The Notion of Cruelty in the Work of Sarah Kane by Gaëlle Ranc
Evelyne Pieiller who translated Crave into French, wrote, '[Sarah Kane] breaks what is habitual, expected, acceptable, because she knows she lives, broken, in a broken world, because she sees the battlefield in humans, minefields in the world, and she wants to tear the plastic bag that envelops the whole to contain it, in order to bring out the pain, the stupid pain, the deep pain, of our taste for destruction [1-1]'. In her work, Kane describes a world built on violence and ruled by the media. By denouncing general indifference, she points out that we are all responsible for the creation of the circle of violence.
A Work which Caused a Scandal
Violence in Kane's plays is at first visual; Kane does not hesitate to create striking images on stage. The spectator witnesses a series of horrors: amputation, eye-gouging, cannibalism, rape, torture, electroshocks session, stoning, impalement or castration. But what is described is even worse than what can be seen. The characters do not mince their words when they describe events they have witnessed, they use strong language and speak crudely about sex and violence. For example, the soldier of Blasted says, 'I broke a woman's neck. Stabbed up between her legs, on the fifth stab snapped her spine [1-2]'. And in Crave, horrible 'faits divers' are told:
Their violence makes Kane's plays controversial. When they saw Blasted, many critics were shocked and it engendered a media storm. In The Daily Mail, Jack Tinker headed his review 'Disgusting Feast of Filth' and wrote that Blasted was 'a bucket of bilge dumped over the audiences'. Aleks Sierz remembers those days:
And some even called for the restoration of censorship. But critics were blinded by Blasted's powerful images, and their excitement in front of a new scandal prevented them from seeing Kane's real message. As Macdonald said it in the Observer, the critics only saw 'a catalogue of unmentionable acts'. They only listed the atrocities happening on stage and fed their readers with exaggerated accounts of sex and violence. Kane retorted that 'taking events out of the context [did] not do justice to the play [1-5]'. The critics' reaction in front of Blasted showed that, by rejecting anything new and challenging, the British critical establishment tends to lock itself into a rigid pattern of criterion. According to Kane, 'There's no doubt that there was a lot of pseudo-moral outrage in the press and it appeared to focus mainly on the play's content. There's been a failure of the critical establishment [in Great Britain] to develop an adequate language with which to discuss drama. A list of a play's contents is not a review [1-6]'. And she noticed that if some critics were rather harsh, they did not reflect the audience's opinion; she said, 'it's important not to confuse press with audience. There was media outrage, but it was never a public outcry [1-7]'. For example, when the Guardian asked spectators what they thought about Blasted, Andrew Lukas, a 25-year-old student, said 'it was more educational for me than therapeutic. It showed an aspect of moral degradation and there was something that everyone could learn from it'.
It is true that Kane's theatre is rather provocative. Some critics defined it as 'In Your-Face-Theatre' or 'New Brutalism'. After she saw Cleansed's first performance, Kate Basset from the Times wrote 'violence does not reach us by words of mouth. It is in our faces', and Aleks Sierz says that its 'themes came at you with their pants down, defying criticism by being over-the-top [1-8]'. But it is not as though there have been no precedents for the 'violence and gore [1-9]' in theatre.
Besides, not all the critics reacted the same way: some realised what a talented playwright Kane was. Established playwrights such as Bond and Pinter supported her. Bond noted Blasted's 'strange, almost hallucinatory quality [1-10]' and Pinter said that its author was 'facing something actual and true and ugly and painful [1-11]'. He adds that the critics were 'out of their depth' and that Blasted, was a 'work of bravery', was 'too complex for them [1-12]'. And they were right: even if Hippolytus's line 'Fuck God. Fuck the monarchy [1-13]' sounds like a song of the Sex Pistols, Kane's provocation goes further than the rebellious attitude of a teenager. The violence of her work is not gratuitous and contrary to what some may think, she does not pay a tribute to violence. She was indeed revolted when directors misinterpreted her plays. She says, 'I hated the first German production [of Blasted] in Hamburg. It completely glamorised the violence. The director thought it was a stage version of Tarantino. It's not [1-14]'. But she explains:
If Kane puts violence 'in our faces' it is to make us react. John Peter of the Sunday Times pointed out that it 'makes you question values' and although he described it as 'aimless, brutish, barren, cannibalistic, prurient, diseased and terror-stricken', he concluded, 'we need those moral ordeals. Theatre is only alive if it's kicking'. And in the Observer, Susannah Clapp wrote, 'one of the charges against [Sarah Kane] was that she was merely setting out to shock- though shock may seem less of a threat than boredom [1-16]'.
