Like the deaths of playwright Joe Orton and poet Sylvia Plath before her, Sarah Kane’s early death forced many critics to reexamine her work. Some felt that her plays, especially her final play, 4.48 Psychosis, were merely reflections of her own suicidal depression. Critic Charles Spencer of the London Telegraph suggested that Kane’s work owed more to clinical depression than to artistic vision. Admirers such as Pinter and Kane’s brother, Simon, however, have refuted these statements, insisting that to treat Kane’s plays as suicide notes is to do an injustice to the playwright’s talent and motives. British drama anthologist David Tushingham agreed, insisting that as a mental patient, Kane was far less exceptional than as a writer and that the most extraordinary thing about her was not her illness but her talent.
Kane’s plays relied more on classical than contemporary structure and technique. She was more influenced by the scope of Shakespeare’s large dramatic conflicts than by the work of her peers in the London theater scene. The body of her work tackled human and political issues by placing those issues onstage in violent, distorted, and extremely personal situations. Her raw language and graphic visual images were particularly disturbing to theatergoers because she left conflicts unresolved and perpetrators unpunished, although, as in the works of Samuel Beckett, she continually showed the basic human impulse to connect with another even in the most hopeless of circumstances.
Kane was certainly one of the most controversial voices in a decade that was filled with controversy. The self-titled “in-yer-face” theater in Britain began in 1991 with Philip Ridley’s The Pitchfork Disney, shocking audiences with its scenes of cockroach eating, and continued in 1994 in Glasgow, Scotland, with Trainspotting, playwright Harry Gibson’s adaptation of the novel by Irvine Welsh, which in 1995 became a critically acclaimed film.
The “in-yer-face” movement of 1990’s theater reached its zenith with Kane’s Blasted in 1995 and continued in 1998 with Cleansed, which Kane had originally conceived, along with Blasted, as part of a trilogy. After Cleansed was produced, however, Kane stopped work on the trilogy and turned instead to Crave, a play for four voices. Not until Crave premiered at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1998 did Kane overcome the vitriolic early critical response to Blasted.
Kane’s work is an ongoing influence in British theater and continues to be acclaimed by an ever-increasing number of British dramatists and by critics and audiences in continental Europe. Her body of work follows an ever-narrowing path, from the gory conflicts of civil war in Blasted to the destruction of the family in Phaedra’s Love, into the fragmentation of the self in Crave and further into a singular mind in 4.48 Psychosis, always chipping away at the...
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