Violence in Contemporary British Drama: Sarah Kane's play "Cleansed"

Thesis (M.A.), 2007

107 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 The theatrical background

3 Sarah Kane’s dramatic art
3.1 Kane’s writing: similarities and points of difference in her plays
3.2 The interaction between realism and surrealism
3.3 The art of reduction

4 A critical analysis of Cleansed
4.1 Form and content of the play
4.2 Themes
4.2.1 Love
4.2.2 Identity Sexual identity The incongruity of body and soul
4.2.3 Language The word “lovely” The struggle with language The powerlessness of language
4.3 Imagery and symbolism
4.3.1 The element of flowers
4.3.2 The element of light
4.3.3 The image of blindness

5 The use and function of violence
5.1 Influences on Kane and her treatment of violence
5.2 Physical violence
5.2.1 Self-mutilation and suicide as extreme forms of physical violence
5.3 Verbal violence
5.3.1 Words as weapons

6 The spectator’s role

7 Conclusion

8 Bibliography

9 Appendix: summary of the thesis in German

1 Introduction

When Sarah Kane, born in 1971 in Essex, England, committed suicide at the age of 28 in February 1999, she left five plays and the script for a ten minute screenplay. Kane had dedicated much of her short life to the understanding, exploration and (re)invention of drama. While still at school she started writing and acting, activities which she continued at university, where she further experimented with theatre and where she also took up directing.[1] After leaving the University of Bristol with a First Class Honours Degree in drama studies, she enrolled at Birmingham University and crowned her education with a Master’s degree in playwriting.[2] After several minor dramatic experiments, staged as student productions in unofficial venues, her first full-length play, Blasted, premièred at the Royal Court Theatre in London in January 1995.[3] The play immediately became notorious for its depiction of all kinds of physical and verbal violence for which it was fiercely attacked by both public opinion and reviewers.[4] The fact that the plays which followed contained many unspeakable scenes of sheer cruelty, earned her the reputation as the enfant terrible of contemporary British drama.[5] During her brief career Sarah Kane created a body of work that brought her both success and notoriety. Her controversial theatre divided critics and audiences from the beginning. While some attacked her persistently, others recognised her as a new voice, and after she explored and discovered different linguistic and theatrical devices, critical approval followed.[6] Among those who defended her work, acknowledging her merits and her potential, were Harold Pinter and Edward Bond,[7] two playwrights to whom I shall return throughout my study since there are interesting parallels between their work and the one of Sarah Kane, which they both influenced.

Kane’s plays emerged in a short span of time between 1993 and 1999. In addition to Blasted, they include Phaedra’s Love (1996),[8] Cleansed (1998), Crave (1998) and 4.48 Psychosis, which was written in 1998/99 and first published and produced posthumously in 2000. She also wrote the script for a short film for television, entitled Skin, which was written in 1995 and produced by British Screen/Channel 4 in 1997. Her work was immediately translated into the most important international languages. She undoubtedly made a strong impact on contemporary British theatre and influenced the writing of many authors, but her unique plays are pieces of art which stand on their own.

I have already mentioned the critical and public uproar that greeted Kane’s work throughout the years due to its disturbingly explicit violence and scenes which, through their intensity, stamp themselves upon our minds. Violence in drama is an interesting yet complex concept, the various forms and functions of which have been widely discussed for as long as it has appeared. It can be found in both Ancient and Renaissance theatre as well as in modern, post-modern and contemporary drama. Although it was used as a device in the theatre of each epoch, it is striking that violence features largely in contemporary drama, and especially in the work of young playwrights who started emerging at the end of the twentieth century.

Being interested in and fascinated by the writing of Sarah Kane and having seen all of her dramatic pieces performed on stage, I ask the question that presses itself upon most readers or spectators of her plays: what purpose does the excessive use of violence serve? Is it employed for its shock value, or is it integral to the plot such as setting or imagery? In order to make sense of her otherwise crude and bleak plays, I thought about interpreting certain acts in a figurative sense. This assumption is supported by Kane herself, who, on several occasions, intimated using violence as a metaphor, thus suggesting the possibility of finding the meaning of extremely intense and cruel scenes behind the act, not within it. Bearing this idea in mind, I will examine the nature of violence in her writing, its manifold forms and the different levels on which it operates. By analysing significant passages of her drama which are relevant to the subject, it will be the task of this study to get to the bottom of Kane’s use of violence and to investigate if and to what extent the various illustrations of brutality can be interpreted as metaphoric. Despite the fact that each of Kane’s five plays abounds in violent scenes of different sorts, I shall mainly concentrate on Cleansed, her third full-length play to be staged, which I consider the nucleus of her writing, from both a stylistic and a thematic point of view. However, I will show parallels and point out elements of recurrence in all of her work.

In the following chapter I will shortly point out the theatrical background in which Kane’s drama emerged. A brief outline of the theatre in the 1990s will be given, also considering the so-called “in-yer-face” theatre to which the decade gave rise and whose most noticeable feature is the explicit representation of violence and sex. Chapter Three surveys typical characteristics of Sarah Kane’s dramatic art. Central to this investigation of her styles and features will be the subtle interplay of realism and surrealism in her work, as well as the author’s increasing abandonment of formal considerations and her Beckettian reduction from physicalisation to text. Chapter Four offers a critical analysis of Cleansed and will, after a more general overview concerning its formal and thematic nature, profoundly investigate the play’s themes, imagery and symbolism, which are the major devices by which the play is realised and its message conveyed. The main themes in the play are love, identity and language, while its symbolism is predominantly characterised by the appearance of the flowers and the use of light. In this chapter I will also consider the problems which performing the play poses and which generally arise when producing a Kane play. Chapter Five is dedicated to Kane’s fascination with violence. Analysing its use and function, I will concentrate on physical violence and violence that is motivated by language. Chapter Six will look at the function of the spectator who is assigned a variety of roles in Kane’s work: not only is he or she the one who makes the play work by translating into reality what is happening on stage, but the audience also has to live through the same experiences as the characters. They are both victims and accomplices. In Chapter Seven I will give a brief summary of the main points of my study and, in the hope of having found an answer to the questions I have posed, draw a final conclusion.

