Love Me or Kill Me

The Predominance of Love over Violence in 'Cleansed and Crave' by Sarah Kane

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

21 Pages, Grade: 1.5



1. Introduction- A fresh approach to the plays of Sarah Kane

2. CleansedandCrave: Love versus Violence

3. Conclusion- Among sex and violence: real art and real heart


1. A fresh approach to the plays of Sarah Kane

From first to last [the] play is concerned with sexual and phy­si­cal vio­lence. (…) Nobody (…) will deny that it is the function of the theatre to re­flect the horrific undercurrents of con­tem­porary life. But it cannot be allowed, even in the name of freedom of speech, to do so without aim, purpose or meaning.

[The play] isn’t just disgusting, it’s pathetic (…) a lazy, tawdry piece of work without an idea in its head beyond an adolescent desire to shock.[1]

Accusations like these give evidence of how emotional, outraged, and hysterical thea­tre critics react when challenged by unexpectedly shocking and in­di­gestible per­for­man­ces. It may come as a surprise that the above extracts are neither part of one single cri­tique, nor do they refer to one single play. The first quote refers to Edward Bond’sSaved(1965), whereas the second one refers to the late Sarah Kane’sBlasted(1995). Not in­ci­dentally, both play­wrights were accused by nume­rous irritated critics of com­mitting the same un­acceptable affront: They were reproached for depicting the most dis­gusting forms of violence on stage, merely for the sake of paying tribute to violence itself. ConcerningSaved,this notion sub­se­quently waned and gave way to a gra­dual reassessment of the play: Today, it is con­si­dered a piece of work as in­flu­ential for the develop­ment of British dra­ma after 1945 as John Os­borne’sLook Back in Anger(1956), or Samuel Beckett’sWai­ting for Godot(1954). This revaluation was probably not least due to Bond’s pre­faces toSavedand the later playLear, in which he explained not only his motives for, but in fact the plain necessity of, representing violence: “Violence shapes and ob­sesses our society, and if we do not stop being violent we have no future (…) It would be im­moral not to write about violence” (Bond 1978: 3). Although accepting and in fact ad­miring Bond’s decision to comment on his own work, Sarah Kane was always very reluctant about making “authorised” state­ments concerning her work: “I adore Edward Bond’s writing and I think that the fore­words and afterwords he writes are brilliant, but there’s no point in me trying to do that because I can’t do it – it’s not what I am”[2]. Nevertheless, she did provide equally com­­­prehensible or even con­vincing rea­sons for putting violence on stage: “If you are saying you can’t represent some­thing, you are saying you can’t talk about it, you are denying its existence, and that’s an extraordinarily ignorant thing to do.”[3]Pa­ra­doxi­cal as it might seem – considering this apparent com­mitment to the re­pre­sen­ta­tion of violence – violence is only a marginal topic in all of Kane’s plays. The gap between some of the early reviews ofBlastedandCleansedand the author’s own rare statements about those plays seems to be unbridgeable. On the one hand, there is an incredible uproar in the press about a “disgusting feast of filth” that “appears to know no bounds of decency, yet has no message to convey”[4]. And on the other hand, there is the author of this work, saying about those very plays: “It never seemed to me they were really plays about violence or cruel­ty. Both things were incidental when it’s about how you con­tinue to love and hope when those things still exist.”[5]

Thus, based on an analysis of the 1998 playCleansed, this paper aims at a re­assess­ment and revaluation of Sarah Kane’s work: Violence – both physical and emotional – is an important ingredient, and yet only a minor theme in the plays. It is dominated by the all-encompassing theme of love. Love and violence, however, are not examined as two separate individual experiences. On the contrary, it is their over­­­lapping that is scrutinised.

2. Cleansed and Crave: Love versus Violence

Because love and violence are not dealt with separately, a few arguments con­cer­ning the distressing (omni-)presence of often explicit and gory violence in the plays of Sarah Kane must be mentioned before elaborating on the complex theme of love.

In view of the outrageous critiques that welcomed Kane’s early plays, it is remarkable to note that none of the gruesome stage di­rec­tions in Kane’s plays (that were held responsible for triggering off this outcry) are original in the sense that they had not been put on stage before.

Sex and violence are scarcely new in theatre. The greatest of the ancient Greek tragedies deal with extreme states of mind: brutal deaths and terrible suicides, agonizing pain and dreadful suffering, human sacrifice and cannibalism, rape and incest, mutilations and humiliations. (Sierz 2000: 10).

