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Kane by Aleks Sierz
The explosion of 'in-yer-face' new writing for the British stage in the mid-1990s - lauded at the time as part of 'Cool Britannia' - seems to have run out of juice over the past year or so. The Royal Court's reopening was delayed, the Evening Standard refused to give an award in the best new play category, and articles in the Guardian moaned about the poverty of new plays.
Perhaps most symbolic of all, writer Sarah Kane killed herself on 20 February 1999. Undoubtedly one of the most talented of the new generation of playwrights who made their debut in the 1990s, Kane brought a welcome blast of scandal to theatre, outraging critics, if not audiences, with her first play Blasted in January 1995.
With her final play, 4.48 Psychosis, about to get a posthumous production at the Court, what was her legacy? She was, says fellow playwright Mark Ravenhill, 'a contemporary writer with a classical sensibility who created a theatre of great moments of beauty and cruelty, a theatre to which it was only possible to respond with a sense of awe.'
Graham Whybrow, literary manager of the Royal Court (which put on most of her work), says: 'Sarah Kane was head and shoulders above other young writers in her uncompromising vision and her precocity. Her plays are tough in conception and terse in writing.' Aware of theatrical traditions (she had a First Class Honours degree in drama from Bristol University) but 'not slavishly tied from them', she dealt with raw atrocities but 'showed a great deal of compassion'. Each of her plays was a new experiment in form and an exploration of theatrical possibility. Says Whybrow, 'Her plays aren't troubled by awkward local references or contemporary detail in a way that would date them - they will endure.'
Had it not been for Blasted, the explosion of 1990s in-yer-face theatre - from Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking to Jez Butterworth's Mojo - would not have had the impact that it did. But Kane was much more than a leader of a brat pack of avant-garde provocateurs. As James Macdonald, who directed Blasted and Cleansed, says: 'The media painted her as a wild axe-girl, but actually she was far more theatre-literate than most writers of her age.' What was her role in new writing? 'To shake it up a bit - with an ambition and urgency and passion that's often lacking,' says Macdonald. 'She wasn't just symptomatic of the 1990s - what was refreshing was that she was up to something different from most of her generation. She was writing about politics in her own way. Her gods were Beckett, Pinter, Bond, Barker.'
Kane's agent, Mel Kenyon, also stresses her individuality, although she sees Kane as typical of the 1990s 'in her desire to fragment form, to blow apart old forms' as well as in her anger. 'The stage is one of the last places one can be genuinely angry. In comparison, screen violence tends to be overstylised and anodyne, distant and unreal.' And Kane 'was the angriest of the lot'. But stage violence 'is also an expression of despair. People will look at her work and admire the boldness of it, the starkness of the images and she will probably encourage people to be courageously theatrical.' But, says Kenyon, 'I also hope that her death gives the lie to the notion that this generation doesn't care.' And that it 'reminds people that theatre is still a serious platform for debate. If her legacy does both these things, it will have been great.'
If it is too early to see her influence on young British writers, her effect on European writers is clear. David Tushingham, dramaturg and translator, says that 'in Germany, she is regarded as one of the most significant authors of the decade.' German writers such as Marius von Mayenburg and David Gieselmann - whose work has just been shown as part of the Court's international season - were directly influenced by Kane, who also worked with writers and actors in the USA, Netherlands, Bulgaria and Spain.
If Kane's influence is busy working its way through the new writing scene, her last play, 4.48 Psychosis, may attract more interest because of its subject matter - it refers to suicidal depression - than because of its theatrical daring. Critics may be tempted to see this as no more than a direct reflection of Kane's own mental problems. This would be a pity because, in the words of her brother, Simon Kane, 'It is very narrow and trivial to look at a play simply as an expression of someone's biography - it limits interpretation and closes off other possible meanings. Her work is much richer than just an expression of personal anguish.'
Tushingham agrees: 'Sarah Kane's career as a mental patient was briefer and much less exceptional than as a dramatist - the only freakish thing about her was her talent.' But her legacy does have a dangerous side, says Kenyon. 'Because of her death, some young people might think they have to live in despair to be proper writers. And that you have to kill yourself to become profound.' Instead, it would be better if they learnt from Kane's generosity and imaginative flair, from her love of life rather than from her early and tragic death.
Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis opened on 24 June 2000 at the Royal Court
© An earlier version of this article first appeared as 'Angriest of All' in The Stage on 1 June 2000
I'm a fortysomething journalist so I had good reasons for worry. In her Royal Court debut, Blasted (now being revived at the same venue as part of a season of her work) the main character is Ian, a middle-aged journalist. In the course of the play, he abuses Cate, a naive young women and a family friend. Then he is raped by a soldier, has his eyes sucked out, starves, eats a dead baby, and tries to kill himself.
If that represented what Kane - whose father worked for the Daily Mirror - thought about tabloid journalists, and middle-aged men in general, what hope for me? In the event, Kane turned out to be one of the most helpful of all the writers I met and talked to for my book, In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today.
In what was probably the last interview she gave, she talked about her work, and corrected an article I was writing about her, pointing out that the final scene of Blasted takes place in a metaphorical 'hell'. 'Don't forget the stage direction that says "He dies with relief",' she said. 'Ian dies, so you think that's the worst thing that can happen - then it rains on him.' It's a moment that sums her bleak sense of humour.