Cruelty as Part of Human Nature
According to Aleks Sierz, the real reason why 'the media frenzy [got] out of control' was that Kane's work 'touched a nerve' by '[tapping] into serious anxieties about the problem of violence [1-17]'. What Kane does by putting violence on stage, is to underline the cruelty of human nature and her work only reflects the reality of our modern society. What was shocking was to face this reality.
A work inspired by real facts
To describe our modern world which is ruled by violence, Kane took inspiration in real life. Numerous violent incidents in her plays have been inspired by real facts. Kane ironically says 'the only reason it's any more devastating than reading a newspaper is that all the boring bits have been cut out [1-18]'. For example, at the time she was writing Blasted, she read Bill Buford's article Among The Thugs, about football violence:
Besides, Blasted was written at the time of the war in Bosnia and Kane was definitely inspired by this context. As for Cleansed, its setting recalls a concentration camp and today, it is known that during the WWII, the nazi scientists carried out operations as horrible as the one Grace gets through. The impaling scene also comes from reports about Bosnia: 'It's a form of crucifixion which Serbian soldiers used against Muslims' and Kane concludes, 'I tend to think that anything that has been imagined, there's someone somewhere who's done it [1-20]'.
But even if her work is inspired by real facts, Kane wants to go further than only evoking one particular situation. She starts with a specific context in order to expand it to the universal. She talks about violence and cruelty in general. The torture sessions in her plays can just as well evoke what happened during WWII, as during the war in Algeria, or the war in Bosnia, or the war in Rwanda- and this list is not exhaustive.
Kane explains herself giving the example of Myra Hindley's picture, a painting representing the portrait a children's murderer composed of children's hand prints:
It does not mean that she completely refused the directors' interpretations, but she was careful with productions that would have limited interpretations. For example, Blasted was produced in Brussels at the time of the Dutroux-affair. Kane says that when she was there, 'bodies were uncovered' and 'there was an enormous amount of guilt'; people were 'ashamed to be a Belgian [1-22]'. She explains that in that context, the play became an evocation of what had happened in the country:
The fact that a director can adapt the play to a particular context proves that it conveys a large possibility of interpretations, and Kane says she 'accepted it as a genuine reinterpretation [1-24]'. However she says,
Kane wanted her plays to be representative of the whole humanity, not only of one particular cultural or historical situation.
The reason why some feel uneasy watching Kane's plays is that by putting violence on stage, Kane makes the audience realise that violence is inside every one. To demonstrate it, she does not hesitate to say, 'My main source of thinking about how violence happens is myself, and in some ways all my characters are me [1-26]'. For her, Man is like an animal- in Blasted, Ian says 'when I came round, surgeon brought in this lump of rotting pork stank. My lump [1-27]'- and she is disillusioned with human nature. In Crave, she writes 'I can see no good in anyone any more [1-28]'. She also says, '[Every time] I let my cat out I think some vivisectionist is going to put washing powder in its eyes. That indicates a general depression about the world, don't you think? [1-29]'. Unable to control his animality, his violent instincts, Man has created a cruel world, a violent world that engenders violence, that pushes the individual to be even more violent. As John Peter wrote it in the Sunday Times, Kane described 'a self-destroying society'.
Like Büchner, Kane criticises the establishment, specially in Phaedra's Love, with the difference that she adds the power of religion to the political and medical ones. For the first production of Phaedra's Love, the different powers were embodied by the same person: the roles of the doctor, the priest and the king were played by the same actor. The first two are unable to help Hippolytus and the latter is responsible for his death. Hubert Colas, who directed 4.48 Psychosis and Cleansed in France, finds this idea which shows the individual trapped in the system, interesting:
Kane denounces a dehumanised society in which the individual is forgotten. In Crave, M says:
Oppressed, crushed by society, the individual loses his identity- in Crave he is reduced to a simple letter- and becomes inarticulate.
