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Sarah Kane thenotionofcruelty


The Notion of Cruelty in the Work of Sarah Kane by Gaëlle Ranc

Chapter Four Cruelty of Love and Desire

Nils Tabert told Kane, 'Whenever I read your plays I think all of them are invariably about love. It's not the violence which has interested me that much but the tenderness beneath it, the fragility of people, their desire for love and being loved [4-1] '. Reading Kane's plays carefully, the reader will realise that one of her favourite theme is love - she wrote beautiful passages about it, such as A's declaration in Crave - and that violence is often a metaphor of the cruelty of love and desire.


One of Kane most important issue is desire. The journalist Bruno Tackels wrote 'Les pièces de Sarah Kane sont des machines qui interrogent le désir, les rapports qu'il fait et qu'il défait [4-2]'. Desire is the need for something. Something is missing, there is a gap, a void to fulfil. In Kane's plays, it is translated by silences, pauses, suspension points, typographical blanks and shortened sentences. Kane's characters are all looking for the thing they need, specially in Crave the title of which defines this feeling of void and need. For example, M says 'I looked for you. All over the city [4-3]'. In 4.48 Psychosis, the narrative voice also says, 'I go out at six in the morning and start my search for you [4-4]'. But the object of desire is difficult to recognise, to define. It is difficult to know what we want, what we need; the lack is there but we do not know what to fill it with. However, by reading Kane's plays, one will realise that what we all crave for is love. When they manage to identify the object of their desire, the characters discover the feeling of love. What we need is someone else to fill the gap, to feel complete. But love is painful, for Kane it is burning oneself and she often uses images of fire to describe it. In Phaedra's Love, Phaedra says 'Can't switch this off. Can't crush it. Can't wake up with it, burning me. Think I'll crack open I want him so much [4-5]'. Love seems to be like a disease - it can also be compared to Graham drug's addiction- that is why Cleansed, that focuses on this theme, takes place in a sort of hospital. Love can become an obsession as it is expressed by M in Crave, who seems to submit a lover to a cross-examination: 'where you going who you seeing what you doing? [4-6]' A and B also say:

B I think about you
A dream about you
B talk about you

can't get you out of my system. [4-7]

The absence of the other is unbearable. C says 'my entire life is waiting to see the person with whom I am currently obsessed, starving the weeks away until our next fifteen minute appointment [4-8]' and 'you fill my head as only someone who is absent can [4-9]'. This absence becomes omnipresent and 'sleeps between the buildings at night, Between the cars in the lay-by, Between the day and the night [4-10]'. Moreover, love comes mysteriously without reason. In Cleansed, Robin tells Grace, 'I'm in love with you.' And when she asks him, 'How can you be?', he replies, 'I just am' [4-11]. Love is irrational and illogical. The character who embodies this irrationality is Hippolytus. He is dirty, unpleasant and vulgar but everybody loves him. This instability makes love painful because one never knows if it is going to last or not. It can disappear as quickly as it has arrived. In Cleansed, Rod is aware of these aspects of love. Contrary to Carl, who is idealistic and who promises that his love will always last, he is more realistic and says he 'can't promise anything [4-12]'. Because of its instability, love cannot be based on trust. When Carl tells him 'I'll never betray you. I'll never lie to you', Rod replies 'you just have [4-13]'. Besides, he is proved to be right since later, Carl does not keep his promise. He has told Rod that he could die for him, but when he is tortured, he has to face the truth: death scares him and he fails to keep his promise. That is why love can only be lived at the present moment and Rod tells Carl, 'I love you now. I'm with you now. I'll do my best, moment to moment, not to betray you. Now. That's it. No more. Don't make me lie to you [4-14]'. Finally, love is cruel because one can fall in love with someone impossible to love, whether because the relationship is condemned by morals or because the other does not share the same feeling.

Love Rejected by Morals

Unconventional love

There are many examples of relationships forbidden by morals in Kane's plays. She talks about homosexual love, the best example of which is the couple formed by Carl and Rod who are persecuted and tortured by Tinker in Cleansed. Kane also touches the problem of love between people of different races in Skin. This short film contains a violent scene showing skinheads fighting with black people during a mixed wedding. But Kane particularly focuses on incestuous love: some characters have not solved their Oedipus complex. According to the Freudian theory, the Oedipus complex appears around the age of two, when the child directs a psychosexual drive toward the parent of the opposite sex. Later, during puberty, he or she will transfer that drive towards someone else. But when the individual does not resolve his Oedipus complex in this way, it creates various conflicts in the unconscious, concerning the opposite sex, paternity, and adjustment to the demands of reality versus instinctive impulses. In Blasted, Cate is like a little girl; she is always sucking her thumb and seems to keep looking for protection. She is still living with her mother and is affectionately and financially dependent on her. We learn that her father left home; therefore she may have been looking for a paternal figure and her relationship with Ian who is a middle-aged man, may help her to fulfil the void of her absent father. There are also references to the Oedipus complex in Cleansed: Robin falls for Grace while she teaches him how to read and write. He tells her, 'My mum weren't my mum and I had to choose another, I'd choose you' and later 'If I had to get married, I'd marry you [4-15]'. In Crave, M asks B to have an affair with her, although M can be seen as a mature woman whereas B seems to be a younger man: he replies 'You could be my mother [4-16]'. In Phaedra's Love, Phaedra is in love with Hippolytus but she is his mother in law and she represents the maternal figure. We also learn that Strophe had an affair with Theseus, her step-father.

Rivalry with the parent of the same sex is also part of the Oedipus complex. Phaedra and her daughter Strophe feel desire for the same man and Hippolytus and his father Theseus feel desire for the same woman. The symptom of this rivalry is the secret desire to eliminate the rival, Theseus will eventually kill Hippolytus by exciting the crowd against him. In Crave, in which the characters are only referred to with letters, M can mean mother while C can be read as Child. And when M asks 'Why are you crying ?', C replies 'You're dead to me [4-17]', a feeling that she had already expressed earlier:

C Somewhere outside the city, I told my mother, You're dead to me.

three summers ago I was bereaved. No one died but I lost my mother. [4-18]


Sarah Kane Cleansed There are also examples of incestuous relationships between brothers and sisters like Grace and Graham in Cleansed.
Sarah Kane Phaedra's Love In Phaedra's Love, we learn that Hippolytus and Strophe who are brother and sister-in-law also had an affair. But incestuous relationships are condemned by morals. Renaud Cojo, who directed Phaedra's Love in France, says that in Kane's plays 'la recherche du désir butte sur le monde dans lequel elle vit [4-19]'. In Cleansed, Graham is killed and Grace is tortured. In Phaedra's Love, Phaedra's body is torn apart and Hippolytus is lynched. 
Sarah Kane Blasted In Blasted, Cate is raped and Ian is blinded, he recalls Oedipus himself who gouges his own eyes as a punishment for having killed his father and married his mother.


