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“This isn’t tat. This isn’t bric-a-brac” (Phaedra’s Love): the Poetics of Things in Sarah Kane’s Theatre

“This isn’t tat. This isn’t bric-a-brac” (Phaedra’s Love): la poétique des choses dans le théâtre de Sarah Kane
Éléonore Obis


L’œuvre de Sarah Kane est une œuvre à deux visages. Les premières pièces sont encore informées par un fonctionnement mimétique ayant pour vocation de choquer le spectateur, notamment par la surexposition du corps torturé, supplicié, mutilé alors que Crave et 4.48 Psychosis abandonnent cette esthétique du choc de l’“In-yer-face theatre” pour un théâtre poétique de voix non caractérisées. Ce caractère janusien de l’œuvre peut être analysé à la lumière de l’étude du fonctionnement poétique des choses. Si des objets sont encore présents dans les premières pièces, ceux-ci ne sont, comme tout élément réaliste chez Kane, que des repoussoirs servant à renforcer l’idée d’un mouvement implacable de destruction et de déconstruction. Redoublant ce phénomène, la violence sur scène, dans une quête de redéfinition de notre humanité, détruit les corps pour les réduire à l’état de choses, tas de viande progressivement privés de parole et de mouvement. La poétique des choses permet finalement de mettre en relief un fonctionnement oxymoronique de toute l’œuvre dans la juxtaposition systématique des contraires. Ce fonctionnement est emblématique de la posture contradictoire de Sarah Kane: exprimer la nécessité de communiquer tout en reconnaissant l’impossibilité d’une telle tentative.

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  • 1 See the book by Aleks Sierz, In-Yer-Face Theatre (London: Faber, 2001).
  • 2 See The Empty Space: “[. . .] a representation is what it claims to be – a making present” (Brook 1 (...)

1The evolution of Sarah Kane’s work has frequently been considered as Janus-faced. The first plays, Blasted, Phaedra’s Love and Cleansed are often classed as examples of the “In-Yer-Face theatre”, a phrase coined by Aleks Sierz in the 1990s.1 It is a theatre relying on mimetic principles which shocks through strong language and violent images, and where bodies are usually overexposed. Kane’s last two plays, Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, tend towards abstraction and put an emphasis on voices in a theatre that has abandoned all conventions, without specific space, time, characters or stage directions. While the first plays still stick to some realistic codes, the last plays give up any attempt at re-presentation, in the sense of making present,2 that is not linked to language. Nonetheless, the two sides of her work can be seen as totally indivisible: “[. . .] for me the language of theatre is image” (Saunders 50), says Kane. She constantly tried to create strong images, first with all that the theatre could offer (body language, props, set, lights, sounds) and eventually through language and its deconstruction.

  • 3 “est objet dans un texte le non-animé (le personnage ne devient scéniquement objet que s’il est tra (...)

2The purpose of this article is to analyse the evolution of Sarah Kane’s work through the poetics of things. Anne Ubersfeld defines objects in the theatre as everything that is inanimate in a text,3 a definition that we have chosen to use in this article. A thing can therefore be a prop as described in the stage directions or an object alluded to in the text. Sarah Kane’s plays can be read as a constant search for what the limits of our humanity are, limits that are questioned through the medium of objects as representatives of the outside world. The In-Ye r-Face aspect of her work displays abject acts, to take up Julia Kristeva’s study of abjection in Powers of Horror (1980). These acts constantly threaten the integrity of the subject and abolish the limits between world and self. Things play a central part in this process of exposing abjection. The last two plays present the question of identity and humanity from a more introspective angle and show a quest for self-hood when the border between world and subject is no longer existent. This change in perspective entails a different treatment of things, which invade the subject through language. First, the study of things reveals a constant retreat from realism in Kane’s work as a whole, a retreat that makes for a shift in the poetics of things, from an emphasis on the metonymic function to one on the metaphoric and symbolic: the iconicity between the things on stage and the world is strongly put into question and is finally dispensed with. Secondly, this shift accompanies the blurring of frontiers on all levels, which accounts for the continuous transgression at work in the attempt to define our humanity. The limits between the subject and the world, between the human and the non-human are undermined, a phenomenon that is highlighted through the reification of characters and language. Eventually, the transgression of frontiers allows for the juxtaposition of contraries which will be analysed through the central figure of the oxymoron. It is the epitome of Sarah Kane’s ongoing search for a form expressing both the necessity to communicate through language and the impossibility of doing so.

A Constant Retreat From Realism

  • 4 “L’objet est métonymie d’une ‘réalité’ référentielle dont le théâtre est l’image” (Ubersfeld 1977, (...)