Instead of drawing on any scholarly apparatus or discussing Sarah Kane’s work in terms of one of the various theoretical (dramatic) frameworks, I will rather try not to push her writing in a certain direction nor reduce it by assigning it to a certain movement. By means of a close and accurate reading of her texts, my study attempts to approach the work of the late, young writer which, until today, has remained little- or even misunderstood.

2 The theatrical background

Kane’s Blasted, called “a landmark in theatre history”[9] by Graham Saunders, exerted a major impact on contemporary British drama in the nineties. Casting a retrospective glance at British theatre of the time, one can say that Kane’s debut play was a dramatic milestone that heralded a new era in contemporary playwriting. It ushered in a new generation. Towards the end of the millennium there was the gradual emergence of different voices and around the mid-nineties British theatre experienced an explosion in creativity and new writing.[10] There was a polyphony of (dramatic) voices of new and young talents experimenting with new techniques. These experiments resulted in a drama which is less accomodating and which resists being pigeonholed. It is a combination of several different dramatic patterns. However, even if these young playwrights cannot be classified as a homogeneous group since their writing is too diverse in terms of style and technique, there are some common characteristics among them. One trademark of the theatre of the nineties, which features in many of the plays that were written and produced at that time, is the tackling of a peculiar combination of political and social issues with surreal and dreamlike settings and images. Despite being a reflection of the political atmosphere at the time, many of these plays tried to avoid explicit references to politics and society – a phenomenon which also applies to women’s theatre. The growing importance of woman playwrights was one of the distinctive characteristics of the nineties, though, generally speaking, they are still underrepresented today.[11] While the first two waves of feminist playwriting in the seventies and eighties, associated with the names Caryl Churchill, Pam Gems and Timberlake Wertenbaker, showed an intense political and social observation, feminist playwrights in the nineties were still interested in politics and in women’s issues, but they tried to combine their message with more abstract and universal images. Another characteristic, which distinguished many of the new playwrights, was their candid way of tackling topics such as sex and violence. The presentation of bodily functions and explicit sex scenes on stage, among them homosexual sex and anal rape, typifies the theatre of the nineties. Although the use of such violent and explicit acts may have been used more persistently in the nineties, their onstage performance was by no means a novelty. Only a decade before, in 1980, the première of Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain had caused a furore among theatre-goers which was similar to the one Edward Bond had caused fifteen years before with his play Saved in 1965. Brenton’s depiction of the Romans’ brutal conquest of Britain (a reflection of the English invasion of Ireland) included a scene in which a Celt is raped by a Roman soldier. While at the time the illustration of anal sex or, in its worst form, male rape on stage was unusual or at least a sight that spectators were not used to, it was to become a frequently used image in the theatre of the nineties where the transformation of activity into passivity was used to symbolise man’s loss of virility, hinting at a crisis of male identity and masculinity.[12] Young dramatists such as Sarah Kane, in whose plays Blasted and Cleansed we find instances of male rape as well, Mark Ravenhill, Anthony Neilson and Martin Crimp, to name a few, were soon dubbed “New British Nihilists” or “New Brutalists” by the press due to their disillusioned and bleak approach to reality and their gloomy life philosophy, which they express in their confrontational plays.[13] Terms like these, which were consistently fixed to the new playwrights and their work, are what theatre critic Aleks Sierz would rather have substituted with the term “in-yer-face” since, contrary to the other coinages, it does not stress the novelty of this phenomenon by merely describing what this kind of theatre does, but also by pointing out how it achieves this.[14]

In many respects, Sarah Kane can be considered a child of her time whose writing reflects the zeitgeist by which she was coined. Being many-sided, her theatre is a typical product of that era and can be linked to various currents in literary history. While Sierz clearly puts Kane in line with her fellow writers, assigning her debut play Blasted a central position in the “movement,”[15] Saunders stresses the difference between her theatre and “the largely socio-realist concerns of her contemporaries,”[16] bearing in mind her use of a poetic imagery, her surrealism and her retreat from naturalism and their place in the political drama of the nineties.

Being one of a small number of women playwrights and showing a certain concern for women’s and gender issues, Kane has also been discussed in terms of feminism. However, it turned out that Kane does not fit easily into the feminist framework. Playwright Rebecca Prichard recognises Kane’s strong point in her avoidance of an exclusive concentration invested upon issues that are pertinent to women for the benefit of a more general, open-minded writing “about the world.”[17] Elaine Aston and Janelle Reinelt, on the other hand, show the points of difference between Kane’s theatre and the one of truly feminist playwrights, drawing attention to the difficulty of linking Kane to the feminist tradition of playwrights such as Churchill and Wertenbaker. According to them, Kane’s drama, marked by the persistent use of violence, constitutes an anomaly and rather puts her alongside such playwrights as Edward Bond.[18] Kane herself was wary of terms such as “woman writer.” As most writers, she did not want to be classified and resisted the notion of being part of a movement:

My only responsibility as a writer is to the truth, however unpleasant that truth may be. I have no responsibility as a woman writer because I don’t believe there’s such a thing. When people talk about me as a writer, that’s what I am, and that’s how I want my work to be judged – on its quality, not on the basis of my age, gender, class, sexuality or race. I don’t want to be a representative of any biological or social group of which I happen to be a member.[19]

In this passage Kane expresses a wish every artist will share with her beyond all doubt: to be recognised as an individual with her own qualities and a unique voice among all writers of her time. Kane wanted to be treated in the same way as she treated her characters: respectful, unprejudiced and without any attempt to be categorised.

