The Notion of Cruelty in the Work of Sarah Kane by Gaëlle Ranc
Evelyne Pieiller writes 'if [Sarah Kane] breaks models, forms, habits, it is so we can feel our own breaks. Like open wounds [6-1]'. To convey her message, Kane needed to push the limits: the limits of language- she adopts an efficient style made of short and cutting lines which bombard the spectator with both tenderness and cruelty- the limits of form which she blows apart, as if the violence of the content was plaguing it, and the limits of representation-; with their poetic and metaphorical images, her plays represent a challenge for directors.
Challenge of Classical Form
Like Artaud, Kane was searching for a new form. Artaud challenged classical theatre and its conventions with his idea of 'theatre of cruelty'. He wanted to deconstruct the classical form to find a new one. In Le Theatre et son double, he says:
As she rejected the fixity of form, Kane rejected the fixity of genre. She did not want her work to be classified. When Johan Thielemans asked her if she belonged to the movement called 'New writing', she answered:
Talking about Blasted she says 'It was considered the beginning of a movement, called New Brutalism. Someone said to a Scottish playwright that you couldn't call his work 'New Writing', because the play was not brutal enough. And that is exactly the problem with movements, because they are exclusive rather than inclusive [6-4]'.
To deconstruct the classical form, one must know tradition very well and as Dominic Dromgoole says, Kane had 'a comprehensive knowledge of theatre history, ancient and modern [6-5]'. Kane herself says 'Well, I think with everything I write there are usually a couple of books that I read again and again when writing [6-6]'. She explains that most of her influences are non English, 'except for Pinter, Barker and Bond' and that she is interested mainly in European literature. She was obviously influenced by Shakespeare's violent images; for example, Ian's eye-gouging in Blasted recalls the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear and Cleansed's atrocities recall Laviana's rape and mutilations in Titus Andronicus. But she also says that Blasted was influenced by Waiting for Godot. She explains, 'For me there are kind of three sections: the first one was very influenced by Ibsen, the second one by Brecht, and the third one by Beckett [6-7]',
For Phaedra's Love, Kane also mentions Baal which provides her with the theme of religion, and Camus's The Outsider , which must have been a base for the character of Hippolytus. She says that for Cleansed it was Woyzeck, 1984, Twelfth Night and Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata. 1984 must have influenced her because of its theme of freedom of expression and censorship and the gender confusions, and the theme of a sister searching for a lost brother echoes Twelfth Night. Benedict Nightingale of the Times also noticed references to 'the sadistic tortures of Kafka's Penal Colony', to 'the bureaucratic cruelties of Pinter's Hothouse' as well as to 'the surreal violence of Bond's Early Morning'. For Crave, Kane says she was inspired by TS Elliot's The Waste Land and for 4.48 Psychosis, by Artaud [6-10]. She says
But Kane had her own way to make the most of this inheritance. She fed herself with it and then digested it to incorporate it to her own theatre. For example, she said
And about Phaedra's Love, she argued:
Searching for a new form, Kane also needed a new style and she found her inspiration in Bond. She says,
But she discovered that she did not need long speeches. 'If each character can only say nine or ten words at a time, they become incredibly articulate and precise' she says. 'I didn't let Ian elaborate on his racism, he just started to spill invective - it was a level of racism and violence that terrified me'. Finally, 'Only three or four lines in the first draft made it to the final one [6-15]'. Kane includes herself in the classical tradition of writing by rediscovering Hemmingway's 'iceberg theory': the text is like an iceberg, what shows on the surface hides something more important. 'I knew just about everything about these characters. Having brought it all to the surface, the job of later drafts was to bury it again, make it felt rather than spoken [6-16]'. This system enables her to let the spectator interpret what the characters are saying.
The Form is the Meaning
Kane challenged classical theatre because its form could not convey her ideas. To convey the violence of the content, she needed to do violence to the form. Kane says 'il y a bien plus important que le contenu de la pièce, c'est-à-dire la forme. Tout art de qualité est subversif, dans sa forme et dans son contenu [6-17]'. According to her 'The form is the meaning [6-18]'. When she was at Birmingham University, she was not interested in the course because it was about classical authors. She says 'it was an academic course and I didn't want be academic [...] Inevitably what you're studying is what's already been discovered. As a writer, I wanted to do things that hadn't been done, to invent new forms, find new modes of representations [6-19]'. Her remembrance of Jeremy Weller's play was vivid and she wanted her theatre to be experimental, like his. She explains 'As soon as I've used a theatrical form, it becomes redundant. So each time I've tried to do something different [6-20]'. She explains that doing violence to the form also enables her to '[abandon] the audience to craft their own response to the imagery by denying them the safety of familiar form [6-21]'. It is therefore interesting to study each of Kane's plays to see how they were directed, what the directors' points of view were and to see how their contents influence their form.