In Büchner's play, Woyzeck feels rejected and misunderstood and he cannot communicate his anguish. Kane says that 'in the end, [his] only way of expressing himself is violence [1-33]'. It is also the case of the characters in Edward Bond's Saved [1-34] which was one of Kane's reference. Saved tells the story of a group of people who know no other means of expression than violence, and this leads to a baby being stoned. Kane shares Bond's point of view that we live in a society in which 'individual and social problems are resolved by murder and alienation [1-35]'. Like him, she gives many examples of everyday violence in her work. For example, in Crave, she tells the moving story of a little girl, victim of her parents' violence:
Cruelty of war
If Kane puts violence on stage, it is also to show the horrors of war. For example, in Crave, she refers to the Vietnam war and the famous picture of Nguyen Kong (Nick Ut) when one of the characters says, 'A Vietnamese girl, her entire existence given meaning and permanence in the thirty seconds she fled from her village, skin melting, mouth open [1-38]'. And in Blasted, the soldier tells Ian about the horrors he has seen:
The soldier's role is to show how Man can be cruel in the context of war and Kane wants to denounce 'the way society expects men to behave [1-40]' which leads to war. The soldier is only a man like others, who 'went to school' and made love to his girlfriend [1-41], but war changes a man and he tells Ian what he has done:
Then, he tries to demonstrate to Ian that if he were a soldier himself, he would also be able to rape and kill.
Even if he is 'clean' at home' and behaves 'like it never happened [1-44]', things will never be the same. But he is both an actor and a victim of war. He tells the story of his girlfriend who was killed after being raped: 'Col, they buggered her. Cut her throat. Hacked her ears and nose off, nailed them to the front door [1-45]', and he eventually commits suicide. Finally, Kane wants to denounce the nonsense of war. Even if he is part of this violence, the soldier says, 'Doing to them what they done to us, what good is that? [1-46]'
The Vicious Circle of Violence
But what matters more than violence itself is the idea that the violence of the man who beats his wife 'with a walking stick [1-47]' is the same as the one of a soldier during war. It is in Blasted that Kane brings the mechanism of this vicious circle of violence to light. 'Originally' she says, 'I was writing a play about two people in a hotel room, in which there's a complete power imbalance, which resulted in the older man raping the younger woman [1-48]'. Then something unexpected happened:
Kane sums up what Blasted is about by saying: 'it's a two way thing, because the soldier is the way he is because of the situation, but that situation exists because of what Ian has created in that room, of what he has done to Cate [...]. So basically, it's a completely self perpetuating circle of emotional and physical violence [1-50] '. This cycle of violence is symbolised by the cycle of seasons: like Beckett in What Where, Kane divides the play into Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. According to Kane, everyday violence can grow and lead to a worse situation like war, 'the logical conclusion of the attitude that produces an isolated rape in England is the rape camps in Bosnia [1-51]'. That is why she wanted Ian to be a monster but she wanted the soldier to be worse. And the soldier draws the link between them during their dialogue: he tells Ian how he raped some women and asks him, 'Never done that?'. Ian answers no but remains silent when the soldier says 'What about that girl, locked herself in the bathroom.' This line has even more impact since it is not a question but an assertion. By confronting him to the horrors of war, the soldier forces Ian to face the truth and makes him realise that he is as monstrous as himself. Finally, the violence Ian has used turns against him: the soldier rapes him. At that point, the torturer becomes the victim and Kane's purpose is to make us realise that like Ian, we are all torturers and that we can all become victims.