3 Sarah Kane’s dramatic art

3.1 Kane’s writing: similarities and points of difference in her plays

In the short period between 1993 and 1999 Sarah Kane wrote five plays which constitute her lifework. Each of them is marked by “the explosive theatricality, the lyricism, the emotional power, and the bleak humour”[20] that are hallmarks of Kane’s writing. Just as her models Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, Kane departed from the path of (British) naturalism.[21] Kane was a constant experimenter. Each of her plays has its own quality and develops an independent style of its own. Even though there is an evident development in her work, a red thread which (thematically) links all of her plays, different styles crystallised in the process of her writing, which allow the subdivision of Kane’s theatre. The critic Ruby Cohn makes out “two radically different theatre styles”[22] in Kane’s work, the result of which are three violent and two linguistic plays. While Kane’s first three plays, Blasted, Phaedra’s Love, and Cleansed, are characterised by their excessive violence, her last two plays, Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, show a language oriented dramaturgy and put emphasis on a poetically dense language. The atrocities of her first three plays are substituted in her last two works by verbal devices.[23] The imagery thus moved from a mainly physical to a textual realisation and in her last two plays it is words, rather than action, that build the play. However, Kane’s linguistic plays do not entirely renounce the poetic imagery which dominates her first three plays. In Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, language does not substitute the visual images, it rather comprises them.[24] In each of her plays Kane employed different stylistic and linguistic techniques. Hence, “enfold[ing] a different architecture,”[25] every single play is special and stands on its own as a piece of art. However, as pointed out above, there are also parallels and similarities such as a common thematic core which unites the five plays: they all deal with extreme emotional forces and mental states. Kane’s characters are torn between feelings ranging from love to hatred. They move between the extreme ends of pleasure and pain. The depiction of these concrete psychic, mental and emotional extremes finds its counterpart in a stage scenery, setting and time which are more abstract, often dreamlike and unreal. Except for Blasted, in which the text indicates that the action takes place in Leeds, Kane’s plays are all very imprecise and general in terms of their setting. And even in the case of Kane’s first play the opening stage direction alludes to the universality of the place: “A very expensive hotel room in Leeds – the kind that is so expensive it could be anywhere in the world” (1:3).[26] Phaedra’s Love, a retitled free adaptation of Seneca’s Phaedra, as well as Cleansed, take place in an unnamed country. Both plays lack identifiable locations. There is also a timeless feeling about Kane’s writing. Cleansed and Blasted are the only plays in which the sense and the passing of time are indicated by means of the changing weather and different seasons. Kane’s last two plays, Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, lack scenic indications to setting, time and place altogether. In never precisely specifying time and location by never explicitly stating when and where a specific action happens, the plays achieve a certain universality.

Uncertainty is one of the typical traits of Kane’s theatre. There is mystery in everything. There is always a certain degree of ambivalence. Her characters, too, are incomprehensible to us. We cannot understand them. They are obscure to each other and to the audience. Kane indulged in these ambiguous characters who resist being pigeonholed. However, in spite of their being capable of the most horrible actions towards each other, it would be wrong to over-generalise and label them “evil.” In a Kane play designations such as good and evil, victim and perpetrator no longer hold. There are no good or bad characters. Her characters resist simplification. Rejecting such dichotomies, Kane showed herself wary of thinking in such categories and of applying them to her characters:

I write about human beings, and since I am one, the ways in which all human beings operate is feasibly within my understanding. I don’t think of the world as being divided up into men and women, victims and perpetrators. I don’t think those are constructive divisions to make, and they make for very poor writing.[27]

What Kane describes here, namely the avoidance of easy definition and the reluctance of attempting to classify human beings in a man-woman, victim-perpetrator or also guilty-innocent scheme is, according to Sierz, characteristic of nineties drama.[28] In Kane’s work the border between binary oppositions dissolves. Instead of putting them side by side, in her plays, she rather challenges dichotomies. Characters are both good and evil. They are both victim and perpetrator, an aspect to which I shall return below. We look in vain for any kind of moral guidance provided by the author. There is no redeeming humanism in Kane. She never says that the good side in her characters will finally win. There is just total and utter brutality presented in a very cold, routine-like way. With their bleak and depressing atmosphere, her plays are very hard to digest. Kane’s drama is very dark and very pessimistic. Kane saw things in a very negative way. Her disillusioned approach to life and to reality is reflected in her work which, owing to characters who often deny and negate, contains a destructive hue.

Kane’s theatre is remarkable and outstanding in that it brings together elements of the present and the past. While on the one hand her drama is a product of her time, on the other hand she borrows from the past. In her plays we find both a more film-like version of drama with short and quick speeches and faster dialogues, typical of the nineties, and apparent in Blasted and Phaedra’s Love, and a literary, more refined language which characterised theatre in the seventies and eighties, as in her play Cleansed.[29] Another characteristic of the theatre of the nineties that features in Kane’s plays is the avoidance of explicitly political themes and of realism for the benefit of a more surrealistic, dreamlike kind of drama. This will be the topic of the next chapter.

3.2 The interaction between realism and surrealism

The abandonment of realism and of explicitly political and social concerns, which I have just mentioned as a feature of nineties drama, can also be found in Kane’s work. In her plays she tries to combine a socio-political message with surrealism. In spite of her plays not being overtly political, we find a lot of denunciation in them: “[A]lthough her work is not explicitly political (…) it does implicitly criticize a society built on violence and denial.”[30] Kane comments indirectly on the social situation and her drama can be considered as an examination and description of contemporary British society. She constructs her drama as a world set in contrast to the real one, representing a commentary on the present.[31] Her perception and reflection of the world is often conveyed by non-realistic means. What she wants to express via theatre is mostly realised by indirection and metaphor, by a poetic lyricism and an unparalleled use of imagery and symbolism to which I will return later. With her first performed work Kane started what was to become one of the main characteristics of her writing: the interplay of realism and surrealism. Blasted unites naturalistic and symbolic images. By suddenly turning into an accumulation of surreal scenes, the socio-realistic reflection of today’s Britain, which is the play’s point of departure, is substituted by a hypothetical representation of a Britain torn by civil war in the second part of the play. While Kane juxtaposes these two concepts in her first two plays, Cleansed is more daring in that within it the playwright interweaves the threads of realism and surrealism. She deliberately blurs the distinction between reality and illusion which becomes evident in the utterances, acts and even uncertain materiality of some characters. The retreat from realism and the formal deviations from naturalism also manifest themselves in the omnipresent mystery and opaqueness of the setting, time and characters. As pointed out previously, in Kane’s drama there are hardly ever any references to where and when the action takes place, and the identity of the characters is often veiled and mystified. Kane’s plays are thus endowed with a hypothetical tinge. They are oneiric and dreamlike, but in a very bleak and depressing way. Even though in Kane much of the violence and the terrifying atmosphere is hinted at rather than fully revealed,[32] it goes without saying that suggestion can be even more distressing than concrete representations and pictures.[33] Since implication, what cannot be seen and experienced, can be far worse and difficult to bear than the definable and known, Kane’s drama is all the more effective. Kane herself pointed out that images can be more disturbing than a real representation. This is exactly what she admired in Georg Büchner, whose masterpiece Woyzeck (first published in 1878) she directed in 1997: “What’s so extraordinary about it is that he isolates moments of real extremity one after the other in such a way that you are aware that you are never looking at the real thing. What you get thrown back on is the idea, which is always more disturbing.”[34] According to Kane, Woyzeck was also one of the texts which inspired the writing of her third full-length play Cleansed, together with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata (1907) and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (earliest preserved text from 1623).[35] Another influence on Cleansed was Franz Kafka’s The Trial (first edition 1925), a novel which, according to Kane, never explicitly states anything but which all the same sends its message very clearly in every moment of the novel.[36] At first glance, Kane’s plays seem to be very distant from us and from our reality. They look like something completely alien to us. However, they elicit a very direct reaction from the viewer. This seemingly contradictory reaction is, at least partially, caused by the excessive use of violence which creates two different effects. While on the one hand the plays attract us by eliciting a gut reaction from us, on the other hand they also create distance. They are very concrete and very abstract at the same time and thus give us the impression of being both close and distant from us. There is a kind of oxymoronic link of rejection and attraction, of distance and proximity that we experience during the performance of a Kane play. We are repelled and fascinated at the same time. By being unclear and cryptic, many things elude our comprehension. We neither understand the characters nor their cruel deeds towards each other. But at the same time, fluctuating between repulsion and fascination, we are hypnotised by the plays. The (profound) emotions which the drama of Sarah Kane arouses in an audience and the reactions and role of the spectator will be discussed in more detail at a later stage of this study.

