Reilly · Little Boy
Madeline Silverman · Little Girl
Howard Swain · Father
Gabriel Vergez · Little Boy

“Astonishing…Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman is a fairy tale wrapped in a nightmare told with uncommon mastery…a whodunit that keeps spinning outrageously out of control…with McDonagh’s trademark blend of outrageous violence and humor…Masterfully staged by Les Waters and brilliantly performed, the intricate tale resonates with questions about the art, reliablity and responsibility of storytelling…a remarkable script made riveting in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre production.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Shockingly good…Waters and his design team—including Antje Ellermann, sets, and Russell H. Champa, lights—find some terrific ways to layer past and present, fact and fiction, delight and horror…carefully and quite skillfully navigates the division between exploitation, tragedy and dark comedy…It really is shocking and thrilling.”—Oakland Tribune

“Theatrical magic…The Pillowman gives an entirely new spin to the notion of theatrical magic…Literary sleight-of-hand that leaves audiences both entertained and gasping at its fanciful detours from reality…What you are witnessing here is masterful tale-spinning…Be prepared for a breathtaking theatrical experience.”—Contra Costa Times

“Electrifying…You’ll be howling from start to finish, partly in laughter, partly in terror, usually both…There is not a false breath as the pitch-perfect ensemble channels the demons of modern society for almost three hours…The only thing that may stop us from giving a standing ovation is that we can’t quite find our legs.”—San Jose Mercury News

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

Hysterical perversity

Is there any way to explain the astonishing career of Martin McDonagh, the Irish playwright who wrote seven plays in one year, watched as they received overwhelming critical and popular acclaim and then retired from playwriting? McDonagh spent 1994 in a fever pitch, completing two trilogies and the outline for a separate play, The Pillowman. Seven plays in one year! I cannot think of a single artist whose creative time-line was so short-lived and whose work has been so acclaimed.

What makes McDonagh unique is that he has changed the rules of modern drama. It is hard to classify the plays as dark comedies or melodramatic thrillers or political satires. All such categorizations fall short of describing the work. What we can say is that the playwright’s voice is marked by ghastly and ghostly humor, a sensibility that truly embraces the features of our world. His plays are filled with characters that perform outrageously cruel acts, who are hysterically demented and who confidently live within their own delusional universe.

But McDonagh is not interested in mere sensationalism: the laughter he solicits is not indulgent, nor is it unconscious. On the contrary, it revels in the wicked truth. He is insisting that, whether we know it or not, we have collectively cultivated a new sense of humor: one based on an active sense of terror and a lot more information about how the world really works. When we watch his plays we have two contradictory responses: we resist the cruelty of the action (when we performed The Beauty Queen of Leenane several years ago audience members would literally shout at the actors to “stop” what they were about to do!) and we are hypnotically attracted to it, releasing our tension through laughter. Bloodbaths, torture, madness…heh, ain’t this some fun!

Not everyone gets the humor; there are boundaries crossed that awaken different sensibilities in all of us. But the overall experience is that we are in the hands of an artist who knows precisely what he is doing and to great effect. So it is with great anticipation that we invite you into the world of The Pillowman, brought to life in this theatrical incarnation by director Les Waters. He has assembled a wonderful group of cohorts (including our old friend Tony Amendola, up from the wilds of Los Angeles to grace our stage). Together with McDonagh, they conjure the diabolical love for the world that keeps us on the edge of our seats.

Hold on tight.

Tony Taccone

A mind in Connemara: The savage world of Martin McDonagh

By Fintan O’Toole

As a child, the playwright Martin McDonagh spent nearly every summer with his parents and older brother in Connemara, a rugged region on Ireland’s west coast. Once, when he was six, his family boarded a curragh—a long rowboat made of slatted wood, of the sort that local fishermen have used for almost two thousand years—and made the trip from Lettermullan, the Connemara fishing village where his father grew up, to the Aran Islands, ten miles off the coast. Being on the boat surrounded by so much empty sky and water terrified McDonagh, but at the same time he was exhilarated. The landscape “always stuck in my mind,” he recalled. “Just the lunar quality, the remoteness, the wildness, the loneliness of it.”

Oscar Wilde described Connemara as “wild mountainous country,” “in every way magnificent,” and both W.B. Yeats and John Millington Synge saw it as the repository of a simpler way of life, untainted by modern vulgarity. Robert Flaherty’s 1934 documentary, Man of Aran, portrayed the local fishermen as emblems of a timeless struggle for survival in a pitiless universe. And Lucky, in his deranged monologue in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, laments that the region’s rocky terrain seems to weigh on its human inhabitants: “the stones so blue so calm alas alas on on the skull the skull the skull the skull in Connemara.”