3One main feature of Sarah Kane’s work is its progressive retreat from realism. It is a retreat from a theatre where the objects on stage are always clearly a metonymy of the same things in the outside world, through the iconic function. To quote Anne Ubersfeld, the object is a metonymy of a referential reality of which the theatre is an image.4 Sarah Kane makes the most of the semiotization of the object: “the very fact of their appearance on stage suppresses the practical function of phenomena in favour of a symbolic or signifying role, allowing them to participate in dramatic representation” (Elam 8). The fact that there are no objects to be seen in the last two plays is a blatant sign of this retreat. However, moving away from realism does not mean moving away from reality for the author, as 4.48 Psychosis illustrates. The play can be considered as a very realistic depiction of the state of depression even though Kane chose a non-naturalistic mode of representation. A diachronic study will show that this retreat is at work from the first play onwards and that minimalism progressively breaks through.

4In Kane’s first three plays, the expository scene always reveals a realistic set through a striking image. In Blasted (1995), the set described in the stage directions displays a number of objects in a hotel room:

A very expensive hotel room in Leeds [. . .] there is a large double bed. A mini- bar and champagne on ice. A telephone. A large bouquet of flowers. Two doors—one is the entrance from the corridor, the other leads off to the bathroom. Two people enter—Ian and Cate (Kane Blasted 3)

5The situation of the couple in a hotel room seems cliché as can be. However, the realistic codes displayed here through objects (the bed, champagne, flowers and telephone) are used as a foil: they are presented only to be destroyed later, to set off a contrast between a realistic set and a post-catastrophic set that will appear during scene 3. This realistic decor is then blown apart: “The hotel has been blasted by a mortar bomb. There is a large hole in one of the walls, and everything is covered in dust which is still falling” (Kane Blasted, 39). This explosion destroys the hotel room and the set crumbles into post-catastrophic ruins. This central scene illustrates to perfection Kane’s use of things as foils and even as decoys for the audience which is lured into thinking at first that the play is realistic, entertaining and somehow familiar. This use of things reveals a theatre of shock and violence, just as the titles “Blasted” or “Cleansed” announce. It is “In-Yer-Face” as Aleks Sierz puts it:

a drama that takes the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message [. . .]. Questioning moral forms, it affronts the ruling ideas of what can or should be shown onstage; it also taps into more primitive feelings, smashing taboos, mentioning the forbidden, creating discomfort. (Sierz 4)

  • 5 I am thinking more particularly about The Room (see Saunders 57).
  • 6 “What could possibly be the connection between a common rape in a Leeds hotel room and what’s happe (...)

6In this light, all the things on the stage are bound to lose their metonymic function in order to go against the grain of the audience’s expectations. Objects are used as constant threats to any preconceived ideas the spectator may have: the props are first construed metonymically by the audience, then the meaning is suddenly deconstructed. For instance, the doors and windows in the hotel room are, like in Pinter’s plays, signs of an external threat.5 As passageways between the inside and the outside, they are a source of potential assault from the outside world and their destruction, with the explosion, will indeed allow for the invasion of extreme violence on the stage. But they remain passageways between the inside and the outside, and one may add, between the private and the public: for Kane, their destruction is a means to stress the connections that have to be made between the first and the second part of the play, between individual violence and full-scale war.6 The telephone is also relevant as an object that becomes an external threat since Ian believes the phone is tapped (Kane Blasted, 29). As a means of communication between the inside and the outside, it is the materialization of a constant menace.

7Moreover, if one considers that every prop used follows a process of metaphorisation (Ubersfeld 1977, 147) and carries the memory of the play, then each prop tells a story of its own. In Kane’s work, each object plays an active part in the plot and tells a story of violence and destruction. The playwright makes the most of the transformability of the sign while “realistic or illusionistic dramatic representation severely limits the mobility of the sign-relationship” (Elam 13). The bunch of flowers in the exposition scene of Blasted, first a token of love, is afterwards “ripped apart and scattered in the room” (Kane Blasted, 24), a sign of Ian’s brutality towards Cate. The wilted flowers reappear at the end on the tomb of a dead baby, as both a sign of the decaying relationship and a last trace of humanity. Another instance is Ian’s revolver, which is obviously a threatening object from the first scene on but keeps changing hands in the course of the play. Therefore, it represents the changing status of each character from victim to torturer. First Ian has the gun, mistreats Cate and rapes her, then Ian becomes the soldier’s victim: he is raped with the soldier holding the revolver to his head. In the end, Cate gets hold of it and removes the bullets: Ian will try to use the revolver to commit suicide but cannot use the unloaded weapon. Literally, it is a symbol of the instability of a world marked by constant reversals (the word comes from the Latin re-, back and volvere, to roll): no one and no thing can be trusted. This idea of an eternal cycle of violence is accentuated by the recurrent stage directions “The sound of spring rain” (end of scene 1, Kane Blasted, 24), “The sound of summer rain” (end of scene 2, Kane Blasted, 39) and “the sound of heavy winter rain” (end of scene 5, Kane Blasted, 57), which mark the passing of a cyclical and almost undetermined time. The point is not to differentiate spring rain from summer rain, but to stress the cyclical and monotonous aspect of time and hence, of violence.

