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Sarah Kane 4.48 Psychosis Sarah Kan
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A Controlled Detonation:
The Protean Voice of 4:48 Psychosis (first seven fragments)
by Mustafa Sakarya


Fragment Six – Conversation in Detail

As one reads 4:48 closely, it becomes more and more apparent that there is indeed a logical, even conventional sequence of events from fragment to fragment. What creates its radical, non-linear sensibility is the disembodied protean voice that acts as existential tour guide, without signifier or referent, willfully guiding the spectator through a war zone of fractured memory, to specific regions of psychic injury. In fragment five the voice carries us into a clinical space where she is treated for depression and suicidal thoughts, but her language and demeanor are more angry than miserable, more eloquent than paralyzed by doubt or illness, as she roars, “Nothing can extinguish my anger.” In fragment six the voice places us inside a dialogic exchange that seems to logically flow out from the clinical space of fragment five, and which also answers why she is so angry. The play moves forward by exposing more areas of injury, each fragment revealing more information, more memory and more pain; “Depression is anger” she says. “It’s what you did, who was there and who you are blaming.” [26]

Fragment six also continues to weave the self-reflexive thread running through the play, building upon the poignant struggle of a suicidal artist seeking closure through art, and this will become more apparent in fragment seven. Here it takes the form of a discussion with the clinician on the nature of metaphor:

- I feel like I’m eighty years old. I’m tired of my life and my mind wants to die.
- That’s a metaphor, not reality.
- It’s a simile.
- That’s not reality.
- It’s not a metaphor, it’s a simile, but even if it were true, the defining feature of a metaphor is that it’s real.                                       [27]


Fragment Seven – The Conclusion of “Act One”

This questioning of the relation between language and reality becomes a springboard of philosophical thought in fragment seven. A kind of master fragment, seven is full bodied verse, lyrical and insightful; it is perhaps the most quotable flow of self-reflexive thoughts in the play. It is where we learn a great deal about the central speaker’s literary concerns and value and where it becomes fully apparent that the protean voice of 4:48 Psychosis belongs to a writer in the pit of an existential dilemma, which is also its interpretive dilemma. She falls apart as her work falls together. Despite the pain of her suffering, she summons the composure and lucidity to engineer a poetic masterpiece, twenty four fragments from the mind of an artist to convey the complexity of suicidal thought – including classical references. Tragically, the beauty and success of her accomplishment has no effect on her final decision.

Fragment seven is 4:48’s “To be or not to be” speech in terms of existential issues, though the she does not suffer Hamlet’s indecisiveness. She has assessed the disaster, made the fatal decision, and states her reason with conviction; “Body and soul can never be married.” This is a continuation of the mind/body problem articulated in fragment five - “mind and body are one” - and also an echo of the author/character problem. The body dies but the soul, the human essence, has at least a chance of being preserved and conveyed via the cultural conduit of art. Poetry enshrines beauty for the future. The writer in 4:48 struggles to be as unified and as meaningful as her writing: “I need to become who I already am and will bellow forever at this incongruity, which has committed me to hell.” [28] Unfortunately, literary success is not synonymous with personal fulfillment and in fragment seven she is brought to the very edge of the divide between her words and the nothingness that lies always just beyond:

I will drown in dysphoria
In the cold black pond of my self
The pit of my immaterial mind                                    [29]

What is strange and contradictory is her next question, “How can I return to form/ now my formal thought has gone?” because the vivid and rhythmic language in which we are reading her thought is the proof of its solid form. This is the same oxymoron as when she writes in fragment three, “I cannot write”. She writes very well but her ego and self-esteem are unimpressionable in her current dire strait. She is, in fact, the tortured artist for whom success is unsuccessful and meaning meaningless:

They will love me for that which destroys me
the sword in my dreams
the dust of my thoughts
the sickness that breeds in the folds of my mind.

Her frustration seems to be directed at us, the passive spectator, the reader. She seems terrorized by our gaze in an almost superstitious sense. “Every compliment takes a piece of my soul,” she declares, echoing the aboriginal fear of the camera that steals the soul.

