Only time will tell whether the extraordinarily small number of plays by Sarah Kane (1971-1999) will have as great an influence on drama as those of Georg Büchner. Certainly their influence on British drama over the past twenty years has far outstripped what might be expected from a slim volume of only 268 pages. But the unquestionable power of the plays, and their deconstruction of realism and naturalism in the service of a hallucinogenic version of a post-catastrophic world, derives from their emergence from contemporary history and the cri de coeur of the author, which necessarily foregoes a distancing irony for a more devastating coldness of perception.
Kane’s best-known and most controversial play is most probably her first, Blasted (1995), which was directly inspired by the war in Yugoslavia, a multicultural jerry-rigged nation which consumed itself in civil-war violence. It was Kane’s insight that disclosed that many of the same historical influences which led to this violence — and the same human capacity for the aggression and destruction one individual could wage upon another — were just as present in the streets of Leeds as they were in the streets of Srebrenica. The same influences led Kane to destroy the domestic drama of the late 20th century, blowing up a hotel room to reveal the empty city behind it.
The conclusion of Blasted suggests, however, a singular capacity for compassion and love, even in a landscape seemingly devoid of hope. What is even more surprising, in the work of this eighth and final dramatist of the new Theatre of Revolt, is that the depiction of physical acts of compassion and love can be just as extreme as those of aggression and violence. It is the human urge to the administrative state, to drive the rivers of desire and irrational love into rational and socially malleable forms, that ultimately cripples the self that explores meaning in love with another. Kane’s third play, Cleansed (1998), to my mind the best play of her career, relinquishes subtext and metaphor for a series of extraordinary stage images of the protean capacity of love, desire, and social control to transform the human body itself. The play is wryly set on a university campus; Tinker, a psychiatrist, performs a series of experiments on a small group of men and women to establish the outer boundaries of love and cruelty. Assuming that such a play can be staged at all naturalistically, it is the darkest and most violent contemplation of the human body at extremes; and when death is no salvation (a conclusion that Blasted reaches as well), the human urge to compassion and love acquires an extraordinary new significance.
Having followed her darkest perceptions of the outer world to their extremes, Kane necessarily turned inward for her final two plays, Crave and 4.48 Psychosis. It is as if Kane turned from the expression itself to the personal source of that expression. In these texts, gone is any reference to a specific place and time; no more hotel rooms or college campuses; these are voices echoing in a tortured, solitary mind, more reminiscent of the novels of Samuel Beckett (especially The Unnamable and How It Is) than any of his plays. What might be most disturbing about both of these plays is that they indicate an end of theatre and drama itself, the form and genre dissolving, the collaborative nature of theatre undermined in the fearless self-consciousness of the individual. The hostility and viciousness with which her work has been greeted demonstrate the validity of Brustein’s picture of the dramatist of the theatre of revolt as described in the first chapter of his book:
[I]magine a perfectly level plain in a desolate land. In the foreground, an uneasy crowd of citizens huddled together on the ruins of an ancient temple. Beyond them, a broken altar, bristling with artifacts. Beyond that, empty space. An emaciated priest in disreputable garments stand before the ruined altar, level with the crowd, glancing into a distorting mirror. He cavorts grotesquely before it, inspecting his own image in several outlandish postures. The crowd mutters ominously and partially disperses. The priest turns the mirror on those who remain to reflect them sitting stupidly on rubble. They gaze at their images for a moment, painfully transfixed; then, horror-struck, they turn away, hurling stones at the altar and angry imprecations at the priest. The priest, shaking with anger, futility, and irony, turns the mirror on the void. He is alone in the void. 
It may be asked, after Kane’s inimitable example of this theatre, what might the theatre and drama be left to do in the 21st century. Each dramatist — and each critic, and each theatregoer — must answer the question on his own.
The standard edition is Sarah Kane: Complete Plays from Methuen, with an introduction by David Greig. The extent to which Kane’s first play, Blasted, has been taken as her most important work (an opinion from which I dissent; see above) is indicated by the fact that there is already one monograph by Helen Iball on the play as well as a critical edition of Blasted by Ken Urban. There is as yet no formal life, but two books by Graham Saunders, “Love Me or Kill Me”: Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes and About Kane, collect a great deal of material about both her life and career.
My own previous writings on Kane’s work can be found here.
- Brustein, The Theatre of Revolt, pp. 3-4. [↩]