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Decoding Sarah Kane
Dimensions of Metaphoricity in Cleansed

by Timo Pfaff

2 Main Part: Decoding Sarah Kane

2.1 In-yer-face: Violence as Metaphor

What does the term “in-yer-face,” first applied by the theatre critic Alex Sierz to an extravagant piece of British theatre of the nineties, signify? According to Sierz, the widest definition of in-yer-face theatre is “any drama that takes the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message” (4). In its wider sense, “[q]uestioning moral norms, it affronts the ruling ideas of what can or should be shown onstage” (4). Thus, a major effect of in-yer-face theatre derives from directly confronting its audience with shocking scenes, leaving them with the feeling “that your personal space has been invaded” (Sierz 4). The movement, according to Sierz, seeks to “question current ideas of what is normal, what it means to be human, what is natural or what is real. In other words, the use of shock is part of a search for deeper meaning . . .” (5).

In Cleansed, these shocking elements are evident the very moment the play sets off and the character Graham receives an injection in the corner of his eye, as a result of which he dies.

Brazil Cleansed

Although a brief summary of the play’s plot would have to outline it as an accumulation of scenes of atrocities, Kane herself explains in a interview:

[U]m die Gewalt ist es darin nie gegangen, es ging immer darum, wie sehr diese Menschen lieben. Stärker noch als in meinen Stücken davor wird die Gewalt in Gesäubert zur Metapher, und mittlerweile bewege ich mich immer stärker in eine eher poetische Richtung. (Tabert 20)

Many theatre critics have also recognised this poetical tendency. David Benedict states in the Independent that “her [Kane’s] handling of image and metaphor sets her apart from almost every other playwright of her generation.” This raises the question what these metaphors stand for. Criticism has not come up with a convincing analysis in that field so far.

To begin with the analysis of metaphors, the first thing one has to bear in mind is that metaphors do not only occur as linguistic realisations. On the contrary, there is a huge variety of non-linguistic realisations of conceptual metaphors. Kövecses points out that “if the conceptual system that governs how we experience the world, how we think, and how we act is partly metaphorical, then the (conceptual) metaphors must be realized not only in language but also in many other areas of human experience” (57). An analysis of metaphors, no matter whether on page or on stage, has to focus on the mappings between source domains and target domains, or, as I. A. Richards named it, vehicle and tenor.

How does this go together with Sarah Kane’s Cleansed? No doubt, physical violence is the source domain. However, it will certainly not be an easy thing to figure out which meaning the violence tries to convey, or whether it tries to convey any meaning at all. The first observable entity with a metaphorical implication certainly is the setting. As the reader (not the audience) gets to know from the stage directions, the play takes place within the “perimeter fence of a university” (3). However, what is described as a university is actually the prison- and hospital-like realm of Tinker. Thus, the non-realistic setting is a blending of diverse settings existing in reality: prison, university, brothel, and hospital. Kane concocts a setting of implicated violence (prison), help (hospital), and learning (university) into a metaphorical location that can be interpreted as Kane’s sinister view of the world. Thus, the people living in it are prisoners and made dependent upon help and sources of knowledge of some external powers in society. “The spirit that hovers over it [Cleansed] is that of the philosopher Michel Foucault. Discipline and punish. The world is a prison, disguised as an educational institution, which trains you with the utmost brutality for nothing much else than dying” (Peter). Therefore, the underlying conceptual metaphor is “the world is a prison,” which is being blended with social institutions that are responsible for the individual’s mind and body and therefore have the ability to take away the individual’s autonomy over the self. Thus, an extended version would be “the world is a prison for mind and body,” which calls into mind similarities to a concentration camp.