Fragment seven’s final lines expand our understanding of the relation between the character, who is an author, and her work and they also offer a possible way of resolving the contradiction between her powerful, integrating protean voice and her tragic weakness of spirit, her dis-integration and final collapse. The key is the line, “I have always walked free.”

An expressionistic nag
Stalling between two fools
They know nothing –
I have always walked free
Last in a long line of literary kleptomaniacs
(a time honored tradition)
Theft is the holy act
On a twisted path to expression

Her language here is personal yet bold and brave in the classical sense, with broad sweeps of emotion musically tied to the sound of the words. Her style is, in fact, expressionistic, but she calls herself a nag of the form – an old horse – and makes a pun on stalling as in stall, and exploits the proximity of fool and foal. There is an air of Hamlet here as well. Another mysterious question is not her self-deprecation, nor the animal allusions, but the two fools she stands between. Who are they? Are they part of the they she refers to in they will love me for that which destroys me - a reference to the spectator? Then who is the other fool? She mentions stealing from the past, from previous authors. Might they be the other fool in some way? Perhaps she sees herself between these two entities, between past and present, which seems to connect with I write for the dead/ the unborn.

Sarah Kane 4.48 Psychosis

But the breathing hole of the play is the magical and wondrous line: “I have always walked free” for in this line she exerts the centrality of her expressive control over the form and meaning of the twenty-four fragments. The line is applicable to Kane or her character; distinctions are tangential to its thematic importance. The line asserts and preserves an uncompromised space of artistic independence - which is the play itself - untouchable by medication and manipulation by others, a literary space of total freedom and truth as she sees it. With this line she retains control of her expressive craft, it remains intact, bold, honest, and humorous or whatever she wants it to be, despite her emotional and spiritual fragmentation.

As spectators, we are privy to the power of her protean voice. She uses it to channel memory and setting, she hurls is at as a weapon against her professional observers, she uses it to translate the emotional content of her life into a rigorous and classically executed poetics of self-disclosure, she searches for an enduring truth, which is the art form itself, the artifact we are left with, the play in which we are reading her thoughts. Her language is her last stand and the concrete symbol of her imagination. She can say what she wants, the play is her license and the rest can go to hell.

Fragment seven is especially Shakespearian in rhythm and shape. Its final verses echo Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury”:

I have reached the end of this dreary and repugnant
tale of a sense interned in an alien carcass and
lumpen by the malignant spirit of the moral majority

In terms of history, the conservative moral majority movement and its leaders in America and England were in full swing when 4:48 was first published and so her reference has a political component, as does much of Kane’s writing. Conservative close-mindedness may have something to do with her character’s anger and depression about the world.

Her final lines summarize the longing for eternity and the solace found in literature, the longevity of good books - words that stay fresh long after the speaker dies:

I have been dead for a long time
Back to my roots

I sing without hope on the boundary

She has willfully chosen to cross the boundary to death, having expended within the play a great deal of energy examining her being, her relationship to others, and the medical, psychological establishment. Finding cruelty and contradiction there, she manufactures a series of poetic fragments which are evidence of a discourse on morality. Her decision to self-destruct is thus well thought out, prepared, and supported with documents. Like Japanese seppuku [30], her suicide is made beautiful through stylization, in this case using language in the western poetic tradition.

4.48 Psychosis

But fragment seven is only a caesura in the major components of the play, a kind of concluding first act. The real action is yet to come. What is established thus far is the power of its protean voice, which works like Prospero’s staff in The Tempest, enabling the protagonist to alter reality, reverse an opinion, make a life or destroy it. If 4:48 were made of flesh and blood it would be type O negative - giving life to everyone. The spectator can take or steal whatever is they want or need from it. The play tells us life is a struggle with personal demons that take up residence in our psyche and devour our souls. We suffer generations of abuse, desire, love, pain, death and the fear of not being understood. We all stare into the void, but at least we can write about it. We can put our thoughts into the mouths of actors and have them roar or cry about it. Perhaps this is Sarah Kane’s greatest accomplishment. In 4:48 Psychosis she preserves an inviolable space and walks freely within it.

Copyright © 2007 Mustafa Sakarya

reproduced on the site with the kind permission of the author


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