“My main source of thinking about how violence happens is myself, and in some ways all my characters are me. I write about human beings, and since I am one, the ways in which all human beings operate is feasibly within my understanding. I don’t think of the world being divided up into men and women, victims and perpetrators. I don’t think those are constructive divisions to make, and they make for very poor writing.”
“I am convinced that the theatre is part of the most fundamental of human needs. I believe that if a city is destroyed by a bomb, the people first of all look for food and shelter, and having provided these necessities they start to tell their stories.”
Sarah Kane is one of the most popular playwrights of contemporary British theatre. Her works are almost twenty years old now, but her influence continues to be latent in theatre. She is one of the most talked about playwrights of her generation, as well as one of the most studied authors by academics and fanatics alike.
Kane penned five plays: Blasted (her most famous and controversial) was first performed in 1995; Phaedra’s Love (an adaptation of Seneca’s play, which she also directed) in 1996; both Cleansed and Crave were first performed in 1998; and 4.48 Psychosis (which was performed posthumously) in 2000. She also wrote the script of a short film called Skin, which was aired by Channel 4 in 1995. Her work was experimental in both content and form and with time it almost started lacking structure. Her last two plays actually take a formless structure – they have no established plot, no characters as such: they could be branded as a form of poetry, a stream-of-consciousness for the stage.
Her work is not specifically feminist (as it is not specifically anything, really): she refused to be classified by any specific label, and insisted that she did not have a “responsibility as a writer.” She stated that “[t]he only responsibility is towards the truth, as awful the truth might be” and insisted that she did “not feel a responsibility towards the audience or to other women.” She made a special point as well to make it clear her work was not about “sexual politics” and she believed that an emphasis and a focus on specific themes such as those was problematic and socially damaging, given that “[a]n overemphasis on sexual politics (or racial or class politics) is a diversion from our main problem. Class, race and gender divisions are symptomatic of societies based on violence or the threat of violence, not the cause.” That is why her work is so difficult and almost impossible to classify, because she made an almost deliberate effort to tackle a wide arrange of topics. Even so, she openly analysed the dynamics experienced by the human being in relation to the extremes of love. She was a writer of connections, and the reader will not only find connections that bind all of her plays together, but will also be able to analyse her texts in regards of what connects the events and actions within each scene or within each act.
Her first three plays, as well as her short script, feature as main characters a female and a male lead. Kane takes that setting and establishes a different relationship for each play, although it could be argued she explores similar themes in all of them. I am going to focus on three of her plays: Blasted, Phaedra’s Love and Cleansed, because I believe they are the ones that deal with topics more specific to what Faceless Ladies is all about. However, if you are interested in theatre and have never read Kane, or if you are really interested in what you are about to read, as a Kane enthusiast I encourage you to read all of her work.
Blasted features an ex-couple that has reunited in a hotel room to spend the night. We don’t know the relationship these characters used to share or the one that they have now, we only know that there is something off about their relationship, that there is a very noticeable age different between them, and that- as Kane mentioned herself: the spectator can tell there is a power inequality between both characters. It is because of the problems in the power balance in that relationship that in between the first and second scenes Cate (the female main character) is raped by Ian (the male main character). This is not an act that can be seen in the play, but Kane mirrors this horror several times afterwards, bringing it to the surface through several reenactments. The horrors of daily domestic acts of violence are explored and linked to the horrors of full-scale war. There is a clear and deliberate connection between domestic violence and warfare violence, linking the acts of rape and the acts of death just as well – as Kane mentioned “part of killing someone is raping them” and that is why she chose to have both the act of domestic violence held within the familiar sphere, and the acts of war held within the social and political sphere happening at the very same hotel room. As Kane put it “[t]he unity of place suggests a paper-thin wall between the safety and civilisation of peacetime Britain and the chaotic violence of civil war. A wall that can be torn down at any time, without warning.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Blasted is Cate. There is a certain mystery surrounding this character: she is a young girl that has chosen to be in a hotel room with an older, abusive man. Her transformation during the play is unexpected, and the fact that as a character she goes through several phases, exploring several social roles, is clear. She is a problematic character in the sense that she is a complex, humane character. She commits mistakes, and she finds herself transformed out of the tragedy she experiences. All of the characters in the play go through an inner transformation: they are forced to face the highest forms of pain and the most unimaginable horrors and then they are forced to endure it, and start over again. This dynamic clearly affects the way they interact with one another. If at the beginning of the play Ian was in power because of the actions he had performed on Cate – both in the past and during the action held within the play – at the end, the events he has experienced – which are only a consequence of his own actions – have transformed and changed such power. Personally I do not like to say there is a reversal of power roles in Blasted, I believe the play is much more complex than that, but that there is a power shift is undeniable. Both Ian and Cate are able to suffer through the events, and the play ends with both interacting, perhaps similarly to what they did at the beginning, but they do it with a different attitude as their development has been so great.
