The Paradox of Sarah Kane

by : Paula Bardell

There are some who believe that the world lost one of its finest late 20th century dramatists when Sarah Kane committed suicide in 1999. Her work produced extreme reactions in critics and audiences alike but many failed to appreciate the pure poetry of her writing until it was too late.

She was born in Essex, England, on 3rd February 1971. Her parents were both journalists and devout evangelists - religion played an important part in their everyday lives. Her father became the area manager of the Daily Mirror for East Anglia, while her mother gave up work to care for Sarah and her brother. By all accounts, Kane was an intelligent child who enjoyed learning, supported Manchester United F.C. and openly discussed God. However, in later years, when she had lost her faith, she described her juvenile beliefs as ‘the full spirit-filled, born-again lunacy’.

As a teenager, she became involved with local drama groups and directed Chekhov and Shakespeare while still in school - playing truant at one point to be an assistant director in a production at Soho Polytechnic. After taking her A-levels, she went on to Bristol University to take a degree in drama, with all intentions of becoming an actress. She seemed at home in the theatre and was immensely popular with fellow students, enjoying their company to the full and indulging in a typically wild social life. She went clubbing, enjoyed affairs with women and became a great admirer of Howard Barker's Jacobean dramas (once acting in his play, “Victory") - empathising with his dark views on life and love.

Sarah stood out as a talented actress and director, but somewhere down the line, she began to loose heart with her anticipated vocation and started writing instead. The first substantial work she produced was “Sick", a series of three monologues that were performed to a pub crowd in Edinburgh. The pieces concerned rape, eating disorders and sexual identity, and her first person delivery was said to be "raw" and "unsettling".

She graduated with a first from Bristol and went straight to Birmingham University to join David Edgar's MA playwriting course, which she disliked but completed for the sake of her mother. Secretly she started writing “Blasted", a complex play about violence from the perspective of both victim and perpetrator. When it was first performed at the students' end-of-year show it was watched by Mel Kenyon, who was completely "awe-struck" and later found it difficult to get the play out of her mind. She wrote to Kane and they subsequently met up in London, where Kane agreed to Kenyon becoming her agent.

“Blasted" is about a middle-aged tabloid journalist who appears to be dying and invites an unsuspecting retarded child into his Leeds hotel room, assuring her that he simply needs a little comfort during his final hours. Once trapped he proceeds to rape, debase and ridicule her before an armed soldier suddenly bursts in and wreaks appalling havoc, turning the scene into a Bosnian battlefield. The play opened in January 1995 at the Royal Court Upstairs, becoming the theatres most controversial work in over thirty years. British newspaper critics were in their element, describing it as "a disgusting feast of filth", a work "devoid of intellectual and artistic merit" and like "having your whole head held in a bucket of offal". However, established dramatists such as Harold Pinter turned on the reviewers, telling them they were "out of their depth" and that “Blasted" was simply too complex for them.

Although upset by the slating, Kane went on to write four more plays in as many years. “Cleansed" was about love, death and drug addiction in a concentration camp and, like much of her work, was closely fashioned on real-life incidents. Whereas “Crave", written under the pseudonym of Marie Kelvedon, was about four warring factions of one individual's consciousness and was generally received as her most mature play up to that point. She also wrote the terrifying “Phaedra's Love" and “Skin", a short film for Britain’s Channel 4. Throughout this period, she travelled around Europe, leading theatre workshops by day and writing at night - becoming quite a celebrity in France and Germany.

While there is little doubt that Kane was an incredibly likeable, original and kind human being, depression was never far from the surface and she was at times unable to cope with the intensity of her emotions after completing “Crave". She admitted herself to the Maudsley Hospital in south London for a time but recovered sufficiently to enjoy her play's critical triumph - which was compared by some to T.S. Eliot's “The Wasteland". Unfortunately, her happiness was short-lived and the depression returned. In January 1999, after completing “4.48 Psychosis" (so called because it's the time of morning when people are most likely to kill themselves), she swallowed 150 anti-depressants and 50 sleeping pills. She survived because her flat-mate found her in time and rushed her to King's College Hospital in London. Two days later she was left alone for 90 minutes and was later discovered hanging from her shoelaces in a nearby toilet. She was 28 years old.