After having shown how Kane melts elements of realism and surrealism with one another, I will now continue with the characteristics of her dramatic art. The issue of her concentration on the essential and her increasing reduction of the classic dramatic categories such as setting, dialogue and characterisation, is pursued in the following chapter.

3.3 The art of reduction

Analysing Kane’s body of work, it immediately strikes one that she formally reduced her drama with every new play. The formal categories of drama such as plot, setting and character, give noticeably way to a focus on language. The transition from plays that are full of action to a kind of drama which only consists of words, is a process which manifested itself little by little, from one play to the next. The habit of continually reducing the formal considerations in favour of an exclusive preoccupation with language is reminiscent of Beckett who, together with Büchner, Bond and Howard Barker, was one of the major influences on Kane and her work.[37] As pointed out earlier, there is a formal distinction between Kane’s first three and her last two plays. In Blasted, Phaedra’s Love and Cleansed the distinction between main text and scenic direction creates characters and situations and marks the stage as the space and world which is inhabited by the characters.[38] In Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, however, the stage is no longer the characters’ habitat and, in contrast to the other three plays, it is no longer the frame of reference to which their utterances refer.[39] In Kane’s later writing the characters disappear as visual categories on stage and instead dissolve into the text. They are reduced to the sound of voices and to the music and rhythm of language. In Kane’s last two plays action is substituted by the inner worlds of the characters, by what they think, feel and experience and by what they express in words. Cleansed is the decisive turning-point between Kane’s different theatre styles. In her first two plays, Blasted and Phaedra’s Love, the formal dramatic categories are still ensured. Both plays are divided into scenes, have a recognisable plot, an action indicated by abundant stage directions, and distinguishable characters whose names and gender are clearly stated. With Cleansed Kane took the first step in the direction of dissolving boundaries. Characters change their identities by adopting each others’ names, by exchanging clothes and even bodies so that the distinctions between the individuals slowly evaporate. The blur between self and other, that is the loss of identity, which is caused by the effacing of boundaries, will be discussed at another stage of the paper. Apart from characters which are no longer distinguishable from one another, in her third play Kane also introduced figures who can only be heard but who never actually appear on stage.[40] These “personless” characters, named the Voices, are reduced to speech and to action and to the effect they have on the other characters of the play. We hear what they say and see the results of their brutal deeds to which the other characters’ bodies react. While Kane’s first two plays were characterised by an abundance of dialogue, in Cleansed, the vivid intercommunication of the characters seems to erode. Characters do not exhaust the possibilities of language as a means of communication. They are taciturn. However, thanks to a very pictorial and often highly poetic language, much more is conveyed with the characters’ few words than might appear at first sight: “[Kane] uses the smallest amount of words possible to achieve coherence and completeness.”[41] Apart from the figurative language, which all of Kane’s five plays share, they are distinguished by a symbolic and sometimes surreal stage imagery. However, there are essential differences. While in her first three texts numerous scenic indications ask for a physical realisation of these images (whether they can actually be seen on stage depends, of course, on the respective performance), they are transported in her last two plays via language. This is why language is so significant in Kane’s later work: it does not only show the author’s concentration on text but it is also the only means of conveying (the characters’ inner) images. It is words that conjure up these visions. Being acoustic rather than visual plays, Crave and 4.48 Psychosis are dominated by imagination.[42] Since there is no action, the reader or spectator has to imagine what is transmitted, expressed or only hinted at by language while in the other plays the images are mostly enacted on stage. With regard to the distinction between realisation and imagination, Cleansed can be said to occupy an intermediate position in the sense that no final decision has been taken in favour of either of the two. The play stands out for both its “real” images and for those which are only imagined. Images are transported both visually and verbally. In Cleansed, the visual and the verbal belong together. They are inseparable. The “presence” of the disembodied Voices, which are not represented through physical figures, anticipates Kane’s renunciation of physicalisation for the benefit of an exclusive focus on language in her later work. With Crave Kane continued on her path of reduction. Turning away from the performance of extreme images of sex, violence and mutilation of her first three plays, she substituted physicalisation with language. Crave offers no recognisable plot to speak of. No action can be seen on stage. Leaving the trail of naturalistic theatre and its formal considerations, the playwright renounced plot and characters and concentrated on language and the power of words, which are delivered in pieces of dialogue and in soliloquies. While in Cleansed language still has the function of an interpersonal means of communication, in Crave language is no medium of communication; it is rather a means to convey thoughts and feelings, to get rid of all the burdens which weigh on the characters’ minds. Crave is conceived as a confused din of voices. The characters speak in chorus, their utterances referring to one another rather coincidentally. Reduction also manifests itself as far as the characters are concerned. They are designated by mere letters and not further characterised. Reduced to letters, the four depersonalised characters are simply called A, B, C, and M. These designations neither provide the characters with names nor with gender and therefore do not endow them with identity. Since there are no textual indications regarding place, time or the action of the characters, all they think, feel and worry about is conveyed by what they say. All the characters do is speak. All the audience can do is listen. With its abundant dialogue Crave is a reduction to the text. The viewers or listeners, one should say, are not diverted by a stage scenery or by the characters’ actions. All they can do is hear the four characters’ voices come, go, disappear and overlap. A, B, C, and M direct their sentences to an unknown addressee, and they refer to one another only seldom. Despite the fact that the characters exclusively speak, they are not verbose. As in Kane’s previous work and in her last play, words are carefully chosen. Crave cannot be limited to a mere departure from Kane’s earlier work because there are also continuities. Although marking a change of style, formally and thematically, Kane’s fourth play stands in line with her previous writing.[43] In her last play, 4.48 Psychosis, Kane continued with her reduction of the text and with the evaporation of boundaries. As in Crave, the play is virtually actionless. Neither place nor time are indicated. But this time it even remains unclear for how many actors the play was written. While in Crave the voices of the four initialled characters can be distinguished from one another, in 4.48 Psychosis the boundaries between the single individuals dissolve completely. There are only voices. The writing consists of monologues and fragments of dialogues. Being a text without characters, Kane’s last play has also been called “a dramatic poem (…), rather than a play.”[44] 4.48 Psychosis does not only represent the final piece of Kane’s body of work, but also the peak of her way of continually reducing the external nature of her theatre, such as setting and the characters’ actions, and of increasingly focusing on the text itself. With its ultimate reduction to language and with its extinction of the categories of character, place and time, the play seems to be the embodiment of dissolution and lays bare “the ultimate narrowing of Kane’s focus in her work.”[45] Connected with Kane’s habit of concentrating on the essentials is the fact that she herself, in her position as author, always kept in the background. She believed that there was no need for a play of quality to be explained and amended by any explanations.[46] Kane avoids rendering readers and spectators assistance: “If a play is good, it breathes its own air and has a life and voice of its own. What you take that voice to be saying is no concern of mine. It is what it is. Take it or leave it.”[47] Since she renounced providing explanations, we have to cope with what we see and hear by ourselves.