The character who resembles the setting in its structure to a certain extent is Tinker. He is the one who has the full authority and power over the inmates of the institution, just like a jailer. Likewise, at various situations he appears as a doctor, is addressed as a doctor, commands in a doctor-like fashion (“Show me your tongue” (10); “Swallow” (10)), and treats the inmates. What contradicts this aspect of Tinker is his constant denial of responsibility (“I’m not responsible, Grace.” (10); “I’m not responsible.” (33)), for it is the foremost duty of any doctor to show responsibility for his patients. However, there are some scenes that show Tinker in a very ambiguous, vulnerable light. These scenes will be the objects of analysis in chapter 2.2.

The question is in how far the disgusting acts of atrocities are the source for some underlying target domain. In Scene One, Tinker injects an overdose into the corner of Graham’s eye, because Graham wants to end his life. The conceptual metaphor here is “suicide is the ultimate escape”—by and large a minor aspect of the play. This motif later recurs when Robin hangs himself after having realized how long he will really have to stay in the institution (40). What is also of importance is the fact that Tinker, a personification of society or rather those powers in society that pressure the individual, looks away as Graham dies (4), he does not feel responsible. In general, the atrocities committed by Tinker seem to follow a kind of cause-effect calculus. The atrocities follow specific actions of the characters in respect to two dimensions. On a first level, the brutality has to be interpreted as punishment for a behaviour that does not conform to society’s morals. So, Carl is dismembered and Rod killed because they are a gay couple. Grace is beaten up and raped because she has an incestuous affair with her brother Graham. The conceptual metaphor in this case could be termed “society is a punisher.” On a second level, the atrocities can be explained as a consequence of linguistic inaccuracy, a circumstance that will be analysed in detail in chapter 2.3 within the framework of metaphoricity and literality.

A series of atrocities that has to be seen as belonging together is the “use of ritual dismemberment” (Saunders 20). Here, the acts of cutting off Carls tongue (14), the hands (25), the feet (32), and finally the penis (41) do not stand for themselves but rather symbolise a gradual loss of articulation. With his tongue, Carl could have expressed his love to Rod verbally; his hands could have written down the message; with his feet, he still was able to dance a “dance of love for Rod” (32); and finally, the loss of his penis takes away the chance to express love sexually, but by then it is too late anyway because Rod has already been killed. For Opel, these amputations represent metaphors “für den Verlust von Ausdrucksmöglichkeiten angesichts einer überbordenden Liebe, die nicht adäquat kommunizierbar ist” (161). Indeed, the human body in Cleansed can be seen as a metaphor for the soul or mind. The appropriate conceptual metaphor thus is “the mind is the body.” The body, according to Opel, has “die Funktion der Objektivierung subjektiver Empfindung” (170). She maintains that the human body functions as a substitute to express the soul’s pain because this way it can be made visible on stage (Opel 171). Taking this argument as a basis it seems valid to go one step further and see the scenes in the light of a criticism of language. From this highly abstract angle, Carl can be interpreted as a ‘body of language.’ Thus, the amputations are acts of deconstructing the corpus linguistics. Opel argues in a comparable way when she states:

Was Carl angeht, so potenziert sich der Zusammenhang zwischen sprachlichem Ausdruck und konkreter Körperlichkeit noch, wenn Carl wegen seines Liebesschwures und seines Verrates körperlich so weit beschnitten wird, daß er weder sprechen noch schreiben kann. Sein vormaliges Zuviel an Sprache, [sic] wird mit einem vollständigen Verlust sprachlicher Ausdrucksmöglichkeiten beantwortet. (156)

As shown above, this loss is not limited to verbal possibilities of expression but also extends to non-verbal ones.

To conclude, the physical violence does not stand for itself, it is rather the signifier for a tortured soul: “Der leidende Körper ist in Kanes Stücken Sinnbild einer gemarterten Seele. Die Stücke erzählen von einer Spaltung zwischen diesen beiden empfindlichen Phänomenen der menschlichen Existenz” (Opel 179). The violence, however, does not only refer to conflicts inherent in the individual but also to the relationship between society and individual and the conflicts society triggers within the self. According to this view, conceptual metaphors that can be made out are “abstract complex systems are human bodies” (Tinker is society), “abstract complex systems are buildings” (the institution is society), “societal powers are restraints to the individual,” “abstract authorities are persons,” “society is a killer,” and finally, to form a transition to the next chapter, “love is a killer.”