Influence of Form on Stage Directions
Kane and staging
Stage directions were really important for Kane. But sometimes, the directors do not understand the author's point of view, that is why she decided to direct some of her plays herself. She says,
Reading Kane's plays, the reader imagines images. But apart from being a written text, the main purpose of a play is to be performed and Kane's plays are often a challenge for directors. David Greig says that this question 'goes to the heart of Kane's writing':
Tabert adds that Kane 'didn't want her instructions to be taken literally. She didn't want the audience to see blow jobs and mutilation; she regarded them as images', which is why 'she thought the production of Blasted in Berlin was cynical. She found it offensive [...] it took the play very literally. It was true to the text, but it lacked the metaphorical quality, the poetry, and that's what she hated [6-24]'.
As she was unsatisfied with some of the productions of Blasted, Kane decided to direct her second play herself. She says,
She discovered the magic of theatre, what Coleridge called 'suspension of disbelief'. Theatre is an art representing reality but too much realism limits its power of suggestion. And as theatre is a live art, when the spectator sits in front of a stage, he is ready to believe that what he is seeing is real life.
With Phaedra's Love, Kane experiments the rewriting of a classical play. Kane says she has always hated Roman and Greek plays: 'Everything happens off stage, and what's the point?' but then she thought, 'you CAN subvert that convention of everything happening off stage and have it on stage and see how it works [6-26]'. With her stage direction, she put the audience in the centre of the action. Aleks Sierz says that the 'the set, designed by Vian Curtis, occupied the whole of this tiny theatre [the Gate, upstairs], leaving the audience perched on benches in the middle and on the edges of the room [6-27]'. One scene was glimpsed from across the theatre, another happened under your eyes and Kane says that the staging meant that 'the play could be at one moment intimate and personal, at the next epic and public [6-28]'. But above all, she aimed at emphasising the idea that we all participate in the vicious circle of violence. Aleks Sierz adds, 'with the action happening all around, the feeling was one of eavesdropping on a problem family [ ] but most dramatic of all was the play's ending, when a savage crowd rose up from among the audience and attacked Hippolytus. Being in the middle of the action made you feel complicit in the horror [6-29]'.
Like Blasted, Cleansed has its origins in 'a particular fit [Kane] was having about all this naturalistic rubbish that was being produced'. She decided to write a play that 'could never be turned into a film, that could never be shot for television, that could never be turned into a novel [6-30]'. Cleansed, she claims, can only be staged. To direct Cleansed is a real challenge as extraordinary things happen on-stage, such as flowers growing, rats gnawing human limbs or Grace's body being transformed. In the Guardian, James Macdonald humorously declares that for the German premiere of Cleansed, 'having spent six months training [the rats], the director Peter Zadek had cut the poor rodents at the dress rehearsal. Apparently, the author had committed a serious error of dramaturgy - the brown rat is not actually capable of picking up a human foot. And the little bastards just wouldn't take direction [6-31]'.
David Greig says, 'With Cleansed, Kane wrote a play which demanded that its staging be as poetic as its writing [6-32]'. 'I knew some of the stage directions were impossible' she says, 'but I also genuinely believe you can do anything on-stage. There's absolutely nothing you can't represent one way or another [6-33]'. And the several productions of Cleansed proved she was right. 'Designed by Jeremy Herbert, the staging featured [ ] rats represented by twitching bags with tails, blood by ribbons, fire by an orange-lit cloth. Directed by James Macdonald, some scenes were shown as if from above, in others the stage tilted; mutilation was deliberately unrealistic [6-34]'. And he concludes by saying that it '[gives] a glimpse of what theatre might be like in the future, the product of an ongoing conversation with live art [6-35].
But if Cleansed is also a challenge for directors, it is also a challenge for actors. It is so violent that, for the first rehearsal, the actors had to do psychological work on themselves, however Kane says they knew it was not gratuitous violence and that what they had gone through was justified:
The journalist Simon Hattenstone says, 'Artaud once said this nice thing, that his plays require acting without a safety net, and Sarah's plays require that too. Emotionally [6-37]'.