When Kane lit a cigarette, she held it behind her back so that the smoke wouldn't blow into my eyes. Her considerate behaviour reminded me that although her plays - Phaedra's Love, Cleansed, Crave and 4.48 Psychosis - feature lashings of violence, they are also full of gentleness. After all, her main theme is love.
Kane felt that the emotional content of her work had been misunderstood. 'Blasted is a hopeful play,' she said. 'I was a lot more hopeful at 22 than I am now. The plays that I consider to be about hope (Blasted), faith (Phaedra's Love) and love (Cleansed) seem to have depressed everyone else.'
Kane didn't recognise herself in negative media descriptions. 'I don't find my plays depressing or lacking in hope,' she said. 'But then I am someone whose favourite band is Joy Division because I find their songs uplifting. To create something beautiful about despair, or out of a feeling of despair, is for me the most hopeful, life-affirming thing a person can do.'
Yet, despite the fact that love was so important to her, Kane was also constantly aware of violence. She told me two anecdotes about life in Brixton, where we both lived. One was about a black woman who jostled her and then racially abused her, and the other about a gay man who been beaten up and arrived on her front doorstep with his face pouring with blood.
At the end of our meeting, she told me she didn't like giving interviews. 'I'm a writer,' she said. 'I'd much prefer if you could send me letters, and I'll write my replies to your questions.' In the next months, she sent me a couple of letters about her plays, then just as I was finishing the first draft of my chapter on her for the book, I heard she'd killed herself.
Obituaries emphasised her role as, in the words of Mark Ravenhill, her friend and fellow playwright, 'a contemporary writer with a classical sensibility who created a theatre of great moments of beauty and cruelty, a theatre to which it was only possible to respond with a sense of awe.'
David Greig, another playwright who knew her well, said: 'Sarah was a complex person and a complex writer. Every statement I make about her, I immediately feel the contrary is probably also true.' That's the paradox of Sarah Kane: she was the gentle vegetarian whose mind could be a raging cauldron of emotions.
In a short career, she did more than any other writer to change the face of British playwriting. Out went what Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of the Bush in 1994, when Kane was a literary associate there, calls 'miserabilist plays'. In came confrontational drama, aggressively in-yer-face and vividly depicting scenes of shock and terror. Yet despite the sensational tactics, what makes these plays great is their genuine emotional punch.
When I asked Kane what she thought of the label 'in-yer-face theatre', she shrugged. 'At least it's fucking better than New Brutalism,' she said. Although the trend started in the early 1990s, it only took off when Kane's Blasted was staged at the tiny Royal Court Theatre Upstairs studio in January 1995.
Denounced by the Daily Mail as 'This disgusting feast of filth' and derided by the Guardian as 'scenes of masturbation, fellatio, frottage, micturition, defecation - ah, those old familiar faeces - homosexual rape, eye gouging and cannibalism', Blasted sold out.
Why did the critics hate the play so much? Kane explained their reaction by pointing out that 'a play by a middle-aged male journalist who rapes a young woman and is raped and mutilated himself can't have endeared me to a theatre full of middle-aged male critics'.
Maybe. Equally probable is the fact that Blasted is a powerfully written piece which embodied the blatant in-yer-face sensibility that young writers discovered in the past 10 years. Experimental in structure and provocative in its portrayal of civil war, the play was uncomfortable because it made audiences feel they were experiencing the emotions shown on stage.
Although the controversy it sparked off led to countless articles in the papers as well as television and radio features, the small size of the studio theatre meant that only about 1,100 people ever saw the show. Now, with the Royal Court reviving this remarkable first play on its main stage, a much larger public will finally get to see what all the fuss was about. A theatre legend will once again be were it should be - not in a book, not in the memory, but in front of an audience.
The Sarah Kane Season was at the Royal Court in March-April 2001
Š An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Raising Kane' in What's On magazine on 28 March 2001
3 Feb 1971 Born in Brentwood, Essex. Grows up in Kelvedon Hatch, near Brentwood, and attends Shenfield Comprehensive school, where she directs Ibsen and Shakespeare.
Oct 1989 Begins BA in drama at Bristol University, where she acts and directs Macbeth, Top Girls, Rockaby and other plays.
Aug 1991 Performs Comic Monologue, part of Dreams, Screams and Silences, with Vincent O'Connell (Sore Throats Theatre Company) at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. They really rock!
Jul 1992 Graduates from Bristol University with a First Class Honours Degree.
Aug 1992 Performs two monologues, Starved and What She Said, part of Dreams, Screams and Silences 2, with Vincent O'Connell at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Oct 1992 Begins MA in Playwriting at Birmingham University.
3 Jul 1993 Workshop performance of Blasted for the Birmingham MA in Playwriting performance weekend.
Mar 1994 Appointed literary associate at the Bush Theatre.
18 Jan 1995 Press night of Blasted at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs.
May 1995 Participates in exchange programme with New Dramatists, New York.
Oct 1995 Skin first screened at the London Film Festival.
15 May 1996 Phaedra's Love first performed at the Gate Theatre, London.
28 Aug 1996 Appointed Writer-in-Residence at Paines Plough, where she runs the Wild Lunch series of writers' groups.
Feb 1997 Participates in the Royal Court's annual International Exchange Programme (New English Drama) - with Phaedra's Love - at Thomas Ostermeier's Deutsche Theater Baracke in Berlin.
