Art's "Wormhole" of Violence: Sarah Kane's Blasted

by on Jan.07, 2013

So it seems for years people have expressed outrage that I haven’t read Sarah Kane’s plays. “What you haven’t read Sarah Kane!? I don’t believe it.” Well, it was true until last night when I finally got to reading some of her plays. And most of them are pretty awesome.

So for those of you who don’t know, Sarah Kane was this very controversial playwright in England back in the 90s. She became instantly controversial with her first play, Blasted, for its supposedly sensationalistic portrayal of rape and violence, and she went to the next level of controversy when she killed herself before the staging of her final play, 4.48 Psychosis.

Psychosis is maybe a formally more original play, but I am intrigued by Blasted for its treatment of the relationship between art and violence. It starts out as a naturalistic drama: two people speaking curtly to each other in a hotel room, going through all kinds of power-shifts, much like in Strindberg’s Miss Julie. There’s a rich ex-boyfriend, Ian, who’s brought his poor ex-girlfriend, Cate, to a hotel room; he wants to have sex with her, she doesn’t want to have sex with him but she “likes” him (and sucks her thumb). He’s 45 and she’s 21.

In the second scene it becomes quickly apparent that he’s raped her. This leads to more conflict.

But in an almost parodic or metatextual take on naturalism, the violence of the rape escalates. If you’ve ever seen a Strindberg play, naturalism is that strange zone of art that pretends to realism, but which inevitably leads to outrageous violence, which begets more and more violence. In Blasted, there is a lot of concern with Ian’s gun in the first act, and that seems to be again a kind of parody of his violent rape-sexuality. But the gun and the rape seem to open a WORMHOLE in the play between the hotel-room “naturalism” and the utter, total, ambient violence of civil war.

(I think what “wormhole” means in sci-fi is a kind of hole between two realities.)

It turns out that Ian has a gun because he may be a journalist or a spy of sorts related to a civil war. Suddenly there’s a knock on the door. A soldier from this civil war breaks in, and in the process of brutalizing and sodomizing Ian and sucking out his eyeballs (!), reveals his experiences of the utter violence of civil war, including the chilling detail of mothers throwing their children on to trucks to get them out of harm’s way (only to have them squeezed to death on the truck) and the horrible fate of the soldier’s girlfriend, who – like Cate – was raped and – unlike Cate – killed.

Again, the sodomy seems an act of violent mimesis: talking about the girlfriend being raped and raping Ian seems to blend together. The “art” of telling the story interact viscerally with the actual violence on the stage; it is not clear what begets the next; there’ not the sense of clear lineage or causality, only that the two interact, that there is a connection.

The soldier also reveals that England has now been invaded by this civil war. It is as if the violence of Ian’s and Cate’s naturalistic drama has infected all of England in an all out war – and by civil war, it seems to mean not a struggle between warring factions but an all-consuming, ambient violence that is turning everything and everybody violent
In the fourth scene, this violence has escalated and led to the bombing of the hotel room, leaving the stage wrecked. It is as if the ambient “civil war” has wrecked the entire stage, the play itself.

At the start of the scene, the soldier promptly shoots his own brains out, leaving Ian blind and sodomized in the wreckage. Cate has escaped but now she comes back and she’s carrying a baby, seemingly the baby that the soldier described being thrown on a truck earlier, again blurring distinctions of different “realities.” Ian pleads with Cate to kill him, and finally grabs his gun and tries to shoot his brains out, but it’s not loaded. Strangely, the act seems to indirectly kill the baby, who Cate suddenly discovers is dead.

They bury the child in the floor and then Cate leaves Ian to scavenge for food. Following her exit, Ian tries to strangle himsels, eats the baby, laughs, dies and buries himself in the baby’s grave in a devastating and “hilarious” sequence of dialogue-less flashes. When Cate returns she eats sausages and drinks gin, feeds Ian and then sucks her thumb, completing a kind of baby-ish view of mankind (eating, drinking, fucking, killing).

I realize that I have basically just given a plot synopsis, paying very little attention to for example Kane’s brutally precise language, but that’s because in many ways this story presents a theory of art and violence: how mimesis and violence create these “wormholes” in reality. (And in difference to a lot of contemporary poetry types, I absolutely don’t think there’s something “low” or unsophisticated about narrative, and as evidenced in this play.)

In the little film I inserted above, the theater critic says Kane “lobbed a hand-grenade into contemporary politics and theater,” suggesting that he had indeed picked up on the way violence and art so closely interact in Kane’s pageant. Blasted is in many ways a “letter bomb” about this relationship: media/art as violence, violence as media.

It might be interesting to think about the comparison between this play and something like King Lear. Like King Lear, the stage ends up wrecked, littered with corpses. But is this “tragedy”? Instead of getting catharsis, this play seems to escalate the violence, refusing to become edifying, refusing to give us that last frame of the kingdom going on. The kingdom does not it seems go on, it generates more and more violence.

The critic here says what has become such a prevalent line of thought in discussions about Plath: It’s the work, not the iconic life (and, more importantly, death) that is important. Lets take away the impossibly pervasive legend of her death in order to focus on the work. But her work already does away such easy distinctions. 4.48 Psychosis does not have true “characters,” instead consisting of a kind of rant that may be spoken by an author who is about to kill herself. Art doesn’t let us get away with such easy distinctions, “realities.” It’s full of wormholes.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Ailbhe Darcy

    I read ‘Blasted’ as an undergraduate and again more recently, and have never been able to work out what to do with it. This is a really helpful way of looking at it: in terms of the violence spreading, and even beyond the boundaries of the play. Thank you.

    I’m worried about doing away with the distinction between the work and the life in the terms you offer in your final paragraph, if only because it’s too easy to reduce ‘life’ in that equation to ‘violent suicide’. But the plays weren’t just written by a suicide; they were written, for example, by someone who was almost certainly actively, courageously not killing herself at the time of writing. One could see them as victory dances as much as rants (sort of!) I suppose what I mean is that the work is more available for reading than the life is. I’m not sure precisely what difference that makes, but I feel it must make one.

  2. Johannes

    Good point – the “life” that cannot be separated from the life must of course also include takes like yours. Thanks A.! Johannes

  3. Kim

    I love Sarah Kane. As with Plath, or any other artist perished by suicide or lunacy or sudden violence, I find the need to sever the work or the writer from the romanticized work/writer suggestive of a singular “right” way of reading as opposed to many different ways of reading and interacting with a work. That she knew her Shakespeare is a valid influence on the work while her emotional state is not. Again I suppose, it threatens to become confessional, messy, angsty, forgetting that a lot of Shakespeare is just that, and won’t fit in whatever “tradition” is being assembled.