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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.3 (2001) 36-46

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An Ethics of Catastrophe The Theatre Of Sarah Kane

Ken Urban



What I can do is put people through an intense experience.
Maybe in a small way from that you can change things.

--Sarah Kane

In the spring of 2001, London's Royal Court Theatre devoted an entire season to the plays of Sarah Kane, each one receiving either a production or a reading in the large Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. Kane, during her brief career, created a substantial body of work that altered the landscape of British theatre in the 1990s, and the season was a chance to reflect on this accomplishment.

Kane's first play Blasted, set in an expensive hotel room in Leeds, charts the violence that befalls the dying journalist Ian and his unwilling sexual partner Cate, a mentally-deficient young woman plagued by fits. Blasted's exploration of personal violence erupts into a far more bloody spectacle when the hotel room is transformed into ground zero for a war. The play was greeted with a maelstrom of abuse by critics when first produced by the Royal Court in 1995. Respected newspapers, TV programs, trashy tabloids, all relished describing their disgust at this play and speculating about the "sick" twenty-three-year-old female author who wrote "this disgusting feast of filth," as Daily Mail's Jack Tinker not-so-subtly put it.

Despite this rancorous reception at home, Kane was welcomed by European theatre. Blasted was quickly recognized as one of the most important British plays of the decade. Her plays were produced throughout the continent, two of which won awards for Best Foreign Language Play in Germany. What seemed the start of a lengthy career was cut painfully short when Kane committed suicide in February 1999 at the age of twenty-eight. Though admired abroad, Kane remained a little-understood playwright in her own country. The critical tide had finally begun to turn by 1998 with Crave, but with her sudden death, her plays again became prime targets for biographical speculation.

Recognizing Kane's status as the most-talked about, least-seen British playwright, the Court decided to consolidate her work and make it available to a much wider audience. The season included new productions of Blasted and Crave, a transfer of [End Page 36] the Theatre Upstairs production of 4:48 Psychosis (posthumously staged in the summer of 2000), and readings of Phaedra's Love (1996) and Cleansed (1998). This would allow the curious an opportunity to see her plays, the critics a chance to revisit them, and her supporters a means to celebrate her talent.

Inspired by the Royal Court's season, this article aims to do something similar for an American audience. While Kane is becoming more well-known in this country, her plays have still not been staged in New York City, bar one unsuccessful production in Fall 2000 (the Axis Theater production of Crave featuring Deborah Harry), or in other theatre capitals across the U.S. Here, Kane is becoming a recognizable name, but her work remains misunderstood. This is due, in part, to the lack of under-standing regarding changes in contemporary British theatre.

The Kane season at the Royal Court made clear the formal innovations of the plays, which stray far from the "talking heads" theatre typical of the British stage. Yet, the season also highlighted their complex negotiation of ethics. Taking cues from the theories of playwright Howard Barker and philosopher Gilles Deleuze, a play such as Blasted dramatizes an "ethics of catastrophe." Rather than distinguishing right from wrong, the core of all moralistic enterprises, or conversely, flirting with a cynical amorality, where anything goes, Kane dramatizes the quest for ethics. Morality is made up of "constraining rules" which judge people according to "transcendent values," such as Good or Evil (Deleuze). Ethics, on the other hand, are subject to change, even optional, emerging from specific moments and certain modes of being. An ethics does not forsake the difference between good and bad, but views such distinctions...


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