The Notion of Cruelty in the Work of Sarah Kane by Gaëlle Ranc
Edward Bond says that Kane's work 'comes from the centre of our humanity and our ancient need for theatre [2-1]'. Like the Greek playwrights, Sarah Kane's aim is to cleanse the audience, by making them feel strong emotions. Violence on stage should make the spectator react, for him to take some distance afterwards and to position himself towards the reality which has been unveiled to him. But Kane also wants us to confront ourselves with our mortality.
Shock Treatment to Awake the Audience's Awareness
Kane worked on the principle that to awake the spectator's mind, she needed to awake the body. Artaud agreed on the same principle, he said that in our modern world, the body has lost its importance and that theatre is the only way to awake it again:
He proposes a theatre that would trigger off physical and emotional reactions in the spectator, something connected to instincts, to feelings, to the emotional. He says, 'Je propose un théâtre où des images physiques violentes broient et hypnotisent la sensibilité du spectateur pris dans le théâtre comme dans un tourbillon de forces supérieures. [...] un théâtre qui produise des transes [...] et qui s'adresse à l'organisme [2-3]'. Like Artaud, Kane's technique is shock treatment. She bombards the audience with powerful images in order to make them react emotionally, for them to be submerged by strong emotions. About Cleansed in which the torture sessions follow one another, she says 'I didn't want to give anyone in the audience time to calm down [2-4]'.
With this idea of shock treatment, Artaud and Kane re-invent the notion of catharsis. Katharsis in Greek means purification. Its Aristotelian definition is that theatre should cleanse the spectator- hence the title of Cleansed- by making him feel strong emotions. It should free him from his psychic tensions in order to make him a good citizen, since in the Greek civilisation, any excess of passion was considered as a threat to civil order. Following the Greek tradition, both Kane and Artaud consider that theatre has 'medical' virtues. Artaud says:
For Artaud, theatre is a 'poison', but a 'saving' one [2-6]. Kane also thinks that theatre is 'a bit like [...] a vaccine'. Jeremy Weller's Mad, which definitely influenced her work, was like a revelation for her: she says, 'I was mildly ill for a few days afterwards but that jab of sickness protected me from a far more serious illness [2-7]'. Vicky Featherstone also sums up what theatre should be 'I would like people to be transformed by the experience. The performance should place you in an emotion space where you would not go if you were not in that room experiencing that [2-8]'. But when Aristotle's idea was to keep the people under control in order to preserve the stability; the harmony of society thanks to catharsis, Artaud and Kane's concept aims to make the individual question himself and the society he lives in. Their definition of catharsis is closer to the psychoanalytic one, that is to say a liberating emotional release that enables the individual to externalise something he represses in order to make him progress. Like psychoanalysis, their work invokes the dark, hidden layer buried deep within the recesses of the audience's unconscious. Evelyne Pieiller says:
Kane says 'what I can do is put people through an intense experience. Maybe in a small way from that you can change things [2-10]'. Contrary to Brecht whose aim is a complete and immediate distanciation, Kane tries to trigger off an emotional reaction first, in order to allow the spectator to take some distance afterwards. After he saw Blasted, Aleks Sierz wrote 'Kane's play makes you feel but it does not make you think' but later added 'This turned to be wrong: it does make you think, but only after you've got over the shock of seeing it [2-11]'. To delve into the nastier recesses of the mind is a way to awake the spectator's awareness. Talking about Blasted, Kane says, 'personally, I think it is a shocking play, but only in the sense that falling down the stairs is shocking - it's painful and it makes you aware of your own fragility [2-12]'. This painful birth to awareness is symbolised by Hippolytus's transfer from his palace to jail in Phaedra's Love. 'Bit of a come down. Always suspected the world didn't smell of fresh paint and flowers', he says. 'Smells of piss and human sweat. Most unpleasant [2-13]'. Showing violent actions on stage, Artaud and Kane aim at bleeding the abscesses of the mind [2-14] so that the spectator could confront his real self, his real identity. 'Cruelty within the theatre', Artaud argues, 'is based as much on the way in which each spectator is forced to confront his or her own values as on acts of violence themselves [2-15]'.