21 Mar 1997 Crave given a public reading under pseudonym of Marie Kelvedon.
17 Jun 1997 Skin screened at 11.35pm on Channel 4.
Oct 1997 Directs Georg Buchner's Woyzeck at the Gate Theatre, London.
30 Apr 1998 Cleansed first performed at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs at the Duke of York's. Kane plays the role of Grace for the last three performances when actress Suzan Sylvester injures her back.
May 1998 Supported by the British Council, Kane works with Dutch writers in Amsterdam.
June 1998 Visits the Varna Festival in Bulgaria, with the Royal Court's International Play Development Programme, and helps set up a writers' group in Sofia.
July-Aug 1998 Leads playwriting workshop at the Royal Court's International Residency in London.
4 Aug 1998 Crave first previewed at the Chelsea Centre.
13 Aug 1998 Crave first performed at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh.
8 Sep 1998 Crave transfers to the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs at the Ambassadors Theatre, London. When the play tours to Maastricht, Kane plays the role of C for five performances.
Nov 1998 Works with Andalusian writers in Seville, part of the Royal Court International Play Development Programme. Awarded the 1998 Arts Foundation Fellowship for Playwriting.
20 Feb 1999 Commits suicide while in King's College Hospital, London.
18 Apr 1999 Commemorative event at the Royal Court.
23 Jun 2000 4.48 Psychosis first performed publicly at the newly refurbished Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, Sloane Square, London.
Kane: stage plays
Full-length stage play
Ian, a middle-aged journalist, takes twentysomething Cate, a family friend, to a Leeds hotel room and abuses her. Halfway through the 90-minute play, the Soldier arrives and subjects Ian to verbal threats and rape. Cate escapes. A mortar bomb crashes into room, the Soldier sucks out Ian's eyes and then commits suicide. Cate returns with a baby that's been given to her by victim of the war raging outside. It dies, and Ian tries to eat it. Now blind and hungry, Ian finally dies. Rain pours in on his head, which is poking out of the floorboards. Cate returns to this metaphoric hell with some food - Ian thanks her. Raw in style, horrific in content and experimental in form, Blasted received some of the most hostile reviews of the decade. Blinded by its explicit scenes of horror, most critics failed to see that what was really disturbing was the play's radical structure, in which a first half set in Leeds hotel suddenly explodes into a war zone reminiscent of Bosnia. An example of experiential theatre, which aims to reproduce the dislocation of war by means of a dislocation of plot.
Cast: two men, one woman
Set: Anonymous hotel room
Full-length stage play
Loosely based on Seneca, a modern-day version of the Phaedra story, with Hippolytus as a depressed narcissist. On his birthday, Phaedra, in the grip of irrational desire, performs fellatio on him. He rejects her, telling her that he's had sex with her daughter Strophe, and she hangs herself, leaving a note accusing Hippolytus of rape. Galvanised by the accusation, Hippolytus surrenders to the police, refuses a priest's offer of forgiveness, and demands to be punished. Theseus arrives, and watches as Hippolytus throws off his guards and leaps into the crowd, which tries to kill him. When Strophe, in disguise, tries to help her half-brother, Theseus rapes and kills her. Hippolytus has his genitals cut off and thrown on a fire. His last words are: 'If there could have been more moments like this.' With its explicit violence, Kane's version breaks with the classical convention of describing rather than showing atrocity, but also includes another inversion of the original, by not staging Phaedra's suicide. The play concentrates more on Hippolytus than on Phaedra, and radically rethinks his character. Instead of being virginal, Kane's Hippolytus is sexually experienced, even if he gets no pleasure from sex. In place of puritanical purity, he pursues honesty to the point of self-destruction.
Cast: four men, two women, plus crowd of ten
Set: palace rooms, prison cell, street
Performed: Gate Theatre, London, May 1996
Full-length stage play
Set in 'an institution designed to rid society of its undesirables', ironically called a university, the play explores the theme of love, testing its characters by subjecting them to horrendous atrocities. Grace searches for Graham, her brother, an addict who's been murdered by Tinker, a sadistic guard or doctor. Grace wears Graham's clothes, dances with his spirit, makes love to him, and finally - after having a penis transplant - becomes him. At the same time, Carl promises Rod eternal love, but betrays him; Rod, who lives for the moment, dies for love. And Robin, a disturbed 19-year-old, falls for Grace when she teaches him to read, while Tinker imposes Grace's identity onto that of an erotic dancer. At the end, Grace looks identical to Graham, Carl is dressed in Grace's clothes, and Tinker has his own 'Grace'. Intensity of desire has made identity fluid. The play balances the yearning for purification through love with the horrors of torture. The serial mutilation of Carl is symbolic: every time he uses a part of his body to express love, it is cut off. The need for love, symbolised by the incestuous attraction of Grace and Graham, is expressed by means of sunflowers and daffodils.
