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Sarah Kane (1971-1999)

Dateline: 7th March, 1999

It was in January 1995 that Sarah Kane was catapulted from being a complete unknown to nationwide notoriety. The Royal Court Theatre Upstairs presented her first play, Blasted, which drew parallels between Bosnia and Britain, and it was greeted with almost universal condemnation. Jack Tinker of the Daily Mail described it as "This disgusting feast of filth" whilst Charles Spencer of the Telegraph, calling it "this vile play", said that she mistakenly believed that "the ability to provoke shudders of disgust is all a playwright needs".

Whilst the newspapers were howling her "depravity" from the rooftops, others had a different view. A hand-delivered fan letter from Harold Pinter was just one sign of his support of this exciting new playwright. He said, of Blasted, that she was "facing something actual and true and ugly and painful".

In 1996 she was commissioned by the Gate Theatre to write a play for them. The result was Phaedra's Love, a re-working of the Greek myth of Phaedra's love for her stepson Hippolytus. Predictably more widespread condemnation followed. The Telegraph's Charles Spencer wrote, "It's not a theatre critic that's required here: it's a psychiatrist."

It is hard to believe the silliness of some of the comments on this play. Her obituary in the Telegraph, for instance, mentions that "Euripides, Seneca and Racine had all told the story, though in their versions the violence and gore had been kept off the stage", as if the fact that they hadn't shown them means that she shouldn't - in other words, as if there had been no change in theatrical conventions since the era of French classical drama!

It is not as though there are no precedents for the "violence and gore". Have these critics never seen anything by Webster? What about the red-hot poker in Edward II? or the eye-gouging scene in King Lear? And the murder of MacDuff's wife and children in Macbeth is hardly family viewing! Do the same critics refuse to watch Olivier's Richard III because of the extremely graphic killing of Richard at the end?

Her next play, Cleansed, was received in the same way. Charles Spencer again: "Kane is incapable of creating depth of character or moving an audience. She'd much rather kick us in the guts."

Like Blasted, it was extremely graphic in its portrayal of the dark side of human nature - limbs are chopped off, a penis is transplanted to a woman, heroin in injected through an eyeball - and it is a very, very black view of humanity. But it is not without its touches of, admittedly grim, humour: am I alone in finding the idea of a university-turned-concentration camp just a tad funny? And is it really possible that none of these critics saw the humour in her calling the torturer/drug dealer "Tinker"?

Let's put the whole thing in context. For decades the film world has produced extremely violent movies, and I'm not talking here about the "splatter" movies but films in the mainstream. For goodness' sake, it was in 1970 that we first saw Soldier Blue! And it was 1965 that we first saw Edward Bond's Saved at the Royal Court and as long ago as 1980 that the National staged Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain.

But the day after the press night for Blasted was obviously a slow news day and, once the media feeding frenzy started, it fed upon itself and, even after her fourth play, Crave, had trouble freeing itself from the groove which it had worn. As her obituary in the Sunday Times commented, "Her arrival was accompanied by cries of outrage from several critics who ought to have become accustomed to illusions of atrocity on stage, but declared themselves to be almost physically sick..."

Crave, her fourth play, was a very different kettle of fish and it left many critics having to back-pedal furiously. Charles Spencer, who in May 1998 described the writing of Cleansed as having a "dreary, linguistically impoverished flatness", was suddenly talking of a "short, haunting and well written play" in August of the same year, when Crave was produced at Edinburgh's Traverse as part of the Fringe.

Described in Three Weeks, the Fringe newspaper, as being "quite simply, a good play" which is "reasonably abstract and language-based", it had many critics hastening to talk about Kane's new-found "maturity" as a playwright, so that by October of that year we find Charles Spencer doing an - almost - U-turn: "The best of the new Royal Court writers - Mark Ravenhill, Conor McPherson and possibly even Sarah Kane - all look as though they will outlast any brief trend of fashion. They have their own distinctive voices."


Kane's short life was in some respects as troubled as her professional career. Having embraced her parents' born-again Christianity in her teens, she then rejected it but was haunted by the violence and cruelty of many stories from the Bible. She had a breakdown in late 1997 and was hospitalised, so that her suicide, although shocking and very sad, was not something that was totally out of character.

As someone who knew the Bible well, Kane might well have thought on numerous occasions of the quotation "A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country", for her work, vilified for so long in the UK, had more productions in Europe (especially Germany) and in Australia that ever "in her own country".

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©Peter Lathan 2001