8About her second play, Phaedra’s Love (1996), an adaptation from Seneca’s Phaedra, Kane stated she wanted to “try to do the violence as realistically as possible” (Saunders 80) so as to subvert the codes of tragedy, by showing on scene what usually belongs to the off-scene and is considered as obscene. However, it is possible to show that a similar detachment from realistic codes emerges even while Kane tried to stage extreme violence realistically.

9Things play again a central part in the representation of violence. The stage directions in the exposition scene introduce the main character, the royal prince Hippolytus, in the middle of a room full of objects: “Hippolytus sits in a darkened room watching television. He is sprawled on a sofa surrounded by expensive electronic toys, empty crisp and sweet packets, and a scattering of used socks and underwear” (Kane Phaedra’s Love, 65).

10As in Blasted, the set is very realistic and objects function both as metonymy and metaphor: Hippolytus’s life is filled “with tat. Bric-a-brac, bits and bobs” (Kane Phaedra’s Love, 80), which are the presents the people have given him as signs of affection. The things that invade the space of this teenage consumer can be interpreted as signs of the vacuity of his life: Hippolytus is a depressed character. The importance of this bric-a-brac is patent once a parallel is drawn between this first scene and the last scene. At the end of the play, violence wreaks havoc on the stage with the lynching of Hippolytus: he is accused of the rape of his stepmother, Phaedra, a rape that has led her to commit suicide. This act is, according to him, “her present”, a present that differs from the others: “this isn’t tat. This isn’t bric-a-brac” (Kane Phaedra’s Love, 90). In the final scene, he is lynched by a hysterical crowd that strangles him and cuts off his genitals while Theseus, Hippolytus’s stepfather, rapes his half-sister, cuts her throat in the general madness, then cuts his own throat. Finally, Hippolytus dies while a vulture descends and begins to eat his body.

  • 7 See?lisabeth Angel-Perez’s comment on Peter Barnes’ theatre (Angel-Perez 205–206).

11A first element of comparison between the first scene and the last scene is that Hippolytus is no longer invaded and surrounded by things but by an animal crowd, where people are undifferentiated. This mass could be said to echo the “bric-a-brac” of objects mentioned in the first scene, since each object is supposedly a present from the people. At the end of Phaedra’s Love, the audience understands that this dormant bric-a-brac prefigured the crowd that is lynching Hippolytus: the inanimate becomes animate, the private and hidden become public. Secondly, Kane really challenges the staging of the play by pushing back the limits of the feasible. The violence of this final scene is very difficult to stage and the numerous barbaric acts, if staged realistically, can turn excessive violence into a comical scene, verging on the grotesque7. This final bloodbath is so excessive that it would have to be stylized in order to be effective. Here, Sarah Kane reached an extreme point with the excess of violence and she learnt the lesson that violence could be represented more efficiently in a minimalist, symbolic theatre rather than in a realistic one. This was indeed her starting-point for writing Cleansed (1998). She said:

I was having a fit about all this naturalistic rubbish that was being written and I decided that I wanted to write a play that could never ever be turned into a film – it could never ever be shot for television; it could never ever be turned into a novel. The only thing that could ever be done with it was it could be staged, and believe it or not that play is Cleansed. (Saunders 87)

12Cleansed definitely marks a turning-point in her writing for it is perhaps her most challenging play in terms of staging, especially as far as objects are concerned. First, it relies heavily on images as James Macdonald, who directed most of her plays, stresses: “Words are literally only a third of the play [. . .] the bulk of the meaning is carried through the imagery” (Saunders 88). Accordingly, the objects present on stage are few compared to Blasted or Phaedra’s Love but they are strongly charged with meaning, most of the time functioning more on the symbolic level than on the metonymic level and appearing in striking and concentrated images. However, just like in the first two plays, they are always linked to a threat and to a certain amount of violence.