Therefore, in her plays, Kane shows any kind of relationships without any judgement. She writes about love with a capital L, without any moral discrimination. In her plays, love is always pure and strong, whatever its nature. However, she implicitly denounces a society that creates intolerance and discrimination, and in which love is not free to express itself. This society is symbolised by the university in Cleansed which recalls a concentration camp and which is, according to the blurb, 'an institution designed to rid society of its undesirables'. It is also represented in Phaedra's Love, by the angry crowd and its main figure, Theseus. The attitude of the latter towards Phaedra's dead body is difficult to interpret. One may wonder if he is angry at her because he really loved her and she betrayed him, or because she threatened the safety of nation.

Kane rejects the principles imposed by morals and the system of categories created by society, and for her, love goes beyond these categories. In Cleansed, Grace's line 'it's not about colour' has a double meaning: she is answering to both Robin who is talking about writing and to Graham who is talking about her former boyfriend who was black. Love is not about colour, nor about gender nor about social class. Kane says, 'Class, race or gender divisions are a symptom of societies based on violence or the threat of violence [4-20]', and her characters rebel against them: in Crave, C says 'be a woman, be a woman, FUCK YOU [4-21]'. That is the reason why she wants to blur the frontiers between those categories. In Cleansed, she seems to enjoy creating a certain confusion, sometimes with humour, when Robin and Grace clumsily exchange their clothes, sometimes in a more dramatic way, when Grace is submitted to a sex change. And, at the end, each character has someone else's identity: the dancer says she is Grace, Grace has got Graham's body and Carl wears Robin's clothes. In Crave, Kane goes even further: the characters are not defined by social, racial or gender categories but only by letters.

Destructive Power of Love

Loss of identity

Love is also cruel when the lover is rejected by the person he loves. When two persons love each other, they feel complete, they have a feeling of unity. In Crave, one of the characters says 'you stop thinking of yourself as I, you think of we [4-22]'. The two lovers become one; in Blasted, Ian tells Cate 'We are one', and in Cleansed, when Grace is wounded, Graham bleeds just like her [4-23]. Besides, love enables the lovers to find a new identity. B says 'Now I have found you I can stop looking for myself [4-24]'. This new identity asserts itself through the act of naming. In Cleansed, Carl calls Rod 'baby' and Tinker also renames the dancer. On the contrary, the rejected lover feels uncompleted. He has the feeling of being trapped in 'a black fucking hole of half love [4-25]', and he has the impression of losing himself: in Crave, C says 'where's my personality gone? [4-26]'. In Cleansed after her lover's death, Grace's only way to survive is to take up his identity, in order to make up for this loss and find an identity again. She wants to change her body 'so it looks like it feels, Graham outside like Graham inside'. Progressively, she 'becomes' her brother: first by wearing his clothes, then by learning to dance and speak like him and finally by incarnating his body.

Roland Barthes This feeling of losing oneself is so strong and so painful that in A Lover's Discourse, Barthes compares the situation of a rejected lover to the situation of a prisoner in Dachau. Kane explains that Barthes' discourse first shocked her but then, she understood what he was talking about. Love can be a kind of hell, a prison in which the lover loses his identity. She found the idea relevant and that is why she decided that the setting of Cleansed would recall a concentration camp. She says:


  When I read it I was appalled and thought how can he possibly suggest the pain of love is as bad as that. But then the more I thought about it I thought actually I do know what he is saying. It's about loss of self. And when you lose yourself where do you go? There's nowhere to go, it's actually a kind of madness. And thinking about that I made the connection with Cleansed: if you put people in a situation in which they lose themselves and what you're writing about is an emotion in which people loose themselves then you can make the connection between the two. As long as you don't start writing things like "Auschwitz 1944". Which would be reductive anyway. [4-27]  

Love and death

Therefore, the worst that can happen to a lover is to lose the object of his love. Kane says, 'If you lose the object of your love, you have no resources to fall back on. It can completely destroy you.' It is so painful that the character of 4.48 Psychosis says,

  Cut out my tongue
tear out my hair
cut off my limbs
but leave me my love
I would rather have lost my legs
pulled out my teeth
gouged out my eyes
than lost my love.

Kane uses beautiful images to express this idea, particularly when C tells her lover, 'If you died it would be like my bones had been removed. No one would know why, but I would collapse [4-29]'. Later, the same character also says that because her lover left, 'the spine of [her] life is broken [4-30]'. Losing one's lover can lead to a state of despair. In Phaedra's Love, when Hippolytus becomes angry after Phaedra has mentioned his former girlfriend, the spectator understands this relationship may be at the origin of his depression. In Crave, the characters demonstrate that losing one's lover means that life loses its meaning:

B found her
A loved her
C lost her

end. [4-31]


Sarah Kane Cleansed At that point, life becomes so unbearable that some characters choose death. When Phaedra realises that her relationship with Hippolytus is impossible, she hangs herself. Robin also hangs himself after Grace has rejected him and Theseus commits suicide when he realises Strophe is dead.

In 4.48 Psychosis, the narrrative voice also says that love is 'the vital need for which [he] would die [4-32]'. As Daniel Benoin, a French director who directed Blasted and Crave, points out, with Crave, Kane makes the connection between love and death before the play begins, since not only does the title refer to desire but it also recalls its French homonym 'crève', which means to die. Daniel Benoin says that he is satisfied with the French translation, Manque, which was officially chosen and defines the lack of something and the need for it, but he adds that he prefered the first one: 'Manque est sans doute la meilleure traduction du titre original Crave. Mais j'ai eu beaucoup de peine à abandonner ce dernier et cet incroyable homonyme français. On manque à en crever, on crève du manque. Toute la pièce de sarah Kane se retrouve dans ce renversement double des titres français et anglais [4-33]'.