Analysis of Form
Blasted: mirror effect
Aleks Sierz says 'not only did [Blasted] contain disturbing emotional material, but it adopted a deliberately unusual and provocative form [6-38]'. It takes place in a room in a luxurious hotel in Leeds, the play focuses on the relationship of the two characters, Ian and Cate, who are constantly tearing each other apart. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and stifling, punctuated by Ian's aggressive remarks and Cate's epileptic fits, and little by little tension grows until we learn that Ian has raped Cate during the night. At that point, a nameless and armed soldier arrives and the play lifts over when a bomb suddenly blows the setting apart. The play then focuses on the exchange between Ian and the soldier who inflicts to the latter what he had previously done to Cate.
David Greig says that at first the stage 'suggests the kind of chamber piece about relationships, familiar to the spectator [6-39]'. The setting is realistic, it corresponds to the traditional mimetic role of realistic theatre, and the characters are defined according to their social backgrounds and regional origins. Tabert says 'tout indique qu'il s'agit d'un constat à propos d'une maltraitance quotidienne et des hiérarchies de pouvoir [...]. Il s'agit d'une bataille en chambre à forte charge critique et sociale [6-40]'. But the irruption of the soldier suddenly gives a new dimension to the play. The bomb blows up the realistic façade and reveals that it was only a trap. Tabert notices that the language used by the characters had already started to wear the realism out. He says 'depuis le début la communication tout à fait fragmentaire d'informations, la langue ramassée de manière elliptique, les mots isolés [...] la stricte économie et la précision des dialogues avaient miné le primat de l'imitation réaliste [6-41]'. David Greig says that the explosion marks a point at which the structure of the play 'seems to buckle under the weight of the violent forces it has unleashed [6-42]'. After it, the scenes become smaller; they are reduced to tableaus showing Ian trying to survive. Greig qualifies them as 'a series of snapshots' showing Ian's life 'reduced to his base essence: a human being, weeping, shitting, lonely, broken, dying and, in the play's final moments, comforted [6-43]'.
With the explosion, the play lifts into a nightmarish atmosphere in complete opposition with the realism of the first part. Blasted's anti-naturalism was what confused most critics, Kane says 'I suspect that if Blasted had been a piece of social realism it wouldn't have been so harshly received [6-44]'. She argues that 'the element that most outrages those who seek to impose censorship is form. Beckett, Barker, Pinter, Bond - they have all been criticised not so much for the content of their work, but because they use non-naturalistic forms that elude simplistic interpretation [6-45]'. A realist play makes no demands on its spectators and, as it was seen previously, Kane's aim is to make the spectators react. She says that 'directors frequently think the second half of Blasted is a metaphor, dream, nightmare', and that it is somehow more abstract than the first half, whereas she thinks that to make people aware of the threatening reality of war, the second part should even more realistic: 'In a production that works well, I think the first half should seem incredibly real and the second half even more real. Probably, by the end, we should be wondering if the first half was a dream [6-46].
In the second part, the intimate atmosphere is perverted by the invasion of the outside: the soldier was an element coming from the outside but the bomb widens the breach. This brutal invasion of the outside symbolises the link between the personal and the general. At first the outside was only a threatening presence which expressed itself by the knocks at the door or the noise made by a car in the street, but then it comes on the first ground. Tabert says 'Dehors, devant la porte, il y a le monde extérieur, auquel colle d'emblée [...] et dés la première scène, une existence anonyme et fantomatique, quelque chose de singulièrement menaçant qui va se concrétiser [6-47]'. But the soldier brings with him a terrifying world of violence. It is as though the rape has also destroyed the world outside the room. By linking the personal with the general, Kane shows that private violence gives birth to a generalised one. Tabert says 'Kane montre comment sans rupture une agression latente s'évase vers l'extérieur, vire au monstrueux, à chaque moment et partout [6-48]'. That is why the two couples Ian/Cate and Ian/the soldier function in a mirror effect. Ian's brutality anounces the events to come and after the explosion, the soldier repeats what has been done previously.