Cast: five men, two women
Set: university perimeter fence, college green, sanitorium, sports hall, showers, library and round room
Performed: Royal Court Theatre Downstairs, London, May 1998
Full-length stage play
A series of poetic exchanges in which four characters - A, B, C and M - talk about their needs and desires: more of a tone poem than a conventional play. With its echoes of the King James Bible, William Shakespeare, T S Eliot and Samuel Beckett, the text is dense and allusive and has no stage directions. Although their relationships with each other are fluid, each of the characters has a coherent personality. A describes himself as a paedophile, C is haunted by abuse, M wants to have a baby, and B is ready to be seduced. The play makes sense both as the fragmented exchanges between an older man (A) and a younger woman (B), and an older woman (M) and a younger man (B), and as one mind's competing internal voices. When each character speaks, they could be addressing one or more of the other characters. Originally staged with four actors sitting on swivel chairs as in a talk show, Crave can be interpreted as an account of two couples, as one mind's mental collapse or even as the overlapping feelings of four people. Likewise, the ending is ambiguous, and can be read as a final gasp of happiness before death, a moment of rage against the fading of the light, or the quiet drifting into unconsciousness.
Cast: two men, two women
Set: none specified
Full-length stage play
The title refers to 4.48am, the darkest hour before dawn, and the theme is suicidal depression and psychosis, a state in which the normal boundaries between waking life and dream life, between the self and others, collapse. Composed of monologues and dialogues whose content includes exchanges between patients and therapists, notes about grief, mental anguish and psychological distress, caustic accounts of the therapeutic use of drugs and diary entries. Each of the lines could be spoken by either a man or a woman. The effect is of a mind full of competing voices, a mix of poetic images, idiomatic snatches of conversation, satires on psychobabble and repetitive, quasi-liturgical rhythms. Conveys the experience of psychological crisis, when the barriers between reality and different forms of imagination disappear. Originally staged with three actors, Kane's most experimental play is the culmination of her quest to make form and content one. On the page, there are no characters, nor any indication of how many actors are required. The text is laid out following the conventions of a modernist poem, rather than those of a playtext.
Cast: none specified, but one man and two women in original production
Set: none specified
10-minute short film
Billy, a young skinhead, joins in a brutal racist attack on a black wedding party in Brixton, London, but then finds himself drawn to Marcia, a black woman whose flat is visible from his window. He visits Marcia, the couple have sex, she carves her name on his back, but finally rejects him, finding solace with Kath, her flatmate, while Billy unsuccessfully takes an overdose.
Skin was written in summer 1995, filmed the following September, and broadcast by Channel Four on 17 June 1997, causing controversy when its original screening time of 9.40pm was changed to 11.35pm because television executives were worried about its depiction of violence and racism.
Cast: Ewen Bremner, Marcia Rose
Directed by Vincent O'Connell, produced by Tapson Steel Films for British Screen/Channel Four
'Blasted' (with Afterword by Sarah Kane) in Pamela Edwardes (ed) Frontline Intelligence 2: New Plays for the Nineties, London: Methuen, 1994, pp 1-50.
'Sarah Kane: from Blasted' [extract of play] in David Tushingham (ed) Live 3: Critical Mass, London: Methuen, 1996, pp 5-17.
Blasted & Phaedra's Love, London: Methuen, 1996.
Cleansed, London: Methuen, 1998.
Crave, London: Methuen, 1998.
4.48 Psychosis, London: Methuen, 2000.
Complete Plays: Blasted, Phaedra's Love, Cleansed, Crave, 4.48 Psychosis, Skin, with an introduction by David Greig, London: Methuen, 2001.
Kane film script
Skin, unpublished script, London: Casarotto Ramsay, 1995.
Skin in Sarah Kane, Complete Plays: Blasted, Phaedra's Love, Cleansed, Crave, 4.48 Psychosis, Skin, London: Methuen, 2001.
'The only thing I remember is...', Guardian, 13 August 1998.
'Drama with balls', Guardian, 20 August 1998.
Selected interviews with and profiles of Kane
Anon, 'The late Sarah Kane: in her own words', Independent, 24 February 1999.
Armitstead, Claire, 'No pain, no Kane', Guardian, 29 April 1998.
Bayley, Clare, 'A very angry young woman', Independent, 23 January 1995.
Benedict, David, 'Disgusting violence? Actually it's quite a peaceful play', Independent, 22 January 1995.
Benedict, David, 'What Sarah did next', Independent, 15 May 1996.
Christopher, James, 'Her first play was about defecation, cannibalism, and fellatio. The new one's about love', Observer, 2 November 1997.
Egan, Caroline, 'The playwright's playwright', [Kane on Martin Crimp; Rebecca Prichard on Kane], Guardian, 21 September 1998.
Hattenstone, Simon, 'A sad hurrah', Guardian Weekend, 1 July 2000.
Fanshawe, Simon, 'Given to extremes', Sunday Times, 26 April 1998.
Stephenson, Heidi and Natasha Langridge (eds), 'Sarah Kane' in their Rage and Reason: Women Playwrights on Playwriting, London: Methuen, 1997, pp 129-35.
Sierz, Aleks, 'The short life of Sarah Kane', The Daily Telegraph, 27 May 2000.
Stratton, Kate, 'Extreme measures', Time Out, 25 March-1 April 1998.
Tabert, Nils, 'Gesprūch mit Sarah Kane' in Nils Tabert (ed), Playspotting: Die Londoner Theaterszene der 90er, Reinbeck: Rowohlt, 1998, pp 8-21.
Thielemans, Johan, 'Sarah Kane and Vicky Featherstone', in Andrew McKinnon (ed) 'Part 2: Voices', Rehearsing the Future: 4th European Directors Forum - Strategies for the Emerging Director in Europe, London: Directors Guild of Great Britain et al, , pp 9-15.
