When I think of the playwright Sarah Kane, I am reminded of a line from Chris Marker’s 1983 film Sans Soleil: “I found small fragments of war enshrined in everyday life.” Kane’s work finds these fragments too. Her plays, which on the surface might appear to be about the unravelling of individual, private psyches, reveal the interconnectedness of all beings and all forms of suffering, and the devastation that results from our repeated failure (or refusal) to acknowledge this.
Blasted, Kane’s first play, was performed at the Royal Court Upstairs in 1995 when she was just twenty-three. Set in a hotel room in Leeds, Blasted was in part a response to the Bosnian genocide, demonstrating the thin line between ‘everyday life’ and the atrocities of which humans are capable. “One is the seed and the other is the tree”, Kane said in an interview. “And I do think that the seeds of full-scale war can always be found in peacetime civilisation […] the wall […] can get torn down at any time.” The play was met with savage reviews, with critics objecting to its unstinting depiction of depravity, which they saw as nothing more than shock tactics. “This disgusting feast of filth”, ran the headline of the Daily Mail’s review by Jack Tinker. In a likely example of the playwright’s under-acknowledged wit, a later play, Cleansed (1998), features a sadistic doctor named Tinker.
Born in Essex in 1971, Kane wrote five plays for the stage and one for television in her short life. Her final work, 4.48 Psychosis (2000), was posthumously produced. Kane’s death by suicide at the age of twenty-eight has to some extent overshadowed her work (how posterity, alas, loves a ‘tragic’ woman artist), but I would caution anyone tempted to read her biography into the plays to heed Kane’s own words, from Crave (1998): “And don’t forget that poetry is language for its own sake.”
Of course her work does not make for comfortable viewing or reading and why should it? Its power and importance lie in the playwright’s courage in heading into terrain many would flinch from. Its purpose is to shake us violently awake. The plays’ message recalls James Baldwin’s famous remark about racial injustice: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Objecting to the idea that the violence shown in her plays was gratuitous, Kane commented, “if you are saying you can’t represent something, you are saying you can’t talk about it, you are denying its existence”. In her work, language is stripped down to show the world in all its brokenness: characters communicate in short phrases, their fury pushing up against the limits of articulation, and yet it is language, in the end, that is redemptive. “The defining feature of a metaphor is it’s real”, insists the voice in 4.48 Psychosis, Kane’s last and most lyrical play, reminding us that with language, we can remake the world. “I sing without hope on the boundary”, says the voice elsewhere. We all know we’re going to die someday, but words endure. To sing without hope: isn’t that what it is to write? To live? To love?
Poet, writer and editor Emily Berry was elected as a Fellow of the RSL in 2018. She is the author of three collections of poetry published by Faber: Dear Boy, Stranger, Baby and Unexhausted Time, published in 2022. She writes sleepcasts (bedtime stories) for the meditation app Headspace, and was a co-writer of The Breakfast Bible, a compendium of breakfasts.
Sarah Kane (1971-1999) studied drama at the University of Bristol and playwriting at the University of Birmingham. Kane’s work reflected her own experiences of mental health and her final play, 4.48 Psychosis, was finished shortly before her death at the age of 28.