To Take a Stand
But if Kane's plays raise questions, she does not pretend to give answers. Aleks Sierz says 'the precise meaning of Kane's [plays] is deliberately elusive', they '[work] more by suggestion than by explanation [2-16]'.
By showing the cruelty of reality, she pushes the spectator to take a stand towards it, people are free to reject it, to refuse to see it or to react in order to change it. Aleks Sierz writes that the first performance of Blasted 'clearly made the tiny audience uneasy: two people walked out, others hid their eyes, some giggled. [...] After it was over, the audience sat stunned for a few moments. In the cramped bar after the show people were discussing it furiously [2-19] '. Obviously, Blasted shocked a lot of people but Kane reached her aim, she triggered a reaction even if it was a negative one. She made people question the play and question themselves. She says that if someone walks out during her play, 'at least something is happening':
After the play, the author is not responsible for people's choices, the spectator can choose to stay or to walk out. But by taking one decision or the other, the spectator positions himself: taking a stand towards such a theatre is taking a stand in life. Bond says, 'we have to answer it or reject it and by doing one or the other, we define ourselves'. In Crave, Kane writes 'I am not what I am, I am what I do [2-21]' and 'Silence or violence. The choice is yours [2-22]'. Bond adds that this kind of theatre helps us to 'understand what human beings are and how they create their humanity [2-23]'. He also says that even with all the atrocities happening in the world, we could go on as if we have not learnt anything from them: 'les horreurs de ce siècle ne changent pas la réalité, elles en tirent les conclusions et nous pourrions continuer d'avancer comme si nous n'avions rien appris [2-24]'. But according to him, with her theatre, Kane 'transforms the means we have to understand ourselves' and 'changes human reality [2-25]'. Again, Kane's work is a warning; we need to explore our conscious to be aware of what human nature really is before it is too late, before we destroy ourselves. Kane's theatre confronts us with what Bond calls 'the implacable'; the logic according to which any action is compensated by its reaction. Bond says, 'si nous n'affrontons pas [l'implacable] pour trouver notre humanité, c'est lui qui nous affrontera et nous détruira [2-26]'. Finally, Kane justifies the horrors in her work by saying that 'sometimes we have to descend into hell imaginatively in order to avoid going there in reality. For me, it's crucial to commit to memory events we haven't experienced - in order to avoid them happening [2-27]'. A critic pointed out that with her plays, there was a danger for the audience to have an overdose of despair and horrors, but she argued 'I'd rather risk overdose in the theatre than in life [2-28]'. Artaud also showed violent actions on stage to avoid them in real life, he said:
Cruelty of Things
But if we look closer at the notion of cruelty, we soon realise that it is not only physical or moral. According to Artaud, it is above all metaphysical. In her profile of Artaud, Odette Virmaux says, 'c'est sur un mal ontologique que débouche obligatoirement le mal infligé au corps ou a l'esprit. Autrement dit, la cruauté procède chez Artaud d'une vision tragique de l'homme et de l'univers [2-30]'. Artaud himself says,
In a letter to a reader, he explains further the idea that 'we are not free'. For him, Man is submitted to implacable forces that can be called fate.
The cruelty of things is our destiny; life means death and we are all bound to die. Like Artaud, Kane also wrote about the cruelty of things; in 4.48 Psychosis she writes, ' we are all going to disappear' [2-33] . In Crave, she deals with the weight of Fate. One of the character would like to 'deliver [his] soul from the sword [2-34]'; like Oedipus [2-35], man would like to free himself from fatality but he is submitted to ineluctable forces. Kane writes 'everything that happens is supposed to happen [2-36]' and 'people die it happens [2-36]'. Death is frightening and if Man has invented entertainments such as theatre, it is to divert him from the idea that he is mortal. But playwrights such as Beckett, Artaud or Kane think that, on the contrary, theatre's role is to show the truth, to remind us that we are all going toward our own end. In Crave, Kane gives a definition of existence:
However, as Artaud says, theatre's role is to make life bearable: 'Révélant à des collectivités leur puissance sombre, leur force cachée, [l'action du théâtre] les invite à prendre en face du destin une attitude héroique et supérieure qu'elles n'auraient jamais eu sans cela [2-38]'. By reminding us that we are all going to die, by making us facing it instead of hiding it, theatre aims at giving us the strength to assume our mortality and to go on living with it.
