1. Introduction- A fresh approach to the plays of Sarah Kane
2. CleansedandCrave: Love versus Violence
3. Conclusion- Among sex and violence: real art and real heart
1. A fresh approach to the plays of Sarah Kane
From first to last [the] play is concerned with sexual and physical violence. (…) Nobody (…) will deny that it is the function of the theatre to reflect the horrific undercurrents of contemporary life. But it cannot be allowed, even in the name of freedom of speech, to do so without aim, purpose or meaning.
[The play] isn’t just disgusting, it’s pathetic (…) a lazy, tawdry piece of work without an idea in its head beyond an adolescent desire to shock.
Accusations like these give evidence of how emotional, outraged, and hysterical theatre critics react when challenged by unexpectedly shocking and indigestible performances. It may come as a surprise that the above extracts are neither part of one single critique, nor do they refer to one single play. The first quote refers to Edward Bond’sSaved(1965), whereas the second one refers to the late Sarah Kane’sBlasted(1995). Not incidentally, both playwrights were accused by numerous irritated critics of committing the same unacceptable affront: They were reproached for depicting the most disgusting forms of violence on stage, merely for the sake of paying tribute to violence itself. ConcerningSaved,this notion subsequently waned and gave way to a gradual reassessment of the play: Today, it is considered a piece of work as influential for the development of British drama after 1945 as John Osborne’sLook Back in Anger(1956), or Samuel Beckett’sWaiting for Godot(1954). This revaluation was probably not least due to Bond’s prefaces toSavedand the later playLear, in which he explained not only his motives for, but in fact the plain necessity of, representing violence: “Violence shapes and obsesses our society, and if we do not stop being violent we have no future (…) It would be immoral not to write about violence” (Bond 1978: 3). Although accepting and in fact admiring Bond’s decision to comment on his own work, Sarah Kane was always very reluctant about making “authorised” statements concerning her work: “I adore Edward Bond’s writing and I think that the forewords and afterwords he writes are brilliant, but there’s no point in me trying to do that because I can’t do it – it’s not what I am”. Nevertheless, she did provide equally comprehensible or even convincing reasons for putting violence on stage: “If you are saying you can’t represent something, you are saying you can’t talk about it, you are denying its existence, and that’s an extraordinarily ignorant thing to do.”Paradoxical as it might seem – considering this apparent commitment to the representation of violence – violence is only a marginal topic in all of Kane’s plays. The gap between some of the early reviews ofBlastedandCleansedand the author’s own rare statements about those plays seems to be unbridgeable. On the one hand, there is an incredible uproar in the press about a “disgusting feast of filth” that “appears to know no bounds of decency, yet has no message to convey”. And on the other hand, there is the author of this work, saying about those very plays: “It never seemed to me they were really plays about violence or cruelty. Both things were incidental when it’s about how you continue to love and hope when those things still exist.”
Thus, based on an analysis of the 1998 playCleansed, this paper aims at a reassessment and revaluation of Sarah Kane’s work: Violence – both physical and emotional – is an important ingredient, and yet only a minor theme in the plays. It is dominated by the all-encompassing theme of love. Love and violence, however, are not examined as two separate individual experiences. On the contrary, it is their overlapping that is scrutinised.
2. Cleansed and Crave: Love versus Violence
Because love and violence are not dealt with separately, a few arguments concerning the distressing (omni-)presence of often explicit and gory violence in the plays of Sarah Kane must be mentioned before elaborating on the complex theme of love.
In view of the outrageous critiques that welcomed Kane’s early plays, it is remarkable to note that none of the gruesome stage directions in Kane’s plays (that were held responsible for triggering off this outcry) are original in the sense that they had not been put on stage before.
Sex and violence are scarcely new in theatre. The greatest of the ancient Greek tragedies deal with extreme states of mind: brutal deaths and terrible suicides, agonizing pain and dreadful suffering, human sacrifice and cannibalism, rape and incest, mutilations and humiliations. (Sierz 2000: 10).
More recent examples for stage violence are found without difficulty, too: With Edward Bond’sLear, eye-gouging (cf.Blasted) had been put on stage, adding to the mutilation of a character (cf.Cleansed); in his earlier playSaveda baby was not eaten, but stoned to death, which at the time caused an equivalent public scandal as the act of cannibalism inBlasted; in Howard Brenton’sThe Romans in Britain, anal rape (cf.Blasted, Cleansed) was first put on stage while Britain was displayed as a war zone as inBlasted. Admittedly, (naturalistic) onstage presentations of (both homo- and hetero-)sexual intercourse, vomiting, masturbating, or drug-injection were still fairly new developments in the theatre – yet, even with those one cannot speak of Sarah Kane as their originator.This is even more true of the extensive use of swear- and four-letter words that had its first climax shortly after the abolishment of the theatre censure in 1968 (Schnierer 1997: 102, 108). Four letter words saw their “renaissance” (and sometimes exaggerated use) at the beginning of the 1990s, starting with the first plays of “In-Yer-Face Theatre”.
In short, the reason for the incredible outrage in the press following the openings of Kane’s early plays cannot possibly be ascribed to the explicit display of violence alone, simply because: At the time when Kane appeared as a playwright, violence had long ceased to be new in the theatre; it could no longer suffice as a shock tactic. Thus, the outcry must have been induced by other characteristics of Kane’s plays.