2.2 Love is a Unity—Cleansed and Aristophanes’ Myth

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are grey.
You'll never know dear, how much I love you.
Please don't take my sunshine away.
(Jimmy Davis and Charles Mitchell: You Are My Sunshine)

What lies under the surface of violence in Cleansed is to a large extent the idealized cognitive model for romantic love. Idealized cognitive models “are structured conceptual representations of domains in terms of elements of these domains” (Kövecses 250):

The ICM [idealized cognitive model] for romantic love involves several elements: the lovers (subject and object of love), an intense emotion felt by the lovers, a relationship between them, and a variety of attitudes and behaviors typically assumed by the love emotion, including (but not exhausted by) affection, liking, enthusiasm, and sex. (Kövecses 215)

On grounds of this mapping, an accurate analysis of the play seems possible. After the first seven scenes, the four crucial love-stories are introduced: Rod and Carl (scene 2), Grace and Graham (scene 5), Robin and Grace (scene 6), and Tinker and the Woman (scene 7) form the four intertwining love-relationships. However, in terms of the Barthesian categories of subject and object of love, some distinctions have to be drawn. In the case of Rod and Carl, as well as of Grace and Graham, all are subjects as well as their reciprocal objects of love. For Robin, Grace is his object of love; he himself is the subject in love. This love relationship is one-directional. Finally, the relation between Tinker and the nameless woman upon whom he projects the personality of Grace, is an ambiguous one of different states: In their first encounter, Tinker seems to be the subject in love, in scene 14 this relation is reversed and in the end, they form, as the first two couples in the play, also a loving couple (scene 19).

Scene 2 introduces the gay couple, Rod and Carl. The couple forms an essential opposition in respect to their worldviews: Carl’s romantic idealism collides with Rod’s cynical realism (Sierz 114):

Rod What are you thinking?
Carl That I’ll always love you.
Rod (laughs.)
Carl That I’ll never betray you.
Rod (laughs more.)
Carl That I’ll never lie to you.
Rod You just have. (6)

Rod, who does not want to make a similar commitment, delivers a speech that in its realistic intensity outweighs Carl’s utterances in its romantic nature.

Rod I love you now.
I’m with you now.
I’ll do my best, moment to moment, not to betray
That’s it. No more.
Don’t make me lie to you. (7)

Carl’s urgent wish to express his love for Rod, as well as to get an affirmation from Rod (“What I want, deliriously, is to obtain the word.” (Barthes 153)) can well be interpreted with Barthes’ figure of declaration: “The amorous subject’s propensity to talk copiously, with repressed feeling, to the loved being, about his love for that being, for himself, for them: the declaration does not bear upon the avowal of love, but upon the endlessly glossed form of the amorous relation.” (73). Carl never stops expressing his love explicitly, regardless of Tinker’s intention to deprive him gradually from his means of expression. First, Carl verbally declares his love to Rod. After his tongue gets cut off, he writes down a message of love. When his hands are being cut off, he goes on expressing his love with a dance of love and after he loses his feet Rod and Carl finally make love. Thus, Carl makes use of a wide range of verbal and nonverbal declarations of love.

In scene 2, Carl wants Rod to act out the signifier; the action of putting on the ring would mean, “I (always) love you.” However, Rod is the one fully aware of his limits—the human limits and the limits of language. For this reason, he is so devastatingly realistic. The ring is a key metaphor in the play. The second time the ring appears in scene 4. Here, Tinker, who has just cut off Carl’s tongue, forces him to swallow his ring. Next, the ring appears in scene 8 where Rod picks up Carl’s severed hand with the ring, takes it off and then reads Carl’s written message: “Say you forgive me” (25). However, he remains consequent and says: “I won’t lie to you, Carl” (26). The last time the ring appears (scene 16), it becomes a metaphor for the union of love. Carl swallows a ring a second time. However, whereas the first time Tinker forced him to swallow his own ring as punishment for his betrayal, he now swallows the ring he originally got from Rod—a metaphorical act of internalised, everlasting love. Although Rod is killed later in this scene, the rings finally unite in Carl’s stomach. Hence, the ring has the function to metaphorize the issues of betrayal and forgiveness. Whereas Carl the first time is forced to swallow his ring as an act of symbolic punishment for his betrayal of Rod, the second time Rod makes him swallow his own ring as a sign for forgiveness. That Rod has forgiven Carl becomes clear when he finally repeats the pledge of love originally delivered by Carl:

Rod I will always love you.
I will never lie to you.
I will never betray you.
On my life. (38)

The theme of the union that love brings about is central to the play and primarily realized in the relation between the siblings Grace and Graham. In the vocabulary of Barthes this union is the “[d]ream of total union with the loved being” (226). This immediately brings to mind Aristophanes’ myth of love, delivered in Plato’s Symposium.

An androgynous motif that appears throughout Western literature in a multiplicity of guises is the mystical union (or the innate desire for such a union) of two persons into a oneness. The description of the origin of the sexes and of romantic love found in Plato’s Symposium seeks to explain this seemingly inevitable need for human conjoining that defies rational explanation. (“Androgyny”)

At this point, a short look into the myth of Aristophanes seems helpful to discover analogies to Cleansed. According to Aristophanes, in ancient times each human being consisted of twice of what they are now. Consequently, there were three human genders: male, female, and androgynous (Plato 189d-e). Humans at that time had much more power, they moved by spinning around because they had a round shape, “backs and sides forming a circle” (Plato 190a). Because they were beginning to challenge the gods, Zeus decided to split them into halves to deprive them of their powers. However, “it was their very essence that had been split in two, so each half missed its other half and tried to be with it” (Plato 191b). What ensued was that humans were looking for their second half and after they had found it embraced it until they died of starvation or general apathy. Zeus, pitying them, moved their formerly backward genitals to their front. Thus, those pairs who were the former hermaphrodites were able to have sexual intercourse and to reproduce. Aristophanes concludes: “Love [the God] draws our original nature back together; he tries to reintegrate us and heal the split in our nature. Turbot-like, each of us has been cut in half, and so we are human tallies, constantly searching for our counterparts” (Plato 191d). In a nutshell, then, love is equivalent to “the desire for and pursuit of wholeness” (Plato 193a) and the desire to “recover our original nature” (Plato 193c).

This story elucidates the plot in Cleansed and provides for a better understanding of what is at the heart of the relationship between Grace and Graham. Grace is driven by the desire to unite with her dead brother Graham. This unity of identity or, as Aristophanes calls it, “wholeness,” develops gradually. In scene 3, Grace dresses in her dead brother’s clothes after which she breaks down. This may be a hint that she relived the pains her brother went through. To share pain with another person is an expression of ultimate closeness. As Elaine Scarry emphasizes, “pain comes unshareable into our midst as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed” (4). So, pain is the dividing line for the highest level of certainty because it is “so incontestably and unnegotiably present” (Scarry 4) for one person, while “for the other person it is so elusive that ‘hearing about pain’ may exist as the primary model of what it is ‘to have doubt.’” (Scarry 4). This seems valid for and applicable to the feelings of love in a relationship as well. Here, nothing seems to be more certain for the loving subject than the love for its object, but how can the loved object, even if being itself a loving subject, gain ultimate certainty? It is amazing how well the song of Jim Davis and Charles Mitchell You are my Sunshine, sung by the siblings in scene 5, fits in this context: line three of the first verse is “You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.”