Cruelty of Love-Hate Relationship

Love is painful as it engenders strong feelings, either ecstasy or despair. Kane writes about both. For her, there cannot be love without hate [4-34] and in her plays the frontier between the two is deliberately blurred. In Cleansed, Grace tells the story of her former boyfriend who gave her a box of chocolate then tried to strangle her.  In Phaedra's Love, Strophe is torn apart between love and hate for Hippolytus: she hates him because of his attitude but she tries to save him from the angry crowd. This paradox is so strong that sometimes, the relationship can sink into sado-machism and love becomes like a prison. In 4.48 Psychosis the character says, 'love keeps me a slave in a cage of tears [4-35]' and in Crave, M tells B 'You asked me to seduce you.' but he answers 'Not tie me up' [4-36], and C describes the difficulty of this kind of relationships when she says, 'if I could be free of you without having to lose you [4-37]'. When the relationship balances between love and hate, one of the lovers becomes the torturer and the other the victim. In Crave, A says 'And I am shaking, sobbing with the memory of her, when she loved me, before I was her torturer [4-38]'. In Cleansed, Tinker and the dancer entertain one of these love-hate relationships. Tinker loves Grace but she loves another and to revenge he tortures her. He finds a substitute to her with the dancer whom he renames Grace. But the dancer becomes the victim of Tinker's bitterness, the latter becomes sadistic and humiliates her. Tinker finally accepts the fact that his relationship with Grace is impossible- he even gives her what she wants: he operates to give her Graham's body- and he starts a well-balanced relationship with the dancer. 

Sarah Kane Blasted But the most striking example of this kind of love-hate relationship can be found in Blasted, with the couple formed by Ian and Cate. Ian first tortures Cate psychologically. He taunts her: he says that she is stupid and calls her brother a retard, he criticises her clothes and he insists that she eats meat although he knows she is a vegetarian.

Like in Shakespeare's Hamlet [4-39], in which words are like 'daggers', language becomes a weapon used to asserts one's power over someone else. Little by little, ,Ian starts hurting Cate physically as well. She only wants to be friendly with him and obviously does not seek for any sexual relationship at all; the stage directions clearly indicate that she smiles at him with 'a big smile, friendly and non-sexual [4-40]'. But Ian kisses her without her agreement and finally rapes her.

But the worst is that he keeps on alternating violence and tender words. He insults her but repeats that he loves her, that he only wants her own good:

Ian Cate, love. I'm trying to look after you. Stop you getting hurt.
Cate You hurt me.

No, I love you. [4-41]

He manages to make her feel guilty by convincing her that she is the torturer and that he is the victim. Kane says that, in Blasted, Ian shows a 'self deprecating self pity which seems to [her] completely accurate'. Cate does not want to make love with him but he rubs himself against her and keeps on saying that she provokes her. He tells her 'Don't pity me, Cate. You don't have to fuck me 'cause I'm dying, but don't push your cunt in my face then take it away 'cause I stick my tongue out [4-42]'. This cruel and violent behaviour is a way for him to assert his power over her; he wants to control her, as Aleks Sierz says, 'to bully her into submission [4-43]'.

But sometimes, the situation is reversed: Cate is in control and Ian shows his weaknesses. At first, Cate tries to rebel: she tells him that she does not love him anymore and that he is a 'nightmare'. After he rapes her, she revenges by tearing the arms off his jacket. She also beats him, threatens him with a gun and eventually tries to castrate him. But the reason of this last attempt is not very clear. Cate surprisingly takes the initiative to have sex with Ian, but is it because she has premeditated to revenge or because she really loves him? She bites his penis when he confesses that he is a killer, and her act can also be seen as a reaction to what he has said. At the end, roles are completely reversed: Ian is blind, he is the one who needs protection and he begs Cate not to leave him alone. She goes away but she eventually comes back and stays with him. Therefore their relationship is very complex. Even if they make each other suffer, they paradoxically need each other. They need each other's protection and have true feelings for each other. There is a moving moment when Ian sincerely tells Cate that he needs her, that with her 'the world seems different'. Their love is so strong that it survives death since they both die but meet again in a sort of hell.

Repressed Desire

As it is so painful, so difficult to bear, some prefer to repress desire. Hubert Colas, who directed Cleansed and 4.48 Psychosis in France, says, 'Dans les pièces de Kane, je lis surtout des êtres qui se battent, s'opposent au désir [4-44]'. In Phaedra's Love, contrary to Phaedra who listens to her body and desire, Hippolytus considers love and need as threats and he rejects desire in order to protect himself. In order to do so, he does everything to disgust people. He rejects Phaedra's desire for him and tries to put himself off his own desire by treating relationships like junk food. In Crave other characters seem to be afraid of love. Like Hippolytus, they deny their desire and they do not allow themselves to listen to their emotions. For example, M says, 'No, I ... mustn't get attached [4-45]' and C says that she 'faked not having an orgasm [4-46]'.. They try to convince themselves that they feel 'nothing [4-47]', they want 'no feeling no emotion [4-48]'. After A's beautiful declaration of love, C shouts 'this has to stop this has to stop this has to stop [...] [4-49]'. They prefer the system of 'a cold fuck and a goldfish memory [4-50]'.

But it is useless since the desire is still there and noone can escape it, on the contrary denying it only reinforce it. Despite all his efforts, Hippolytus seduces everyone, everyone is under his charm. Hubert Colas says that Hipolytus is himself submitted to desire and cannot escape it, 'Il n'échappe pas lui même, jusqu'à l'écoeurement, a ce désir [...]. La tragédie d'Hippolyte est dans la traversée de cet écoeurement. Il a beau tout faire pour s'éloigner du désir des autres, il reste lui-même dans cette faille. Hippolyte a beau la cacher, elle reste profondément présente [4-51]'. Colas also explains that paradoxically, it is because he represses his desire that Hippolytus attracts people: 'Qu'il soit ou non monstrueux, Hippolyte est profondément attirant. Il fascine bien au delà de sa seule apparence. Quelle que soit cette flagellation qu'il s'impose, son corps est tragiquement un corps 'aimant', dans tous les sens du mot. Il sent bien l'attraction des autres [4-52]'.