Benedict, David, 'The accidental director', Independent, 13 August 1998.
Bond, Edward, 'A blast at our smug theatre', Guardian, 28 January 1995.
Christopher, James, 'Rat with hand exits stage left', Independent, 4 May 1998.
Ellison, Mike and Alex Bellos, 'Blasted: a deeply moral and compassionate piece of theatre or simply a disgusting feast of filth?', Guardian, 20 January 1995.
Farr, David, 'Phaedra and Hippolytus', programme note to Kane's Phaedra's Love, Gate Theatre, May 1996.
Fiennes, William, 'Woyzeck by Georg Bchner', programme note to Woyzeck, directed by Kane, Gate Theatre, October 1997.
Gardner, Lyn, 'Sarah Kane, 25' in Michael Billington and Lyn Gardner, 'Fabulous five', Guardian, 13 March 1996.
Graham, Polly, 'Rape play girl in hiding', Express, 20 January 1995.
Hemming, Sarah, 'Look forward with anger', Financial Times, 18/19 November 1995.
Holland, Patricia, 'Monstrous regiment', Independent, 27 January 1995.
Kane, Simon, Press release about 4:48 Psychosis, 21 September 1999.
Macdonald, James, 'Blasting back at the critics', Observer, 22 January 1995.
Macdonald, James, 'Sarah Kane returns to the Royal Court', Royal Court Newsletter, March-June 1998.
Miller, Jonathan, 'You pays your money and they eats their eyes', Sunday Times, 22 January 1995.
Morris, Tom, 'Foul deeds, fair play', Guardian, 25 January 1995.
Morris, Tom, 'Damned and blasted?' Sunday Times, 29 January 1995.
Mortimer, John, 'Diary', New Statesman, 26 April 1999.
[Sierz, Aleks, wrongly bylined as Nick Smurthwaite], 'Angriest of all', The Stage, 1 June 2000.
Stringer, Robin, 'Walk-outs at Royal Court 'atrocity' play', Evening Standard, 19 January 1995.
Taylor, Paul, 'The mother of all dramas', Independent, 9 September 1998.
Wilson, Snoo, 'Blasted metaphors', New Statesman, 3 February 1995.
Collections of selected reviews
Reviews of Blasted, Theatre Record, vol XV, no 1-2 (1995).
Reviews of Phaedra's Love, Theatre Record, vol XVI, no 11 (1996).
Reviews of Cleansed, Theatre Record, vol XVIII, no 9 (1998).
Reviews of Crave, Theatre Record, vol XVIII, no 18 (1998).
Reviews of 4.48 Psychosis, Theatre Record, vol XX, no 13 (2000).
Selected obituaries of Kane
Anon, 'Sarah Kane', Times, 23 February 1999.
Anon, 'Sarah Kane', Telegraph, 24 February 1999.
Gardner, Lyn, James Macdonald and Michael Billington, 'Of love and outrage: Sarah Kane', Guardian, 23 February 1999.
Greig, David, 'Sarah Kane', Herald, 27 February 1999.
Macdonald, James, 'They never got her', Observer, 28 February 1999.
McGloan, Jackie, 'The mark of Kane', Scotsman, 13 March 1999.
Ravenhill, Mark, 'Sarah Kane', Independent, 23 February 1999.
Rebellato, Dan, 'Sarah Kane: an appreciation', New Theatre Quarterly 60, November 1999, pp 280-1.
Sierz, Aleks, 'The anniversary of the death of Sarah Kane', RealTime 36, April/May 2000.
Taylor, Paul, 'Sarah Kane was a writer of shocking and angry talent [...]', Independent, 23 February 1999.
Brusberg-Kiermeier, Stefani, 'Re-writing Seneca: Sarah Kane's Phaedra's Love', in Bernhard Reitz and A v Rothkirch (eds), Crossing Borders: Intercultural Drama and Theatre at the Turn of the Millennium, Contemporary Drama in English 8, Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2001, pp 165-172.
Dromgoole, Dominic, The Full Room: An A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting, London: Methuen, 2000.
Greig, David, 'Introduction' to Sarah Kane, Complete Plays: Blasted, Phaedra's Love, Cleansed, Crave, 4.48 Psychosis, Skin, London: Methuen, 2001, pp ix-xviii.
Hansford, James, 'Sarah Kane', in Thomas Riggs (ed), Contemporary Dramatists, 6th edn, Detroit/New York: St James Press, 1999, pp 348-9.
Pankratz, Annette, 'Greek to Us? Appropriations of Myths in Contemporary British and Irish Drama', in Bernhard Reitz and A v Rothkirch (eds), Crossing Borders: Intercultural Drama and Theatre at the Turn of the Millennium, Contemporary Drama in English 8, Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2001, pp 151-163.
Saunders, Graham, 'Out Vile Jelly: Sarah Kane's Blasted and Shakespeare's King Lear', paper presented at the 'Crucible of Cultures: Anglophone Drama at the Dawn of a New Millennium' conference, Brussels, May 2001.
Saunders, Graham, 'Love Me or Kill Me.' Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes, Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming 2001 .
Sellar, Tom, 'Truth and dare: Sarah Kane's Blasted', Theater 27: 1, 1996, pp 29-34.
Sierz, Aleks, 'Cool Britannia? 'In-yer-face' writing in the British theatre today', New Theatre Quarterly 56, November 1998, pp 324-33.