After having pointed out general features of Sarah Kane’s theatre, namely the interweaving of realistic and surrealistic elements and the abandonment of formal considerations which results in a shift from physicalisation to text – characteristics which apply to Kane’s complete work, I shall now concentrate on Cleansed and investigate its dramatic, thematic and linguistic nature.

4 A critical analysis of Cleansed

4.1 Form and content of the play

Kane’s third play, Cleansed, made its première at the Royal Court Theatre in London in April 1998. It is more concentrated than Kane’s debut play Blasted and also shorter. As Blasted and Phaedra’s Love, which contain five and eight scenes, respectively, Cleansed is not subdivided into acts. The play comprises a succession of a total of twenty compact scenes of different length on forty-seven pages. These scenes are discontinuous, the play is not really connected, and there is no logical development nor chronology. The text is characterised by very short sentences and spare, compressed speeches, and lines often consist of a single word. The author herself said about Cleansed: “I didn’t want to waste any words.”[48] Cohn calls attention to a possible connection between the reduction of the text and the intensification of themes and imagery: “The meaning of Cleansed (…) might be extended from its stripped down dialogue and spare architectonics.”[49] The play’s pared dialogue, verbal repetitions and long silences show again Kane’s artistic nearness to Beckett whose influence is palpable in each of her plays.[50] Even though Kane often has her characters speak in one-liners or in utterances which comprise only one word, the words they utter are nonetheless endowed with meaning and significance, thanks to the great poetry of the text. Kane herself drew attention to the fact that in the play sentences carry an allusive burden far beyond their literal meaning. She thus invited both readers and spectators to read between the lines when stating that “[a]lmost every line in Cleansed has more than one meaning.”[51] Although Kane played and experimented with language, pushing it to its very limits, she did not rely entirely upon words, as did Beckett and Pinter.[52] The distrust of language and its power, which is a general characteristic of her drama, is also obvious in the extremely reduced narrative of her third play. James Macdonald, who directed Cleansed at the Royal Court, points out that the mere text constitutes only about a third of the play, while the major part of its meaning is conveyed by the imagery.[53] This prompted theatre critics to suggest that Cleansed “shows” rather than “tells.”[54] In this respect the play differs from Kane’s next and last two plays, Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, which give special importance to language and poetry. On the other hand, there are also parallels between Cleansed and Kane’s linguistic plays. Being a poetically dense text in which not a single word is wasted, the play also anticipates the writing of her two language-anchored pieces. Cleansed, regarded as “the bleakest and most difficult of Kane’s plays”[55] by David Greig, saw the playwright withdrawing once more from realism.[56] In terms of themes, technique and stage craft it clearly stands in line with Kane’s first two plays and thus continues, on the one hand, with what the dramatist had already started before. On the other hand, Cleansed can be considered both an intensification and a reduction in comparison to Blasted and Phaedra’s Love. The condensation of Kane’s third play is compensated by its enhanced cruelty.[57] By literally reducing the text, Kane extended the imagery and thematic nature of the play. Her habit of increasingly minimising her plays in terms of spoken text, character and stage scenery has been discussed before. In the introduction of my study I have mentioned that I consider Cleansed the nucleus of Kane’s writing. It is the crucial play in that it takes an intermediate or central position within her body of work. While it marks the inception of Kane’s concentration on the text which she was to develop further in her next two plays, Cleansed is more mature than her first two plays, which manifests itself, for instance, in the number and characterisation of the figures.[58]

According to the opening stage directions, the scene of action is a university which is surrounded by a perimeter fence. Due to the fence and to the cruelties which are taking place inside the unfathomable institution, however, the setting has often been (mis)interpreted as a concentration camp or a sadistic or psychiatric hospital.[59] Like a university, the institution is a microcosm of society, a reflection of reality. The action takes place in several rooms which bear the names of colours and which are assigned a certain function within the university, such as the sanatorium, the sports hall and the library. They are all different spaces of this kind of institution. With their walls, the rooms forcefully separate the inmates. Typical of Kane, these rooms are all very circumscribed spaces, and they are very claustrophobic.