But both living through desire like Phaedra and the characters in Cleansed, or repressing it like Hippolytus and the characters in Crave, are destructive. Life is unbearable without love but Grace and Phaedra who have followed their desire to the end, are ineluctably led to self-destruction. David Greig says that '[Phaedra's] drive to submit herself to the impossibility of her desire, to lose herself within it, is the opposite of Hippolytus's and forms the second of the twin impulses that move the family towards a violent destruction. The sheer impossibility of survival in either of these emotional conditions, total self-abnegation or total self-preservation, forms the bleak backdrop to Phaedra's journey'. He adds that Kane 'also exposed the bitter irony, which is that those of one pole are driven to seek out those of the other [4-53]'.

Desire as a way to Survive

Love, a means to fight cruelty

In her plays, Kane demonstrates that love can be cruel but, as Aleks Sierz says, she also writes about its 'ability to survive institutional cruelty [4-54] '. Even if it is condemned by morals and religion, love always survives. Grace survives torture thanks to her incestuous love for Graham, but the most beautiful example of the power of love is the story of Carl. He has his tongue cut to prevent him from expressing his love for Rod, but he writes him words of love. He then has his arms cut to prevent him from writing but he manages to dance a dance of love. Carl still expresses his love for Rod whatever happens to him. Just like in John Ford's Annabella [4-55] who is found guilty of incestuous love but provokes her torturer [4-56], Kane's characters always claim their love even if they are persecuted. According to Aleks Sierz, 'In an idealistic way, Kane's work suggests that love is strong and [...] conjures up a world of pain' and that it is, 'the one basis of hope in an evil world [4-57]'. Metaphorically, love is so strong that it can make flowers grow like in Cleansed, or it can make a skinhead fall for a black girl like in Skin [4-58].

Therefore, as Kane says, her plays only use 'violence as a metaphor [4-59]' to underline the power of love. In Cleansed, Tinker sadism is only a means to test each love and to find its limits. Greig says that 'Tinker drives the characters to the extremes of pain in order to find out what power love has over them' and that the play proves that 'love is strong enough to survive the most appalling tests [4-60]'. Kane's plays are more about love than about violence which is why the outrage it caused surprised her [4-61]. Kane says that her work is about 'how you continue to love and hope' in a cruel world. She adds 'If you want to write about extreme love you can only write about it in an extreme way. Both Blasted and Cleansed are about distressing things which we'd like to think we would survive. If people can still love after that, then love is the most powerful thing [4-62]'.

If love gives the strength to survive, it is because it conveys a sense of redemption. It can be particularly seen in Cleansed (hence its title) which blurb says that the story is about 'a group of inmates [trying] to save themselves through love'. The power of love seems to cleanse the characters, the fire of passion is purifying. When the characters are in love, this feeling makes them so pure that they become unattainable, they can bear anything. Even horrible characters such as Ian and Tinker are able to love and are somehow forgiven for the horrible things they have done.

Desire as a way to feel alive

Renaud Cojo says Kane writes about the quest of an absolute and impossible love. 'Ce qu'elle traque au fond, c'est un amour absolu, absolument non réalisable [4-63]'. The object of desire is difficult to attain, as it has been seen before, there are obstacles, there is always 'something in the way [4-64]', and some will never find it; in Crave, C says, 'you've fallen in love with someone that doesn't exist [4-65]', and the character in 4.48 Psychosis says, 'I miss a woman who was never born [4-66].' But it does not matter because desire is a quest, and what is important is not the aim but the quest itself. This quest is necessary to feel alive; although desire is painful, one could not live without it. In Crave, B sums up this contradiction by saying, 'I shake when I don't have it [...] brain melts when I do [4-67]'. Desire is necessary to live because, to live, we need to feel. James McDonald explains 'the experience of love may be a kind of hell, but feeling it you're more alive than not feeling it [4-68]'. When Grace gets a sex change, all she says is 'I felt it'. The search for feeling is also an important quest in Phaedra's Love. Like Grace/Graham, Hippolytus says that life is 'pointless' without it. When the priest says that true satisfaction comes from love, Hippolytus replies 'what when love dies? Alarm clock rings it's time to wake up, what then?' Getting up, eating, dressing, speaking become pointless [4-69].


Chapter Five Despair and Death

As Aleks Sierz says, Kane was 'less interested in atrocity than in the psychology of desperation [5-01]'. In her work, Kane shows that the awareness of the cruelty of mankind and the cruelty of things can engender despair. In her last play, she describes the gray world of depression, which is closely linked with death wish. But if her work is full of images of death, she also uses the paradigm of life. Therefore, is her vision of the world so desperate?

Despair and Depression

The awareness of the cruelty of mankind and the cruelty of things inevitably leads to depression. In Crave, one of the characters says 'I'm not ill, I just know that life is not worth living [5-02]'. This deep feeling of despair, this existential angst can be assimilated to what Baudelaire called 'the spleen'. In Crave, Kane defines it as 'a screaming face in hollow of nothing [5-03]'.  In her work, she gives us different ways to fight depression and to give a meaning to life: first the quest for truth, secondly the quest for love (as seen previously). But as Hippolytus says 'what if you lose hope?', what if one loses his faith in truth and in love. Several characters in Kane's play lose faith in their quest: in Phaedra's Love, Hippolytus is disillusioned with love and in Crave, one of the characters says, 'I've lost my faith in honesty I am no longer honest [5-04]'. In these cases, what only remains is a 'hollow heart [...] full of darkness'.

The first symptom of depression is a feeling of loneliness, an impression of being different and excluded from the rest of the world. In Crave, A says 'I am so lonely, so fucking lonely [5-05]'. At some point, life becomes unbearable. Every day becomes a hardship to overcome. In Phaedra's Love, noticing the close of the day, Hippolytus says 'Getting dark thank Christ day's nearly over [5-06]'. In Crave, the everyday life is seen as a 'day to day farce of getting through the next few hours', and C would like 'to ward off the fact that she doesn't know how to get through the next forty years [5-07]'.

The other symptom of depression is loss of self-esteem. In Crave, B says 'I disgust myself' and C 'no one can hate me more than I hate myself [5-08]', and in 4.48 Psychosis, the character says, 'I am a complete failure as a person. [5-09]'. This low self-esteem is expressed through the characters' wish to be someone else. In Crave, Kane gives a description of this feeling with C's monologue:

  She is currently having some kind of nervous breakdown and wishes she'd been born black, male and more attractive
[...] or just more attractive
or just different
[...] just someone fucking else
[...] she's talking about herself in the third person because the idea of being who she is, of acknowledging that she is herself, is more than her pride can take.
[...] she's sick to the fucking gills of herself and wishes wishes wishes that something would happen to make life begin.

