Date to note: February

Perhaps February is a literary dry month. Options offered in this month’s dates to note were thin.

8th. Bicentenary of the birth of John Ruskin in 1819.

Release of James Baldwin adaptation of If Beale Could talk by Moonlight writer/director Barry Jenkins.

20th.  20th Anniversary of death of Blasted playwright, Sarah Kane age 28

John McKie in a 2016 BBC review of ‘Cleansed’ offers the view that Sarah Kane is one of the UK’s most acclaimed theatre writer with work is a standard part of the drama A level syllabus.

I had not heard of either Blasted or Sarah Kane and chose this to date to explore further because I was intrigued by how young she was when she died.

I was captivated firstly by images of Sarah Kane.  I am often irritated when authors focus on the physical attraction (or otherwise) of their subjects.  I am also of a generation of feminist who well remembers the perils of being accused of objectifying women, so it is an odd place for me to start this piece.  I saw  beautiful black and white images by Jane Brown held by the National Portrait Gallery (on-line).  She looked like many women I have known – lairy, funny, self-aware, tough yet vulnerable. Like a woman I might have stood alongside waving a banner.  From of her images alone, I wanted to like her and her work.  The more I read, the more there was to like.  She was interested in sexuality and violence, was described as ‘notorious’, happily accepted her plays were radically divisive and near impossible to stage – and – according to one reviewer, wrote ‘disgusting feast(s) of filth’.

How had I never heard of this amazing rebel woman?

I read the Blasted script online (I have not added a link because I am unsure whether the full copy on-line meets copyright rules – but yes, I did read it).  The script was said by Kane to be a response to the Bosnia war. I did not like it.  Not at all.  Like many of the journalist who went to the first press show, it read to me as a not very skilled writer, lazily keen to shock and I found it both dull and tedious.  What a disappointment! 

I read that Sarah Kane committed suicide by hanging with shoelaces after being hospitalised by an earlier overdose.  In that context Blasted made more sense to me (I had not yet looked at 4:48 Psychosis).  In my professional life, I have read material written by people with severe mental health conditions and the Blasted script seemed to me to be not dissimilar to those writings which screamed of inner pain and torment. 

As sad as any death of a troubled person is, and unpersuaded by the Blasted script, I was still unsure why the anniversary of her death was a literary ‘one to note’ for February.  Was I missing something?

It would seem that the original reviewers of Blasted missed something too.  Charles Spencer of the Telegraph  (5th April 2001) acknowledges that from initially thinking the play was ‘rubbish… designed to shock’, he later came to realise that Kane had ‘genuine artistic vision and great dramatic talent’. It is clear that he was not the only critic to dramatically and quite quickly amend his opinion.  But what changed their minds?  A cynic might ponder upon the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes and journalistic egos or the modern concept of FOMO – fear of missing out.  Kane herself was not terribly interested in the ‘middle-aged, white, middle-class men’ who were unable to understand her work, possibly, as she laughingly proposed in her interview with Dan Rebellato, because they empathised rather too uncomfortably with the lead character in Blasted – Ian, the bigoted and subsequently horribly abused journalist.  

Sarah Kane in conversation with Dan Rebellato

Subsequent review from both critics and learned people of the theatre referred to her ‘incredible instinct’ and, I was particularly interested in Katie Mitchell, Director of another of Kane’s work ‘Cleansed’ who refers to it as an astonishing piece of work and a ‘strong feminist piece of writing’. Consciously drawing on a feminist perspective, I considered her work further trying to understand the alleged originality. While not a scholar of theatre, I was able to understand that her work challenged the (then) norms of theatrical delivery and the new form powerfully presented her passion. Kane’s works when read have the difficult musicality of jazz. Experts in the form of theatre suggest her words on the page are made meaningfully complete in the actual performance of them. Theatre scholars also suggest her works are hugely complex but so lacking in stage direction they demand the most of actors. The scripts compel them to deliver exquisite and perfectly nuanced performance which properly manifests Kane’s meaning. The skill of her ideas is in forcing the presentation to reflect her powerful message accurately.

I watched as much material as I could find on YouTube which covered theatre performance snapshots of Blasted, Crave, and 4:48 Psychosis and reviews predominantly. I also watched ‘Skin’, her short and only film.

Skin by Sarah Kane

I listened to her charming and funny interview with Dan Reballato, and I listened to his later (excellent) audio documentary which can be found on his webpage and also on the BBC Sounds app

I was particularly taken with her response to an audience question in which she said she did not make things up but described real things she saw around her.

The violence that made people gasp/faint/walk out is based on the truth of violence in war.  I went back to Blasted and read it differently.  At the second reading, I understood what she meant when she said that Blasted was not a violent play but a play about violence.  I also felt overwhelmingly sad.  In discussion with Dan Rebellato she explains 4:48 Psychosis – her last play.  It has been suggested the play is effectively a suicide note – though her brother strongly suggests that to view her work as such is diminutive and lacking. 

Nevertheless, her work is so full of pain and hurt it is difficult not to see trauma, torment, loneliness and autobiography. 

It is difficult not to feel sorrow for a talent lost too soon.  I am hoping I have the opportunity to see her plays performed.

Is the anniversary of Sarah Kane’s death a literary date to note?  Yes – it seems fair to say so – but the Guardian Literary Calendar list of dates to note speaks only to those who already know. What is the purpose or value of such a list for the rest of us? Is the intention of the Guardian Literary Calendar list to document or educate?  I think this is a valid question, loaded with responsibilities, which I will ponder further in subsequent blog posts.