The Notion of Cruelty in the Work of Sarah Kane by Gaëlle Ranc
Sarah Kane (1971-1999)
On the 20th of February 1999, Sarah Kane, the 'enfant terrible' of British theatre [0-1], committed suicide. She was born in 1971, grew up in Kelvedon Hatch, near Brentwood, Essex. Her father was a Daily Mirror journalist and her mother had given up work to raise Sarah and her brother, Simon. They were Christians and Kane was evangelical until her teenage years. She went to Shenfield Comprehensive school, and enjoyed writing short stories and poems. Although Kane 'hated school until the sixth form', she acknowledges that '[her] English and drama teachers were excellent´. She says ´I was encouraged to read and write and act, which were the things I wanted to do' [0-2]. By the time she was studying for A-levels, she directed Shakespeare and Joan Littlewood's Oh, What a Lovely War at school, and played truant to work as an assistant director in a production of Checkhov's The Bear at Soho Polytechnic.
Vince O'Connell, who first met Kane when she acted in one of his plays at a local drama group in Basildon, says that Kane was an exceptional actress. ' She knew theatre, understood how it worked' , he says, 'It was an instinctive thing. She had the ability to create a crackle in a room, the same ability she had as a writer [0-6]'.
After that, Kane stopped acting. She says, 'I decided that acting is a powerless profession and I didn't want to be at the mercy of directors I didn't like. So I started directing [0-7]. And then I wrote three twenty-minute monologues- Comic Monologue, Starved and What She Said- which was the sum total of my playwriting until I wrote Blasted [0-8]'. The three monologues were performed in Edinburgh under the title Sick. One was about rape, one about a woman questioning her sexual identity, and another about eating disorders. They were all performed in the first person and confrontational.
Kane left Bristol in 1992, with a First class Honours Degree, and during the summer saw Jeremy Weller's Mad in Edinburgh. 'It was a project that brought together professional and non-professional actors who all had some experience of mental illness', she says. 'It was a very unusual piece of theatre because it was totally experiential [0-10]'' and it would definitely influence her work. 'Mad took me to hell', she says. 'And the night I saw it I made a decision about the kind of theatre I wanted to make- experiential [0-11]'. In 1992, Kane joined David Edgar's MA in playwriting at Birmingham University, she was the youngest student on the course. It 'seemed like the best way to get funding for another year before signing on', Kane says. 'I needed to find out if I could write a full-length play with more than one person in it- to get a grant for doing that was ideal [0-12]'.
But Kane was not interested in the courses. 'It's the same problem I had at Bristol- it was an academic course and I didn't want to be an academic', she says. 'The writers I was interested in talking to- Pinter, Bond, Barker- weren't the ones who were coming to talk to us. It was simultaneously academic and anecdotal- and I can't see the usefulness in that [0-13]'. She did not go to most of the lectures, because she felt 'they were inhibiting [her] writing [0-14]', however David Edgar recognised her as 'enormously gifted and with a huge amount of passion [0-15]'.
Kane was unhappy in Birmingham, she says, 'Living in Birmingham for a year helped me more as an artist by just making me feel miserable. I was living in a city that I simply hated. The only thing it really gave me was that I decided I wanted to write plays set in a very large industrial city, which was extremely unpleasant. That is what I did, and it became Blasted [0-16] '. She wrote the first forty-five minutes of Blasted, that is to say up to the entrance of the soldier, and it was given a workshop performance at the end of the course. Mel Kenyon, a London theatrical agent, went up to Birmingham to see the students' end-of-year show. When she saw the embryo of Blasted, she 'was awe-struck [0-17]' . She found the play so brilliant that she wrote to Kane asking if she could read the whole thing when it was completed. Sarah eventually went to see Kenyon in London and decided to choose her as her agent, although she had other offers.
Then Kane moved to London and started working at the Bush theatre as a literary assistant while she was finishing the play. Dominic Dromgoole, who worked there, says 'she had a voracious appetite for scripts- much like Edward Bond in the Court's early days- and was an excellent reader- shrewd, pluralistic, generous and tough [0-18]'. Then, she read 'a fairly finished version' of Blasted to the Royal Court. 'They said they'd pay me to finish it, or they would commission a new work. I took the commission but finished Blasted anyway. It is part of my Machiavellian scheme [0-19]'. The Court decided to do a reading of it in January 1994, which James Macdonald directed, and Kane did one final draft after that. She enjoyed working with the Royal Court because 'it makes you feel that there is a theatre that is interested in what you write [0-20]'. Blasted [0-21] was produced a year later in January 1995 and surprisingly, caused a media outcry- its main theme is violence and some scenes shocked the critics. Although it was seen by less than 2,000 people, it became what some called the most controversial British dramatic work of the decade. Aleks Sierz says that 'in Blasted, Kane took the temperature of the times, and inadvertently brought down a plague on herself [0-22]'.