13The main theme of the play is love. The characters are imprisoned in a university, which turns out to be an institution, at the head of which is Tinker, a doctor/dealer/torturer. They are punished every time they express their love for each other. The first objects that come forward are the rings that a homosexual couple, Carl and Rod, exchange as a symbol of love and constancy. But Tinker mutilates and tortures the couple every time they express their love and the characters are made to swallow the rings: consequently, the ring becomes associated not with love but with the torture endured by the couple. The idea of constant reversal and instability evoked with the revolver in Blasted is materialised again with the ring: it embodies the cycle of violence.

14But Cleansed differs from the other plays with its striking surrealist treatment of things. The play is a succession of tableaux where all the characters are tortured, mutilated, humiliated. Contrary to the approach adopted in Phaedra’s Love, violence is highly stylized in the different scenes. For instance, the act of cutting Carl’s tongue is staged with “a large pair of scissors” (Kane Cleansed, 118). These enormous, surrealist scissors are there to symbolize the cut, not to represent it realistically. Thus does Kane try for the first time to distance the audience from the violence on stage: the size of the scissors creates a discrepancy in the sign, between the signifier and the signified, and creates an alienation effect. Moreover, “the mutilation is shown through a piece of red cloth being extruded from the mouth and cut” (Saunders 89). In the same way, characters are beaten up or raped by voices; the torturers are invisible and their acts suggested. Violence is then often represented through sounds and the body language of actors.

15Another surrealist element is the sudden appearance of flowers on the stage [. . .]. Grace is a character who comes to the university to find her brother Graham. Scene 5, the spectator understands they have an incestuous relationship, and the tableau ends on a love-making scene. Here are the final stage directions:

A sunflower bursts through the floor and grows above their heads. When it is fully grown, Graham pulls it towards him and smells it. He smiles.
Graham: Lovely. (Kane Cleansed, 120–121)

  • 8 See Thomas Moore’s poem “No, the heart that has truly loved never forgets. . .” and William Blake’s (...)
  • 9 We refer here to surrealism as defined by André Breton in the first Manifeste du surréalisme (1924) (...)

16When Kane was questioned about the meaning of the play, she said: “They’re all just in love. I actually thought it’s all very sixties and hippy” (Saunders 91), an assumption that has to be taken with a grain of salt. The sunflower could remind us of flower power, though perhaps not in the context of Cleansed. It can be analysed as an emblem of constancy, in keeping with the Greek myth of the nymph Clytie, who was in love with Apollo, and was turned into a sunflower so that she could always watch the god she loved. The theme was taken up by poets such as Thomas Moore or William Blake.8 But its reference to love can be understood in the light of surrealism9 too. Dorothea Tanning, a surrealist painter, produced a painting called Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943, Tate Modern London). One can see a giant animated sunflower in a corridor with four doors and two girls, one of them with her hair standing on end. Apart from some noticeable similarities this painting presents with the play, its giant sunflower is a surrealist reference to passionate love that was taken from André Breton’s novel L’Amour fou, in which the sunflower is a central image.

  • 10 See Saunders, 185–186 about the staging of the flowers in Cleansed.

17The theme of the yellow flower keeps cropping up in the play. Another instance is that of the daffodils which grow right after Grace’s rape and a particularly violent shooting: “Out of the ground grow daffodils. They burst upwards, their yellow covering the stage” (Kane, Cleansed, 133). This surrealist image echoes the sunflower sequence and embodies the love between Grace and Graham, with the difference that the multiplication of the flowers makes for an even more difficult staging.10 The daffodil, also called narcissus, is at least as charged with literary references as the sunflower, from the myth of Narcissus to Wordsworth’s poem: it stresses an important leitmotiv in Kane’s work which is that of split personality and to a larger extent, that of schizophrenia.

18One could interpret these stunning images as an attempt to represent the invisible, in this instance the idea behind the act of the characters, which undergoes a process of reification. Kane chose to find images to express love and desire instead of using language. One could say that she managed to create a truly poetic image, in the sense of Roman Jakobson’s definition of the poetic function: “This function, by promoting the palpability of signs, deepens the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects” (Jakobson 356). The flowers epitomise the constant shifting, from a metonymic to a metaphoric and symbolic treatment in the link between sign and object. To quote Jakobson again, “In poetry, where similarity is superimposed upon contiguity, any metonymy is slightly metaphoric and any metaphor has a metonymical tint” (Jakobson 358). In Kane’s plays, the highly pregnant functioning of things emphasises their role at the root of the poetic in theatre. The idea of a permanent blurring of the lines between metonymy and metaphor subterreneanly parallels the transgressive quality of the plays. It is this particular sense of blurring of frontiers together with the notion of transgression that is addressed next through the progressive reification of both characters and language.