Kane says ' Many people feel depression is about emptiness but actually it' s about being so full that everything cancels itself out [5-11].  In 4.48 Psychosis, the character gives the spectator a glimpse of what depression is by explaining how he feels:

  I am sad
I feel that the future is hopeless and that things cannot improve
I am bored and dissatisfied with everything
I used to be able to cry but now I am beyond tears
I have lost interest in other people
I can't make decisions
I can' t eat
I can' t sleep
I can't think
I cannot overcome my loneliness, my fear, my disgust
I cannot be alone
I cannot be with others

Depression seems to be impossible to overcome. The depressive thinks that no one can understand him- C says, 'no one to help me not my fucking mother either [5-13]'- and he feels trapped in depression which leads him 'out of one torture chamber into another [5-14]'. The only remedy for depression that has been found in modern society is hospitalisation. But in 4.48 Psychosis, Kane shows that this solution is inefficient and useless. Doctors consider depression as an illness and try to treat it with medication whereas it goes further than a simple disease. In Crave, C says 'cure my body cannot cure my soul [5-15]'. In 4.48 Psychosis, Kane shows their inefficiency by making a list of the increasing quantity of drugs injected to the patient and their negligible effects [5-16]. David Greig notices that this passage recalls 'Lear on the heath demanding the impossible of his apothecary' when he says 'sweeten my imagination [5-17]'. The voice of the patient also criticises the doctor's at the beginning of the play:

  Inscrutable doctors, sensible doctors, way-out doctors, doctors you'd think were fucking patients if you weren't shown proof otherwise, ask the same questions, put words in my mouth, offer chemical cures for congenital anguish and cover each other's arses. [5-18]  

He says that depression is an 'anguish for which doctors can find no cure nor care to understand'. Kane describes the lack of communication and the misunderstanding between doctors and their depressive patients, by opposing the subjects 'I' and 'they': the patient seems to be alone in front of an armada of intimidating doctors. During the therapy sessions which also fail to cure depression, the doctors bombard the patient with inadequate and useless questions and make subjective interpretations of his symptoms. This misunderstanding is obvious in the passage when a doctor is talking to a patient who has cut his arm:

- Did it give you relief?
- No  
- Did it give you relief?  
- No  
- Did it give you relief?  
- Did it give you relief?  
- No  
- Did it relieve the tension?  
  (A long silence)  
- I thought you might do this. Lots of people do. It relieves the tension.  
- Have you ever done it?  
- ...  
- No. Far too fucking sane and sensible. I don't know where you read that, but it does not relieve the tension. [5-19]  

In this dialogue, the doctor also infantilises the patient and makes him feel guilty by using a paternalistic tone: he says 'That's very immature, attention seeking thing to do [5-20]' and, 'it's not your fault. But you have to take responsibility for your own actions. Please don't do it again [5-21]'. Later, during another dialogue, the doctor makes the patient feel guilty by repeating 'it's not your fault':


It's not your fault

- It's not your fault, that's all I ever hear, it's not your fault, it's an illness, it's not your fault, I know it's not my fault; you've told me that so often I'm beginning to think it is my fault.
- It's not your fault
- But you allow it
- Don't you? [5-22]

This misunderstanding leads the patient to consider doctors as 'expressionless faces staring blankly at [the patient's] pain' who have 'evil intent' and whose only aim is to humiliate him:

  Dr this and Dr that and Dr whatsit who's just passing and thought he's pop in to take the piss as well; burning in a hot tunnel of dismay, my humiliation complete as I shake without reason and stumble over my words and have nothing to say about my 'illness' which anyway amounts only to knowing that there's no point in anything because I'm going to die. And I am deadlocked by that smooth psychiatric voice of reason which tells me there is an objective reality in which my body and mind are one. But I am not here and never have been. Dr this writes it down and Dr that attempts a sympathetic murmur. Watching me, judging me, smelling the crippling failure oozing from my skin, my desperation clawing and all-consuming panic drenching me as I gape in horror at the world and wonder why everyone is smiling and looking at me with secret knowledge of my aching shame. [5-23]  

Desperation is such a strong feeling that even writing which should be liberating becomes painful. In Crave, one of the characters incarnates the voice of the writer and several passages are about the act of writing and its cruelty. The writer has the feeling that nobody ever listens to him: he has the impression to be 'a voice in the desert [5-24]'. His aim is 'to record the truth [5-25]', but he says, 'the only thing I want to say I've said already, and it's a bit fucking tedious to say it again, no matter how true it is, no matter that it's the one unifying thought humanity has [5-26]'. For him writing becomes useless and he describes how painful it is:

  I hate these words that keep me alive
I hate these words that won't let me die
expressing my pain without easing it.

He concludes 'I write the truth and it kills me [5-28]'. Kane herself was going through a period of depression at the time she was writing her two last plays, and few months before her death, she said in an interview that she felt much the same: 'I hate [writing]. I get no pleasure from writing at all. It kills me'. David Greig says, 'That the play was written whilst suffering from depression, which is a destructive rather than a creative condition, was an act of generosity by the author [5-29]'.