Chapter Three Cruelty of Truth
Evelyne Pieiller says that if the 'shocking details pile up' in Kane's plays, it is to impose 'a nightmare which, like all nightmares, tells a truth [3-01] '. Sarah Kane was a fervent believer, however, she did not believe in any god; her religion was simply the religion of truth. She wanted to be completely honest in her plays; her aim was to tell the truth and to attack hypocrisy - paradoxically that is what shocked some people. But defending the truth is a difficult and painful task in a world ruled by hypocrisy and appearances, and many of Kane's characters do not survive in their quest.
Truth and Religion
Religious influences in Kane's work
There are many religious allusions in Kane's work, such as Grace's name or the 'two women at the foot of a cross' in Crave [3-02], which is not surprising since Kane was a Christian in her teenage years. However, she decided to reject religion and little by little lost her faith. She explains:
With hindsight, she considered religion as 'spirit filled born-again lunacy' and she linked her religious upbringing to the violence in her writing. For her, the Bible 'is incredibly violent [3-03]'; ''it 'is full of rape, mutilation, war and pestilence [3-04]'. That is why most of the religious references in her work can be found in violent scenes, such as Cate and Grace's rapes, Rod's evocation of crucifixion, Hippolytus's stoning, or the kiss of Judas which Theseus gives to Hippolytus before handing him over to the angry crowd.
For Kane, religion seems to have lost its meaning in a world ruled by violence. Bond shares Kane's idea that there is no God and denounces religious fanatism which reinforce violence:
Like Artaud, Kane thinks that the only force controlling our existence and against which we cannot fight, is fate. According to her, there is no God who choses who is going to live eternally or not, our lives are only defined by the fact that we are all meant to die.
Guilt and redemption
Even if Kane rejects religion, she keeps the idea of guilt which is linked to punishment and redemption. As mention above, Man is guilty, he has lost his innocence and purity and has created a perverted world. Images of lost innocence, such as Cate's rape and Ian's lung cancer in Blasted, can easily be found in Kane's work, and the words 'guilt' and 'stain' appear several times. In Crave, one of the characters says, 'guilt lingers like the smell of death and nothing can free me from this cloud of blood [3-06]', A also says 'God forgive me I want to be clean [3-07]' and later 'God has blessed me with the mark of Cain [3-08]'. We are all guilty but some do not want to face it. And for those who dare to face the truth, this guilt is unbearable and that is what Kane's plays are about: characters struggling to live with it. But redemption is possible, the numerous images of fire, such as Graham's incineration, symbolise purification. To be cleansed from this guilt, the characters have to suffer, to go through physical and moral torture. And just like the characters, the audience is also cleansed by pain and terror.
Hypocrisy of religion
In term of religion, the most interesting passage in Kane's work is the scene between the priest and Hippolytus in Phaedra's Love. The priest uses what some linguists call the 'we' of royalty [3-09]. He speaks like this because the religious authorities are closely linked to the monarchy since according to him, Royalty is chosen by God [3-10]. He is only interested in preserving the image of the Royal family to maintain his own power. He tells Hippolytus, 'Your sexual indiscretions are of no interest to anyone. But the stability of the nation's morals is. You are the guardian of those morals. You will answer to God for the collapse of the country you and your family lead [3-11]'.
But Hippolytus ridicules the priest. When the latter repeats that the future of the country depends on Hippolytus's behaviour, the prince answers 'Why do I always forget this?'. He thinks that the priest is dangerous [3-12] and he can see what his real interests are: 'What bothers you more, the destruction of my soul or the end of my family? [3-13]' Not only does Hippolytus rebel against the religious authorities but against the monarchy. According to Aleks Sierz, he attacks the 'hypocrisy of having a God-sanctioned monarchy [3-14]'.
