Last Updated on September 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 395
Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman is a dark drama that takes place in a nameless totalitarian state. The play opens in a police interrogation room as two officers, Tupolski and Ariel, question a man named Katurian about some violent child murders. Katurian is a writer of twisted stories involving children, and several of the murders mimic ideas presented in his stories. The detectives also interrogate Katurian about his brother, Michal, who is described as “slow to catch on.” Throughout the interrogation, Katurian recites some of the stories that the police believe are connected to the murders. In one particular story, Katurian tells an inverted version of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” In the original tale, a boy is kind to the Pied Piper, who then cuts off the child's foot. The hobbled boy cannot keep up with the crowd and is the only child not led out of town. In Katurian’s version, the Pied Piper’s goal was to prey on the children. Katurian also tells of his childhood when he discovered that his parents had been torturing Michal for years. When he discovered this, Katurian smothered both of his parents with a pillow.
After being tortured by his interrogators, Katurian is left alone with Michal. Katurian, who has maintained both his and Michal’s innocence, is shocked to learn that Michal actually committed the murders. When he realizes this, Katurian tells Michal a bedtime story and smothers him. Katurian takes the blame for the murders and asks in exchange that his stories be saved. Tupolski, the calmer but more cynical of the two officers, is happy to accept the confession and execute Katurian. The hot-tempered Ariel, who was abused as a child, struggles with the fairness of it. In the end, Tupolski puts a bag over Katurian’s head and then shoots him. Posthumously, Katurian tells of his last thought, which is a variation on the story of The Pillowman. The Pillowman is a mythical creature who can travel backward in time and tell children of all the misery they will encounter later in life. He gives them the option of killing themselves to spare them the misery. When he visits Michal, he declines and agrees to be tortured by his parents so that Katurian will become a great writer. In the end, Ariel secretly saves Katurian’s manuscripts instead of burning them.