“Filled With Emptiness” (Kane Crave, 175): Towards a Reification of Characters and Language

19The motif of transgression can be studied in accordance with Julia Kristeva’s undestanding of the body in Powers of Horror. Along with Jacques Lacan, “Kristeva asserts that it is the body’s surface, acting as a notional border, which initially enables us to see ourselves as distinct entities, defining us as ‘subjects’ by marking our separation from the ‘objects’ of the surrounding world” (Counsell and Wolf 140). Anything that crosses or questions the body’s frontiers is considered as abject. This analysis particularly fits Sarah Kane’s work. The subject is constantly assailed by the outside world, and this turns the first plays into a continuous questioning of the body’s limits through rape, mutilation and torture. Objects and fluids breeding abjection are exposed as well: food, faeces, urine, vomit, tears, spit, sperm. As a consequence, the omnipresence of abjection “testifies to the precarious grasp of the subject on its own identity [. . .] It is, in other words, an avowal of the death drive, a movement of undoing identity” (Counsell and Wolf 145). The character of Hippolytus in Phaedra’s Love best embodies this process. In the exposition scene mentioned earlier, Hippolytus is surrounded by objects, watching a movie and eating a hamburger. At the end of the scene: “He puts his penis into the sock and masturbates until he comes without a flicker of pleasure. [. . .] He begins another hamburger” (Kane Phaedra’s Love, 65). Hippolytus is an empty character: he keeps ingesting and excreting. The way he eats or deals with sex is bulimic and mechanical, displaying the porosity of the frontiers of his body. Other characters display the same evidence of porosity: Robin in Cleansed is forced to eat a whole box of chocolates and urinates on himself; Ian in Blasted sweats a lot, smells, defecates, spits, masturbates. Images of the porous body abound in the last plays too. In 4.48 Psychosis Sarah Kane wrote: “We are the abjects” (Kane 4.48, 229). The porosity of the body reveals the undoing of identity and the questioning of human limits: the body seems to be constantly emptied of its matter.

20The undoing of identity is also shown through the treatment of the body as an object. First, because the body is assaulted: the countless rapes, tortures and mutilations contribute to the degradation of the subject and its progressive loss of humanity. The example of Ian at the end of Blasted is telling: after being raped and forced to eat a dead baby, he is eventually reduced to an eyeless head that sticks out of the floor, an image reminiscent of Beckett’s plays. Ian is an incarnation of this questioning of the definition of humanity. In Cleansed, the characters little by little are reduced to things by Tinker: Cate, after a phalloplasty, is neither man nor woman (she is mentioned as Grace/Graham) and seems to lose the power of speech in the final scene. Her last sentences are paratactic while silence threatens to take over:

Here now
Safe on the other side and here.
(A long silence)
Always be here.
Thank you, Doctor. (Kane Cleansed, 150)

21The split in Grace/Graham’s identity is displayed on the page: language seems to shrink, and in a mirror effect, the words “Graham” and the “long silence”, which together question the notion of Grace’s identity, are in between the first and last two lines. The character that survived next to Grace/Graham is Carl, who is mute, armless, legless, and dressed in Grace’s clothes. He is also reduced to a thing, to something inanimate which cannot express.

22Secondly, the loss of identity and the subsequent reification of the characters are made evident in the treatment of the divide between mind and body, and most clearly from Cleansed onwards. According to Phyllis Nagy, “Beginning with Cleansed, [Sarah Kane] became the subject of her work” (Saunders 156). In that light, one understands more clearly why objects disappear since her work tends to be more introspective. Usually linked to the outside world, objects appear as surreal or symbolic from Cleansed onwards, as in a nightmare: the flowers or the large scissors can be construed as mental representations and their appearance on the stage seems to open onto another space, a second level of meaning, which illustrates at the same time the notion of split personality that contaminates all the characters.

23In Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, the sense of introspection is accentuated through the attempt to represent the divide between body and soul. The absence of any characterization or sense of space or time makes for an emphasis on the voice and for less exposition of the body on stage. Sarah Kane commented on the meaning of 4.48 Psychosis:

It’s about a psychotic breakdown and what happens to a person’s mind when the barriers which distinguish between reality and different forms of imagination completely disappear, so that you no longer know the difference between your waking life and your dream life. And also you no longer know where you stop, and the world starts. (Saunders 111–112)