Sierz, Aleks, In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today, London: Faber and Faber, 2001.
Sierz, Aleks, ''The element that most outrages': morality, censorship and Sarah Kane's Blasted', in Edward Batley and David Bradby (eds), Justice and Morality: Visions of Change in European Theatre, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002.
Smith, Mal, 'Sarah Kane: a nineties 'take' on cruelty', in Antonin Artaud and His Legacy, London: Theatre Museum Education Pack, .
Voigts-Virchow, Eckart, 'Sarah Kane, a Late Modernist: Intertextuality and montage in the broken images of Crave (1998)', in Bernhard Reitz and Heiko Stahl (eds), What Revels Are in Hand: Assessments of Contemporary Drama in English in Honour of Wolfgang Lippke, Contemporary Drama in English (Studies) 8, Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2001, pp 205-20.
Zimmermann, Heiner, 'Theatrical Transgression in Totalitarian and Democratic Societies: Shakespeare as a Trojan Horse and the scandal of Sarah Kane', in Bernhard Reitz and A v Rothkirch, Crossing Borders: Intercultural Drama and Theatre at the Turn of the Millennium, Contemporary Drama in English 8, Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2001, pp 173-182.
Plus: see also this new writing bibliography
Discussion of Blasted on Newsnight, BBC2 Television, 19 January 1995.
Discussion of Blasted on The Late Show, BBC2 Television, 23 January 1995.
Discussion with Sarah Kane of new writing on Kaleidoscope, BBC Radio 4, ? September 1996.
Discussion of 4.48 Psychosis, Nightwaves, BBC Radio 3, 23 June, 2000.
Discussion of the revival of Blasted on Front Row, BBC Radio 4, 4 April 2001.
Fisher, Iain, 'Sarah Kane', http://www.iainfisher.com/kane.html, January 2001.
Lathan, Peter, 'Sarah Kane (1971-99)', http://britishtheatre.about.com/musicperform/britishtheatre/library/weekly/aa030799, March 1999.
Sierz, Aleks, 'In-Yer-Face-Theatre', http://www.inyerface-theatre.com/, October 2000.
Stahl, Heiko, 'Bibliography: Sarah Kane', in 'Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English', http://fb14.uni-mainz.de/projects/cde/bibl/kane.htm, June 2000.
Wynne-Wilson, Peter, 'Sarah Kane: writer', www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~pwynne/SarahKane.htm, .
Š An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Sarah Kane Checklist', New Theatre Quarterly 67, August 2001: pp 285-290
Review of Graham Saunders's "Love Me or Kill Me": Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes by Aleks Sierz
Sarah Kane, the radically innovative playwright who committed suicide at the age of 28 in 1999, leaving behind a small but powerful body of work, saw nihilism as an extreme form of romanticism, and the tension between self-destruction and self-affirmation seems to pervade all of her work. Although her five plays and one screenplay are about love, they all feature a character who attempts, with or without success, to commit suicide.
In January 1995, Blasted, Kane's debut at the Royal Court theatre, set the tone for the reception of her work in Britain. Written with a mix of raw sensibility and a mature theatrical intelligence, it startled critics and audiences with its in-yer-face aggression and violent stage images. Denounced by the Daily Mail as "This disgusting feast of filth", Blasted became a cause celebre of 1990s theatre.
Of course, her later plays did much to change this image of a provocative enfant terrible, and, after her suicide, revivals of her work in Britain and its widespread appreciation on mainland Europe have secured her a place in the canon of 1990s drama. In the first full-length study of Kane's plays, Graham Saunders places her work within the context of new writing, while emphasising its continuity with previous playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and John Webster.
In chapters on each of her main plays - Blasted (1995), Phaedra's Love (1996), Cleansed (1998), Crave (1998) and 4.48 Psychosis (2000) - Saunders succinctly analyses the texts, and comments on the problems of staging an author who specified acts of explicit sex and violence, as well as challenging directors by giving stage directions such as "the rats carry Carl's feet away".
His readings are intelligent and warmly appreciative of Kane's intentions. Using material from several interviews that she gave, as well as evidence from letters, he gives a convincing account of how Kane attempted to realise a theatre of extremes, with roots not only in the modernism of Artaud, but also in Shakespeare's King Lear and Twelfth Night.
He rightly stresses that, for all its in-yer-face confrontation, Blasted is finally an optimistic play, and one whose horrific blinding scene was influenced as much by the fate of Shakespeare's Gloucester as by a lurid, if improbable, story, told by Bill Buford in his Among the Thugs, of a football hooligan who sucked out the eye of his victim.
With Cleansed, Saunders shows the influence of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck as well as that of Kafka and Orwell's 1984. By the time of Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, her last two plays, Kane's radical innovations in form had led to the abandonment of plot and traditional characterisation, and Saunders expertly steers us through the problems of how to construct meaning from such complex texts.
A thorough introduction to Kane's work, the book includes revealing interviews with theatre-makers - directors, actors, writers and an agent - who worked with her, plus a rather careless afterword by playwright Edward Bond. But by stressing Kane's links with theatre traditions, Saunders underplays the influence of pop culture on her work, and he is rather uncritical of its shortcomings.
Sadly, the book has been badly proofread, and has a sloppy attitude to basic facts, such as dates of the work of other playwrights. It will be useful to students, but only if they know the plays already, and a lack of clarity in the writing sometimes obscures the point being made. Still, this is a sound introduction: it is now up to others to examine its claims about Kane's genius - and to produce a more rounded account of her sensibility.
