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'They're just paper': Interpreting Stories and the Storyteller in The Pillowman

'They're just paper': Interpreting Stories and the Storyteller in The Pillowman

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Emer McHugh. Originally submitted for Arts with Theatre and Performance , with lecturer Dr. Patrick Lonergan in the category of English Literature
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Emer McHugh. Originally submitted for Arts with Theatre and Performance , with lecturer Dr. Patrick Lonergan in the category of English Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 30, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
‘They’re just paper’: Interpreting Stories and the Storyteller in
The Pillowman
 [1]
‘They’re just paper’:
 
Interpreting Stories and the Storyteller in
The Pillowman
 
The statement
„The only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story‟ (
The Pillowman
, 7) constantly
rings out throughout Martin McDonagh‟s
The Pillowman
. But what at first seems a fairlyinnocuous statement becomes an incredibly contested one, as
The Pillowman
seeminglydebates the aesthetic a
nd didactic functions of the writer Katurian‟s
work, and indeed the actof storytelling as a whole. He himself protests that he
is „not trying to say anything at all‟
(16)in his writing, but are his fairytales of mutilated, murdered children
1
subject to suchdidacticism solely because of their content, as the detectives Tupolski and Ariel believe? Thisleads us to consider the reaction
to Katurian‟s
earlier, considerably less violent stories, andalso to consider their potency compared to the rest of hi
s canon. Katurian‟s role
as astoryteller also looms largely over the play, allowing Joan Fitzpatrick Dean to chart an
„increasi
ng per
formativity‟ as it progresses
, which she suggests
„foregrounds the act of 
storytelling and invites the audience to see Katurian as a self-
conscious artist‟
.
2
In that case,as two of the most horrifying stories in the play,
„The Writer and the Writer‟s Brother‟ and„The Little Jesus‟, are brought to life before the audience‟s eyes,
we are invited to considerthe relationship
 – 
and subsequently, the limitations of such a relationship
 – 
between
Katurian‟s stories, McDonagh‟s conception of the thea
tre, and indeed what is acceptable forthe stage.When examining the volume of articles and reviews written on
The Pillowman
, onecannot escape f 
rom the theory that Katurian „is one of McDonagh‟s readings of 
himself 
,especially in terms of artistic responsibility.
3
 
Dean, Michael C. O‟Neill,
and Noël Carroll
among others subscribe to this view, although Patrick Lonergan warns that „McDonagh‟s
1
 
Patrick Lonergan reminds us that some of Katurian’s stories owe debts to those told by the likes of theBrothers Grimm, some of which are ‘about pairs of brothers who represent opposing traits *...+ brothers whoband together to overcome their enemies’ and ‘terrible acts of violence being committed by parents againsttheir children’. See
The Theatre and Films of Martin McDonagh
(London: Methuen, 2012), p.112.
2
Joan Fitzpa
trick Dean, ‘Martin McDonagh’s stagecraft’, in Richard Rankin Russell (ed.),
Martin McDonagh: ACasebook 
(Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2007), p.35-6.
3
 
Michael C. O’Neill, ‘
Mourning Becomes Electra by Eugene O'Neill; Howard Davies; The Pillowman by MartinMcDonagh; John Crowley
’,
Theatre Journal 
56.4 (2004), p.670.
 
‘They’re just paper’: Interpreting Stories and the Storyteller in
The Pillowman
 [2]
 presentation of himself should not be presented as accurate‟
in such a context.
4
A statementthat McDonagh made in an interview with
The Los Angeles Times
, as
The Pillowman
debutedon Broadway,
 
has become a frequent reference point, and raises questions about authorialresponsibility and intent:
In terms of the larger issues he raises about creativity and the writer's moral responsibilities, he says,
there are no easy answers. “
I think it does say that creativity is beautiful and worthwhile for its own
sake,” he says, “
But in terms of responsibility? I don't think that Martin Scorsese can be heldrespons
ible because John Hinckley saw „Taxi Driver‟
many times and became obsessed with JodieFoster. If something happened
to a child after a person saw „Pillowman,‟
I'd definitely feel guilty aboutit, but I wouldn't be culpable
.
5
 
This eschewing of culpability and its separation from intent are tied together by Tupolski
after he paraphrases „The Three Gibbet Crossroads‟: „All this story to me, this story is a
pointer. [...] It is saying to me, on the surface I am saying this, but underneath the surface Iam saying this ot
her thing‟ (18
-9). For Tupolski
and Ariel, stories must have such a „pointer‟
or moral lesson at its heart, and as Lonergan surmises
, they „insist that Katurian‟s storiesmust have a metaphorical as well as a literal meaning‟.
6
Carroll, and also Hana and W.B.Worthen,
refer to Katurian‟s stories as „parables‟, implying that
they present us with
[a](usually realistic) story or narrative told to convey a moral or spiritual lesson or insight [...]Something that may be pointed to as an example or illustration, an exemplary case; a model,
a lesson‟.
7
 
Tupolski‟s
attempt at storytelling
, „The Story of the Little Deaf Boy on the BigLong Railroad Tracks. In China‟
, illustrates such a
model
:
„if it doesn‟t sum up my world
view, it sums up my view of detective work and the relation of that detective work to the
world at large‟ (85).
To his mind, stories serve to instruct and to inform the reader that,
„because of [his]
toiling away with [his] detective work, that little boy is going to be safe
from that train‟ (90).
 