McDonagh has a less romantic conception of the place. At thirty-five, he is perhaps the most successful young playwright of the past decade—in 1997, he was widely described as the first dramatist since Shakespeare to have four works professionally produced on the London stage in a single season—and his plays, black comedies in which acts of extreme cruelty and violence are routine, are merciless rebukes to literary sentimentality.

Populated by misfits and miscreants, McDonagh’s Connemara is an amoral, anarchic place, where authority has crumbled; as Father Welsh, the hapless priest in The Lonesome West, puts it, “It seems like God has no jurisdiction.” In this world, an argument over potato chips or a disparaging remark about a pet cat can lead to murder and suicide. McDonagh’s characters are not adults but, rather, overgrown children, who crave and rage and gloat. His plays—the two trilogies and a drama called The Pillowman, all of which were conceived in 1994, when McDonagh was twenty-four—display the masterly mechanics of Georges Feydeau, the richly idiosyncratic dialogue of Synge, and the gallows humor of Joe Orton. But McDonagh is a different kind of playwright; he is bloody and outlandish, a storyteller whose appeal is primarily visceral. During the London run of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the first play in the Leenane trilogy, audiences actually cried, “Stop! Don’t do it!” as they watched Maureen, the play’s long-suffering middle-aged protagonist, hold the hand of Mag, her mother, over a hot stove and douse it with boiling oil.

McDonagh himself is disconcertingly unassuming. [He] lives alone, in Limehouse, a trendy neighborhood in East London, in a flat overlooking the Thames which he bought with income from productions of his plays, and he spends a week each Christmas at his parents’ house […] “The Martin I know is quiet, genial, funny, courteous, extremely easy to get on with,” says Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National Theatre in London, who staged the first production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, in 1997. “That cruel imagination is an interior affair. It comes from somewhere that’s not accessible to anyone else.”

McDonagh’s father, a construction worker, and his mother, a cleaner and part-time housekeeper, met and married in the nineteen-sixties, in London, where they had moved from Ireland in search of better wages. McDonagh, who was born in 1970, was the second of their two children. His relationship with his brother, John, who is two and a half years older, was intense, and was characterized, McDonagh says, by “love, love, love, and a tiny spark of hate” […] Fraternal conflict is a recurring theme in his work: both The Lonesome West and The Pillowman revolve around the intimate, often fractious relationship of a pair of brothers. The [Lonesome West] reminded one friend of McDonagh’s of being at a party at the playwright’s home in the mid-nineteen-nineties and watching him and John have “a very serious row about who owned a toasted-cheese sandwich.”

Like other working-class Irish expatriates, McDonagh’s parents coped with their dislocation by trying to re-create the world of home, living among other Irish families first in Elephant and Castle, a low-rent London neighborhood, and, later, in nearby Camberwell. McDonagh remembers hearing the songs of the Irish folk group the Dubliners “blaring out from the next-door prefab.” At home, his mother listened to the ballads of the Irish singer Delia Murphy, one of which, “The Spinning Wheel,” is played on the radio in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, as a special request for Mag’s birthday from her daughters, soon after Maureen beats her to death with a poker. (McDonagh says that his parents “aren’t crazy about the plays.”)

McDonagh and his brother attended Catholic schools, where most of the teachers were Irish priests, and where most of the pupils were of Irish descent. Religious as a child, he lost his faith at the age of twelve, about the time that he began listening to his brother’s punk-rock records—in particular, the raucous, anti-establishment songs of the Clash. “I started questioning, partly as a reaction to just being around priests in my school,” he said. “None of them were particularly vicious or spiteful to me, but you could see it with other kids. Some of them were nice, some of them were thugs.”

McDonagh’s parents encouraged him and John to play traditional Irish sports, like hurling, but they refused. Their father had grown up speaking Gaelic, and the brothers heard the language for six weeks in the summer, when they visited their father’s family in Connemara, and occasionally in London, when aunts and uncles came to stay. Their father tried to teach them a few words, but they quickly forgot them. The conflict in Northern Ireland entered its bloodiest phase during McDonagh’s childhood and, though his parents were sympathetic to the Catholic nationalist side, he was deeply suspicious of the terror campaign of the Irish Republican Army and of the sentimental cult surrounding the men who died for the cause. “Even from an early age, I was trying to think about all that stuff myself,” he said. “I was always coming from a left-wing or pacifist or anarchist angle that started with punk, and which was against all nationalisms.”