In fact, her plays are very different from most plays that appeared in Britain in the 1990s in at least four respects. First of all, Kane was a woman. Until then, violence, sex, and swearing had been phenomena to be brought on stage by male playwrights. The second reason is closely linked to theformof Kane’s plays: What makes them much more disturbing than their violent “predecessors” is that they do not fit the familiar labels of either naturalistic realism, or metaphorical symbolism. They are neither the one nor the other – or perhaps they are both. Interestingly, Kane herself came up with an alternative for those labels: “I think the press outrage was due to the play beingexperientialrather than speculative.”Theatre was no longer understood as (either realistic or symbolical) representation, but was about experience and inter-action between performance and audience. The third reason rendering Kane’s plays so special might have to do with the apparentamoralityof the plays. People were badly shaken because Kane refused to make moral statements about what atrocities her characters performed onstage; she did not seem to condemn the monsters she created:
I think [Blastedis] amoral, and I think that is one of the reasons people got terribly upset because there isn’t a very defined moral framework within which to place yourself and assess your morality and therefore distance yourself from the material.
The fourth reason refers to the overlapping of violence, aggression, physical and sexual abuse on the one hand, and sympathy, tenderness, the yearning for love, and even love itself on the other hand: “This combination of cruelty underscored with tenderness and an almost ruthless belief and adherence to the truth seems to be at odds with the work of Kane’s contemporaries from the so-called ‘Theatre of Ennui’…”. Not incidentally, it is this very combination that makes Kane’s plays so difficult and distressing, because it hinders the audience from simply distancing themselves from the onstage atrocities. What Michael Billington said aboutBlasted’s character Ian is equally true ofCleansed’s Tinker, orCrave’s ‘A’ and ‘B’ (as well as Phaedra’s lover: Hippolytus), which renders it a general statement about Kane’s blending techniques: “There is something both brutal and mysterious about the way Ian mixes protestations of love with exploitative sexual violence. (…) Ian blends bludgeoning coarseness with a pathetic need for affection.”With Kane, affection, tenderness, and love are never directly opposed to brutality, cruelty, and violence, just as the “I” is not opposed to the “you”, and the characters are not opposed to the audience. Instead of binary oppositions, everything seems to be part of a complex system of relations, interference, and interdependence.
Herbert Kretzmer,Daily Express, 4 November 1965 (as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 24); second quote: Charles Spencer,Daily Telegraph, 1995 (as quoted in: Saunders 2002a: 133).
Kane, interview with Graham Saunders (as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 27).
Kane, interview with Bayley,Independent, 23 January 1995 (as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 24).
Jack Tinker,Daily Mail, 19 January 1995 (as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 37).
Kane, interview with Nils Tabert (as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 32). N.B. all quotes from the interview with Nils Tabert are taken from Tabert 2001; however, since they are translated into German in Tabert 2001, I decided to use the English version (as quoted in: Saunders 2002a and 2002b), instead of translating them back into English which might have changed them accidentally.
In fact, Ian “crying, huge bloody tears” (Kane 2001: 60) looks like some uncanny reincarnation of Lear; cf. Lear: “… O my eyes. This crying’s opened my wounds. There’s blood again. Quick, quick, help me! My eyes, my eyes!” (II, 7: 81). A vivid example of explicit violence is found in I, 4 ofLearin which Warrington is tortured and horribly mutilated while Fontanelle is raging like a madwoman, whereas Bodice is knitting (!).
“The THIRD SOLDIER, now half naked, takes the knife (…), kneels and cuts MARBAN on the buttocks. (…) [He] holds MARBAN’S thighs and attempts to bugger him” (Brenton 1980; I, 3: 40f.). Numerous more examples for spectacularly violent scenes are encountered if one refers back to the theatrical tradition before the introduction of censorship in 1737 (cf. Sierz 2001: 10-30).
Among others, especially Aleks Sierz has done a lot of research on the 1990s phenomenon of In-Yer-Face Theatre; the above mentioned characteristics prove to be characteristics of “In-Yer-Face plays” in general rather than individual characteristics of Kane’s early playsBlasted, Phaedra’s Love, andCleansed(Sierz 2002: 107-110; Sierz 2001: viif., 4-10).
The outcry happened in the press, not in the public; Kane repeatedly emphasised that: “There was media outrage, but it was never a public outcry.” (Sierz 2001: 97).
Kane (as quoted in: Sierz 2001: 98; my emphasis).
“Ms Kane on the other hand, offers her audience scarcely a clue as to why her characters should behave as they do …” Jack Tinker,Daily Mail(as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 11). Mr. Tinker, however, might have been misled: true, Kane does not make the motives explicitinthe play. But it is very probable that she shared E. Bond’s opinion that people “respond aggressively when [they] are deprived of [their] physical and emotional needs or when [they] are threatened with this; and if [they] are constantly deprived and threatened in this way – as human beings now are – [they] live in a constant state of aggression.” (Bond 1978: 3f.) cf. the correspondence to Ian and the soldier inBlasted.
Kane,Start the Week, BBC Radio 4; date unknown (as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 27).
Nightingale,Future of Theatre, p.21 (as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 34).
Michael Billington,Guardian, 5 April 2001.
In this context it is worth mentioning that Kane again and again stressed the importance of the audience’s involvement in the play. What fascinated her most concerning theatre was that it is the only medium that is a live performance art. Because, what Kane was most interested in was: that there would be some kind of reciprocal interaction between audience and performance. But this interaction only works if the audience is prevented to merely sit back and consume. Shock tactics are one device to achieve such ambitious aim.
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- British Drama after 1945 Sarah Kane In-Yer-Face-Theatre queer theatre queerness violence love sex gender homosexuality gay lesbian transgender theatre Cleansed Crave Blasted 4.48 Psychosis British Theatre 1990s theatre