© An earlier version of this review appeared in The Times Higher Education Supplement on 18 April 2003
Since her suicide at the age of twenty-eight in February 1999, Sarah Kane has become something of a myth. Everyone has a Sarah Kane anecdote; everyone is influenced by her. For example, in September 2000, Holly Baxter Baine - whose Good-bye Roy was part of the Royal Court's Exposure season of young writers - said that her favourite playwrights were Bertolt Brecht and Sarah Kane. Baine was 15 years old. Already, an internet search for Kane's name throws up thousands of pages. Yet, despite Kane's growing reputation, there remains a great deal of ignorance about her work. In their glossy Changing Stages, Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright wrongly summarise the plot of her most notorious play, Blasted, as 'an abusive relationship between father and daughter'. Go to the back of the class guys.
In April-June 2001, the Royal Court theatre closed a chapter in its recent history by staging a season of Kane's work, a rare honour for any writer. In the event, only three of her five plays were actually staged, and only one, Blasted, was given a new production. Crave and 4.48 Psychosis were revivals of the original productions, and her other two plays were given rehearsed readings. Whether this season will discourage other high-profile stagings of her work in Britain for the next decade remains to be seen, but 2001 also witnessed another act of closure: the publication of her Complete Plays, including one screenplay, in a 'definitive' edition which 'incorporates minor revisions made to the original text by Sarah Kane before her death'.
Kane's life and work, as fellow writer David Greig says in his lucid and perceptive Introduction, was dominated by 'the way her career began, in the extraordinary public controversy over Blasted, and the way it ended: in her suicide and the posthumous production of her last play, 4.48 Psychosis'. As he points out, too much attention to the myth of Sarah Kane tends to detract from the virtues of her writing, and especially 'the explosive theatricality, the lyricism, the emotional power, and the bleak humour' of its best passages. These qualities were already in evidence in her debut, Blasted, which was first staged in January 1995.
By any standards, Blasted is an extraordinary work, combining an astonishing rawness of sensibility with a firm command of structure and a fine understanding of theatrical tradition. Starting with a scene in which Ian, a middle-aged journalist, takes Cate, a young woman who was once his 'girlfriend', to a Leeds hotel room and then makes her have sex with him, the play is blasted apart when a Soldier arrives, and a mortar bomb explodes. The atrocities that follow - which include Ian's blinding and the eating of a baby - act as a powerful critique of political complacency. The play's confident move from scenes of private abuse to wider humanistic issues is not only original but also dramatically effective. But however precocious the dialogue, and however intense its portrayal of prejudice - Ian talks about 'wogs' and 'sucking gash' - the play is not free of problems. One is its Beckettian influence: although the debt Kane owes to What Where - 'It is spring. Time passes' - is hidden in her stage directions - with scene changes such as 'The sound of spring rain' - sometimes Beckett's influence is more obtrusive. For example, Ian's offhand 'You have kids, they grow up, they hate you and you die' sticks out like a Beckettian sore thumb in a text whose main register is the naturalism of 'Sarky little tart this morning, aren't we?'. And while the psychology of the relationships always feels right, and the characters have been fully imagined, there are occasional dissonant notes: would a character as shy as Cate talk about masturbating? So while Greig rightly points out the influence of Shakespeare - 'Lear on the heath and Timon in his cave' - he questions neither the detail of Kane's writing, nor, more crucially, 'her simple premise, that there was a connection between a rape in a Leeds hotel room and the hellish devastation of civil war'. But doesn't the equation of a domestic rape with the use of rape as an instrument of war suggest a moral absolutism quite useless for our understanding of either crime?
Chronologically, Kane's only screenplay is her 'second play'. Called Skin, and first broadcast on Channel 4 in June 1997, it is a short film that the tells the story of Billy, a racist skinhead, who falls for a black woman, and then is dominated and finally rejected by her. A symbolic drama, with characteristically concise dialogue, this is one of Kane's simplest and most effective works. The writing is tight, the dialogue powerful and the film's vision intriguingly unnaturalistic. Here Kane's typical mix of tenderness and violence is compressed in images which owe a lot to the film's director, Vincent O'Connell, a key figure in Kane's career (both Blasted and Phaedra's Love are dedicated to him). Once again, however, Skin only works as a study of perversity if you accept the central premise that extreme prejudice hides a desire to love the hated object, a point of view which is politically idealistic, even naive.
Kane's second stage play - Phaedra's Love (May 1996) - is a retelling of Seneca which focuses more on Hippolytus than on Phaedra. Arguably Kane's least successful play, its main problem is that while some scenes are utterly convincing (for example, those between Phaedra and Hippolytus, and between Phaedra and Strophe), others feel rather contrived (for example, those between the Doctor and Phaedra, and between Hipploytus and the Priest). Although Kane's version involves subverting the conventions of classical drama, Phaedra's Love feels underdeveloped in terms of its characters: Hippolytus's death wish may carry a raw conviction, but Phaedra's decision to call his brutal rejection of her 'rape' is as unconvincing as her sudden suicide. Nor is Phaedra's Love successful in its attempt to marry the public and private sides of what is, after all, a play about a royal family. The final carnage, with Theseus raping and killing Strophe, while Hippolytus is torn apart by the crowd, is exaggerated and difficult to stage without provoking derision. In his account, Greig lucidly summarises the symmetry between the extreme emotional states of Phaedra and Hippolytus, 'total self-abnegation or total self-preservation', showing the 'bitter irony' of how such extremes 'are driven to seek out' each other. But perhaps the chief strength of the play is also its main weakness: its tone, says Greig, is 'poised, bored, often cynical' 'almost as though the play's whole voice belongs to Hippolytus'. Not for the last time, Kane's subjectivity comes across as both forceful and alienating.
