Sarah Kane, the radically innovative playwright who committed suicide at the age of 28 in 1999, leaving behind a small but powerful body of work, saw nihilism as an extreme form of romanticism, and the tension between self-destruction and self-affirmation seems to pervade her work. Although her five plays and one screenplay are about love, they all feature a character who attempts, with or without success, to commit suicide.
In January 1995, Blasted, Kane's debut at the Royal Court theatre, set the tone for the reception of her work in Britain. Written with a mix of raw sensibility and a mature theatrical intelligence, it startled critics and audiences with its in-yer-face aggression and violent stage images. Denounced by the Daily Mail as "this disgusting feast of filth", Blasted became a cause célèbre of 1990s theatre.
Her subsequent plays did much to change this image of a provocative enfant terrible, and, after her suicide, revivals of her work in Britain and its widespread appreciation on mainland Europe have secured her a place in the canon of 1990s drama. In the first full-length study of Kane's plays, Graham Saunders places her work within the context of new writing, while emphasising its continuity with previous playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and John Webster.
In chapters on each of her main plays - Blasted (1995), Phaedra's Love (1996), Cleansed (1998), Crave (1998) and 4.48 Psychosis (2000) - Saunders analyses the texts, and comments on the problems of staging an author who specified acts of explicit sex and violence, as well as challenging directors by giving stage directions such as "the rats carry Carl's feet away".
His readings are intelligent and appreciative of Kane's intentions. Using material from several interviews that she gave, as well as evidence from letters, he gives a convincing account of how Kane attempted to realise a theatre of extremes, with roots not only in the modernism of Artaud, but also in Shakespeare's King Lear and Twelfth Night.
He rightly stresses that, for all its in-yer-face confrontation, Blasted is finally an optimistic play, and one whose horrific blinding scene was influenced as much by the fate of Shakespeare's Gloucester as by a lurid, if improbable, story, told by Bill Buford in his Among the Thugs, of a football hooligan who sucked out the eye of his victim.
With Cleansed, Saunders shows the influence of Buchner's Woyzeck, as well as that of Kafka, and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. By the time of Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, her last two plays, Kane's radical innovations in form had led to the abandonment of plot and traditional characterisation, and Saunders expertly steers us through the problems of how to construct meaning from such complex texts.
A thorough introduction to Kane's work, the book includes revealing interviews with theatre-makers - directors, actors, writers and an agent - who worked with her, plus an afterword by playwright Edward Bond. But by stressing Kane's links with theatre traditions, Saunders underplays the influence of pop culture on her work, and he is rather uncritical of its shortcomings.
The book has been badly proof-read, and has a sloppy attitude to basic facts, such as dates of the work of other playwrights. It will be useful to students, but only if they know the plays already - a lack of clarity in the writing sometimes obscures the point being made. Still, this is a sound introduction: it is now up to others to examine its claims about Kane's genius - and to produce a more rounded account of her sensibility.
Aleks Sierz teaches journalism at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
Love Me or Kill Me: Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes
Author - Graham Saunders
ISBN - 0 7190 5956 9 and 5955 0
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 198