As pointed out before, Cleansed is subdivided into scenes and represents continuities in the form of parallel plot lines which emerge alternately in the process of the twenty short episodes.[60] The plot strands, which at first appear separately, interweave and converge increasingly in the course of the play as the dynamics of the characters change. The play illustrates people in search of love and happiness, but the efforts of the enigmatic institution’s inmates are constantly thwarted by a sadistic figure named Tinker under whose control they live. He experiments and tests the “students” to see how far they would go for one another and in order to “find out what power love has over them.”[61] There is a test for love in everything. In the figure of Tinker many reviewers recognised a “theatrical joke,”[62] thinking of him as the dramatic counterfeit of Jack Tinker, a journalist and theatre critic for the Daily Mail, who had fiercely attacked Kane’s debut Blasted, calling it a “disgusting feast of filth.”[63] From the very beginning of the play Tinker is introduced as a torturer who represents power and authority. He is the one who rules over the microcosm of this institution. Throughout the play Tinker is associated with death. This becomes evident right from the first scene in which he helps Graham to kill himself by means of an overdose of heroin shot into his eye. As the play proceeds, all lovers are punished by Tinker, who is a kind of big brother figure and who always keeps an eye on everyone. Tinker obliterates the human sides of the other characters in a very methodical way. The readers or audience never learn the reasons for the vile actions Tinker perpetrates. The final tableau of the play, two severed characters holding each other by the hand, could be interpreted as an indication of hope. Yet there are some disturbing elements which show that this glimmer of hope is not so reassuring after all. Our knowledge that these severely mutilated characters have suffered the cruellest tortures, casts doubt on a hopeful and redemptive ending of the play. In Cleansed, hope is an ephemeral and precarious notion. Even if the rain and Carl’s tears are replaced by the sun and Grace’s smile, violence and terror have not stopped. Their power is more devastating than ever before. The last scenic direction even includes the audience. There is no difference between the characters on stage and the spectators in the auditorium. The world on stage and the world off-stage melt into one microcosm. In the end we are left deaf and blind along with Carl and Grace: “The sun gets brighter and brighter, the squeaking of the rats louder and louder, until the light is blinding and the sound deafening. Blackout” (20:151). This last stage arrangement starts as something invigorating, but then suddenly turns into destruction. This is exactly what Cohn’s remark regarding the play’s end does not take into consideration: “Except for the rats,” she writes, “Cleansed ends on the only quiescent finale of Kane’s three carefully plotted plays of violence.”[64] She misinterprets the function of light, which she reads as a positive element, maybe transferring from Kane’s linguistic plays in which the author “[s]poradically (…) embraced the biblical metaphor of life as light.”[65] She not only ignores the information in the secondary text “until the light is blinding” (20:151), thus turning what begins as a glimmer of hope into something that annihilates, but also all the other passages throughout Cleansed in which light is presented as something that hurts, that mutilates and destroys. The natural image of light and its meaning will be further discussed in the chapter about imagery and symbolism.

It is striking that it is, above all, the play’s end where opinions are divided. While some critics read and interpret the final moments of the play as optimistic, assuming that Tinker undergoes a process of (moral) salvation,[66] others consider this ultimate redemption as ambiguous,[67] or interpret the end of the play in a completely negative way, claiming that “[f]inally, the mutilated, rat-bitten, cross-dressed characters conclude that all activity in life is pointless.”[68] Interestingly, there is a close connection between the lack of agreement regarding the ending of the play and the ambiguity concerning its title. We neither know whether the verb is used in its past participle or adjective form nor what exactly the title indicates or refers to. The word “cleansed,” which can never be heard on stage throughout the play,[69] is ambiguous in the sense that it could either suggest (moral) redemption in the biblical sense, which some of the characters undergo through the process of love, or it could be understood as an insinuation to the extermination of some of the inmates.[70] The opaqueness regarding the title and the open end of Cleansed stand in line with Kane’s other plays and can be most perfectly called an evident feature of her writing. In her plays we do not find an authorial closure,[71] and this is, according to Sierz, a typical characteristic of drama in the nineties where playwrights resisted the naturalistic structure of the “well-made-play” with a clear beginning, middle and end.[72] Kane had the habit of not explicitly stating everything. Many things are only suggested or hinted at or remain in complete obscurity. In the end we neither learn what will become of Carl and Grace, nor whether the unification of Tinker and the Woman is temporary or lasting. Kane’s denial of any responsibility towards the audience is reminiscent of Pinter, who in his well-known speech, which was later published under the title “Writing for the Theatre,” also stresses the importance of the playwright not providing easy solutions and not revealing too much concerning the characters:


[1] See Aleks Sierz, In-Yer-Face Theatre (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), pp. 91-2.

[2] See Sierz, In-Yer-Face Theatre, pp. 91-2; see also Graham Saunders, “Love me or kill me”: Sarah Kane and the theatre of extremes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), p. 39. The University of Birmingham’s postgraduate course in playwriting studies was founded by dramatist David Edgar in 1989;

see David Edgar (ed.), State of Play. Issue 1: Playwrights on Playwriting (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), pp. vii, 34.

[3] See Sierz, In-Yer-Face Theatre, pp. 91-3; see also Dan Rebellato, “Sarah Kane: an Appreciation,” New Theatre Quarterly, 59 (1999), p. 280.

[4] Cf. Sarah Kane who considered the uproar as being launched exclusively by the press: “I think it’s important not to confuse press with audience. There was media outrage, but it was never a public outcry.” Kane, quoted in Heidi Stephenson and Natasha Langridge, Rage and Reason. Women Playwrights on Playwriting (London: Methuen, 1997), p. 130.

[5] See Aleks Sierz, “Beyond Timidity? The State of British New Writing,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 81 (2005), p. 55.

[6] See David Greig, “Introduction,” in Sarah Kane, Complete Plays (London: Methuen, 2001), p. x.