Finally, Hippolytus commits the unforgivable sin by blaspheming [3-17]. According to Aleks Sierz, he consciously sins because it is a way to express himself: 'for him, moral choices are expressions of personal freedom [3-18]'. Kane implicitly denounces the religious authorities that manipulate people and use religion to assert their own power. Bond shares her opinion and makes an interesting comparison between religion and theatre. He says 'La religion n'est que du théâtre qui veut être vrai. Elle le veut pour contrôler la réalité plus efficacement [3-19]'.
Hippolytus finally wins the confrontation by giving his ultimate insult to religion: he reduces the priest to the rank of sexual conquests. His victory symbolises the victory of truth over hypocrisy. Religion does not provide the truth. On the contrary, it seems to hide it and Hippolytus attacks its hypocrisy. For him, religion is 'tat' and useless. He believes there is no God and repeats it- the punctuation underlines his assertion [3-20]. He only believes in himself and in truth. And for him, if there was one, he would be able to see through hypocrisy: 'What do you suggest, a last-minute conversion just in case? [ ] I'm sure God would be intelligent enough to see through any eleventh-hour confession of mine [3-21]'. Indeed, Hippolytus denounces the hypocrisy of believers, he tells the priest 'You sin knowing you'll confess. Then you're forgiven. And then you start all over again. How do you dare mock a God so powerful? Unless you don't really believe [3-22]'. Here Hippolytus touches a weak point: the priest is not sure of God's existence: when Hippolytus asks him whether he believes in God, he does not answer.
Hippolytus does not want to be hypocritical himself. 'Die as if there is a God, knowing that there isn't? No [3-23]. [...] I have no intention of covering my arse. I killed a woman and I will be punished for it by hypocrites who I shall take down with me [3-24]'. He wants to die as he lived, that is to say in honesty. He also dreams of 'A kingdom of honest men, honestly sinning. And death for those who try to cover their arse [3-25]'. That scene between Hippolytus and the priest sums up Kane's 'insurance theory' of belief. She says, 'If you're not sure God exists you can cover your arse, living your life carefully just in case, as the priest does in my play, or you can live your life as you want to live it. If there is a God who can't accept the honesty of that, then tough [3-26]'. Religious people therefore mistake the ideal of God with the ideal for truth.
Quest for Truth
Religion of truth
Although her plays are influenced by her religious background, Kane's religion is not the religion of God, but the religion of truth. When someone told her 'As a writer [...] I think you have a huge responsibility to people that commit an hour of their life to come and watch your work', she answered 'I do not think you have a responsibility as a writer. The only responsibility is towards the truth, whatever awful that truth might be [3-27]'. Like Artaud, Kane thought that the role of theatre was to unmask hypocrisy. Artaud says, 'l'action du theatre [...] est bienfaisante, car poussant les hommes à se voir tels qu'ils sont, elle fait tomber le masque, elle découvre le mensonge, la veulerie, la bassesse, la tartuferie [3-28]'. That is why Kane tries to warn the reader against appearances. In 4.48 Psychosis, truth is symbolised by the light and the narrative voice says 'Remember the light and believe the light. Nothing matters more. Stop judging by appearances and make a right judgement [3-29]' and in Crave, A says 'looks aren't everything [3-30]'.
Kane studied the notion of truth particularly in Phaedra's Love. She says, 'the pursue of honesty was something that kept coming back at me when I was writing [it] [3-31]'. When she read Seneca's play, she decided to reinterpret the character of Hippolytus. She says:
Nils Tabert summed up the spectator's mixed feeling toward Hippolytus by saying, 'When I read Phaedra's Love I thought Hippolytus at first to be the most revolting chauvinistic arsehole who's abusing everyone and treats people like shit. But he suddenly gains our respect and even our sympathy [3-33] '. Kane explained that he was sympathetic 'because he's always completely and utterly direct with everyone'. She adds 'You can never misunderstand anything that he's saying. And I suppose that's one of the things I personally strive for - to be completely and utterly understood. Hippolytus is for me an ideal [3-34] '. Honesty is also a value shared by Cate in Blasted. Kane explains that she is not simple-minded but simply naive and honest:
Phaedra never lies in the play, except in the end when she says that Hippolytus raped her. Hippolytus lies as well because he confirms the rape. At that point, the question raised by Phaedra's Love is 'can language convey the truth?' Phaedra says that Hippolytus raped her but what is the definition of a rape? And can what happened be considered as such? Kane says that Phaedra and Hippolytus are both lying and at the same time telling the truth. Saying that there was a rape is 'the only way [Phaedra] can express what [Hippolytus] did to her, and so it becomes true [3-36]'. She explains that 'the English language does not have words to describe the emotional decimation he inflicts. "Rape" is the best word Phaedra can find for it, the most violent and potent, so that's the word she uses [3-37] '.