The Clash had taught him to be skeptical of authority, but the Pogues, a London Irish punk band that combined the raw aggression of the Sex Pistols with the lyrical storytelling of traditional Irish ballads, provided a more valuable lesson: they showed him that he didn’t have to discard his Irish heritage; he could make use of it instead. “Even while they were trying to destroy the crap side of Irish folk, they still had brilliant lyrics, brilliant tunes, and a love of music,” McDonagh said. “Maybe not consciously, I was beginning to get the same idea: taking the parts you love and destroying the parts you hate.”

Just as the Pogues set harsh new lyrics to old Irish tunes, McDonagh’s plays subject the pieties of Irish Catholicism and nationalism to impudent satire. Father Welsh, the priest in The Lonesome West, is so ineffectual at enforcing moral standards that his parish becomes, as he complains, “the murder capital of fecking Europe.” He consoles himself with whiskey and Coleman’s reassurances that, unlike “half the priests in Ireland,” he doesn’t abuse children. Padraic, the antihero of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, the second play in the Aran Islands trilogy, is a member of an I.R.A. splinter group who, with unflinching enthusiasm, tortures and dismembers his victims but dotes on his pet cat. He reserves his moral indignation for the suggestion, from a young woman who fancies him, that he is more attracted to boys than to girls: “I do not prefer boys! There’s no boy-preferers involved in Irish terrorism, I’ll tell you that! They stipulate when you join.”

Admirers have ascribed McDonagh’s power as a satirist to his vantage point as an Irishman who grew up in England. “No one who isn’t Irish could have caught that world so dead-on right,” Nicholas Hytner told me. “But there is in Martin also a kind of alert, sarcastic, cocky South London street voice—the side of him that is ruthless with sentimentality. That’s something that is much more Camberwell than Connemara.” The plays are quite literally mongrels: they are written in an English that uses Gaelic syntax and yields oddly coiled sentences like “When it’s there I am, it’s here I wish I was, of course,” and they exhibit an acute self-consciousness about language.

McDonagh went to the theatre for the first time in 1984, when he was fourteen. He had loved Al Pacino in The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon, so he saved up enough money to buy a ticket to see the actor on the London stage, in a production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo. Pacino’s manic, swaggering, self-mocking performance, and Mamet’s demotic arias, in which banal squabbles acquire an epic momentum, impressed him, but, at the time, he was less interested in theatre than in film. When he went to the theatre again, it was in 1986, to see Martin Sheen, whom he had loved in Badlands, and who was playing the lead role in a London production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart.

McDonagh’s brother left school at seventeen, intending to be a writer, and started to live on welfare. (He is now a screenwriter—his script Ned Kelly was made into a film, which was released in 2003, with Heath Ledger in the title role.) As soon as McDonagh turned sixteen, he did the same. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “I didn’t want to educate myself toward some kind of job. I didn’t even want a job. I didn’t want a boss.” His mother insisted that he find work, and he would go on interviews for menial jobs and make his lack of interest so apparent to prospective employers that he would not be hired. Subsisting happily on fifty dollars a week in unemployment benefits, he played snooker, watched television, and read books that John brought home. “Every book or piece of music I listened to was something that he liked first,” he said. McDonagh particularly liked the novels of Vladimir Nabokov and the stories of Jorge Luis Borges. “Maybe it was best that I hadn’t really been forced into reading books I didn’t like at school, because I retained a love of literature,” he said. “I read everything I could find by Borges straight through, and that got me going in terms of storytelling. And of thinking outside of your own little locale, thinking you can set a story in space, or in 1800 in Paraguay.”

When he was sixteen, he told John a story based on an old folktale […] John liked the story, so McDonagh wrote it down. “That was the first time I thought, ‘This seems like something someone should have thought of before, but it’s not, it’s mine,’” he said. (A version of the tale appears in The Pillowman.) After a year and a half, his welfare payments ran out, and he found work stacking shelves in a supermarket. He quit as soon as he became eligible for the dole again. Eventually, he got a part-time job as an administrative assistant in the Department of Trade and Industry, but he drifted into his early twenties without acquiring either a girlfriend or a career. However, the tedium of his job was ultimately motivating. “It made me think, I have to do something, because I don’t want to be stuck here for the rest of my life,” he said.

In 1992, when McDonagh was twenty-two, his father retired and his parents returned to Ireland, leaving him and John alone in the house in Camberwell. The brothers bought a videocassette recorder and watched films like Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, and Goodfellas. They also watched television indiscriminately—everything from soap operas to BBC productions of plays, including Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter. Pinter intrigued McDonagh: “I could see that he was using dialogue for its own sake, not just to convey information or carry the plot, and I was drawn to the sinister aspects of the writing.”