[7] See Sierz, In-Yer-Face Theatre, pp. 96-7; see also Saunders, “Love me or kill me, pp. xi, 24-5 and Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright, Changing Stages. A View of British Theatre in the Twentieth Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), p. 375. Pinter was full of praise for Kane’s debut Blasted; see David Sexton, “Life in the old dog yet,” The Daily Telegraph, 16 March 1995, p. 12; see also Simon Hattenstone, “A sad hurrah,” The Guardian Weekend, 1 July 2000, p. 31. Bond positively comments on Kane’s first four plays in his letter to the young playwright; see Edward Bond, “Letter to Sarah Kane, 15 September 1997,” in Edward Bond, Letters 1 (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 167-9. He also speaks highly of Blasted and Cleansed in his letter to the writer Michael Mangan; see Edward Bond, “Letter to Michael Mangan, 12 April 1997,” in Bond, Letters 1, p. 139. After the young playwright’s death Bond wrote a passionate appreciation of Kane in which he compares her to those dramatists whose work “changes the human reality.” Edward Bond, “Sarah Kane and theatre,” in Saunders, “Love me or kill me, pp. 189-91.

[8] The years given behind all plays mentioned in this study refer to the first publication, not the first production of the work.

[9] Saunders, “Love me or kill me, p. 117; several other authors use the phrase; see, for example, Rebellato, “Sarah Kane: an Appreciation,” p. 280.

[10] See Sierz, “Beyond Timidity?,” p. 55.

[11] See Mary Luckhurst, “An Embarrassment of Riches. Women Dramatists in 1990s Britain,” in Bernhard Reitz and Mark Berninger (eds.), British Drama of the 1990s (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 2002), p. 75; see also Elaine Aston and Janelle Reinelt, “A century in view: from suffrage to the 1990s,” in Elaine Aston and Janelle Reinelt (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 1; see also Edgar, State of Play, p. 8 and Michael Raab, Erfahrungs-räume: Das englische Drama der neunziger Jahre (Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1999), p. 18.

[12] See Sierz, “Beyond Timidity?,” p. 57; see also Aleks Sierz, “In-Yer-Face Theatre. Mark Ravenhill and 1990s Drama,” in Reitz and Berninger, British Drama of the 1990s, p. 114.

[13] See Ken Urban, “An Ethics of Catastrophe: The Theatre of Sarah Kane,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 69 (2001), p. 37. These terms and, above all, the addition “new” are not quite correct and somewhat misleading; the movement should be regarded as a second wave of “new brutalism.” Aston points out that the expression was already used during the 1980s where it referred to feminist plays such as the pieces of the teenage dramatist Andrea Dunbar, which showed the brutality and oppression of working class life especially women had to suffer; see Elaine Aston, An introduction to feminism and theatre (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 77.

[14] See Sierz, “In-Yer-Face Theatre. Mark Ravenhill and 1990s Drama,” p. 109.

[15] See Sierz, In-Yer-Face Theatre, pp. xii, 234; see also Raimund Borgmeier, “‘Let’s make it really, really rude’: The British Confrontational Theatre of the 1990s,” in Christiane Schlote and Peter Zenzinger (eds.), New Beginnings in Twentieth-Century Theatre and Drama – Essays in Honour of Armin Geraths (Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2003), pp. 81, 84. Although I use the word “movement” here, it is important to mention that Sierz himself does not consider “in-yer-face” theatre as such and instead uses the terms “new sensibility” and “aesthetic style;” see Sierz, “In-Yer-Face Theatre. Mark Ravenhill and 1990s Drama,” p. 114; see also Aleks Sierz, “Cool Britannia? ‘In-Yer-Face’ Writing in the British Theatre Today,” New Theatre Quarterly, 56 (1998), p. 333, where he adds the expression “temporary phenomenon.”

[16] Graham Saunders, “The Apocalyptic Theatre of Sarah Kane,” in Reitz and Berninger, British Drama of the 1990s, p. 130.

[17] Rebecca Prichard, “Plays by Women: Clare McIntyre, Winsome Pinnock, Rebecca Prichard,” in Edgar, State of Play, p. 60.

[18] See Elaine Aston and Janelle Reinelt, “Editors’ note” to “Part 4: The Subject of Identity,” in Aston and Reinelt, The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights, pp. 214-5.

[19] Kane, quoted in Stephenson and Langridge, Rage and Reason, pp. 134-5.

[20] Greig, Complete Plays, p. ix.

[21] See Greig, Complete Plays, p. ix. An additional comment is necessary. Despite the fact that throughout my study I stress Kane’s retreat from naturalism it must be mentioned that her first three plays also bear typically naturalistic characteristics which becomes obvious, for example, in the abundant stage directions, the milieu of the characters and their way of speaking which includes instances of stuttering.

[22] Ruby Cohn, “Sarah Kane, an Architect of Drama,” Cycnos, 18:1 (2001), p. 39.

[23] See Cohn, “Sarah Kane, an Architect of Drama,” p. 46.

[24] See Urban, “An Ethics of Catastrophe,” p. 43.

[25] Cohn, “Sarah Kane, an Architect of Drama,” p. 39.

[26] Unless stated otherwise, all quotations from Sarah Kane’s work come from Complete Plays (2001). All subsequent references to Kane’s plays will use this source and will be given in the body of the text. A reference such as (1:3) refers to the scene followed by the page number.

[27] Kane, quoted in Stephenson and Langridge, Rage and Reason, p. 133.

[28] See Sierz, In-Yer-Face Theatre, p. 244.

[29] See Sierz, “In-Yer-Face Theatre. Mark Ravenhill and 1990s Drama,” p. 115; see also Sierz, In-Yer-Face Theatre, p. 244.

[30] Sierz, In-Yer-Face Theatre, p. 120; see also Sierz, “Cool Britannia?,” p. 332, Bernhard Reitz, “Fringe Prophecies and Subsidized Warnings: Political Theatre in the Thatcher Era,” in Bernhard Reitz and Heiko Stahl (eds.), What Revels are in Hand? Assessments of Contemporary Drama in English in Honour of Wolfgang Lippke (Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2001), pp. 118-9 and Dan Rebellato, “Sarah Kane,” in Colin Chambers (ed.), The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre (London and New York: Continuum, 2002), p. 413.

