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Rape and Rape Mythology in the Plays of Sarah Kane

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 225-248 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0026

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Few contemporary plays have created a greater furor than Sarah Kane's Blasted, first performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London in January 1995. The violence was pervasive, the structure seemingly incoherent, the purpose elusive. Critics were almost uniformly hostile. It was, according to one, a "disgusting feast of filth," while another concluded that "it's not a theatre critic that's required, it's a psychiatrist." They were barely more enamored of later plays such as Phaedra's Love and Cleansed. Criticism has tended to soften over time. Indeed, the greater danger today, a decade after her tragic early death, is that of critical hagiography, with Kane lauded as one of the most original of a new breed of dynamic "in-yer-face" or "new brutalist" dramatists who rose to prominence during the 1990s. One of the characteristics of this new genre of drama was a peculiarly intense embrace of sex and violence. Violence certainly emerged as a defining feature of Kane's writing. And when Kane sought to intensify the violence of her plays she turned repeatedly to rape. The purpose of this essay is to explore Kane's presentation of rape within the context of the ongoing feminist debate regarding sexual violence and its attendant myths. As we shall see this presentation creates as many tensions as it does affinities. The first part of this essay will revisit rape, and more particularly the enduring force of "rape myths." The second will then consider Kane on rape: its presentation in her plays and its consideration in her subsequent interviews. It has been said that Blasted is a play of strategic "incoherences." The final part of this essay will contemplate Kane and rape in the context of this apparently perplexing supposition. It will be a necessarily interdisciplinary exercise, enjoining a growing body of "law and literature" scholarship which makes the case for the use of literary texts in legal study. Such a "strategy" is commonly recommended for a variety of reasons: to impress the linguistic and rhetorical nature of law; to emphasize the historicity of a legal text; to nurture a more nuanced appreciation of "poethical" dimension of law; and above all, perhaps, to stress the illustrative value of the literary text as an informing educative aid. It is to this latter purpose that this essay is primarily written.

I. Rape and Myth

The crime of rape represents something of a touchstone in feminist legal and political theory. According to Robin Morgan, rape is the "perfected act of male sexuality in a patriarchal culture," the "ultimate metaphor for domination, violence, subjugation, and possession." Ann Cahill writes in a similar vein. Rape is "a crime that epitomizes women's oppressed status," one of "indisputable violence and loathing." For much of the 1970s and 1980s it was possible to distinguish two alternative and hugely influential positions. The first, associated commonly with Susan Brownmiller, argued that rape is less about sex, and more about simple violence committed by men against women, "a brief expression of physical power, a conscious process of intimidation, a blunt, ugly sexual invasion with possible lasting effects on all women." The second, favored by many critical legal feminists, followed Catharine MacKinnon in arguing, to the contrary, that rape is a logical extension of heterosexuality. Adopting a position that owed much to the influence of Andrea Dworkin, MacKinnon argued in her Toward a Feminist Theory of the State that the "wrong of rape has proved so difficult to define because the unquestionable starting point has been that rape is defined as distinct from intercourse, while for women it is difficult to distinguish the two under conditions of male dominance." Accordingly, she famously concluded, "If sexuality is central to women's definition and forced sex is central to sexuality, rape is indigenous, not exceptional, to women's social condition."

The problem is that MacKinnon's approach diminishes agency and particularity. As Patricia Williams has observed, sex is not a "bad" thing. It is how sex is "done" that can be problematic. The discourse of rape must accommodate differentiation. It is for this reason that Cahill, for example, has suggested that rape should instead be understood "as something that is...

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