''Only love can save me and love has destroyed me'': Interpersonal and self-inflicted violence in Sarah Kane's theatre
Cruelty and Poetry: Sarah Kane’s Cleansed
Cleansed is Kane’s third play, the shortest and most gruesome at first glance. She wanted to write something exclusively for the stage, impossible to be converted into a film or a novel. Furthermore, it is startling that its scenes are not supposed to be realised realistically: they would be unbearable to watch. An evidence of that lies in the fact that Cleansed is Kane’s less performed play on a global scale. There are examples of almost all possible kinds of theatre violence: from psychological to physical and sexual, verbal violence and violence through the damage of one’s possessions. As a consequence, the play may appear just as a very violent and bloody one, as it happened after Blasted première, whereas it is full of poetry and gives a lot to investigate. Among the many ostensibly impossible staging directions, sunflowers and daffodils burst through the floor, after two characters danced or made love. In addition, for poetry and Sarah Kane nothing is impossible to stage.
The structure of this play goes a step further from realism and from how plays were conventionally written; marking another footprint towards what would become the great singularity of Kane’s last work, 4.48 Psychosis. Moreover, Kane wanted her audience to concentrate on what violence symbolises, on what she had to say and express through the staging of violence and not on the graphic of violence, like in a Tarantino’s film. Indeed, the imaginary has a huge role in carrying the meaning, balancing out the intentional language minimalism and the elusiveness, as she did not want to use any unnecessary word.
The play explores the extremes: “Love me or Kill me, Graham” is a line by the principal character, Grace, which has been recurrently chosen to symbolise this statement.
The plot is set in a university transformed in what David Benedict, who reviewed Cleansed for The Independent after its debut, described as a “fascist institution designed to rid society of its undesirables”.
Kaneian drama abounds in metaphors occurring as both linguistic and, most often, non-linguistic realisations. As Timo Pfaff demonstrated, the setting is the first deductible metaphor in the play:
[W]hat is described as a university is actually the prison- and hospital-like realm of Tinker. Thus, the non-realistic setting is a blending of diverse settings existing in reality: prison, university, brothel, and hospital. Kane concocts a setting of implicated violence (prison), help (hospital), and learning (university) into a metaphorical location that can be interpreted as Kane’s sinister view of the world. Thus, the people living in it are prisoners and made dependent upon help and sources of knowledge of some external powers in society. […] the underlying conceptual metaphor is “the world is a prison,” which is being blended with social institutions that are responsible for the individual’s mind and body and therefore have the ability to take away the individual’s autonomy over the self. Thus, an extended version would be “the world is a prison for mind and body,” which calls into mind similarities to a concentration camp.
According to Pfaff, a character, Tinker, can be regarded as a metaphor for society. Indeed, he punished Carl for his homosexuality, which is not compliant with social morality and does the same with Graham for his drug addiction, with Grace for her gender confusion and incestuous relationship with her sibling, with Robin for his being mentally retarded.
The deranged Tinker, presented as both a soothing doctor and a torturer, tests the love of the other characters: Grace has an imaginary romance with her deceased twin brother Graham, Robin is in love with Grace, Carl and Rod are a gay couple and Tinker himself seems in love with Grace and, later, loves the nameless Woman he observes in a peep-show booth, onto whom he will transpose the idea of Grace. In order to investigate what love can survive, how much people can love each other, how much one is ready to suffer until he or she betrays his or her lover and the limits of a passion, he submits his “patients” to constant and atrocious tortures.