Then Kane wrote Phaedra's Love, an adaptation of Seneca's classical tragedy, commissioned by the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, which specialises in producing European works in translation. 'The Gate asked me to write a play based on a European classic [0-23]', Kane explains. Her first choice was Georg Büchner's Woyzeck because she 'wanted to direct it since [she] was 17 [0-24]'. But the theatre was already planning a season of Büchner's plays 'so Woyzeck was out [0-25]'. Her second choice was Bertolt Brecht's Baal but she had to make another choice once again because the theatre anticipated problems with his estate [0-26] . Finally, the Gate suggested a classical play. At first Kane was not keen, she had always hated those plays in which 'everything happens offstage [0-27]'. But she eventually chose Seneca 'because Caryl Churchill had done a version of one of his plays, Thyestes, [produced by James McDonald in 1994] which [she] liked very much [0-28]'. Phaedra's Love [0-29] was premiered at the Gate Theatre, London, on 15 May 1996 and directed by Kane herself. Like Blasted, it was harshly criticised. In the meantime, Kane wrote the synopsis of Skin, a ten minute film about a young skinhead, which was directed by Vince O'Connell and broadcast on Channel 4 on 17 June 1997.
Kane's third play was Cleansed [0-30]. It was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs on 30 April 1998 and it was directed by James Macdonald. It is about torture and death but also about love, and contains beautiful tableaus. But again, it was badly received by the critics. To escape her bad reputation, Kane wrote Crave, under the pseudonym of Marie Kelvedon. The play text even provided a funny fictional biography:
As the introduction points out: 'Anonymity liberated Sarah to write for- and see her work played in front of- an audience unswayed by the influence of the Blasted phenomenon [0-32]'. Vicky Featherstone, who directed the first performance of Crave, adds:
One of the company's initiatives was a series of lunchtime play readings at the Bridewell Theatre. These readings provided an opportunity for Kane to write and present Crave. Vicky Featherstone says it all started as a joke:
Kane disappeared. Every time Featherstone rang her house, the answer phone was on. 'I thought, Christ what have I done. Then, three days later, she turned up and said, "I hate you for having made me do this." She stood in the corridor, jiggling her leg, having a fag, and made me read it while she waited. It was just the most simple, perfect piece of writing [0-37]'. It was only twenty minute long, but Vicky Featherstone found the short version so exciting that she commissioned the play. Kane then spent another year and a half completing Crave. She explains that both Vicky Featherstone and the Paines Plough helped her a lot in her work. She says:
Finally, Crave was performed in Scotland at the Traverse Theatre in August 1998 for the Edinburgh Festival and then at the Court a month later. It is about desire and death but above all, it is an experiment in form. It became a triumph; critics called it a dramatic poem and compared it to T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. David Greig says, 'Perhaps the critics felt that, by changing her style, Kane had allowed them to engage more easily with her work [0-39]'. By this time, Kane had become very famous in Europe, specially in France and Germany. She also ran writers groups and led workshops with both Paines Plough and the Royal Court's European Summer School [0-40].
Kane's last play was [...] based on Goethe's The Sorrows Of Young Werther. Werther was a fictional hero who killed himself for love. He became a romantic icon, and after Goethe published the story, a spate of copycat suicides followed. Kane said that she was already working on 4.48 Psychosis and that there were parallels. The title refers to the time of morning when the urge to kill oneself is at its highest. 4.48 Psychosis [0-41] was Kane's last play; it was performed posthumously at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London in June 2000, and directed by Kane's long-time collaborator James Macdonald.
Kane suffered from depression and was hospitalised several times. As David Greig says, 'inevitably, the shadow of [her] death will fall across her plays and one can find oneself reading them in search of diagnoses, listening out for unheard cries for help [0-42]'. But Simon Kane, her brother, pointed out that although her last play deals with suicidal despair, it was not 'a thinly veiled suicide note'. He also stresses the danger of using the life to explain the work saying, '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 [0-43]'. Kane's writing was obviously influenced by her own experience of life. She said herself that Blasted and Cleansed were written by someone 'who believed utterly in the power of love' whereas Crave was written at a time when she thought 'the world was a pretty grim place [0-44]'. But David Greig says that the personal quality of her work 'does not close [it] off to the viewer'. Greig explains, 'It is as though by excavating herself rather than attempting to capture an invented character's consciousness, Kane has opened her writing out to the audience, leaving a space in which they can place themselves and their own experience [0-45]'. Like one of her characters, Kane was 'an emotional plagiarist, stealing other's people's pain, subsuming it into [her] own [0-46]'. Therefore, instead of searching for the author behind the words, which would limit their meaning, we should try to freight the plays with our own presence.