In 1994, John won a fellowship to study screenwriting at the University of Southern California and moved to Los Angeles. McDonagh quit his job at the Department of Trade and Industry and, alone in the house in Camberwell, began to write every day. In nine months, he produced drafts of seven plays—his entire dramatic corpus. (Only one of the plays has not been staged: The Banshees of Inisheer, which, McDonagh says, “isn’t any good.”) Each morning, after eating a bowl of bran flakes, he would sit in his bedroom, at a child’s desk facing a window with a view of a bleak concrete yard, and write with a pencil in a spiral notebook. He would begin by making a mark in the notebook two pages ahead of where he had left off the previous night. Then he would listen to the voices in his head, voices that spoke not in Mamet’s caustic American or in Pinter’s terse London English but in the looping locutions of Connemara. McDonagh felt almost as though he were taking dictation. He would hear Pato Dooley, Maureen’s would-be lover in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, speaking in a voice not unlike his father’s, describing his life as a construction worker in England: “And when I’m over there in London and working in rain and it’s more or less cattle I am, and the young fellas cursing over cards and drunk and sick, and the foul digs over there, all pee-stained mattresses and nothing to do but watch the clock.”

The voices amused him, and he often talked to them. “I felt like I was trying to keep up with Valene and Coleman and their nonsense, or Mag and Maureen,” McDonagh said. “But they’d be coming out with it so fast, I’d be ‘O.K., stop talking. I have to get this down.’” He would write for two hours, until he reached the mark he had made in his notebook, then, after a short break, make another mark and fill up those pages, too.

In the afternoon, he would watch soap operas on television. The shows seeped into his plays, as if his characters were watching along with him, but, more important, they taught him technique. By now, he had read dozens of plays, but he had seen only half a dozen onstage. Yet his drafts reveal a sure grasp of the mechanics of dramatic narrative—an understanding of how to move characters in and out of scenes gracefully, plant crucial information in seemingly insignificant scenes early on, and, conversely, hide information by presenting it at times when the audience is distracted by a joke or an episode of violence.

McDonagh wrote every day, seldom leaving the house and hardly speaking to anyone. The night he finished his first play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, he went to a night club. As he stood on a balcony, looking down at a couple kissing, he didn’t feel jealous. “I may not have a girlfriend, but I have The Beauty Queen,” he said to himself. He knew that the play was a success, that its action had a clear, uncluttered flow that could sweep an audience along—if it ever found an audience. He started to send his plays to theatre companies. Most did not respond. In the spring of 1995, Garry Hynes, the director of the Druid Theatre, in Galway, found herself “sitting down one night after dinner at home, with the script of A Skull in Connemara. As soon as I read the dialogue, I wanted to hear it, to the degree that I started reading it aloud to myself. I very clearly remember reading it aloud and throwing myself on the floor in paroxysms of laughter.” She called McDonagh, and asked to see his other plays. He sent her the rest of the Leenane trilogy, and Hynes immediately bought the rights to produce all three.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane opened in Galway in February, 1996. McDonagh arrived several weeks beforehand, to attend rehearsals, and while he was there Hynes and the actors took him out to dinner. It was McDonagh’s first meal in a fancy restaurant. One of the actors ordered tzatziki, and McDonagh, who had never tasted it, was deeply impressed and, for the first time, aware of his lack of social experience. He was wary of being in the limelight. When Hynes was preparing the playbill for Beauty Queen, she gave him a draft of his biographical note. “He said, ‘I don’t want any biography, I don’t want any attention,’” she recalled. “I remember saying, ‘Martin, if you don’t put in any biography, there’s going to be a lot more attention than if you do.’”

Nine months later, he received the Most Promising Playwright Prize at the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards ceremony, which was held at the Savoy Hotel. “I was so nervous at having to collect it that myself and my brother got tanked up on vodka, and the vodka really kicked in by the time we arrived at the Savoy,” he said. “And we were a little bit rowdy when they started toasting the Queen, good Irish boys that we were. And Sean Connery came over and told us to shut up and I told him to fuck off. He backed away and we left, and I can’t remember a single thing about the rest of the event. Apparently I kissed Jessica Lange, but I have no memory of that whatsoever.”