Despair and Humour

Strangely, even if Kane's plays are full of sadness and despair, they nevertheless contain positively humorous passages, for example when Hippolytus's genitals are grilled on a barbecue at the end of Phaedra's Love, or when a character in Crave says 'As a child I liked to piss on the carpet. The carpet rotted and I blamed it on the dog [5-30]', or the sadistic torturer in Cleansed who is called Tinker, just like the journalist who wrote a very harsh article about Blasted. For Kane, even if it cannot cure it, humour makes depression bearable. The character who embodies this black humour is Hippolytus in Phaedra's Love, a play which Kane calls 'a black comedy [5-31]'. Hippolytus is a character victim of depression. He is disillusioned by humanity: at the beginning of scene four, he is sitting in front of television and when Phaedra asks him what he is watching, he answers 'News. Another rape. Child murdered. War somewhere. Few thousand jobs gone. But none of this matters 'cause it's a royal birthday [5-32]'. At first he is rather repulsive. In scene four, he is very unpleasant and vulgar with Phaedra who is in love with him. But then he shows a very relevant and black humour. When Phaedra tells him that it is disgusting to blow his nose on his sock, he replies, 'Only after I've checked I haven't cleaned my cum with it first. And I do have them washed. Before I wear them [5-33]'. The fifth scene when he is looking at his tongue in the mirror is also very funny. He is looking for traces of sexual disease whereas Strophe asks him to hide not to be seen by the angry people:



Hippolytus Green tongue.
Strophe Hide idiot.
(Hippolytus turns to her and shows her his tongue)
HippolytusH Fucking moss. Inch of pleurococcus on my tongue. Looks like the top of a wall.
Strophe Hippolytus.
Hippolytus Showed it to the bloke in the bogs, still wanted to shag me.
Strophe Have you looked out of the window?
Hippolytus Major halitosis. [5-34]

Kane explains that this sense of humour is what makes Hippolytus sympathetic to the spectator:

  He is complete shit but he's also very funny, and for me that's always redeeming. I think there are people who can treat you really really badly but if they do it with a sense of humour then actually you can forgive them. And whether or not you should is somehow beside the point. There is a politician here, Alan Clark, the most appallingly right wing unpleasant person, and he fucks everyone he can. He has written his diaries now, about his affairs. His behaviour is utterly revolting but then he's so funny that his diaries are utterly compelling. And somehow you forgive him. [5-35]  

But Kane's black humour is both a symptom of depression and a safety valve. She considers it as a 'life saving humour [5-36]'. She explains that for someone who is depressed and whose life has lost his meaning, humour is a way to dedramatise and to make life endurable:

  When I was first thinking about writing that play I read an article in a newspaper written by a man who'd been suffering from clinical depression for three years. And he said the only thing that he'd had to hang on to was this really morbid sense of humour. It was the only thing that made him bearable to be with. And that kept him rooted. I suppose that was the thing with Phaedra's Love. I think when you are depressed oddly your sense of humour is the last thing to go, when that goes then you completely loose it. And actually Hippolytus never ever looses it. I don't think he's taking the piss in the last line but I don't think he's unaware of the fact that it's funny. He's aware of the paradox. [5-37]  

Hippolytus's way to apprehend things, his detachment, his disinterest, show a certain disillusion, he has lost hope to see the world around him improving and to mock it is his way to react. His only weapon against what makes him depressed is humour. When Strophe talks to him seriously, he mocks her by playing on words: he tells her, 'Don't get stroppy, Strophe [5-38]'. Later he also mocks the priest. When the latter comes to see him in jail and asks him 'Is there anything you need?', he answers 'Got a single cell [5-39]'. Humour is also a way to make depression bearable and to ridicule the medical institution which fails in curing it. In Crave, when A asks 'Do you hear voices?' C answers 'only when they talk to me [5-40]'. And in 4.48 Psychosis, the patient tells his doctor that he is going to 'take an overdose, slash [his] wrists' and 'hang [himself]' so that 'it couldn't possibly be misconstrued as a cry for help [5-41]'. He also says:

  I dreamt I went to the doctor's and she gave me eight minutes to live. I'd been sitting in the fucking waiting room half an hour. [5-42]  

Later, Kane parodies the doctor's reports:

  100 aspirin and one bottle of Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon, 1986. Patient woke in a pool of vomit and said 'sleep with a dog and rise full of fleas' severe stomach pain. No other reaction. [5-43]  

To conclude, the journalist Andrew Smith says that when you watch Kane's plays, 'you're often unsure whether they're laughing or crying on stage and Kane's singular gift as a dramatist is to make you, the audience, feel like doing both at the same time [5-44]'.

Depression, a Different way to Perceive the World

Paradoxically, Kane thinks depression is something healthy because it gives a better perception of the world. She says, 'I think depression is quite a healthy state of being because all it reflects is a completely realistic perception of what's going on [5-45] '. She opposed depression to the 'insanity of the sane [5-46]'; she thinks that madness is healthier than what we call sanity because as he lives in an insane world, Man cannot be sane. Like Shakespeare, she thinks that the one who is considered as the fool is wiser than the wise and that what we call a reasonable man is crazier than the fool. In other words, only the fool can see the truth. But depression is an endless spiral since the knowledge of truth is also what makes one depressed- in Shakespeare's plays, truth is the reason why King Lear or Hamlet become crazy- therefore, the only solution not to become crazy is to refuse to face reality. Kane develops this paradox by saying,

  I think to a certain degree you have to deaden your ability to feel and perceive. In order to function you have to cut out at least one part of your mind. Otherwise you'd be chronically sane in a society which is chronically insane. I mean look at Artaud. That's your choice: Go mad and die or function but be insane. What is actually insane? [5-47]  

In 4.48 Psychosis, the doctors only way to cure the depressive, to bring him back to a state of sanity, is to disconnect him from the truth. This situation is a real dilemma for the depressive who is torn apart between opposite desires. He feels trapped and says 'My life is caught in a web of reason spun by a doctor to augment the sane [5-48]'. The play is both a criticism of the medical system, as it was seen previously, and a cry for help- the patient says 'DON'T LET THIS KILL ME' and 'I beg you to save me from this madness that eats me [5-49]'. He would like to escape his suffering but cannot accept the idea to refuse the truth. On the one hand, he considers the doctor as '[his] saviour, [his] omnipotent judge, [his] priest, [his] god, the surgeon of [his] soul', and himself as the doctor's 'proselyte to sanity [5-50]'. Therefore sanity is like a religion and the depressive patients are considered as 'anathema, the pariahs of reason [5-51]', but is it really a good solution to try to convert the depressive? On the other hand, he implores his doctor: 'Please. Don't switch off my mind by attempting to straighten me out [5-52]'. And he keeps on wavering over what to do. At some point, he seems to resign:

  Okay, let's do it, let's do the drugs, let's do the chemical lobotomy, let's shut down the higher functions of my brain and perhaps I'll be a bit more fucking capable of living. Let's do it. [5-53]  

But later, after being submitted to a harsh and inefficient diet, he 'refused all further treatment [5-54] '.