Refusal to face reality
Kane denounces general indifference in front of violence. To answer the critics who found Blasted shocking, she said, 'there was speculation that the theatre might lose its funding. Censorship should be reintroduced in Britain, I should never get any money from the state to write, and so on [1-52]'. But she argued:
But more than indifference in front of violence, she denounces our refusal to face our responsibility towards it. Like Tinker in Cleansed, many people try to defend themselves by repeating 'I am not responsible [1-54]', but we are all responsible for the perpetuation of violence. In Crave, one of the character embodies this denial when he says 'I'm not interested in you. I'm not interested in the first fucking thing about you [1-55]'. And like the Bosnian woman Kane saw on TV, the soldier in Blasted asks Ian, who is a tabloid journalist, to tell his story to the world. But Ian answers, 'No one's interested [...] This isn't a story anyone wants to hear [1-56]'. This situation is also symbolised by M's attitude, who turns a deaf ear to the person talking to her:
Like Pinter, Kane rejects the complacent view that Britain is immune from civil war. She says that during the war in Bosnia, 'there was a widespread attitude in [Great Britain] that what was happening in central Europe could never happen here. In Blasted, it happened here [1-58]'. And not only could it happen in Britain but in any other country. She adds that 'the seeds of full-scale war can always be found in peacetime civilisation and I think the wall between so called civilisation and what happened in Central Europe is very, very thin and it can get torn down at anytime [1-59]'. That is why she does not want to refer to only one particular context in her plays. The stage directions underline that the hotel in which Blasted takes place 'could be anywhere' and the soldier does not have a name because he could be anyone. To show Ian, and by extension the spectator, that he could be in the same situation, the soldier says 'Can't get tragic about your arse. Don't think your Welsh arse is different to any other arse I fucked [1-60]'. Therefore Blasted is a warning: Kane warns us against the consequence of our indifference, of our lack of reaction. Hungarian Arpad Schilling, who directed Nexxt, a play about Reality Shows and violence that was performed during the 2001 Avignon festival, sums up this point of view:
In 4.48 Psychosis, Kane opposes the victim to the perpetrator and the bystander [1-62]. This division was already present in the four previous plays. Blasted's Ian, for example, is a journalist bystander who becomes perpetrator and finally, a victim. Kane's plays aim to demonstrate that anyone can be in each of these positions and that by adopting the third one, one becomes responsible for the existence of the first two. Our first reaction is to deny our role in the circle of violence, we prefer being blind to reacting. But Kane would like to show that the consequences of this attitude can turn against us.
During the media storm triggered by the opening of Blasted, Kane certainly suffered from bad publicity, but paradoxically, the media's reaction precisely asserted what she denounces in her plays, which is violence and general indifference to it. She points out that at the time of the first performance of Blasted, there was an earthquake in Japan during which thousands of people died, and that in Great Britain, a teenage girl was raped and murdered, but her play got more coverage than those events [1-63]. But the what shocked her most was 'that the media [seemed] to have been more upset by the representation of violence than violence itself [1-64]'. She explains that they chose the wrong target, they should have got angry against what was happening in Yugoslavia, not against Blasted which only pointed at it. She says, 'La représentation de la violence a provoqué plus de fureur que la violence réelle. Tandis que le cadavre de la Yougoslavie pourrissait au seuil de notre porte, la presse choisissait de se mettre en colère, non pas face à l'existence du cadavre, mais face a l'événement culturel qui avait attiré l'attention sur lui [1-65]'.
The media: symptom of our indifference
Therefore, Kane's work is also a criticism of the media. She denounces their indifference towards what is happening in the world, and their strategy, which focuses on attracting the spectator's attention by calling to his voyeurism, instead of trying to make him aware of the real problems. In Blasted, Ian who is a tabloid journalist, is indifferent to the violence of the stories he tells. At the beginning of the play, he calls the newspaper and dictates his article using a cold journalese:
And to underline his indifference towards what he has described, he starts joking with the person he is talking to [1-67].
Kane also criticises violence exploited by the media in other plays, and particularly the way TV bombards us with violent images. In Crave, one of the characters says, 'If I die here I was murdered by daytime television [1-68]', and at the beginning of Phaedra's Love, Hippolytus's eyes are 'fixed on the flickering light' of a TV set that is broadcasting a 'particularly violent' film [1-69]. Later, he is watching the News that only announce tragedies. In his tribute to Sarah Kane, Edward Bond develops her idea by denouncing the way TV feed the spectator with violent incidents without analysing them. He says, 'la télévision parle des événements pas de leur signification [1-70]'.
What Kane reproaches TV for is not showing violence but its 'moral blindness' which she symbolises by Ian's blinding in Blasted [1-71]. However this blindness is the symptom of people's indifference not its cause. Kane says, 'les films d'horreur ne créent pas une société bien qu'ils puissent la perpétuer, ils sont un produit de cette société [1-72]'. When the soldier tells Ian 'Some journalist, that's your job [...] proving it happened. I'm here, got no choice. But you. You should be telling people [...] Tell them you saw me', the journalist replies, 'I do other stuff. Shootings and rapes and kids getting fiddled by queer priests and schoolteachers. Not soldiers screwing each other for a patch of land. It has to be... personal [1-73]'. People prefer to hear about individual stories, unusual cases of which they think they cannot happen to them. Finally, through the indifference of the media, it is the cruelty of the whole society Kane wants to show, this society that creates violence and media power.