After these considerations it becomes clear how close the relationship between Grace and Graham already is. This union, which has been expressed through the sharing of emotions and thus been presented as an inner unity, gets its outward manifestation after Grace has put on Graham’s clothes and says to Tinker: “I look like him. Say you thought I was a man” (10). In scene 5, Graham reappears in a ghost-like manner, thus being himself a metaphor for Grace’s longing. When Grace sees Graham for the first time, she “smacks him around the face as hard as she can, then hugs him to her as tightly as possible” (14). In this scene, the antithetic principle of love and violence, upon which Kane built her play, becomes visible in a most intense way. Graham looks at his sister and states: “More like me than I ever was” (15). This seemingly paradoxical statement again puts emphasis on the idea of the “mystical union . . . of two persons into a oneness” (“Androgyny”). When the siblings begin to dance, the process of adjustment, not “assimilation” because they are still two individuals, goes on with Grace copying Graham’s movements and voice. Finally “she mirrors him perfectly as they dance exactly in time” (15).

Grace’s demand “Love me or kill me, Graham” (16) initiates their making love. “They come together” (16), which is a further sign for their perfect cooperation. Sexual intercourse is the closest possible situation two persons can be with another on a physical level. Moreover, sex is a metonymic variant of love. The metaphorical nature of the whole scene is highlighted by that fact that in the end “[a] sunflower bursts through the floor and grows above their heads” (16).

In scene 7, Robin asks Grace what would be the one thing she would change in her life if she could, whereupon she answers: “My body. So it looked like it feels. / Graham outside like Graham inside” (22). This shows that the unity of mind has already been accomplished, and the thing that is left to do is the total bodily fusion. In scene 10, after Grace has been beaten up and raped “Graham presses his hand onto Grace and her clothes turn / red where he touches, blood seeping through. / Simultaneously, his own body begins to bleed in the same places” (28). This scene marks another step towards the complete bodily fusion because by now the siblings not only share their emotions but also their bodily feelings and pain. This has shortly been hinted at in scene three where Grace suffers a nervous breakdown. Here, Kane makes visible the oneness of the siblings in the most plastic way. However, this drastic plastic representation has not come to an end until scene 18. At this point, Grace has received a penis transplanted onto her by Tinker (41). The first words she/he is able to speak after the surgery are uttered by both siblings: “Felt it” (42). The transformation into a union is complete: “Grace looks and sounds exactly like Graham. She is wearing his clothes” (45). The whole plot is thus driven by the necessary metaphorical assumption “love is a unity” which gets people on the way to the pursuit of wholeness. If the assumption turned out to be wrong then the following question would seem urgently justified: “[I]f everything is not in two, what’s the use of struggling? I might as well return to the pursuit of the multiple” (Barthes 228). One final remark about Aristophanes’ myth and Cleansed: Tinker as the destroyer of love and the entity who tears the loving couples apart bears some resemblance to the way Zeus acts by splitting the humans into halves: Indeed, Tinker can be seen, at least in this respect, as the ‘Zeus’ of the play.

“Grace and Robin experience a teacher and pupil, mother and child rapport”
(Sierz 114). The emotional state of Robin resembles what Barthes calls “ravishment:” “[T]he supposedly initial episode . . . during which the amorous subject is ‘ravished’ (captured and enchanted) by the image of the loved object (popular name: love at first sight; scholarly name: enamoration)” (Barthes 188). This “first sight” is at once a very intimate one. When Robin and Grace meet for the first time they, in the process of changing clothes, stand face to face naked. Ever after this, Robin wears Grace’s clothes till his end has come. In addition to and along with Robin’s “ravishment,” the nineteen-year-old boy experiences a situation of utter confusion:

Robin My mum weren’t my mum and I had to choose
another, I’d choose you.
Grace Sweet boy.
Robin If I—
If I had to get married, I’d marry you. (22).

This scene is informed by the conceptual metaphor “love is confusion.” Robin is unable to clearly figure out the feelings he has for Grace: The love for a mother or the love for a woman—a typical Freudian dilemma. However, Grace never engages with Robin’s confession of love. This paves the way for the most innocent, friendly relationship of the play. This can be seen in the way their dialogues contrast with the rest of the play: “In ihrem nicht-hierarchischen, freundschaftlichen Verhältnis ist Raum für Gespräch und Fragen” (Opel 150). The reason for Robin to commit suicide in scene 18, besides the fact that he had learned how to count and thus realised how long his sentence really is, is his feeling of being deprived of Grace’s friendship—and love. Grace is in a heavily tranquillised condition, does not respond to Robin calling her name and thus involuntarily contributes to bring about Robin’s suicide.

