“The naughtiest girl at school”
Sarah Kane’s Blasted and Phaedra’s Love
No recent playwright has achieved anywhere near the infamy in such a short stretch of time that Sarah Kane did with the premiere of her play Blasted in 1996. The play’s representations of both physical and sexual violence were extreme, brutal and without precedent. But critical and popular responses to this violence have always divided between those who cannot (or choose not to) see past the immediacy of the disturbing scenes of violence and dismiss them as ‘shock tactics’; and those who see through to the intellectual discussion to which Kane puts her violent images to work. A consideration of her first two plays, Blasted and Phaedra’s Love, will shed light on why initial reactions to the plays were so spiteful. Kane made a clear dramatic choice to unsettle her audience, and thinking about the various treatments of rape in her plays will explore the reasons behind making that choice.
When Kane’s first play Blasted premiered upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre in London, the immediate critical reaction was of great shock and disgust at the content of the play. Many reviews simply read as catalogues of the atrocities that occur in the play (indeed even now, much academic writing on Kane’s plays cannot help itself from doing something similar), as an attempt to convey the horror of the spectacle. Understood by perhaps only a handful of directors and playwrights- creatives close to the heart of theatre- the public found it hard to take her seriously. Ken Urban called Kane “the most-talked about, least-seen British playwright” for good reason: her notoriety quickly spread to more people than the upstairs studio at the Royal Court could hold.  People’s reactions to the play were largely limited to the tabloid sensationalism of the time, any deeper importance in the play was otherwise obscured. It is clearly evident though that “criticism has tended to soften over time,” perhaps a function of the tabloid’s monopoly giving way to more thoughtful considerations of Kane’s themes and approaches.  Criticism since has also had to take into account the emergence and popularity of other contemporary explicit writers, fellow proponents of “in-yer-face” theatre, notably Mark Ravenhill and Anthony Neilson. Much of the outrage at the time was a response to Kane’s “staging of violence that violates rules of representation and convention within what is designated as theatrical space.” The theatre space for the Blasted audience is no longer safe, but upsetting and disorienting when stripped of its “insulated interiority.” Just like Cate (by Ian) and then Ian (by the soldier) in their comfortable hotel room, the audience feels their safe, comfortable space violated by the extent of Kane’s violence. The play begins in a mode of conventional social realism, in “a very expensive hotel room in Leeds,” a familiar and anaesthetic scene that “lures the audience into a false sense of naturalistic security, eclipsed behind the invisible fourth wall.” But after being hit by a mortar bomb that leaves a gaping hole in the room, the play loses the safety of its initial realism and is taken over by the dread of its impending violence. This “deliberately unusual and provocative form” is a function of both “the rejection of a unity of space and the unflinching representation of corporeal suffering.” One of the methods Kane used to blast the audience was a rejection of the Aristotelean unities of time, place and action- in this case it is time and action that have been displaced: the hotel still stands but finds itself in the middle of a warzone. The representation of human suffering speaks for itself; it is not coincidental that the entrance of the war into the hotel room comes so soon after Cate’s rape (a personal violent violation) by Ian. Phaedra’s Love contains even worse violence and had it happened to premiere before Blasted, it no doubt would have come under similar fire for its explicit representations of violence but, as it was, the legacy of Blasted’s vitriolic response was difficult to overcome. The violence and rape Kane uses in Phaedra is just as brutal as Blasted, but they are “far from mere shock tactics,” instead, her “dramaturgical maneuvers are calculated to provoke a complex response.” Kane wants to snap the audience out of an idle complacency and force them to reconsider ways of thinking. Britain’s lack of intervention in the Bosnian crisis; the rationality behind rape myths; or even more abstract ideas like hope, and love, and what it means to live an ‘ethical’ life are all up for re-examination.
It is an uncomfortable audience that watches a Sarah Kane play. Each play pushes against the viewer’s beliefs of what is acceptable or possible on stage, with the result being the transference of these reconsiderations onto their own lives. The critic Christopher Wixson wrote:
By creating the same alienated sensibility in her audience from which her characters suffer, by disorienting conventional interpretive cognition and engendering audience discomfort with representations of violence, Kane is able to formulate a more powerful examination of identity and politics, launching a severe indictment of ethical apathy.