McDonagh awoke the next day to find himself the subject of a national scandal. (“IRISH WRITER CURSES BOND AT ARTS BASH” a headline in the Daily Mirror read.) Initially, he welcomed the notoriety; it gave him a persona to hide behind, that of the drunken, volcanic Irish writer, a familiar stereotype. He also earned a reputation for arrogance by repeatedly declaring his indifference to most plays other than his own. “I always thought theatre was the least interesting of the art forms,” he told me when I first met him, in 1997. “I’d much rather sit at home and watch a good TV play or series than go to the theatre.”

In the late nineteen-nineties, the Druid, the Royal Court, and the National—theatres that had produced his work in the past—refused to stage The Lieutenant of Inishmore, whose graphic depiction of torture, murder, and dismemberment, even within the framework of a madcap farce, was deemed both offensive and politically insensitive. Written before the peace process gained momentum in Northern Ireland, it presents a savage critique of Irish-nationalist terrorism and was intended to provoke. “I was trying to write a play that would get me killed,” McDonagh said. “I had no real fear that I would be, because the paramilitaries never bothered with playwrights anyway, but if they were going to start I wanted to write something that would put me top of the list.” In part, the play was motivated by rage at the I.R.A.’s tactics—the group’s willingness to kill innocent civilians in order to make a political point—but he admits that he was equally inspired by a desire to test the limits of dramatic storytelling.

McDonagh retaliated by announcing in the press that he would submit no new plays until The Lieutenant was produced. In November, 2000, Harper’s & Queen published a series of photographs by David Bailey of famous thirty-year-olds, including McDonagh. In a caption, McDonagh denounced the Royal Court and the National for lacking the courage to stage the play. Simon Reade, then the literary manager of the Royal Shakespeare Company, saw the photograph and approached McDonagh’s agent, asking for a copy of The Lieutenant. It opened at the R.S.C. in May, 2001, and was a critical and popular success. Mark Lawson, writing in The Guardian, said that the play “made me shade my eyes and worry about seeing my lunch again. It’s theatrically gross but also thrillingly written and politically challenging.” The fruits of his miraculous year made McDonagh seem, in public, amazingly prolific. In truth, however, his insistence on seeing The Lieutenant of Inishmore onstage before delivering more work obscured the fact that he had none to offer. He was terrified that the deluge of voices and stories that had come over him in 1994 had been an anomaly. “I did so much stuff in that year that I’d been worried that that was my writing time, that was it,” he said.

The fear abated somewhat when, after the London run of The Lieutenant, he returned to his 1994 draft of The Pillowman and began to rework it. The play, which premiered at the National Theatre, in November, 2003, has since been produced in Tokyo and in New York, where it received six Tony nominations. It remains the case, however, that McDonagh has not written a new play in more than a decade.

During this time, his life has changed dramatically. His plays have made him wealthy, and, in addition to his luxury apartment on the Thames, he has acquired a closet full of elegant, quietly expensive clothes. He travels frequently for pleasure, following the Irish national soccer team to games abroad. And though he is now single, he has had girlfriends. Recently, he has begun writing screenplays. In 2004, he directed his first film, Six Shooter, a twenty seven-minute short in which a bereaved man, played by Brendan Gleeson, encounters a young psychopath on a train, leading to a Wild West-style shoot-out. McDonagh found the experience extremely stressful. As a playwright, he did not deal directly with the actors and stagehands who produced his work. On the set of Six Shooter, he was responsible for a cast and crew of twenty. He struggled with his shyness, his lack of technical expertise, and the need to think in images as well as in words. In January, the film, which was shown in art-house cinemas in England and Ireland, and on Irish television, received an Oscar nomination for best live-action short, and it will have a limited release in the United States. Next year, McDonagh will direct his first full-length feature, In Bruges, about two hit men who take refuge in the Belgian city after accidentally killing a child.

McDonagh flew to New York to attend rehearsals for the American premiere of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. The Atlantic [Theatre Company]’s production represents the end of a chapter for McDonagh. His other works (with the exception of the never-produced Banshees of Inisheer) have all been staged in New York. “It’s the last play that’s been performed elsewhere that hasn’t been performed here,” he said. He insists that he has no intention of writing another play.

“I think I’ve said enough as a young dramatist,” he said. “Until I’ve lived a little more, and experienced a lot more things, and I have more to say that I haven’t said already, it will just feel like repeating the old tricks.” For a moment, McDonagh looked disconsolate. But he sounded hopeful. “I want to just write for the love of it,” he said. “And also grow up, because all the plays have the sensibility of a young man.”

Excerpted from the full article which appeared in the March 6, 2006 issue of The New Yorker. Reprinted with author’s permission.



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