The last, most ambiguous love relationship of the play is the one between Tinker and the woman in the peep-show booth. According to Sierz, the two persons “represent domination and alienated love” (114). Scene 6 depicts Tinker masturbating while letting himself be stimulated by the female dancer. But then, instead, he wants to see her face and talk to her. He says that the woman should not be here and offers his friendship: “Can we be friends?” (17). After the woman rejects his offer he goes one step further claiming to be a doctor: “I can help” (18). Tinker apparently projects Grace’s personality onto the woman because he addresses her with Grace’s name (19). He is represented as a very ambiguous person desperately looking for love. He is the omnipotent authority of the play, having the power to do what he wants with the other persons, but he is also presented deeply vulnerable. In scene 9 Tinker again visits the woman. This time she accepts his offer for help on the condition that Tinker saves her (26). In their third encounter in scene 14, they seem to have changed roles. Whereas in the former scenes Tinker wanted to help the woman out of her situation, he now forces her to act as she is supposed to as a peep-show dancer. In the penultimate scene, Tinker is finally able to confess: “I love you, Grace” (45). Thus, there is another inversion, which leaves Tinker and the woman in a reciprocal love relationship. According to Saunders, Tinker “seems to undergo a process of moral redemption through the mutilation of Grace, and through it comes to accept love from the Woman in the booth, who he had previously also abused and kept captive” (31). Consequently, “[t]he supreme irony regarding Tinker, is that someone who so systematically attempts to destroy love in others is in fact yearning to express and reciprocate love himself” (Saunders 98). Thus, even the “Mephistophelian figure” (Saunders 96) of Tinker is not presented as being completely devilish. He, as well as other male protagonists in Kane’s plays such as Ian in Blasted and Hippolytus in Phaedra’s Love “have an underlying fragility, a desire to be loved and an almost pathetic tenderness that often lurks beneath their cruelty” (Saunders 32).

In this final meeting of Tinker and the woman (Scene 19), love in its various different shades and meanings is shown. Tinker addresses the woman with “Hello, my love” (42), thus using “love” in terms of the conceptual metonymy “love for the object of love” (Kövecses 215). Both admit to love each other (43, 44, 45), which is “love for the relationship it produces” (Kövecses 215). Moreover, the woman demands “Make love to me, Tinker” (43) which is a special case of the metonymy “whole for part,” namely “love for sex” (Kövecses 216). Finally, there is the meaning of “love for liking,” when the woman repeatedly states “I love your cock” (44). In spite of these various forms of love, the fact that the only positive union in the end could be achieved by Tinker and the woman leaves the audience/reader with a bad aftertaste. The love they found seems not to be the real love: for Tinker, the woman rather seems to function as a substitute for his real love—Grace.

In the final scene Grace/Graham and Carl sit next to each other leaving the reader/audience with a troubled feeling about what conclusion to draw from this last image. “Wie weit Menschen gehen, wenn sie sich ihrer Liebe ausliefern, scheint hier in einem Laborversuch untersucht zu werden” (147), is what can be concluded, if one follows Opel. However, the desperate impression conjured up by the final images of Grace holding Carl’s stump and rats gnawing at their wounds presses heavily upon the reader’s mind. However, this exactly seems to have been Kane’s intention: “[S]ometimes we have to descend into hell imaginatively in order to avoid going there in reality” (Stephenson and Langridge 133). “Love survives, if that is the word, as an incestuous dream, a form of blissful death with, or a visceral loyalty between mutilated men whose wounds are being gnawed at by rats” (Peter).


reproduced on the site with the kind permission of the author
©Timo Pfaff 2005

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