This “alienated sensibility” is clear in many of Kane’s characters. Through brute force, Ian learns something of a “lesson” in ethics after his ordeal. In a similar way, the intensely apathetic Hippolytus finds a way to finally connect to the world. Ian begins the play as a forceful, patronising, insensitive hypocrite. He refuses to acknowledge the similarities between his own sex crimes and the horrors committed by the soldier, and is readily willing to reinterpret his own job title as a “home journalist” as it pleases him.  He phones in a story about a serial killer operating as far away as New Zealand, but snubs the soldier’s plea to write about the vicious war that is happening literally all around him in Leeds. Yet as vile as Ian gets, Kane never paints him as a purely unlikeable character, she had a soft spot for him herself, in an interview she admitted “I really like Ian; I think he’s funny.” The play has a hopeful ending, the now entirely helpless Ian is looked after by Cate, and he is grateful. He is stripped of his ability -and desire- to control, manipulate, possess. In this way, Ian’s arc is not a simple matter of moving from bad to good, rather his characterisation is another example of “Kane’s continual collapsing of the simple binary oppositions that provide an audience with a comforting moral assurance.” Hippolytus has another complex development but instead of an ethical shift his is an emotional one; from “a posthuman being alienated from human feelings, spoiled by the decadence that Western life has drowned him in” to “an emotionally struck human being holding the value of honesty very dear.” The violence that shapes both of these characters is the same violence Kane hopes will affect the audience in a similar way. It is important to note that many of the particularly violent instances of Kane’s plays are sourced from life. The sucking out of Ian’s eyeballs was taken from an incident at a football game, the pole that gets pushed up into Carl’s anus in Cleansed is the same pole used by Serbians to crucify hundreds of Muslims in Bosnia. By extracting bits of violence like these from the world around her and reframing them, Kane makes us examine violence in a way that we usually do not. She fairly points out that “Blasted is pretty devastating. But the only reason it’s any more devastating than reading a newspaper is that it’s got all the boring bits cut out.” As an audience, we are so far removed from natural emotional reactions that the only way we can recognize something as worthy of feeling is if it gets compressed and transplanted into a more familiar space: the stage. The violence and violent emotion of Blasted and Phaedra’s Love are “a counter-cultural response to the difficulty of genuinely being able to feel.” In too many ways we are just like Hippolytus, who only eats junk food and has sex “as a substitute for the personal involvement he is unable to feel,” it takes a really violent shock to be made to feel.  At Hippolytus’s death -a peak of emotional sensation and investment- he says “if there could have been more moments like this.” This is exactly why Kane is so unreservedly confrontational to her audience, it is infinitely more than just ‘shocking.’
Kane has opened up the gates to our emotions, but how does she make use of this emotional disturbance? As an example of the intellectual work that Kane requires the critical reader to do, a consideration of rape in the light of the two plays of hers at hand will be illuminating. Since it has been noted that “when Kane sought to intensify the violence of her plays she turned repeatedly to rape,” we can see the role of rape in these plays as both an extreme extension of the pervasive violence already present; but also in its own terms, as a shockingly common act of violence surrounded by myth and misconception that is often ignored.  The complex landscape of treatments of rape is clearly present in writing about Kane’s work. Some writing can betray certain conceptions of rape in the writer’s bizarre use of language, for instance when the critic Biçer writes that the Blasted’s initial rape “was, as usual, male to female. Here Ian has raped Cate during the night. But the second rape was, unusually, male to male.” This dismissive notion, that rapes are only “unusual” if they are homosexual, is one of the myths that Kane fights against. While Ian’s rape by the soldier, with a gun to his head, is disturbing to see or read, it is actually an echo of earlier in the play where Ian simulates sex with Cate with his own gun pointed at her head. Here it is the force and brutal violation that are sickening, not the genders of the victims or perpetrators. Similarly, the soldier tells Ian that other soldiers “buggered” his girlfriend Col. Victim gender here is never less relevant- it is powerless people who are being anally raped, not just either men or women. A step further from Biçer might be Christopher Innes who, in an otherwise insightful chapter on Kane’s plays, makes no mention at all of Cate’s rape. He details the rape of Ian and his forcing of Cate to masturbate him, and Ian’s “simulated sex” with a gun, and yet fails to raise the point at all that Cate was raped overnight. The overnight rape acts as something of a fulcrum in the structure of the play, it signals the unleashing of real, relentless violence, so it is hard to imagine its absence in the article as a simple oversight. The lack of this important detail has parallels with Blasted and Ian’s rejection of a possible story over the phone, when he dismisses an apparent rape story as a case of a “Scouse tart” who “spread her legs,” and is therefore not worth the paper space.  Cases like these highlight the work Kane was trying to do in opening people up to re-examining ways that they think. In Blasted Kane is battling rape myths, challenging people to consider what they think of as “legitimate” or “realistic” rape in order to assert its reality. In Phaedra’s Love however, Kane works with the idea of rape to expand its reach. Here she is not fighting old connotations of the word “rape,” but asking us to consider new ones. Much of the anxiety in the play concerns how the “innocent” Hippolytus (in the conventional sense of “rape” as unconsensual sex) fares under the accusation from his stepmother of raping her- her interpretation of her act of oral sex on him, while he apathetically watched television. In regards to the use of the word “rape” in Phaedra’s accusation, Kane said:
There was something about the inadequacy of language to express emotion that interested me. in Phaedra’s Love, what Hippolytus does to Phaedra is not rape- but the English language doesn’t contain the words to describe the emotional decimation he inflicts. “Rape” is the best word Phaedra can find for it, the most violent and potent, so that’s the word she uses.