Although his work is subject to allegorical interpretation by the likes of Tupolski and his brother Michal
8
, Katurian vehemently disagrees with such an assessmentand with didactic reading as a whole:
4
See Dean, p.29;
O’Neill, p.670; Noël Carroll, ‘
Martin McDonagh's
The Pillowman
, or The Justification of Literature
’,
Philosophy and Literature
35.1 (2001),
p.171; and Patrick Lonergan, quoted in Brian Cliff, ‘
ThePillowman
: a new story to tell’, in Richard Rankin Russell (ed.),
Martin McDonagh: A Casebook 
(Oxford andNew York: Routledge, 2007), p.132.
5
 
Patrick Pacheco, ‘Laughing matters’,
Los Angeles Times
, May 22
nd
2005,<http://articles.latimes.com/2005/may/22/entertainment/ca-pillowman22>
6
Lonergan, p.105.
7
 
‘Parable’,
Oxford English Dictionary 
; Carroll, p.171; Hana Worthen and W.B. Worthen, ‘
The Pillowman
and the
Ethics of Allegory’,
Modern Drama
49.2 (2006), p. 160.
8
Worthen and Worthen, p.160.
 
‘They’re just paper’: Interpreting Stories and the Storyteller in
The Pillowman
 [3]
You read these things,
these „stories‟, supposedly, „The police are all this‟, „The governmentis all this.‟ All these political... what would you call „em? „The government should be doingthis.‟ Please. Fuck off. You know what I say? I say if you‟ve got a political axe to grind
, if 
you‟ve got a political what
-do-ya-call-it, go write a fucking essay, I will know where I stand. Isay keep your left-wing this, keep your right-wing that and tell me a fucking story! (7)
Katurian‟s statement claims a
n apolitical stance, but he also can be accused, asLonergan does so, of judging his work rather superficially.
9
Despite his protests, it appearsthat the most inoffensive story that he writes can in fact carry a political agenda
 – 
somethingwhich is completely overlooked by the detectives, who focus on the more violent stories inhis canon
. With unmistakable overtones of Orwell‟s
 Animal Farm
, „The Little Green Pig‟
 
 – 
 the story of the titular non-conformist swine whose owners forcibly change his colour to an
„unpaintoverable‟
pink 
 – 
can be
read in the context of the play‟s totalitarian setting: „Oh please God, please don‟t make me like all the rest. I‟m happy in being a little bit peculiar‟
(65). Eamonn Jordan also reads this story through a political lens, claiming that it
„suggests
that individuality cannot be obscured, despite the broad strokes of an ideologically repressive
society‟.
10
However,
the detectives‟ focus
on the
other stories‟ violent content
and on whatthey believe to be their particular motif,
which Tupolski summarises as: „
Some poor little kidgets fucked up
(15), perhaps results in a total misreading of 
„The Little Green Pig‟
:
Tupolski
Obviously the girl was painted green and put in with the piglets to act out...
Ariel
To act out „The Little Green Pig‟ story. Brilliant, Tupolski. You must‟ve got that fromthe green paint and the piglets. The question is, why? Why didn‟t they kill her too? And why
did he say he did?
Tupolski
Shh, I‟m reading through the story, and see if there are any clues.
 
Ariel
(laughs)
We could just ask him!
Tupolski
I‟m reading through this, I said! (96
-7)
It is unclear if the writing of the story was unintentionally conditioned in the context of theunnamed totalitarian regime. However, it proves that an innocuous story about a little greenpig could be just as potent, or carry as many multiple meanings, as a violent story about alittle girl crucified for claiming that she is Christ incarnate. As both Tupolski and Katurianclaim authorial intent as a sole locus of interpretation, even if their opinions may differentiateon what that intent may be, the Worthens cite Paul de Man in suggesting
that the play „locatesthe ethics of allegory less in the “work itself” than in the “intervention of extra
-textual
9
Lonergan, p.106.
10
 
Eamonn Jordan, ‘War on Narrative:
The Pillowman
’, in (eds.) Lilian Chambers and Eamonn Jordan,
TheTheatre of Martin McDonagh: A World of Savage Stories
(Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2006), p.188.

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