24This notion of psychosis is very enlightening and helps to understand how things are used in the last plays in relation to the treatment of the body. Once the border between the subject and the world is blurred, the body itself becomes external and is considered a thing. In Cleansed for instance, Grace is asked whether there is “one thing” (repeated three times) that “she would like to change”. Her answer, “my body” (Kane Cleansed, 126), prefigures the scene where Grace’s body becomes a thing Tinker can “tinker” with through a phalloplasty. The discrepancy between body and soul is magnified in Crave and 4.48 Psychosis with the repeated assertion that the mind is forever estranged from the body, which is then put on the same level as things from the outside world: the subject is split in two. “there is an objective reality in which my body and mind are one. But I am not here and never have been” (4.48 207); “Here am I and there is my body dancing on glass” (Kane 4.48, 230). The opposition between “here” and “there” in both quotations, as well as that between “I” and “body”, emphasised by the figure of syncrisis in the second one, conveys the gap between mind and body. The subject sees its body as an object, literally something placed before one’s eyes.

25The psychotic frame of the last plays also induces a subject who is in the situation of “a search for self-hood” (Saunders 113), a subject who, fragmented and invaded by the outside world, is in quest of him/herself: “I’m seeing things/I’m hearing things/I don’t know who I am” (Kane 4. 48, 225). This fragmentation and therefore this sense of loss of identity is pregnant in the treatment of language, for according to Kane: “The form and content attempt to be one – the form is the meaning” (Saunders 45). In an empty space, words become the only things that can represent and that can “re-member” the subject. The blurring of frontiers between world and self is first represented through language in the form of lists: the subject is invaded by lists of things to do, lists of numbers that sometimes invade the page in a chaotic way, so as to mirror the sense of loss. Here are two examples taken from 4.48 Psychosis:

26100                                                           91
                                                                           58 (. . .) (Kane 4.48, 208)
to achieve goals and ambition
to overcome obstacles and attain a high standard
to increase self-regard by the successful exercise of talent
to overcome opposition (Kane 4.48, 233)

  • 11 For a detailed analysis of the lists of words and numbers in 4.48 Psychosis see Angel- Perez 2006, (...)

27These lists are repeated during the play with different words and numbers. This partakes of the musicality of the play and produces the impression that the play repeats itself.11 One main feature of the last plays is that language follows a process of reification through emphasis on the poetic function: the different fragments of language become a metaphor for the fragmentation of the subject. The musical and at times graphic quality of the text takes precedence over the message in a structure based on repetition, parallelism and musicality. The text itself becomes a visual artefact through the arrangement of the words on the page. Kane’s treatment of language transforms the text into a score where each word is a note. The musicality is even more blatant in Crave because of the presence of four different voices (A,B,C,M) which echo one another and at some points unite in one musical motif:

B: The vision.
M: The loss.
C: The pain.
A: The loss.
B: The gain.
M: The loss.
C: The light. (Kane Crave, 192)

  • 12 See the analysis of the voices in Crave by Agathe Torti-Alcayaga (Torti-Alcayaga 51–62).
  • 13 See “The Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible” (Brook 47).

28The repetition of the same grammatical structure, in addition to the alliteration that links “loss” to “light”, the assonance that links “pain” and “gain” and the repetition of “the loss” make for a music of loss where the four different voices merge in a chorus.12 Hence, Kane manages, through the reification of language and its progressive deconstruction, to make us hear, and to a certain extent, to make us see the music of the search for self-hood. She succeeds in representing what cannot be represented, in making visible the invisible13 in a theatre based at every level on the figure of the oxymoron.

Making Visible the Invisible

29The study of things reveals the workings of Kane’s theatre, a theatre based on the constant juxtaposition of contradictory elements. As a theatre of shock, either through the attempt to define the limits of our humanity or through the search for self-hood, its ambition is to try to make visible the invisible, to express while pushing back the limits of language. The figure of the oxymoron, by allowing two contradictory terms to come together in one statement, allows for the expression of what cannot usually be expressed and epitomises the poetics of Kane’s theatre.

  • 14 “Signe-ersatz, présence qui est à la fois une absence. [. . .] Théâtre comme signe- comblement du m (...)

30Signs in the theatre are always a presence that is at the same time an absence14 and the pleasure of theatre lies in this tension between presence and absence for the audience: it is a constant fight to fill in the void. Through their metonymical functioning, objects in the theatre always refer to something that is not there. For instance, the recurrent theme of the yellow flowers does not only concentrate its own history or refer to an off-scene within the context of one play as seen earlier. It also creates a poetic link between the plays that keep echoeing each other: the image of the daffodils in Cleansed is echoed with the words “the scream of a daffodil” (Kane Crave, 179) in Crave. This striking expression stresses the effect sought by Kane in Cleansed. The flower is associated with moments of extreme cruelty and is equalled to a silent scream that is extremely expressive. Moreover, it underlines the fact that objects play a fundamental part, for they embody the opposition between verbal and visual expression in the theatre, and they are usually linked to silence. The power of objects as linked to silence is one of Samuel Beckett’s favourite motifs. He already had this idea in Molloy (1951): “To restore the silence is the idea of objects” (Beckett 12), where silence becomes another side of language, another way to express. In the same way, Kane’s writing charges silence with meaning, and this silence expresses when words cannot.