Finally, this quest for truth is a way of fighting cruelty, indifference and hypocrisy. Hippolytus is intelligent enough to be aware that there is something wrong in this world, and that is what depresses him. According to Aleks Sierz, Hippolytus is 'bitterly disillusioned with [...] humanity' and attacking hypocrisy is a way of 'consoling himself [3-38] '. The priest says 'Lord, look down on this man you chose, forgive him his sin which comes from the intelligence you blessed him with [3-39]'. Hippolytus's only sin is to tell the truth, but we live in a society that cannot stand the truth and does not dare to face it. In the same way that the saints are persecuted in the Bible for declaring their faith in God, the characters in Kane's plays are persecuted for their faith in truth and their pursuit of honesty. Kane denounces a world governed by lie and hypocrisy in which honest people are outsiders. About Cate, she says, 'I had nights during rehearsals when I would go home and cry and say to myself: 'How could I create that beautiful woman in order for her to be so abused? And I really did feel a bit sick and depraved [3-40]'. But she wanted to show that in real life, 'people like her never win' [3-41]. Kane herself experienced this rejection: she said that she tried to be honest all the time but 'with the result that people misunderstand'. She explained, 'when I wrote Blasted I thought it's the most honest thing I could write and yet what I got accused of is cynicism which is the opposite of honesty [3-42]'.
A quest leading to death
Truth is difficult to face and some characters cannot stand it and kill themselves. Phaedra cannot accept Hippolytus's having raped her and she commits suicide. Robin also kills himself after realising how long he is going to be locked up. Kane says that his story is based on the true story of 'a young black man who was on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela'. She says, 'He was eighteen years old. He was put in Robben Island and told he would be there for forty-five years. Didn't mean anything to him, he was illiterate. Some of the other prisoners taught him to read and write. He learnt to count, realised what forty-five years was and hung himself [3-43]'.
But according to Kane, even if telling the truth can be cruel, you have to do it. Like pure Cordelia in King Lear who lost her father's love - and therefore her inheritance - because she was too honest, Hippolytus is ready to do anything for his belief. Kane says that he is completely honest 'no matter what the outcome is going to be for him or for others [3-44]'. He 'pursues honesty - even if that means he has to destroy himself and everyone else [3-45]'. She explains that a friend of hers told her that life was more important than truth but she disagreed:
That is why one of Kane's favourite play was Brecht's Galileo. She says that it has a connection with Phaedra's Love 'which is that thing about the relative value of truth'. She says, 'in a way I think the relative value of does the earth go around the sun or does the sun go around the earth is really of no significance whatsoever. But somehow truth takes on a bigger significance [3-47] '. What is important is not truth itself but how we behave towards it, our reaction in front of it. Kane says that the question is 'What's the point at which you say, I'll tell a lie here in order to save myself [3-48]'. Her characters' answer is not to save themselves if it can preserve the truth. Hippolytus knows he is going to die but he tells the priest that he prefers dying in honesty; he does not want to hide the fact that he is responsible for Phaedra's death. His tragic end is foreseen when the priest says 'if truth is you're absolute you will die [3-49]'. Therefore, this quest for truth is not a quiet journey. Like the saints whose faith in God is challenged, Kane's characters have to face obstacles that challenge their faith in truth and their honesty. The ultimate obstacle is death but Kane's characters are ready to die for their ideal.
Copyright © Gaëlle Ranc, 2002
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