In Phaedra’s Love we are presented with a dysfunctional Royal family: an absent King, a Queen in love with her step son, a depressed Prince. As the characters are introduced, we are immediately aware of what Phaedra (the main female character, the Queen) feels for Hippolytus (the male main character, the Prince), and she also seems to be on the verge of surrendering to her love, wanting Hippolytus both to change who he is (a terrible and depressed human being who does nothing all day other than masturbating and having spontaneous and unsatisfactory sexual encounters with whoever might be interested – except for Phaedra) but also to revel in his own self so that he can be happy no matter the consequences. While this is probably Kane’s most conventional, structured and somewhat accessible play, it still has the in your face Kane signature move. In Phaedra’s Love Kane explores the dichotomy between the terms of the loved and the lover. As David Greig put it, Kane “marked out the two poles that are the extremes of the human response to love. She also exposed the bitter irony, which is that those of one pole are driven to seek out those of the other.” This brings for a need for the reformation of the self, which eventually does lead to a certain loss of such self. As Greig mentioned, “[u]nable to find love and unable to cease loving, the characters find refuge in mutability, transcending their own limits”. It is interesting to see that, while the original play by Seneca “showed Phaedra driven towards a love which respulses her, Kane portrays the emotion as one impossible to resist” (Graham Saunders). Arguably, Kane insisted on portraying a dark side of love, one that must be consumed, no matter what the consequences are.
Another very interesting topic explored in Phaedra’s Love is its treatment of honesty, and how the need to be honest both with oneself and with society can be brutal. As Saunders put it, Kane conceived Hippolytus as a “puritan who desires brutal truth over flattery and empty rhetoric, even when that truth can be harmful to others”, both Hippolytus and Pheadra are actually brutally honest characters, accepting themselves and not hiding the most terrifying aspects of their selves to anybody. That pursuit of the truth, for Phaedra, represents making her love for Hippolytus public by both putting forward what she feels and by setting him free: Kane believed that made Phaedra the “first person to become active in the play – her accusation and later suicide liberate Hippolytus and set off the most extraordinary set of events leading to the collapse of monarchy”, and that is when Hippolytus decides to take his own personal ethics of honesty to the grave: “I’ve lived by honesty, let me die by it” he says, refusing until the very last moment to conform to society’s behavioral rules.
There could be said to be a power play in Phaedra’s Love, after all it does depict a battle between two characters, but I would argue Kane makes special efforts to make it clear nobody is successful in this battle. Because while the actions of Phaedra do compose a certain set of consequences, all characters are perhaps aware that their battle is one that cannot ever be won, no matter how many times or for how long it is fought for.
So it could be said that, while Kane’s work explored violence and its roots as well as its consequences, her work also majorly focused on love and its extremes, and consequently, her work explored how both these topics intertwined. In Cleansed it was about the extreme actions the human being is willing to go to in order to prove love, and, to an extent, of the painful condition inflicted by obsessive love. Funnily enough, and while its themes can be easily linked, Cleansed and Phaedra’s Love are actually extremely different plays. While, as I have mentioned before, Pheadra’s Love is probably Kane’s most accessible play, Cleansed is probably her hardest and most violent. James Macdonald, director of Cleansed, described it as “a play about the nature of love and its relationship to brutalization. Love is a kind of madness and ecstasy.” And while Kane made a special effort in making clear that the violence is Cleansed was so extreme there was no other way to portray it than through metaphor – thus making it clear this violence was a metaphoric physical representation of an emotional occurrence, as she later on mentioned: “if you want to write about extreme love, you can only write about it in an extreme way”. She also made it clear that she intended to bring out the positive and the hopeful in this love and this brutality that was performed: “it was never about the violence, it was about how much these people love” she said. It is a play about obsession, and about the fact that “when you love obsessively, you do lose yourself. And when you then lose the object of your love, you have none of the normal resources to fall back on. It can completely destroy you.” The way this was done was portraying a set of events very reminiscent of the tortures experienced by the victims of concentration camps, taking the connection even further by “dehumanizing people before they are killed.” Once more linking apparently unrelated themes to each other, making new, somehow overlooked, connections.
What I find truly interesting about Kane is that she made deliberate efforts to make specific topics universal. In domestic violence she saw warfare, in irrational love she saw self-destruction, in incest she saw the loss of the sense of self, in obsessive love she saw torture. Kane described rape in a number of occasions, but it was never portrayed the same way twice, it was not always performed on women, either. While she focused on the nature of love, it took a different form in each play: she dealt with abusive relationships masked as love, she dealt with incest and the shades of it, she dealt with self love, she dealt with the loss of individualism within love, et cetera. Kane never wrote for or about a specific class, gender or race. Her plays talked about random people in Leeds, the Royal family, university students or drug addicts confined in a reforming institution… There was a point in her writing where characters even lost their ages and names. Kane’s writing was never about specific events or characters, it was about the human condition, and I have not had the chance to read many authors that are able to do it the way she did.
“If a play is good, it breathes its own air and has a life and voice of its own. What you take that voice to be saying is no concern of mine. It is what it is. Take it or leave it.”
Kane’s Complete Plays.
Graham Saunder’s Love me or Kill Me: Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes.
Other useful links:
You can read Cristina’s last article here.
If you’re interested in reading more on Kane, Cristina runs this Tumblr about the author which might be of use.
You can also watch the short film Skin on YouTube. (*This is a very graphic and violent film).