Here Kane expands the notion of rape, so that it includes more than physical violation. We are dared to accept as a valid definition something more akin to an emotional violation- intense, unpleasant, brutally forced love. Hippolytus goes on to be violently executed: strangled, dismembered, and disembowelled. The question remains for the audience, was it fair? Is Phaedra’s accusation valid? In this way, Kane’s shocking scenes have a great intellectual and cultural depth to them, far beyond the merely sensational.
The violence in Sarah Kane’s plays does a lot of work. The shocking images and scenes unsettle us, and recovering from them means coming to terms with difficult intellectual and moral questions. Without the disturbance that the violence causes, we would not have the same imperative to examine and reconsider the parts of life that Kane wants us to. Reducing the violence to simple ‘shock tactics’ is a way to stay comfortable in a world filled with unnecessary violence and brutality, where our own solipsism and self-indulgence comes at the expense of the safety and comfort of entire communities. Kane’s aim was to get us to see the violence around us that we are in the habit of ignoring. The vehemence of the vitriol misdirected at the playwright, as a scapegoat for the authorities actually in charge of the official apathy towards Bosnia for instance, is evidence that at least in some small part she succeeded.
Aston, Elaine. “Feeling the Loss of Feminism: Sarah Kane’s Blasted and an Experiential Genealogy of Centemporary Women’s Playwriting.” Theatre Journal 62, no. 4 (2010): 575-91.
Biçer, Ahmet Gökhan. “Sarah Kane’s Postdramatic Strategies in Blasted, Cleansed and Crave.” The Journal of International Social Research 4, no. 17 (2011): 75-80.
De Vos, Laurens. Cruelty and Desire in the Modern Theatre. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011.
Innes, Christopher. Modern British drama: the twentieth century. Cambridge: Univeristy Press, 2002.
Kane, Sarah. Complete Plays. London: Bloomsbury, 2001.
Sierz, Aleks, ed. Modern British Playwriting: the 1990s. London: Methuen Drama, 2012.
Urban, Ken. “An Ethics of Catastrophe: The Theatre of Sarah Kane.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23, no. 3 (2001): 36-46.
Ward, Ian. “Rape and Rape Mythology in the Plays of Sarah Kane.” Comparative Drama 47, no. 2 (2013): 225-48.
Wixson, Christopher. “‘In Better Places’: Space, Identity, and Alienation in Sarah Kane’s Blasted.” Comparative Drama 39, no. 1 (2005): 75-91.
 Ken Urban, “An Ethics of Catastrophe: The Theatre of Sarah Kane,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23, no. 3 (2001): 36.
 Ian Ward, “Rape and Rape Mythology in the Plays of Sarah Kane,” Comparative Drama 47, no. 2 (2013): 225.
 Christopher Wixson, “‘In Better Places’: Space, Identity, and Alienation in Sarah Kane’s Blasted,” Comparative Drama 39, no. 1 (2005): 79.
 Ibid., 86.
 Sarah Kane, Complete Plays (London: Bloomsbury, 2001), 3.
 Wixson, “In Better Places”, 77.
 Aleks Sierz quoted in Wixson, “In Better Places,” 76.
 Wixson, “In Better Places”, 76.
 Ibid., 85.
 Kane, Complete Plays, 48.
 Sarah Kane quoted in Aleks Sierz, ed., Modern British Playwriting: the 1990s (London: Methuen Drama, 2012), 206.
 (Ian: Thank you) Kane, Complete Plays, 61.
 Urban, “An Ethics of Catastrophe,” 43.
 Laurens De Vos, Cruelty and Desire in the Modern Theatre (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011), 92.
 Ibid., 91.
 Sarah Kane quoted in Sierz, ed., Modern British Playwriting, 205-7.
 Elaine Aston, “Feeling the Loss of Feminism: Sarah Kane’s Blasted and an Experiential Genealogy of Centemporary Women’s Playwriting,” Theatre Journal 62, no. 4 (2010): 581.
 Christopher Innes, Modern British drama: the twentieth century (Cambridge: Univeristy Press, 2002), 531.
 Kane, Complete Plays, 103.
 Ward, “Rape and Rape Mythology in the Plays of Sarah Kane,” 225.
 Ahmet Gökhan Biçer, “Sarah Kane’s Postdramatic Strategies in Blasted, Cleansed and Crave,” The Journal of International Social Research 4, no. 17 (2011): 77.
 Kane, Complete Plays, 47.
 Innes’ recounting of Blasted, in Modern British drama, 530-1.
 Kane, Complete Plays, 13.
 Ibid., 81.
 Sarah Kane quoted in Ward, “Rape and Rape Mythology,” 235.