During the whole play, Kane opposes the state close to the truth and what the doctor calls sanity. 4:48 is the darkest hour, just before dawn, and Kane chose this moment between night and day to be the moment when the confusions of psychosis seem to evaporate. The character says:

  At 4.48
when sanity visits
for one hour and twelve minutes I am in my right mind.
When it has passed I shall be gone again,
a fragmented puppet, a grotesque fool.
Now I am here I can see myself
but when I am charmed by vile delusions of happiness,
the foul magic of this engine of sorcery,
I cannot touch my essential self.

And he tells the doctor 'Why do you believe then and not now? [5-56] '. Paradoxically, this moment of clarity in the psychotic mind is considered as the moment when delusion is at its strongest.

This state of being torn between reality and the depth of the mind expresses itself through schizophrenia. Kane's work is full of images which recall this split personality, for example, when M expresses her anguish in Crave, while she is looking at her reflection in the glass of a window train:

  Sometimes the shape of my heads alarms me. When I catch sight of it reflected in a darkened train window, the landscape passing through the image of my head. Not that there is anything unusual ... or alarming ... about the shape of my head, but it does ... alarm me. [5-57]  

In 4.48 Psychosis, the character also says 'It is myself I have never met, whose face is pasted on the underside of my mind [5-58]'. The four voices in Crave represent a fragmented self as well, as they can be seen as different facets of the same conscious. Above all, this duality can be seen in the opposition of the body and the mind. The narrative voice of 4.48 Psychosis says 'I am deadlocked by that smooth psychiatric voice of reason which tells me there is an objective reality in which my body and mind are one [5-59]' and according to him, 'Body and soul can never be married [5-60]'.

Death Wish

At some point, when the depression grows and the weight of life becomes too heavy to carry, death is the only way out. Kane's characters say they are tired of living [5-61], depression is a 'free-falling [5-62]' which can only end with death. The character of 4.48 Psychosis decides to commit suicide at 4:48 because it is the moment when the awareness of the cruelty of Man and the cruelty of things become unbearable. Contrary to Kane's first plays that were hopeful, her last plays, Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, are about despair and suicide. Kane says, 'The way Crave was received surprised me, as it was said to be extremely positive. [...] there was a ray of hope, some people felt [5-63]'. She explains 'At some point somebody says in it, something is lifted, and from that moment on it becomes apparently more and more hopeful. But actually the characters have all given up. It's the first one of my plays in which people go, fuck this, I'm out of here [5-64]'. She adds that if 'some people seem to find release at the end of it, [...] it's only the release of death [5-65]'.

Many signs of this death wish can be found in Kane's work. In Crave, the characters wish they were not born:

C why did I not die at birth  
M Come forth from the womb

and expire [5-66]

And when he is asked 'What do you want?', like the Sibyl in The Waste Land, B answers 'To die [5-67]'. A also says 'death is my lover and he wants to move in [5-68]'. But death wish is at first expressed by slow self-destruction, a lot of characters smoke and drink until it destroys them. For example in Blasted, Ian is hard-drinking and chain-smoking, and although he has got a lung cancer, he goes on smoking and drinking. In Crave, B says 'I smoke till I'm sick [5-69]' and 'I drink till I'm sick [5-70]' and later when M asks him 'why do you drink so much?', he replies 'The fags aren't killing me fast enough [5-71]'. And in Cleansed, Graham takes drug and voluntarily provokes an overdose.

Death is omnipresent in Kane's work. It is first the 'innomable' - Kane tries to say the unsayable: In Crave, M says 'I will grow older and I will, it will, something [5-72]', in Blasted, it is present through Cate's epileptic fits and in 4.48 Psychosis with the cockroaches. But Kane does not hesitate to name it, specially in Crave with the lexical field of death. In this play, the word itself appeared five times, the adjective dead is repeated twelve times and the verb to die seventeen times in different forms. But Kane also uses the image of the night as a metaphor of death, she uses the word 'night', 'nightfall', 'dark', 'darkened', 'darkness', 'blackness', 'shade', 'shadows' and the adjective 'black' is used ten times. The image of blood is also recurrent with the use of the words 'blood' and 'bleed' but also references to the colour red. The notion of death also appears with verbs like 'to murder' and 'to kill', the latest being repeated seven times and once in Spanish. Moroever, like Shakespeare, Kane compares death to sleep and dream. In Crave, she makes a clear reference to him by quoting a line of Hamlet: 'To die. To sleep. No more' and the verb 'to sleep' is used ten times.

This omnipresence of death aims at reminding the spectator that we are mortal- in 4.48 Psychosis, the narrative voice says, 'I'll die not yet but it's there [5-73]'- that is why Kane also uses the lexical field of time passing. In Crave, M says 'Time is passing and I don't have time [5-74]' and 'There's so little time [5-75]', later she asks 'How much longer [5-76]'. This idea also appears clearly in a passage of Crave in which death is symbolised by maggots. This passage shows that nobody can escape death and even if we do not want to face it, mortality is still part of us:

  maggots everywhere
[...]whenever I look really close at something, it swarms with white larvae.
I open my mouth and I too am full of them, crawling down my throat
I try to pull it out but it gets longer and longer, there's no end to it. I swallow it and pretend it isn't there.

Paradoxically, it is the awareness of human mortality which is at the origin of this death wish. In Crave, C says 'my grief has nothing to do with men.  I'm having a breakdown because I'm going to die [5-78]' and the character of 4.48 Psychosis says, 'I have become so depressed by the fact of my mortality that I have decided to commit suicide'' and the character of 4.48 Psychosis adds, 'I have become sp depressed by my mortality that I have decided to commit suicide'.  If we have to die, what is the meaning of life? In her plays, Kane asks existential questions. For example in Crave:

- What's anything got to do with anything?  
- Nothing
- Exactly
- That's the worst of it
- Nothing
- Is this what it is?
- Is this it? [5-79]

Finally, death is a release. It is the only way to forget everything and be free: free of fatality, free of desire [5-80] and pain [5-81]. It is the only way to find freedom, happiness and peace [5-82]. The ambiguity of the destructive but liberating power of death is symbolised by light: both Cleansed and Crave [5-83] end in blinding light. But once again, morals deprives the individual from his freedom by being opposed to his deepest desire since suicide is forbidden by religion. In Blasted, when Ian asks her for the gun because he wants to kill himself, Cate replies, 'It's wrong to kill yourself. [...] God wouldn't like it [5-84]'. And in Crave, A recalls one of the commandments by saying 'Thou shalt not kill thyself [5-85]'. But later, he parodies the bible saying, 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law [5-86] '. Choosing suicide is also a way to assert oneself, the only way for Man to control his destiny is to choose the moment of his death.

