How Sarah Kane’s Life—and Afterlife—Made Her Plays a Sensation

Photo: Simon Annand

(1) In 1994, literary agent Mel Kenyon attends a graduate workshop at the University of Birmingham and is floored by a play called Blasted, wherein an abusive tabloid journalist is raped as the scene morphs from a hotel room into a Bosnian battlefield, where eye-gougings and cannibalism ensue. Two weeks later, Kenyon signs its author, 23-year-old Sarah Kane—daughter of a tabloid journalist.

(2) Blasted premieres in 1995 at the 62-seat annex to London’s Royal Court Theater, directed by James Macdonald. The Guardian calls it “naive tosh.” The Daily Mail’s review, by Jack Tinker, is headlined THE DISGUSTING FEAST OF FILTH, and papers that don’t even have critics find ways to go at her. Harold Pinter disagrees, saying her work is too good for its critics.

(3) Kane declares that “the only good journalist is a dead journalist,” and in her next play, Cleansed, set in a torture chamber, a character named Tinker is the torturer-in-chief. Paradoxically, the reviews are better this time: The Independent calls it a “fiercely powerful realisation of a profoundly dystopic vision.”

(4) Kane’s star continues to rise. Later works, like Crave and her adaptation of Phaedra’s Love, are widely praised, and she is labeled a prophetic (if near-unbearable) voice. But the playwright is battling fierce depression and in early 1999 attempts suicide by taking 200 pills. She is saved by a flatmate; two days later, she hangs herself in a London hospital. She leaves behind final versions of her plays, including a new one called 4.48 Psychosis (after the darkest, saddest hour of night). Alongside are instructions to produce her work often but never to adapt them into films or authorize any biographies.

Photo: Wireimage

(5) Kane is almost universally praised in death, even by those who excoriated her in life. The Herald—which had once recommended she see a psychiatrist—now calls her “one of the most promising talents of the British stage,” and in a league with Euripides, Seneca, and Racine. 4.48 Psychosis opens in 2000 at the Royal Court (again under James Macdonald).

(6) Productions of 4.48 fan out through the Continent—where Kane is even more of a critical darling. French director Claude Régy essentially turns it into a monologue (Kane left nothing in the way of stage directions or characters) and employs the music of another doomed young artist, Jeff Buckley. He persuades French film star Isabelle Huppert to play the narrator. She gets raves in the French press.

(7) Fearing that literal-minded Americans would see Kane as another Sylvia Plath (and 4.48 Psychosis as autobiography), brother and executor Simon Kane resists a U.S. production. But finally, in 2004, Macdonald’s 4.48 Psychosis alights at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, which has been trying to land a Kane production for years. This week, it comes to BAM—in Régy’s version, starring Huppert, and in French with English subtitles. It’ll be hard not to take literally lines like “I have no desire for death / no suicide ever had.”

How Sarah Kane’s Life—and Afterlife—Made Her Play […]