[31] See Anna Opel, Sprachkörper: Zur Relation von Sprache und Körper in der zeitgenössischen Dramatik – Werner Fritsch, Rainald Goetz, Sarah Kane (Bielefeld: Aisthesis Verlag, 2002), p. 185.

[32] See Sierz, In-Yer-Face Theatre, p. 117.

[33] See David Benedict, “Real live horror show,” The Independent, 9 May 1998, p. 18.

[34] Kane, quoted in Dominic Cavendish, “Kane and Able. Sarah Kane’s notoriety over Blasted eclipsed her talent as a playwright. Dominic Cavendish meets the woman behind the infamy,” The Big Issue, 3 November 1997.

[35] See Nils Tabert, “Gespräch mit Sarah Kane,” in Nils Tabert (ed.), Playspotting: Die Londoner Theaterszene der 90er (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 2001), pp. 18-9.

[36] See Tabert, “Gespräch mit Sarah Kane,” p. 8.

[37] See Greig, Complete Plays, p. xv.

[38] See Opel, Sprachkörper, pp. 132-3.

[39] See Opel, Sprachkörper, pp. 133, 173.

[40] Interestingly, the use of disembodied voices features also in the later plays of Beckett; see Andrew Kennedy, Six dramatists in search of a language (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 139, 152, 157, 163-4.

[41] Urban, “An Ethics of Catastrophe,” p. 42.

[42] See Opel, Sprachkörper, p. 173.

[43] See Greig, Complete Plays, p. xv.

[44] Cohn, “Sarah Kane, an Architect of Drama,” p. 47; see also Michael Billington who, in his review of 4.48 Psychosis, uses the terms “dramatised poem” and “ruthlessly self-analytical theatrical poem.” Michael Billington, “How do you judge a 75-minute suicide note?” The Guardian, 30 June 2000, p. 5.

[45] Greig, Complete Plays, p. xvi.

[46] See Greig, Complete Plays, p. xviii; see also Saunders, “Love me or kill me, p. 27.

[47] Kane, “Afterword to Blasted,” in Frontline Intelligence 2: New Plays for the Nineties, selected and introduced by Pamela Edwardes (London: Methuen, 1994), p. 51.

[48] Kane, quoted in Dan Rebellato, “Brief Encounter Platform,” public interview with Sarah Kane, Royal Halloway College, London, 3 November 1998.

[49] Cohn, “Sarah Kane, an Architect of Drama,” p. 43.

[50] See Saunders, “Love me or kill me, p. 55.

[51] Kane, quoted in Claire Armitstead, “No pain, no Kane,” The Guardian Weekend, 29 April 1998, p. 12.

[52] Pinter made no secret of his scepticism about language: “I have mixed feelings about words myself. Moving among them, sorting them out, watching them appear on the page, from this I derive a considerable pleasure. But at the same time I have another strong feeling about words which amounts to nothing less than nausea.” Harold Pinter, “Introduction: Writing for the Theatre,” in Harold Pinter, Plays: One (London: Eyre Methuen, 1976), p. 13.

[53] See Graham Saunders, “Conversation with James Macdonald,” in Saunders, “Love me or kill me, p. 122.

[54] See Aston and Reinelt, “A century in view,” p. 1.

[55] Greig, Complete Plays, p. xii.

[56] See Saunders, “Love me or kill me, p. 87.

[57] See Cohn, “Sarah Kane, an Architect of Drama,” p. 43.

[58] See Cohn, “Sarah Kane, an Architect of Drama,” p. 43.

[59] See Cohn, “Sarah Kane, an Architect of Drama,” p. 43; see also Opel, Sprachkörper, p. 140 and Saunders, “Love me or kill me, pp. 87, 93; Rebellato puts the connection of a university and the atrocities committed there down to the “famously fractious relationship she had with the two institutions at which she studied.” Rebellato, “Sarah Kane: an Appreciation,” p. 281. The idea that in Cleansed the action takes place in a psychiatric clinic may in part stem from the fact that the play is dedicated to “the patients and staff of ES3” (Complete Plays, p.105), the ward of the hospital in London in which Kane stayed several times; see Klaus Peter Müller, “British Theatre in the 1980s and 1990s: Forms of Hope and Despair, Violence and Love,” in Reitz and Stahl, What Revels are in Hand?, p. 102; see also Margarete Rubik who, as the others referring to the play’s dedication, suggests the possibility of reading the excessive violence in Cleansed as “an indictment of psychiatry.” Margarete Rubik, “Saying the Unspeakable: Realism and Metaphor in the Depiction of Torture in Modern Drama,” in Reitz and Stahl, What Revels are in Hand?, p. 135.

[60] See Cohn, “Sarah Kane, an Architect of Drama,” p. 43.

[61] Greig, Complete Plays, p. xii.

[62] Saunders, “Love me or kill me, p. 96.

[63] Jack Tinker, quoted in Hattenstone, “A sad hurrah,” p. 26.

[64] Cohn, “Sarah Kane, an Architect of Drama,” p. 44.

[65] Cohn, “Sarah Kane, an Architect of Drama,” p. 49.

[66] See Saunders, “Love me or kill me, p. 31; cf. Urban, “An Ethics of Catastrophe,” p. 37.

[67] See Greig, Complete Plays, p. xv.

[68] Sanford Sternlicht, A Reader’s Guide to Modern British Drama (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2004), p. 236.

[69] See Cohn, “Sarah Kane, an Architect of Drama,” p. 44.

[70] See Saunders, “Love me or kill me, p. 93.

[71] See Urban, “An Ethics of Catastrophe,” p. 40.

[72] See Sierz, In-Yer-Face Theatre, p. 245.

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Violence in Contemporary British Drama: Sarah Kane's play "Cleansed"
Free University of Berlin  (Fachbereich Philosophie und Geisteswissenschaften Institut für Englische Philologie)
Abschlussarbeit Englische Literaturwissenschaft
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Violence, Contemporary, British, Drama, Sarah, Kane’s, Cleansed, Abschlussarbeit, Englische, Literaturwissenschaft
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Magistra Artium Lea Jasmin Gutscher (Author), 2007, Violence in Contemporary British Drama: Sarah Kane's play "Cleansed", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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