Approaching Death to Feel in Touch with Oneself

Hippolytus is depressed because he is disillusioned with love. But he is also depressed by the cruelty of the world. For him, life has lost its meaning. He tries to fill it with junk food, television, sex and the things he buys- his motorbike, his electronic toys... - but it does not work and he is waiting for something to give a meaning to his life. When Phaedra asks him 'Why do you have sex if you hate it so much?', he answers 'I'm bored [5-87]' and 'Life is too long [5-88]'. He is waiting for something to happen:

Hippolytus Some people do, I suppose. Enjoy that stuff. Have a life.  
Phaedra You've got a life
Hippolytus No. Filling up time. Waiting.
Phaedra For what?
Hippolytus Something happen
Hippolytus Till then. Fill it up with tat. Bric-a-brac, bits and bobs, getting by, Christ Almighty wept. [5-89]

Eventually he gets what he wants, something happens that brings him back to life: he learns that Phaedra has killed herself for the love of him. When she declares her love to him, he rejects her and deny all she says. He does not believe her and does not realise it is his chance to enjoy life again. When he says that he is waiting for something to happen, Phaedra tells him 'This is happening. [...] Now [5-90]' but he does not listen to her. With her suicide, she provides him the ultimate proof of her love and before hanging herself, she leaves a note accusing him of rape. It is difficult to say if Hippolytus is in love with Phaedra or not, but he considers it as her 'present' to him because he knows that it is the opportunity he was waiting for, he says, 'Not many people get a chance like this. This isn't tat. This isn't bric-a-brac [5-91]'. By denouncing him as a rapist, Phaedra has brought him to death but she has also provided him with an identity, even if it is the one of a rapist, it is 'better than a fat boy who fucks [5-92]'. And she has given him the opportunity to realise his deepest desire: to die. She has managed to give a meaning to his life and to his death.

Just before dying, Hippolytus smiles and says 'If there could have been more moments like this [5-93]'. Aleks Sierz says that by bringing him to death, Phaedra's accusation 'galvanises him into life [5-94]' and Hippolytus himself confirms this idea by exclaiming 'life at last [5-95]'. As a matter of fact, death is the moment when everything unifies and one can find unity; Nils Tabert says that 'his death seems to be the pinnacle of his existence' and 'It's as if he's suddenly connected with himself for the first time [5-96]'. Kane explains that it is because death enables him to connect his physical body to his mind. As it was seen before, Kane thinks that madness is about 'the split between one's consciousness and one's physical being' and she says:

  The only way back to any kind of sanity is to connect physically with who you are, emotionally and spiritually and mentally. And the thing with Hippolytus is that in his moment of death everything suddenly connects. He has one moment of complete sanity and humanity. But in order to get there he has to die. [...] I guess, on a different level this is also why people slash their skin. I just met someone who has taken God knows how many overdoses and has attempted suicide in almost every imaginable way. She had a huge scar round here (points to her throat) and scars round here (points to wrists). But actually she's more connected with herself than most people I know. I think in that moment when she slashes herself, when she takes an overdose suddenly she's connected and then wants to live. And so she takes herself to the hospital. Her life is an ongoing stream of suicide attempts which she then revokes. And yes, there's something really awful about that but I can understand it very well. It makes sense to me [5-97].  

It is what the character of 4.48 Psychosis expresses.  After a series of verbs symbolising someone hurting himself, he says ' beautiful pain that says I exist'  [5-98].


Kane's work is full of contradictions. For example in Crave, several sentences contain paradoxes. When B says 'she wants a kid yesterday', Kane opposes the past and present tenses in the same sentence. And when M is asked 'where do you go?', she answers 'Here and everywhere [5-99]'. In 4.48 Psychosis, Kane uses both the meaning and the grammar of the sentence to create contrasts and oppositions: she talks about a 'broken hermaphrodite' and creates a new pronoun, 'hermself', which unites the masculine and the feminine [5-100]. But what is the real meaning of these enigmas?

If we look closer at these sentences, we soon realise that most of the oppositions gather images of life and death. In Crave, C says, 'someone has died who is not dead' and A, 'the king is dead, long live the king [5-101]'. When C describes 'a cool summer and a mild winter', not only does she put in contrast the fertility of life, represented by the summer, and the sterility of death, symbolised by winter, but she unites them at the same time by exchanging their adjectives [5-102]. And later, when M says 'I have a black black side I know. I have a side so green you will never know', Kane opposes the colour black symbolising death to the colour green which is traditionally associated with hope and life. The several passages with alternation of 'yes' and 'no' in Crave are also meaningful [5-103]. 'Yes' is the hope and positive side of life and 'no' represents the negation of life, that is to say death. Indeed, this opposition recalls the one of 'all and nothing [5-104]'.

Kane's message is therefore contradictory, it hesitates between hope and despair, between life and death. Moroever, her first plays are hopeful; the characters are fighting to survive, whereas the last ones are about despair and death and the characters have given up. But the gathering opposites, she creates unity.  What she is trying to capture is the very essence of existence to which she gives a voice in Crave: 'That's me. Exist in the swing. Never still, never one thing or the other, always moving from one extreme to the furthest reaches of the other [5-105]'. In 4.48 Psychosis, she also symbolises it by dysphoria [5-106], a psychological trouble waving between sadness and excitement.  If Kane uses contradictions, it is because she is writing about the cruelty of things, she describes the paradox of life: life means death.

To write is a means for the writer to transcend the cruelty of things, to try 'to leave a mark more permanent than [himself] [5-107]'. Kane says:

  I don't find my plays depressing or lacking in hope. But then I am someone whose favourite band is Joy Division [a 'gothic' band] 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. [5-108]  

Kane's plays are not about death but simply about the difficulty to live: some go on, some give up. Like Beckett, Kane tells us that our weapon in front of cruelty is to live: 'once you have perceived that life is cruel, the only response is to live with as much humanity, humour and freedom as you can [5-109]'.


Copyright © Gaëlle Ranc, 2002


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Introduction 1
2, 3
4, 5
Love, despair
Conclusion Bibliogaphy references


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