31Poetic, highly concentrated images are at the heart of Kane’s vision of theatre, as she herself pointed out:

I keep coming back, in the hope that someone in a dark room somewhere will show me an image that burns itself into my mind, leaving a mark more permanent than the moment itself. (Saunders 14)

  • 15 See Sean Carney’s article for an analysis of the most famous image taken from Blasted, that of Ian’ (...)

32Her images are indeed unforgettable and burning thanks to their oxymoronic functioning.15 The image of the daffodils in Cleansed appears right after Grace’s rape and a long stream of automatic gunfire that blows the walls apart and leaves bloodstains (Kane Cleansed, 133). The flowers appearing in Kane’s work associate beauty and horror, life and death in a strong image, violence and beauty reinforcing each other through the contrast. In the same way, the character of Grace/Graham is neither man nor woman and has a monstrous quality: it underlines in a shocking way the questioning of the limits of what human beings are, physically and morally. The unprecedented horror in the face of such monstrosities is represented through the oxymoronic image of Rod’s “silent scream” upon first seeing Grace as Grace/Graham (Kane Cleansed, 146): it is the expression of a horror that cannot be expressed in words. In Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, the same oxymoronic images are used in a highly poetic language where the obscurity of the sign is counterbalanced with its musical quality: the expression “a solo symphony” (Kane 4.48, 242) seems to encompass the essence of the play, which stages a multitude of voices echoing each other so as to represent a fragmented self.

33The voices in Crave and 4.48 Psychosis are both presence and absence of characters, with the constant shift between the two making for the ambiguity of their status: are they human? Are they dead? This ambiguity is strengthened in language, through the repeated use of figures of opposition. “I feel nothing”, or “filled with emptiness” keep recurring. In Crave, there are several examples where one voice annihilates what another tries to say: when one expresses, another tries to parasite the meaning of what is said, usually by negating it, like a minimalist remnant of agon. The central speech of A, which is two pages long and logorrheic, is undermined by C’s continuous “this has to stop” repeated until A’s speech is finished (Kane Crave, 170). The same device is used at the end of the play: while A speaks, B continuously says “no” (Kane Crave, 199). Therefore, characters speak but cannot express or mean anything because their speech is negated: they are both present and absent, characters and absence of characters. The last pages of 4.48 Psychosis display the extreme form of Kane’s ambition to make visible the invisible: “Black snow falls. . . Watch me vanish” (Kane 4.48, 244). Language is pervaded by oxymorons and antithetic figures of speech in the final page. This stresses the fragmentation of the self, paralleled by the formal deconstruction of language and by the invasion of the blank on the page: the “black snow” could point to the letters which seem to fall on the page and to the progressive disappearance of words, hence of the subject. The text itself becomes a sign of both presence and absence.

34Sarah Kane tried to find a language to express the chaos of the self and of the world around us. Her vision as a playwright definitely agrees with one of her main influences, Samuel Beckett, whose final words in the Unnamable (1958) are echoed in her theatre: “Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on” (Beckett 579). However, contrary to Beckett’s, hers is a theatre that “reminds us that change is possible [. . .], change occurs in those moments where comfortable designations break down (woman/man, victim/victimizer, native/foreigner, self/other) and everything must be rethought” (Urban 45). In spite of the general impression of pessimism that emerges from her plays, hers is a far more optimistic theatre than Beckett’s. Her contradictory stance is embodied in the protean character of Tinker, a potential figure of the artist: Tinker can tinker, fix bits and bobs, but at the same time this doctor is a torturer and a dealer, oppressing love while craving love, an oxymoronic character who tries to get to the corporeal and spiritual essence of humanity. In Kane’s work, where staging and language reach the boundaries of the genre, it is the stance of the writer herself that is oxymoronic: writing for the theatre while trying to push back its limits, Kane strove to find a meaning that could seep through within the deconstruction of language and form, in what lies beyond the words, in the silence. She succeeded in creating her own music of loss.

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Primary sources
Kane, Sarah, Complete Plays: Blasted, Phaedra’s Love, Cleansed, Crave, 4.48 Psychosis, Skin, London: Methuen, 2001.