Although Cleansed (April 1998) was a commercial failure when it was staged by the Royal Court in London's West End, it is perhaps the most coherent, daring and humane of all her plays. For while it takes a linear form, its succinct selection of what information to convey to the audience makes it a play that always repays further study. With its stage directions about rats and mutilation, its also challenges directors to realise Kane's vision of love in a time of endurance. Here, Kane's characteristic mix of atrocity and sentimentality is expressed with immense theatrical intelligence. Greig rightly says that this 'surprisingly redemptive' play 'focuses on a central question: what is the most that one lover can truthfully promise another?' Kane's vision of love may be 'austere', but this time inside her modernist parable beats a big humanistic heart.
Although more experimental, Crave (August 1998) represents a narrowing of Kane's vision. An ironic, allusive and meditative text, the play's four voices - A, B, C and M - play with and off each other, encouraging a variety of interpretations of what seems like the craving of an abusive older man for the love of a younger vulnerable woman, and the desire of an older woman to have a child by a much younger man. Within this structure, the musical tone poem conveys, in Greig's words, a 'powerful sense of a self fragmented' and explores 'love's assault upon the wholeness of the self'. But however exhilarating the writing, Kane's lapses are hard to ignore. For example, the allusions to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land are a clumsy way of signalling literary influence, even if Kane was proud of being 'last in a long line of literary kleptomaniacs'. While Greig rightly stresses the personal nature of the piece, he doesn't question the wisdom of Kane's withdrawal into a subjectivism which encouraged experiments in form at the expense of developing the life-affirming side of her talent.
This narrowing of vision becomes acute in her last play, 4.48 Psychosis, the work which suffers most from our knowledge of its author's suicide. An account of various states of psychological agony - from an intense longing to be loved to full-blown psychotic collapse - its first production (June 2000) was widely hailed as a 'suicide note'. But although some material in the play is undoubtedly autobiographical, based on Kane's own struggle with clinical depression, the play is not merely a personal record. Its central image of a psychotic collapse, in which the boundaries between reality and dream, one person and another, self and object, disappear is as much an artistic trope as a medical fact. The most daring of Kane's experiments, 4.48 Psychosis represents the culmination of her quest to marry form and content. The playtext doesn't specify any characters, and spreads across the page like a modernist poem. Although the first production had three actors, the piece could be performed by any number. While Greig rightly sees the play as 'the ultimate narrowing of Kane's focus', his assertion that it is 'artistically successful' is only true up to a point. Although it is a challenge to stage, and contains some of Kane's darkest humour, it seems also to sum up the contradictions of her drama: while much of raw feeling is perfectly polished, Kane also writes lines that stand out for their crassness, their tone of adolescent petulance or their sheer clumsiness. Although the play certainly gives an excruciating sense of the experience of breakdown, it is also sometimes infuriatingly self-indulgent. It signals the final triumph of her gradual self-absorption in her own subjectivity.
In his Introduction, Greig usefully points out that much of Kane's work can be read in terms of the triangular relationship between a perpetrator, a victim and a bystander, and argues persuasively in favour of understanding Kane's work not for what it says about her, but for what it tells us about ourselves. Of course, the main impediment to this is Kane herself, who imposes her voice and her vision so forcefully on the audience. If her confrontational style, provocative directness of language and occasional passages of sheer aggression suggest an antagonistic personality, they are balanced by those moments of gentleness, where a romantic faith in the power of love and the human capacity for goodness are ample evidence of an idealistic nature. But while it's easy to appreciate those aspects of Kane's work which smack of genius - the compression, the compassion and the sincerity of her sensibility - the personal tragedy of her life should not be an excuse for failing to criticise her work. Excessive praise of a dead writer is hagiography and surely Kane demands critical engaement. Isn't criticism the best compliment you can pay? So here goes: while her writing is undeniably powerful, its range is also extremely limited and narrow, even obsessive. If Kane's preoccupation with the 'landscape of love' is not at issue, she never tackles this theme in the ample, life-affirming way so characteristic of the great tradition of 20th-century naturalism. Rather than embracing life wholly, in its warmth as well as its terrors, Kane chose to explore its extremes. Whatever this may have cost her in psychological terms is ultimately less interesting than its effect on her work, which only rarely manages to tackle subjects in the big and bold way characteristic of the mainstream humanist tradition. Eventually, this may make Kane less central to a history of 1990s playwriting than other writers, such as Greig himself, who can move beyond the extreme and who do ask urgent questions about public politics, family life and national identity.
Complete Plays by Sarah Kane, introduced by David Greig, Methuen, London, 2001
© An earlier version of this review appeared in Contemporary Theatre Review, special issue on 'Contemporary British theatre: playwrights, politics, performance', vol 13 issue 1, February 2003: pp 115-117
Plus: see also this new writing bibliography