Therefore, not only does Blasted's title refer to the story but to the form of the play. This exploded form challenges the rules of the classical theatre. While writing Blasted, Kane 'had a conversation with David Greig about Aristotle's units - time, place and action [6-49]'. Greek theatre was based on the Aristotelian rules according to which the play should consist in one plot, taking place into one place, during one day, and Aristole remained the reference for centuries. But Kane wanted to transmit the idea that the story of Blasted could happen anywhere at anytime. She says 'I thought: "OK, what I have to do is keep the same place but alter the time and action." Or you can look at it another way: that the time and the action stay the same, but the place changes [6-50]'. To keep a unity of space means to break the geographical distance. Kane says 'l'unité de lieu évoque l'idée d'un simple mur de papier qui séparerait la sécurité et la civilisation de l'Angleterre tranquille de la violence et du chaos de la guerre civile. Un mur qui pourrait être déchiré, sans prévenir, à tout moment [6-51]'.
Finally, the form of Blasted symbolises what it is about, that is to say war. She says 'War is confused and illogical, therefore it is wrong to use a form that is predictable [6-52]'. And she explains, 'la forme est directement parallèle a la vérité de la guerre qu'elle décrit - une forme traditionnelle est soudainement et violemment interrompue par l'irruption d'un élément inattendu qui, sans explication logique, entraîne les personnages et la pièce dans une dépression chaotique [6-53]'. That is why she chose an explosion to link the two parts. In early drafts, Ian merely hallucinated the soldier and she 'needed an event'. She says: 'I thought: "what this needs is what happens in war - suddenly, violently, without any warning, people's lives are completely ripped to pieces"'. So she decided, 'I'll plant a bomb, just blow the whole fucking thing up. And I loved the idea of that [...]. Just blowing the set [6-54]'. Kane says that during war, 'people's lives are thrown into complete chaos with absolutely no warning whatsoever [6-55]' and it is what the characters experience. But the most interesting of it is that the play also puts the spectators in the same situation by blowing their landmarks. Kane explains that in its second half, the play collapses, 'putting the audience through the experience they have previously only witnessed [6-56]'.
Crave: musicality and rhythm
Artaud wanted to find a new discourse. 'Only a new kind of language', Artaud argues, 'can effectively transmit the concept of cruelty which constitutes authentic theatre'. He wanted to find 'a new language, capable of bypassing the tradition of verbal dialogue, central to Aristotelian theatre, and thereby allowing the unconscious to be addressed through the senses'. He says:
Sarah Kane also tries to create a new language that invokes our senses, Bond says that her theatre is opposed to a 'logical theatre'. That is why she works a lot on rhythm. In all her plays, she uses typographical indications for silence, respiration and accentuation. It was so important for her that during the rehearsal of Cleansed, she was cross when the actors did not respect the punctuation. But the play in which she really experiments musicality is Crave.
Its originality lies in the fact that Kane does not give any indications, the characters are only referred to with letters and there are no indications of scenes nor acts. There is no real plot; more than real actions, Crave presents a series of mental images. David Greig says that Kane's 'imagery moves from physical to textual realisation [6-60]'. Kane explains that she sought for images in the depth of her mind, she says, 'With Crave the narrative strands are not chronological, I can hear people say the most bizarre things in strange situations'. Kane wrote Crave in the style of the Surrealists, David Greig says that she tapped 'into her unconscious and [let] the words flow [6-61]'. But in Crave like in the surrealists' work, this spontaneity is only an appearance: the piece is well structured and Kane works on rhythm and musicality a lot.
The playtext of Crave says that Kane 'deploys language like music'. Kane had started to work on musicality in Cleansed with the passage in which Graham's, Grace's and Robin's voices intertwine, but with Crave, she pushed the experiment further. She explains that she 'wanted to find out how a poem could still be dramatic. It was deliberately an experiment with form, and language and rhythm and music [6-62]'. The letters referring to the characters, A, B, C, and M, are likes notes. They echo one another, sometimes speaking in solo, sometimes together, just like a quartet in an orchestra. Indeed, the voice of the writer almost regrets not to be a musician: 'I don't have music, Christ I wish I had music but all I have is words [6-63]' and Kane explains that she worked just like a compositor: 'Normally when I am writing, I know what the intention and the meaning of the line is. With Crave I knew what the rhythm was, but I did not know what I was going to say. There are a couple of times I used musical notation, only the rhythm without actual words [6-64]'. For her 'the most exciting moment is when the actors take [the text] in their hands and the words start coming out of their mouths. You hear when it works, and conversely, when it does not [6-65]'. She explains how she was helped by the rehearsals before the first production directed by Vicky Featherstone. 'I could hear where the music could be better.' She says 'Vicky had orchestrated the rhythm and by listening to it I realised how much further I could go in terms of musicality. The whole "yes, no, yes, no" sections suddenly came to my mind by listening to the rhythm, and I thought how extreme can I be with this. I wouldn't have known that just by writing it at my desk [6-66]'.