Secondary sources
Angel-Perez, Élisabeth, Voyages au bout du possible: les théâtres du traumatisme de Samuel Beckett à Sarah Kane, Paris: Klincksieck, 2006.

Angel-Perez, Élisabeth, “Pour un théâtre de la barbarie”, Études anglaises 2 (avril-juin 1999): 198–210.

Beckett, Samuel, Samuel Beckett, A Trilogy, Paris: The Olympia, 1959.

Breton, André, L’Amour fou, Paris: Gallimard, 1937.

Breton, André, Manifeste du surréalisme, Paris: Gallimard, 1963.

Breton, Peter, The Empty Space (1968), London: Penguin, 1990.

Carney, Sean, “The Tragedy of History in Sarah Kane’s Blasted”, Theatre Survey 46 (2005): 275–296.

Elam, Keir, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, London: Routledge, 1980. FISHER, Iain, Sarah Kane, <>

Jakobson, Roman, “Concluding Statement. Linguistics and Poetics”, T. A. Sebeok, ed., Style in Language, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960, 355–73.

Kristeva, Julia, Pouvoirs de l’horreur, Paris: Seuil, 1980.

Counsell, Colin and Laurie WOOLF, eds., Performance Analysis. An Introductory Coursebook. (2001), London: Routledge, 2006.

Pavis, Patrice, Dictionnaire du théâtre (1980), Paris: Dunod, 1996.

Saunders, Graham, Love me or Kill me. Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2002.

Sierz, Aleks, In-Yer-Face Theatre, London: Faber, 2001.

Torti-Alcayaga, Agathe, “L’Œuvre de Sarah Kane: le théâtre de la défaite”, Le Théâtre britannique au tournant du millénaire, Cycnos 18.1 (2001): 51–62.

Ubersfeld, Anne, Lire le théâtre I (1977), Paris: Belin, 1996.

Ubersfeld, Anne, L’École du spectateur (Lire le théâtre II) (1981), Paris: Belin, 1996.

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Urban, Kenneth, “An Ethics of Catastrophe. The Theatre of Sarah Kane”, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.3 (2001): 36–46.

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1 See the book by Aleks Sierz, In-Yer-Face Theatre (London: Faber, 2001).

2 See The Empty Space: “[. . .] a representation is what it claims to be – a making present” (Brook 155).

3 “est objet dans un texte le non-animé (le personnage ne devient scéniquement objet que s’il est transformé en non-animé [. . .]” (Ubersfeld 1977, 144).

4 “L’objet est métonymie d’une ‘réalité’ référentielle dont le théâtre est l’image” (Ubersfeld 1977, 146).

5 I am thinking more particularly about The Room (see Saunders 57).

6 “What could possibly be the connection between a common rape in a Leeds hotel room and what’s happening in Bosnia? [. . .] I thought of course it’s obvious, one is the seed and the other is the tree. I do think that the seeds of full-scale war can always be found in peace-time civilisation” (Kane in Saunders 39).

7 See?lisabeth Angel-Perez’s comment on Peter Barnes’ theatre (Angel-Perez 205–206).

8 See Thomas Moore’s poem “No, the heart that has truly loved never forgets. . .” and William Blake’s “Ah Sunflower”.

9 We refer here to surrealism as defined by André Breton in the first Manifeste du surréalisme (1924): “automatisme psychique par lequel on se propose d’exprimer, soit verbalement, soit par écrit, soit de toute autre manière, le fonctionnement réel de la pensée”.

10 See Saunders, 185–186 about the staging of the flowers in Cleansed.

11 For a detailed analysis of the lists of words and numbers in 4.48 Psychosis see Angel- Perez 2006, 172–174.

12 See the analysis of the voices in Crave by Agathe Torti-Alcayaga (Torti-Alcayaga 51–62).

13 See “The Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible” (Brook 47).

14 “Signe-ersatz, présence qui est à la fois une absence. [. . .] Théâtre comme signe- comblement du manque” (Ubersfeld 1996, 276).

15 See Sean Carney’s article for an analysis of the most famous image taken from Blasted, that of Ian’s head sticking out of the floor. Sean Carney stresses the fact that this particular image is “the staging of an impossibility” since Ian at this point of the play is simultaneously alive and dead. This example illustrates to perfection the oxymoronic aspect of Kane’s writing that we mention here.

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Éléonore Obis, « “This isn’t tat. This isn’t bric-a-brac” (Phaedra’s Love): the Poetics of Things in Sarah Kane’s Theatre »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 35 | 2008, mis en ligne le 20 mars 2019, consulté le 24 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Éléonore Obis

Université Paris-Sorbonne

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