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Sarah Kane 4.48 Psychosis Sarah Kan
more: acontrolleddetonation


A Controlled Detonation:
The Protean Voice of 4:48 Psychosis (first seven fragments)
by Mustafa Sakarya


Who exactly is the protagonist?

In their analyses, both Urban and Greig discuss a fundamental literary dilemma posed by Kane’s work which is the question of dramatic character and its relation to an authorial consciousness. The play contains no character delineation and only the most minimal stage directions and performance information. Where there is apparent dialogue it is indicated by a single dash or pauses. The bare bones structure and absence of basic navigational elements forces the spectator to engage actively with the language, to search for connections and create relationships where none are directly indicated and to ask basic questions like, who is speaking now? Does their speech belong to one person or does it have several identities or functions? Greig calls this narrative flow, “the play’s voice,” which he likens to a “fluid entity” embedded within the character yet inseparable from the author [5].

Sarah Kane 4.48 Psychosis

Greig also relates this shape-shifting consciousness to the concept of the self, suggesting that Kane’s work is about the human self struggling to retain autonomy, a self that becomes increasingly abstract and finds its “ultimate narrowing” in 4:48 Psychosis. It is helpful to read his full summary in order to explore how the question of self informs the play’s overall design:

The struggle of the self to remain intact has moved from civil war [Blasted], into the family [Phaedra’s Love], into the couple [Cleansed], into the individual [Crave] and finally into the theatre of psychosis: the mind itself. ‘And my mind is the subject of these bewildered fragments,’ the play’s voice states. Yet perhaps it is as well to be cautious here. Whose mind? The mind of the speaker of the words in the theater, definitely, but does that directly mean the mind of the author? Kane’s work has constantly shown itself to be a problematic and fluid entity, shifting and struggling against its own limits, and transforming. Why should her authorial self by any different? 4:48 Psychosis is not a letter from one person to another but a play, intended to be voiced by at least one and probably more actors. The mind that is the subject of the play’s fragments is the psychotic mind. A mind which is the author, and which is also more than the author. It’s a mind that the play’s open form allows the audience to enter and recognize themselves within. (Greig xvi -xvii)

The question of self is important because it forces a distinction that must be made between Kane the author and Kane the embedded “character” of 4:48 Psychosis. It is Kane the ingenious author that controls the play’s protean voice but it is also Kane, the tormented “bisected soul”[6] that speaks and suffers within this voice.


Form as subject and setting

The play’s open-endedness and its variety of voices are related to its setting in the landscape of psyche, as evidenced from the keystone phrase, “My mind is the subject of these bewildered fragments.”[7] If the play is a metaphor for the mind, its dynamic voices are an appropriate iterative device in which to convey the mind’s content - disparate memories, bits of conversation, hospital room paranoia, jokes, moments of pain and epiphany - all streaming in fragments from a central consciousness created by Kane but not exactly Kane herself. Urban describes this setting as a collage and the concept is useful but also limiting:

This piece [4:48 Psychosis] is the equivalent of a textual collage; there is a citational quality to the language, as if it were culled from disparate sources. The play has passages of poetic language juxtaposed with moments of naturalistic dialogue, intercut with lists of numbers of unknown significance, all placed in specific ways on the page to indicate possible delivery and meaning. Yet, the play’s multiplicity also creates uncanny sensation that the text is deeply monologic, the product of a singular, albeit divided, self.” (Urban 6) [8]

While the term textual collage provides a convenient short hand in which to understand the play’s protean voice, it suggests randomness and facile construction rather than technical skill. The play’s disjunctive sensibility is no accident and should not be mistaken for stream-of-consciousness or poetic license. Its expressive power derives from cohesive patterns of thought and poetic language constructed within a non-linear time frame. And while her subject matter is cruel, modern and urban, her words often feel ancient like Shakespeare or a Greek tragedy. Mark Ravenhill, another close associate of Kane, describes her as “a contemporary writer with a classical sensibility that created a theater of great moments of beauty and cruelty” or what he terms “the beauty of brutality.” [9]

The great tragedy of 4:48 is that its central voice seems to recognize her creative powers but is still unable to escape the “dysphoria” of depression. [10] Ravenhill has described her literal and literary struggle as a dialectic: “It [4:48 Psychosis] takes us right into the psychotic mind, all attempts at dramatic character and situation stripped away. But it would be wrong to read the play as a suicide note. Though there are no named speakers in the text, there is a dramatic dialectic between the urge to order and the need for self-destruction. At the time of writing, Sarah did not know which she would choose.” (Ravenhill 3) Ravenhill’s observation could apply to Kane or the character within the play, again underscoring the difficulty of interpretation.


The architecture of the language

Sarah Kane 4.48 Psychosis
photo Alice Lambert

Appropriate to its setting - a human mind fragmented by emotional pain – Kane provides a simple and effective design – twenty five fragments each divided by five punctuation dashes. The five dashes are crucial structural devices, performing a cinematic cut between scenes. In fact, the play overall has the mobile, time-space shifting atmosphere of film or video. There is no linear plot or continuity in the traditional sense. Instead, the fragments are like cells with their own poetic organization, their own organelles of thought. Each is stacked one upon the other like sections of bamboo offering flexibility, lightness and rigidity and supporting the literary body as a whole. The dashes also function as a kind of semi-permeable membrane holding each fragment in place, yet enabling its poetic contents to float freely from one end of the play to the other. This end result is a network or conversation between her mind and ours, interpreted differently for each person – a system of ordered chaos.

The play’s design pulls the viewer through a mindscape which has been blasted of pretense and comfort by a scalding language of truth. Ten of the fragments appear to be dialogic scenes with each spoken line indicated by a single dash. The speaker converses with various figures or voices regarding different aspects of her crisis. The exact identity and number of these entities are unclear, though reasonable guesses have been made. Greig sees the play as “voiced by at least one and probably more actors.” [11] David Kilpatrick has suggested a religious even metaphysical configuration, describing the dialogic fragments as “brief passages of confrontation with what appears to be the voice of a therapist, a lover, a priest or God.” [12] During its first production in 2000, James McDonald, a Kane collaborator, used two women and one man and this makes good sense as well [13].

Eight of the fragments are self-sufficient, discrete poems, composed on the page with specific formatting and punctuation – as much to be read as performed on stage. Three fragments are written in a free verse style and another three consist of mysteriously arrayed numbers or abbreviations. These fragments will be referred to in their chronological order, as fragment one, fragment two, and so on. And in view of the close association between author and subject, the central voice or speaker will be referred to in the feminine - as she, her, woman, and so on - when necessary.

Copyright © 2007 Mustafa Sakarya

reproduced on the site with the kind permission of the author


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