The play opens in winter with Tinker who is preparing a syringe and injects heroin into the corner of Graham’s eye; the addicted man dies right away. In the following scene, it is summer; Carl and Rod are exchanging love vows, as a result of what the doctor would put Carl on trial. Meanwhile, Grace, Graham’s sister, arrives at the university reclaiming her brother’s possessions and clothes, which were already passed to Robin. Grace wears them, starting the process that will transform her in Graham and decide to remain in the institute. In scene six, the twins reunite, they dance and make love. In the Black Room, Tinker performs masturbatory acts while watching a mysterious dancer, Woman, who he calls Grace. The real Grace and Robin are now friends. The girl teaches him to read, write and count as Graham carries on talking to her, but Robin does not feel his presence. And after, Grace would be punished for making love with her brother; she would be beaten and raped, in front of Graham’s appearance, by some indefinite Voices, an invisible group of men that often helps Tinker in his tortures. Next, she would also survive an electroshock. The young Robin adventures outside the institute to buy Grace a box of chocolates, as Tinker learns that, he forces the boy to eat all the chocolates in one of the most disturbing and touching scenes, then it makes him burn her books, but this incident would not touch her. In scene sixteen Rod sacrifices for Carl, after Tinker acknowledges that the two still unacceptably persevere in loving each other. Robin hangs himself, helped by Graham, after having understood how long he must stay interned. In the epilogues, Carl and Grace lay on two beds, both naked with bloodied bandages. Tinker has transplanted Carl’s genitals on Grace and cut off her breasts. Now that the girl has been entirely transformed into her brother, Tinker appears free to liberate and love Woman. Carl and Grace/Graham cry, the sun gets brighter and brighter while the squeaking of rats gets louder than ever. In a Beckettian way, the sunlight and the sound devour everything.
In the end, love survives, even though many characters are dead and those who survive are mutilated to the point of not being themselves anymore, they are just lost souls. It is Kane’s most optimistic play. The great necessity of love that flows in Cleansed is what allows the characters to endure an outstretched list of horrors. Their love, hope and faith are the same that make life go on in times of war or other extreme conditions. However, Kane’s theatre is a theatre of experience: for example, most of the mutilations occur on stage (and that is why staging them realistically would be devastating for the audience) so that the audience cannot immediately concentrate on the deep, moving meaning of what is staged. Once outside the building or maybe the next day, it might be easier to think about and reflect on what has been shown, after having at first experienced physical reactions.
A considerable variety of literary works influenced Kane during her writing process, of which one is particularly connectable to the facts that will be analysed. It is effortless for a passionate reader to recognise Orwell’s impact during an examination of Carl’s storyline. Inspired by Stalinism and Nazism, Orwell’s masterpiece depicts three great powers. The story of 1984 is set in one of these, Oceania, which is governed by a single party lead by the Big Brother, who controls everyone’s life. The Party, like Tinker, spies every single action of the citizens and privacy does not exist, free-thinking and sexual relationships are strongly discouraged. Whoever is discovered transgressing the rules is submitted to physical and psychological tortures. The scene in which Carl betrays his partner under torture explicitly recalls 1984, where the protagonist, Winston, betrays his lover Julia and asks his foes to torture her instead. Winston is tortured with rats and rats seem to follow Carl’s amputations. Both texts deal with dystopic institutions; again, Kane may suggest a pessimistic view about society.
Furthermore, the analysis of scene four and Cleansed in general would not be complete without mentioning Samuel Beckett, the author who probably marked Kane’s work more than any other. Carl would be condemned to inaction like a typical Beckettian character. Beckett’s influence in Kane is utterly evident, though the writer did not work on it consciously, beginning with the physical handicaps that since Endgame caused his characters to be more and more static. Carl carries out a path that strongly resembles the one Beckett makes his dramatic creatures accomplish play after play, in which from people perfectly capable of moving (as in Waiting for Godot) they arrive to be represented only as, for instance, a disembodied mouth (protagonist of Not I). A more precise connection can be found between what rests of Carl at the end of Cleansed and Hamm’s parents in Endgame, who lives in two bins because they have no legs. In both cases, the absence of the limbs reduces them to motionless trunks without the relief of death and gives a relevant sense of alienation. Beckett himself described Hamm, who is blind, physically limited and has a pathetic behaviour, as “the remains of a monster”. The fact that Carl does not stop to look for Rod’s attention also coincides with what Greig describes as “[…] those moments in Beckett where the human impulse to connect is found surviving in the most bleak and crushing places”. In Play Beckett examines “the damage that the pursuit of love can inflict on the characters who appear compelled to talk about obsessions and betrayals involving their trapped counterparts”. Again, the parallelism with Carl’s storyline is clear enough if we substitute Tinker for the spotlight that forces Play’s three characters to speak and consider one more time how Carl risks everything in the name of his love for Rod.
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''Only love can save me and love has destroyed me'': Interpersonal and self-inflicted violence in Sarah Kane's theatre
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