Media and consumption society
Sarah associates violence on TV to the consumption society. In Phaedra's Love, while he is watching TV, Hippolytus is eating hamburgers and sweets endlessly, and the floor of his bedroom is covered with 'expensive electronic toys' and 'empty crisp and sweet packets [1-74]'. Having such an attitude, Hippolytus personifies the society of consumption. He is a consumer who uses and throws away; for example, he uses his socks like tissues: he blows his nose and masturbate into them. This attitude even goes further since it is also applied to people: he lets them down after having had sexual intercourse with them. Therefore, even the individual is alienated by the consumption system since he is considered as a mere object. This idea is also evoked in Cleansed, in which Tinker treats the dancer like a prostitute. By associating the media to the consumption society, Kane implies that the media system treats violence as an object of consumption.
Edward Bond sums up this idea saying, 'Nos vies sont saturées par le théâtre réducteur, violent, sentimental et absurde des médias. Les médias ont assez d'importance pour prétendre s'occuper des problèmes importants, mais ils les aggravent en les banalisant [1-75]'. Hippolytus's seeming indifference also symbolise the cruelty of this dehumanised society. He is said to watch TV 'impassively [1-76]' and when Phaedra asks him why he does not riot, he says 'I don't care [1-77]'. But is he really indifferent? His lack of reaction hides deeper feelings. Little by little, the spectator can see his bitterness and his disgust in front of the cruelty of mankind.
Theatre, Another Vision of Reality
For Kane, any means of expression, any art, has the power to reinforce or change reality. She says, 'les films, les livres, le théâtre représentent quelque chose qui existe déjà [ ] et cette représentation peut transformer ou renforcer ce qui est décrit [1-78]'. Unfortunately, by their attitude, the media contribute to reinforce the vicious circle of violence. Contrary to the media, Kane's theatre aims at transforming reality. Kane says 'theatre is not external force acting on society, but part of it. It's a reflection of the way people within that society view the world [1-79]' and by giving her own point of view, she tries to change society. Talking about Jeremy Weller's Mad, she explains, 'it changed my life because it changed me, the way I think, the way I behave. If theatre can change lives, then it can change society [1-80]'.
On the one hand, the reason why the media do not have the same impact as theatre is that they do not give a personal point of view. They choose their programs according to ratings, in other words they broadcast what audiences want to see. As a consequence the spectator is protected. In such a system, censorship becomes the rule; you cannot show what you want whenever you want. Kane says:
On the other hand, in a cinema or in front of TV, the spectator can keep a certain detachment; the screen is like a veil separating him from reality. And comfortably settled in his armchair, he can zap if he does not like what he sees and if he does not want to be confronted by violent images. Theatre is different: even if a play is only a representation, it actualises what is represented. The characters are embodied by real persons and the action takes place right in front of the spectators at the present moment. Kane explains that theatre has always been the form she loved most because 'it's a live art' and she likes the 'direct communication with an audience [1-82]'. She says, 'There's always going to be a relationship between the material and the audience that you don't really get with a film. I mean with the film I wrote, Skin, people can walk out or change channels or whatever, it doesn't make any difference to the performance [1-83]'. She explains that just coughing may 'alter a performance [1-84]' and that when people get up and walk out it is 'part of the whole experience [1-85] '. She says, 'As a member of an audience I like the fact that I can change a performance. As a writer I like the fact that no performance will ever be the same [1-86] ', and she concludes, 'And I like that, it's a completely reciprocal relationship between the play and the audience [1-87] '.
As a consequence, showing atrocities on stage is completely different from showing them behind the filter of a TV screen; it makes people much more uncomfortable and theatre is freed from all the constraints imposed on TV. Theatre enables the artist to show a different point of view, a new vision of reality. With Blasted, Kane wanted people to realise that what was happening on stage was a reflection of reality, to make them aware of the cruelty of human nature. She says, 'L'indignation soulevée par les images ne provenait pas de l'idée que de telles choses aient réellement lieu, mais du fait d'être amène a considérer l'idée tout en regardant ces images. Le choc n'était pas suscité par le contenu mais plutôt par le fait que l'ordinaire soit réarrange de manière qu'on puisse le voir avec un autre regard [1-88]'.
Copyright © Gaëlle Ranc, 2002
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