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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

Fragment 2 – The Protean Voice

Readers and especially directors have been challenged by the vague and disturbing staging information that accompanies much of the action in Kane’s plays. Some of it is quite surreal, for example in Cleansed the directions indicate that “A sunflower bursts through the floor and grows above their heads” [15] and that rodents perform in their own ancillary sub-drama, “There are two rats, one chewing at Grace/ Graham’s wounds, the other at Carl’s” [16] and that an array of rapes and mutilations occur, all diagrammed with gruesome specificity. While these instructions are painful to imagine, they are, at least recognizable within the text via italicization or parenthetical separation from the main dialogue. No similar advantage exists in 4:48 though it would be risky to say that none exist at all, at least not conventionally. In this mindscape of a play, stage instructions are embedded within the protean voice itself, giving the reader or director extra work to do but also imparting wide latitude for interpretation, as all great poetry should, here at the top of fragment two:

a consolidated consciousness resides in a darkened banqueting hall near the ceiling of a mind whose floor shifts as ten thousand cockroaches when a shaft of light enters as all thoughts unite in an instant of accord body no longer expellent as the cockroaches comprise a truth which no one ever utters (Kane 205)

This is not staging in the usual sense nor should it be taken literally. By effacing the boundary between a conventional play’s stage instructions and its thematic content 4:48 creates a constantly shifting poetic environment that defies interpretation. Every line is a dense bud of information. For Greig, the difficulty of staging action and imagery based on poetic fragments rather than naturalistic logic is its own reward, advancing the cause of theater:

Kane believed passionately that if it was possible to imagine something, it was possible to represent it. By demanding an interventionist and radical approach from her directors she was forcing them to go to the limits of their theatrical imagination, forcing them into poetic and expressionist solutions. Her stage imagery poses no problems for theatre per se, only for a theatre tied to journalistic naturalism. [17]


Sarah Kane 4.48 Psychosis

The strategy taken at the top of fragment two is highly innovative, abstracting performance information into a multi-level poetic cluster that anchors the fragment into a macabre setting appropriate to its function, which is to begin our journey into the heart of hell. This particular cluster is like a vision of doom, it suggests insects crawling over corpses under electric lights. And it helps frame the context of the next line, “I had a night in which everything was revealed to me/ How can I speak again?” which would sound like the start of an adventure tale - A Thousand and One Nights - were it not for the next vision of terror:

the broken hermaphrodite who trusted hermself alone finds the room in reality teeming and begs never to wake from the nightmare and they were all there every last one of them and they knew my name as I scuttled like a beetle along the backs of their chair

In a cinematic sense, fragment two is the establishing shot that reveals the alienating shape of things to come. By its surrealistic flourish, it sets in motion the experimental, protean voice of the play in the same manner that T.S. Eliot’s, “like a patient etherized upon a table” begins Prufrock’s spiritual fragmentation. [18] The voice of 4:48 employs similar subterranean imagery - “as I scuttled like a beetle along the backs of their chairs” echoing Eliot’s claws “scuttling along the floors of silent seas.” Kane’s words are meant for live theater and every piece of her text - the stage information, words, pauses, dashes, format changes, etc. - provides a substrate for interpretation.

Fragment two also sets the tone of the play and like a chorus, points towards its major themes. In her doomed search for love, she may see herself as a “broken hermaphrodite”. The voices that beguile her may be the “they” that “were all there/ every last one of them” which includes us. And the command to remember and “believe the light” may be the clarity of truth that occurs at 4:48 am - the eye of the storm - which may also be the freeing light of death and perhaps the light of sanity that enables the play to be written and our minds to recall it. “Don’t let me forget” she says in the final line. Perhaps this is a clue to fragment one’s question of what we can offer our friends: we can offer a possibility of remembrance and understanding.


Fragment Three – The Problem

Fragment two shifts time-space gears in the reader’s mind, fragment three starts the basic narrative engine. It is the true suicide note of the play. The first 25 lines are a litany of human disfigurement, carved by a wordsmith into a stone frieze of pain archetypal in its simplicity. Here the protean voice implodes within, self-consciousness turning on itself, mutating into a cancer that devours the spirit:

I am a complete failure as a person
I am guilty, I am being punished


I cannot overcome by loneliness, my fear, my disgust
I am fat
I cannot write                                               [19]

Her mind has ruptured. She vows to escape the mortal coil by hanging herself at 4:48 am – the time of absolute clarity. Will she do it? Her self-esteem lies in ruins, yet her voice and choice is firm, her language epigrammatic and suspenseful. Nor does having a snoozing lover close by soothe the loneliness of depression. Their relationship seems contradictory and their love conditional - more like lab animals than soul mates: “I am jealous of my sleeping lover and covet his induced unconsciousness/ When he awakes he will envy my sleepless night of thought and speech unslurred by medication.” In traditional storytelling terms, fragment 3 is the problem. Will she overcome her suicidal feelings and accept herself for who she is? Yes, but not in the way we expect. By articulating the severe depression, pain and hopelessness in her life there is a possibility we might at least understand her reason for ending it all. Our reaction is crucial to her redemption.

Copyright © 2007 Mustafa Sakarya

reproduced on the site with the kind permission of the author


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