“A mother beats her child savagely,” notes one of the characters in Sarah Kane’s Crave, “because it runs out in front of a car.” It’s a classic Kane line: funny, barbed, seemingly offhand, and devastating in its distilled critique of the contradictions among power, love, and violence. These are recurrent themes in the late British writer’s unsparing yet profoundly humanistic works. Combined with her lean language and piercing imagery, they made Kane one of the most urgent and challenging voices of the contemporary theater.
It’s probably not much of a surprise, then, that critics clamored to drown it out. After all, Kane’s work puts our complacency toward atrocity right in our faces; it forces us to see our complicity in sensationalism and our resignation to alienated sex. And besides, hadn’t anyone told Kane that women, particularly young women, are supposed to be more decorous than to speak boldly about the huge issues of human history?
The uproar that greeted her first play, Blasted, when it opened at London’s Royal Court in 1995—a level of attack that makes the old American brouhaha over Karen Finley look like a friendly embrace—set the tone for the rest of Kane’s career, fixing her with the unshakable, patronizing, wink-wink adjective “controversial.”
Set in a hotel room in Leeds—”the kind that is so expensive it could be anywhere in the world”—Blasted dares to show how the most extreme brutalities derive from the most mundane ones, and how smoothly and quietly moral standards shift to accommodate them. Kane accomplishes all this in a spare, propulsive, and even witty story of a middle-aged male tabloid journalist who has repaired to the room with his good-hearted and simple-minded former girlfriend. His everyday exploitation of the girl is exceeded by a soldier who bursts in fresh from a raging civil war. Bosnia has come to Britain, Kane suggests, and mass rape is implied in a single abusive act. There’s no bold didacticism, though, as such a summary might imply. Part of the play’s brilliance is its thoroughly dramatic storytelling. As momentous as Aeschylus or Shakespeare, Kane stages beatings, mutilations, cannibalism, and rape, creating a theatrical experience at once repellent and irresistible.
But staging such barbarism was regarded by middle-aged male journalists—tabloid and otherwise—as a bigger cause for scandal than the barbarism itself. “It’s like Baudelaire said,” notes Elana Greenfield, who helped bring Kane here for a New Dramatists residency in 1995. “You can get away with abusing children, but not with writing about abusing children.”
Misreading and denunciation greeted each of Kane’s next plays, too—Phaedra’s Love (1996), a brilliant, biting adaptation of the classic that turns the chaste Hippolytus into a disconnected, indulged prince who feeds endlessly on junk food, junk TV, and junk sex; and Cleansed (1998), a brutal yet somehow tender fantasy of redemptive compassion in the midst of cruelty. Kane’s fourth play, Crave, a plaintive chamber piece—whose New York premiere opens November 8 at Axis—is less graphically violent in its exploration of longing and loss. And it wasn’t long before critics welcomed Crave as a sign of “new maturity” in her writing—that is, as one more means of beating up on her earlier work.
Kane’s suicide in February 1999, at the age of 28, was, even more disturbingly, picked up by the same disparaging critics as an explanation for her “dark,” “sick” work, clearly, they diagnosed, the product of a “diseased” imagination.
The result of all this scandal-mongering has been an almost complete obscuring of the work itself—and, in the U.S. especially, few opportunities to see any of it. The journal Theater published the text of Blasted five years ago, and according to editor Erika Munk, the response in the theater community has been a wary, willful silence. Meanwhile, director Liz Diamond, who works regularly at the American Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theater and is eager to direct Blasted, has tried vainly for the last five years to get someone to produce it. “They get all excited at first,” she says about the regional theaters she’s talked to. “They say, ‘Let’s be bad!’ But then they really read it and all of a sudden decide it’s too disturbing.” The trouble, suggests Greenfield, is that in America nowadays, “the atmosphere is so anti-sex and pro-violence” that “if you write something obscenely banal or banally obscene, it is more likely to get produced than if you write something ferociously humanistic, deeply compassionate, and moral, which Sarah’s work is.”
Crave, the most condensed and muted of these works, is more a four-part invention for actors than a conventionally plotted drama. Beckettian in mood and minimalism, and nearly liturgical in its lyricism, Crave places four yearning voices in counterpoint. Sometimes it seems that two parallel dialogues are being conducted by the two pairs of actors, and one can almost trace some thin narrative lines about an older woman wanting a child, a younger woman caught in desire and disgust for sexual violence. At other times, it seems that the fragmentary, overlapping lines come from different places in a single consciousness, each voice in turn acting as interlocutor, narrator, commentator.
“The outside world is vastly overrated,” says one of them. It’s a profound observation if you’re willing to regard it fully, and a despair, Kane’s works insist, whose truth the theater can most powerfully blast open.