The Notion of Cruelty
The reader, or the spectator, may find Kane's plays shocking because of their violence. However, he should not let Kane's striking images blind him, but wonder what their real meaning is and what message the author wants to transmit. Violence is a starting point, but looking closely at Kane's plays, the reader will discover that what is more important than violence is the notion of cruelty. These two notions are closely linked but slightly different. Violence is simply the expression of roughness and aggressiveness, whereas cruelty is closer to sadism as it associates pleasure with pain: it can be defined as taking pleasure in torturing someone physically or morally.
But other definitions of cruelty can be found. One of them disconnects cruelty from pleasure: instead of being the act of inflicting pain, it can be indifference in front of another's pain. However, this notion of indifference has to be analysed: it is not necessarily an absence of pity, but a denial which aims at protecting oneself. In her work, Kane focuses on both the first idea of cruelty, in other words violence directed against another for pleasure, and the notion of indifference.
The third definition of cruelty was given by Antonin Artaud in Le Théâtre et son double [0-47], and it is connected with the concept of 'theatre of cruelty' which he invented. According to Artaud, cruelty is also metaphysical: there is not only the cruelty of man against man but the cruelty of life, which Artaud calls the 'cruelty of things'. Life is cruel because if we were born, we are all meant to die, and the theatre of cruelty is supposed to unveil this reality. The first two definitions of cruelty imply human will: the will of the torturer who deliberately inflicts pain or the will of the bystander who decides not to react in front of violence. But in the third definition, the individual becomes powerless in front of stronger forces, the forces of fate. In her plays, Kane also talks about the cruelty of things which is, according to her, at the origin of existential despair.
Therefore, Kane's work is very complex and this work aims at analysing, in detail, the different definitions of cruelty on which it based. First of all, Kane's theatre is meant to be subversive. Her work caused a scandal- she was harshly criticised in her country- but what the critics did not understand is that by putting violence on stage, she unveils the cruelty of human nature. She brings to light the mechanism of the vicious circle of violence in which we all take part and she denounced general indifference to violence. She also denounces the attitude of the media to which she opposes her own point of view thanks to theatre.
In the second place, Kane's work can be compared with Artaud's 'theatre of cruelty'. On the one hand, Kane uses the same technical as Artaud, that is to say shock treatment, which aims at awaking the audience's awareness. If they use such a technical, it is because for them, theatre should urge the spectator to take a stand, to position himself towards reality. On the other hand, like Artaud, Kane confronts the spectator with the cruelty of things, that is to say his mortality.
It is also interesting to study the notion of cruelty of truth since in her work, Kane attacks hypocrisy, specially the hypocrisy of religion whereas her own religion is honesty. This quest for truth is a way to find a meaning to life but, un fortunately, often leads to death.
The cruelty of love and desire is another notion that has to be analysed. Desire is painful by nature but it is crueller when it is rejected by morals and when it becomes destructive. To show the cruelty of love, Kane gives examples of love-hate relationships. Love is so painful that some of her characters prefer to repress their desire. However, although desire is cruel, Kane tells us that it is necessary to live and to give a meaning to life.
Despair and death are also important in Kane's work. One of her main issues is depression. When there is nothing left, the only way to fight depression is humour. Paradoxically, depression is a way to have a better perception of the world but it is often linked with death wish. In Phaedra's Love, Kane tells the story of Hippolytus whose only way to keep in touch with himself is death. However, even if Kane's work seems very dark, she always counter-balances the images of death with images of life. By creating these contradictions, she wants to catch the essence of existence.
Finally, Kane needed to find a new form, in accordance with her message. In order to do so, she challenged classical theatre and looked for a new style of writing. For her, the form should reflect the content of the play. Therefore, it is interesting to study the influence of the content on the stage directions and on the form.
Remerciements Je voudrais remercier Monsieur Roux et Mme Berton, mes directeurs de recherche, mais aussi Monsieur Regard pour m´avoir suggéré le thème de la crautè, ainsi que Aleks Sierz, Nils Tabert et Iain Fisher pour leur aide précieuse, et enfin Daniel Benoin, le personnel de la Comédie de Saint-Etienne, et tout particulièrement Brigitte Falcon sans qui je n´aurais pas su où commence mes recherches.
Copyright © Gaëlle Ranc, 2002
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