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Remembering Sarah Kane, the Playwright Who Changed British Theater Forever

Since she's finally been awarded the ultimate recognition—one of her plays being shown at the National Theatre in London—we thought it was time to celebrate the life and work of Sarah Kane.
Hannah Ewens
London, GB
February 1, 2016, 3:15pm

Sarah Kane. Screen shot via

Curtains open on a hotel room in Leeds. A vile, middle-aged journalist is there to seduce a much younger woman. He's homophobic, misogynistic, and racist. She is emotionally fragile and intellectually simple. Over the next hour or so, the hotel room becomes the site of a brutal war; we'll watch rape, violence, a bombing, suicide, masturbation, prostitution, and someone eating a dead baby.

Naturally, when those same curtains go down, the chaos continues.

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It was 1995, and the average British theater-goer apparently wasn't ready for the grim subject matter of playwright Sarah Kane's Blasted. Journalists relished the chance to tear down a young, female, playwright. The Daily Mail branded the play "a disgusting feast of filth" for the "Looney Left," while the Independent compared watching it to "having your whole head held down in a bucket of offal."

Kane's crime? Writing a play so adventurous—not just in form, but content, too—that it puzzled and disgusted the people sent to review it. As she pointed out, "a play about a middle-aged male journalist who rapes a young woman and is raped and mutilated himself can't have endeared [her] to a theater full of middle-aged male critics."

Can you imagine a similar media storm about a play today? It simply wouldn't happen—not least because of the current climate in the West End, with Shakespeare and Ibsen and financially-reliable adaptations of famous novels still dominating the playbills. Cuts to the arts have also made it increasingly difficult for young voices to make it to the stage, but without Kane knocking down every expectation of what British theater should be, it's likely many of those fresh, exciting playwrights would never have found their voices in the first place.

I came across Kane's work as a theater student, studying "in-yer-face theater"—which is exactly what it sounds like. Theater critic Alex Sierz characterized the genre as taking the audience "by the scruff of the neck," adding that "questioning moral norms, it affronts the ruling ideas of what can or can't be shown onstage."

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It's important to note that the use of shock in this genre isn't just there to offend, but to be a part of a search for something much deeper, some meaning in a fucked world. Kane's name caught my eye in a textbook, purely because it was a female one; it came as a relief after weeks of reading lots of outspoken men. In her, I instantly found a teacher and a muse.

Her plays were like Pulp Fiction reimagined for the stage. It was the rape and sex and violence that drew me in, but re-reading her work over and over, it was the enduring hope in the darkness that kept me enthralled. The landscapes and social hierarchies and characters of the work are dystopian and ugly, but not hopeless. There's a desperate search for love and salvation through the mire of life that cut right to the heart of humanity.

There's a scene in Cleansed, for instance, where homosexual couple Rod and Carl discuss love. Carl has been pushing for commitment and some real proof of his feelings. Rod is a realist, in comparison to his idealist partner. Eventually, Rod replies: "I love you now. I'm with you now. I'll do my best, moment to moment, not to betray you. That's it, no more. Don't make me lie to you." It's not a conventionally romantic line, but doing your best and being brutally honest for as long as you love someone is perhaps the most anyone can ever truthfully promise, inadvertently creating—for me—one of the most romantic moments in modern theater.

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By her following play, Crave, Kane is dealing in total desperation and the rawest of unrequited love. Stylistically, it's a departure: Her work has now dissolved into nameless characters and nonlinear poetry; the theme of the pain of love is all-encompassing, with the characters also being haunted by rape, incest, anorexia, mental illness, and other very real demons.

Despite all that, there is still hope. A beautiful speech tumbles from one (probably female) character during the play about the feelings toward another woman: "And I want to play hide-and-seek and give you my clothes and tell you I like your shoes and sit on the steps while you take a bath and massage your neck and kiss your feet and hold your hand and go for a meal and not mind when you eat my food and meet you at Rudy's and talk about the day and type up your letters and carry your boxes and laugh at your paranoia."

The observations of those insecure thoughts about someone you're in love with, or those strange intimate moments that make a relationship what it is, are articulated perfectly. (She continues: "And hug you when you're anxious and hold you when you hurt and want you when I smell you and offend you when I touch you and whimper when I'm next to you and whimper when I'm not and dribble on your breast and smother you in the night…") It's heartbreaking.

Kane herself was a beautiful but troubled character. Sexually fluid, she represented not only a young artist in a man's world, but a rare gay female voice in theater. She had turbulent mental health issues that plagued her 20s and informed her plays. She wrote what she knew because that was all she could write.

Despite depression, heartbreak, and other darkness, Kane shook up the art form like no one had for years. She heralded a new age of young writers after a lengthy period of few new works being put on in mainstream theater. She had a true vision of what theater should be—hating the idea of theater that trivialized itself as a pastime for the middle classes. When the idea arose in interviews that her work gave no answers, she replied, "For me, the job of an artist is someone who asks questions, and the politician is someone who pretends to know the answers."

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Sadly, Kane killed herself at the age of 28, leaving behind her last—and darkest—play, 4.48 Psychosis, an unconventional, unsettling stream-of-consciousness; the swan song of a playwright destined to be remembered as a troubled female artist. The Sylvia Plath of theater.

Despite her youth and the fact she only wrote five plays and one short film, she was a true auteur. However, it's taken time for people to realize that. During her life, most critics eventually reconsidered their initial thoughts on her work. Since her death, theaters have slowly but steadily kept her work alive.

Now, just over 20 years after that fateful opening showing of Blasted, the transition of the playwright into the British theatrical canon is complete: The National Theatre is about to start showing a production of Cleansed. A piece still politically relevant today, it frames the world as a prison for both body and mind. A man named Tinker plays the role of doctor, jailor, and general authoritative figure, who continues to oppress, while totally denying responsibility, as everything falls apart around him. The best art is that which timelessly speaks volumes.

Sarah Kane was the best there was, a true poet, and no one has yet taken her throne. Until someone does, she will be celebrated accordingly—with sex, tears, violence, and hearts bleeding across the stage.

Find more information and tickets for the National Theatre's production of Sarah Kane's Cleansed .

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