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Just over 12 years ago, a British playwright named Sarah Kane was under treatment for depression at King’s College Hospital in London. On February 20, 1999, she committed suicide, hanging herself with a shoelace. Though she was only 28 years old and left behind a small body of work, totaling five plays and a short film, she was already considered one of the most important theatrical talents of her generation.
Her tumultuous four-year career began in 1995 with the premiere of her play “Blasted” at the Royal Court Theatre. A play that graphically depicted the horrors of war, the show sent a shockwave through London’s theater scene. Appalled by its stark, unapologetic portrayals of violence, rape, and cannibalism, critics excoriated it. It was infamously deemed a “disgusting feast of filth” by the Daily Mail.
Kane, who was only 23 years old at the time, unexpectedly found herself cast as the enfant terrible behind the “Blasted” controversy. Kane, however, seemed bemused by the amount of attention her play received. In an interview, she admitted, “I wasn’t at all aware that ‘Blasted’ would scandalize anyone.” To Kane, the play’s depiction of violence wasn’t about employing sensationalist shock tactics—she was merely trying to present the effects of war in an honest and straightforward manner.
The gap between her stated goals and her critical reception is a striking one; in many ways, it is not surprising that such controversies arose from writing so riddled with internal tensions. Her dialogue is terse and minimal, but the action onstage captures an audacious Jacobean penchant for brutality. Furthermore, Kane was deeply concerned with experimentation, pushing theatrical form further than any playwright since Beckett; her last play, “4.48 Psychosis” is essentially a stream of text and numbers with no characters or stage directions.
The sheer intensity of Kane’s vision as a playwright renders her work fundamentally polarizing. However, throughout her career she actively sought to escape her own reputation: in order to circumvent critical bias and undue fanfare, she wrote her fourth play, “Crave,” under the pseudonym Marie Kelvedon. Kane didn’t set out to shock the world, and she never asked to be blown out of proportion.
The more I read Kane’s plays, the more intimate and personal they seem. The gift of her writing is that—bleak as it may be at times—she transcribes honestly and openly what she sees in the world. “Blasted,” for instance, was the product of seeing a victim of Bosnian warfare on TV. She sought to capture the personal pain of that refugee by crafting a play that connected the large-scale devastation of warfare to more pedestrian acts of personal violence. This impulse defines Kane’s unique theatrical genius: she intertwines moments of sublime beauty and overwhelming terror with small, quotidian moments of empathy and pain that resonate just as forcefully. “Blasted” is a veritable onslaught of almost two hours of violence, but the most arresting moment of the play is its ending: a simple but earnest “thank you” from one character to another.
Her corpus inevitably invites hyperbolized readings; you either profoundly love her work or find it “disgusting.” Personally, I’m a staunch member of the former category. In terms of talent, I would rank her among Sophocles, William Shakespeare, and Anton Chekhov. These are effusive comparisons to make, but I hold them as creed.
And yet I recognize that it’s easy to canonize artists you love, particularly ones that have met tragic ends like Kane’s. Perhaps my instinct to idolize Kane betrays the nature of her project—it’s the same reduction critics made in denouncing her work. You can call her a shock artist or a saint, but it’s essentially the same fallacy. Both reactions fail to recognize the flesh-and-blood human behind these plays.
My relationship to Kane’s work is at a strange nexus at the moment. I’m two weeks away from starting rehearsals on a production of her 1997 play “Cleansed;” and since the anniversary of her death, I’ve been inclined to consider more carefully the actual human being behind the words of the play. An author with such a short, illustrious career and a tragic demise naturally provokes the human drive to mythologize, but Kane never wanted to be anything more than human—this was, in many ways, the defining struggle of her career, and “Cleansed” is a play about the fundamentally human impulse to love.
Moving forward, whether staging Kane or simply reading her, I think it’s crucial to avoid any degree of hyperbole. At the most basic level her body of work remains a deeply personal artifact; in reading Kane, we have to unearth the humanity behind her writing, the humanity neither her sensational death nor the sensational action of her plays could bury.
—Columnist Matthew C. Stone can be reached at
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