Since the musicality was so important, the accents of the actors became important. In the production in Maastricht, one of the actor was from Glasgow and Joan Thielemans notices, 'we heard one of the actors with absolutely a different kind of English and his accent changes the music of the text' and asks whether the regional accents had a particular meaning. Vicky Featherstone answers that they were more important from a musical point of view than for their social connotations. She says, 'I feel that as long as a play is not explicitly about a region, e.g. boys in the East End of London, I think the term regional accent bothers me. For me they are different sorts of theatre language. [...] As soon as I read this, I thought you can have any language you want. There is no social context. It is absolutely rooted in urban twentieth century pain. It is completely abstract, so any type of accent would fit the text [6-67]'. That is why she chose a multicultural casting. Another actress was a black girl from London and Featherstone says, 'She is typically London, she has a London voice. That is more important in this case than her cultural background [6-68]'. With such a form, Crave was a challenge for directors, but for its first production, Vicky Featherstone's choice gave all its power to the text. The actors were sitting in a line as in a reality show.
This plain staging respected Kane's by emphasising the text instead of trying to tell a realistic story. And the fact that the actors were a middle-aged man, a middle-aged woman, a younger man and a younger woman symbolised the different and complementary facets of the same conscious as well as the universal dimension of the text.
4.48 Psychosis: explosion of theatrical codes
Kane's last play, 4.48 Psychosis marks the climax of the playwright's investigation of form. While she was writing 4.48 Psychosis, Kane said:
Like Crave, 4.48 Psychosis has no definite setting and it is divided neither into scenes nor acts. The only landmarks for a director are the dotted lines that separate each part. But whereas the characters were at least referred to with a letter in Crave, they are not named at all in 4.48 Psychosis. The text exists on its own. There is only an 'I' who can only defines itself according to the context and in its opposition with 'You' and 'They'. Thanks to clues given in the text, the characters can however be identified as patients and doctors. But the question 'how many patients and doctors are there' remains open. The answer depends on the director's choice. For the first production, Macdonald split the play's voice into three: two women and one man. The three voices were supposed to represent the victim, the perpetrator and the bystander.
The typographical presentation is also very important and meaningful and Kane inscribes herself in the tradition of the surrealist poets who played with typography. Two types of organisations are used: first the dialogue in which nothing but a dash notify each speaker's turn; secondly a speech with a seemingly disorganised presentation. These different types of typographical presentation symbolise the different psychic states of the depressive patient: the disorganised speech corresponds to his interior monologue when he seems disconnected from reality, and the dialogues report his conversation with doctors and represent his come-back to reality. Their opposition represents the schizophrenia of the patient, the duality of his mind and body. When it was first produced, the director symbolised this duality thanks to a setting made of mirrors. In the first case, the presentation is seemingly disorganised but if the reader looks closer to it, he will realise that there is logic. As a matter of fact, Kane seems to push further her experiment on musicality, but this time she does not focus on hearing but on sight. She transposes the musical composition to a visual composition which expresses 'the rhythm of madness [6-70]'. Sometimes the text is distributed into several columns, as if two different voices were talking at the same time [6-71]. The rhythm is given whether by sentences or words that are repeated [6-72] or when the text is organised in repetitive figures [6-73]. Big stanzas also oppose themselves to short sentences or words.
What is fascinating with 4.48 Psychosis is that it is a written text before being a play meant to be performed, the text is a work of art on its own. When reading it before having seen it performed, one may wonder if it can be performed on stage. Like in Crave, there is no unity of time and space nor any plot, or maybe a multiplicity of times, places and plots, language seems not to need anything to exist but itself; Kane writes, 'just a word on a page and there is a drama [6-74]'.
The silhouettes of windows were also projected and 'views of London streets [were] glimpsed' but the spectator knew they were windows 'that can never be opened'. Which made the ending of the play more compelling. 'Please open the curtains' are its last words. As they were said, the cast leaves the stage and opens the shutters of the windows in the auditorium.
Copyright © Gaëlle Ranc, 2002
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