Romantics sometimes believe writers write because they must—that if Stephen King didn't, he'd be a serial killer; that if Charles Manson had been a better songwriter, perhaps 10050 Cielo Dr. would still be just another address in the Hollywood Hills.
Sarah Kane provides the counterevidence. In her short life, the English-born Kane wrote, and though she didn't always write for the most adoring of publics, she achieved a level of notoriety few writers ever manage. But that wasn't enough. Though her five plays and one short film sparked extreme reactions from both sides—one critic said watching her play Blasted was like having your head held down in a bucket of offal, while Harold Pinter hailed her brilliance—Kane hanged herself in 1999. She was 28.
Rude Guerrilla Theater Co.'s current production of Kane's 1998 play Cleansed is the first time local audiences have seen her work up close. It may be the first time a Kane play has been produced in Southern California: according to Rude Guerrilla artistic director (and OC Weekly contributor) Dave Barton, productions of Kane's work have been limited to Chicago and New York. Blasted, her best-known work, has yet to be produced in this country.
It's easy to see why. Kane was uncompromising. She assaults an audience's sensibilities like no other playwright of comparable stature. Sure, local stages such as Rude Guerrilla and the Hunger Artists have produced plays recently that feature everything from analingus (Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking) to Mormon mothers who kill their children (Neil Labute's Bash: Latter Day Plays). But those plays are like Friendscompared with Kane's brutal, obsessively violent oeuvre.
In Blasted, a starving man unearths a dead baby and eats its rotting corpse. In Phaedra's Love, members of a royal family compete to outdo one another in vulgar excess; the play is capped by a priest performing oral sex on the lead character, whose genitals are soon cut off and thrown into a barbecue, followed by his bowels. Cleansed has its own litany of horrors—the most horrific of which might just involve the forced eating of 24 pieces of chocolate.
Gruesome stuff indeed. But no more gruesome than the material upon which Kane chose to base her savage metaphors: atrocities in Bosnia, mental hospitals, humans in love.
The combination of private and public horrors, the repellent imagery onstage, and its combustible political subtext make Kane a difficult playwright. It's no wonder English critics nearly shat themselves in a frenzied competition to rip Kane apart after Blasted was first produced in 1995 at a state-subsidized theater in London. The English press called her play everything from a "disgusting feast of filth" to "devoid of intellectual and artistic merit."
Others, however, embraced Kane as a literary descendant of the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare for her unflinching portrayals of human atrocities. Some found a deep, albeit unsettling, tenderness in her work. Some have heard echoes of everything from Beckett and Genet to the Pixies and P.J. Harvey.
Her death prompted a re-evaluation. Although her work still isn't often produced in the English-speaking world, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that she was a brilliant, troubled genius.
No wonder, then, that Rude Guerrilla, the county's leading purveyor of hard-edged, unflinching theater (read: they rarely met a swinging dick or a bloody corpse onstage they didn't like) would choose to produce Kane. But while he'd be a bald-faced liar if he claimed that the shocking imagery of Cleansedwasn't attractive in some way, Barton makes it clear that it's the theatricality, poetry and density of Kane's sparsely written play that is most compelling.
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"Frankly, I think the people who come to Rude Guerrilla are smart enough to look at the whole picture and not reduce the show to just its nudity and violence," Barton said. "There's so much more going on than that. The political subtext about ethnic cleansing, the beautiful love story, the brutalization of mental hospitals . . .
"Kane was tapped into something very primal, very personal when she wrote about love. And if there is an overriding theme throughout her work, it's that love survives even under the worst circumstances. As long as we reach out to one another, then there's a smidgen of hope left in this otherwise tough, pretty bleak world."
Kane's work mightinspire someone to hang on in the face of overwhelming adversity, but she never convinced herself. The person had issues the writer couldn't cleanse.
The most eloquent elegy of Kane's work was written by James MacDonald, artistic director of the Royal Court, where Kane's first play was produced. Kane left behind a "brave, angry poetic body of work quite unlike anything else," MacDonald wrote. "At a time when much new writing was content to inhabit received dramatic form, each new play she wrote found a new structure to contain its ideas and feelings. And in doing so, she gave the lie to a laziness in thinking which insists on the superiority of a certain kind of play—broadly, the Royal Court play of the '70s and '80s, driven by a clear political agenda, fitted out with signposts indicating meaning, and generally featuring a hefty state-of-the-nation speech somewhere near the end. More than anyone, she knew that this template is no use to us now."