More recent examples for stage violence are found without difficulty, too: With Ed­ward Bond’sLear, eye-gouging (cf.Blasted) had been put on stage, adding to the mu­ti­­la­tion of a charac­ter (cf.Clean­sed)[6]; in his earlier playSaveda baby was not eaten, but stoned to death, which at the time caused an equivalent public scandal as the act of canni­balism inBlasted; in Howard Bren­ton’sThe Romans in Bri­tain, anal rape (cf.Blasted, Cleansed) was first put on stage while Britain was displayed as a war zone as inBlasted[7]. Admittedly, (naturalistic) onstage presentations of (both homo- and he­tero-)sexual intercourse, vomiting, mastur­bating, or drug-injection were still fairly new de­vel­op­ments in the theatre – yet, even with those one cannot speak of Sarah Kane as their originator.[8]This is even more true of the extensive use of swear- and four-letter words that had its first climax shortly after the abolishment of the theatre cen­sure in 1968 (Schnierer 1997: 102, 108). Four letter words saw their “re­naissance” (and sometimes exaggerated use) at the be­gin­ning of the 1990s, starting with the first plays of “In-Yer-Face Thea­tre”.

In short, the reason for the in­cre­dible outrage in the press following the openings of Kane’s ear­ly plays cannot possibly be ascribed to the explicit display of vio­­lence alone, simply because: At the time when Kane appeared as a playwright, vio­lence had long ceased to be new in the theatre; it could no longer suffice as a shock tactic. Thus, the out­­cry must have been induced by other characteristics of Kane’s plays.[9]

In fact, her plays are very different from most plays that appeared in Britain in the 1990s in at least four respects. First of all, Kane was a woman. Until then, violence, sex, and swearing had been phenomena to be brought on stage by male playwrights. The second reason is closely linked to theformof Kane’s plays: What makes them much more disturbing than their violent “pre­de­cessors” is that they do not fit the familiar labels of either naturalistic realism, or me­ta­­phorical sym­bo­lism. They are neither the one nor the other – or perhaps they are both. Inte­restingly, Kane herself came up with an alternative for those labels: “I think the press outrage was due to the play beingexperientialrather than spe­cu­la­tive.”[10]Theatre was no longer understood as (either realistic or symbolical) re­pre­sen­ta­tion, but was about experience and inter-action between performance and au­dience. The third reason rendering Kane’s plays so special might have to do with the apparentamoralityof the plays. People were badly shaken because Kane refused to make mo­ral statements about what atrocities her characters performed on­stage; she did not seem to condemn the monsters she created[11]:

I think [Blastedis] amoral, and I think that is one of the rea­sons people got terribly upset because there isn’t a very defined moral framework within which to place yourself and assess your morality and therefore distance your­self from the material.[12]

The fourth reason refers to the overlapping of violence, aggression, physical and sexual abuse on the one hand, and sympathy, tenderness, the yearning for love, and even love itself on the other hand: “This combination of cruelty under­scored with ten­der­­ness and an almost ruthless belief and adherence to the truth seems to be at odds with the work of Kane’s contemporaries from the so-called ‘Theatre of Ennui’…”[13]. Not incidentally, it is this very combination that makes Kane’s plays so diffi­cult and distressing, because it hinders the audience from simply distan­cing them­­selves from the on­stage atrocities. What Michael Billington said aboutBlasted’s character Ian is equally true ofCleansed’s Tinker, orCrave’s ‘A’ and ‘B’ (as well as Phaedra’s lover: Hippolytus), which renders it a general statement about Kane’s blen­ding techniques: “There is something both brutal and mysterious about the way Ian mixes protestations of love with exploitative sexual violence. (…) Ian blends blud­geo­ning coarseness with a pathetic need for affection.”[14]With Kane, affection, ten­der­ness, and love are never directly opposed to brutality, cruelty, and vio­lence, just as the “I” is not opposed to the “you”, and the characters are not opposed to the au­dience. Instead of binary oppositions, everything seems to be part of a complex system of relations, interference, and interdependence[15].


[1]Herbert Kretzmer,Daily Express, 4 November 1965 (as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 24); second quote: Charles Spencer,Daily Telegraph, 1995 (as quoted in: Saunders 2002a: 133).

[2]Kane, interview with Graham Saunders (as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 27).

[3]Kane, interview with Bayley,Independent, 23 January 1995 (as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 24).

[4]Jack Tinker,Daily Mail, 19 January 1995 (as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 37).

[5]Kane, interview with Nils Tabert (as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 32). N.B. all quotes from the in­ter­view with Nils Ta­bert are taken from Tabert 2001; however, since they are translated into German in Tabert 2001, I decided to use the English version (as quoted in: Saunders 2002a and 2002b), instead of translating them back into English which might have changed them accidentally.

[6]In fact, Ian “crying, huge bloody tears” (Kane 2001: 60) looks like some uncanny reincarnation of Lear; cf. Lear: “… O my eyes. This crying’s opened my wounds. There’s blood again. Quick, quick, help me! My eyes, my eyes!” (II, 7: 81). A vivid example of explicit violence is found in I, 4 ofLearin which Warrington is tortured and horribly mutilated while Fontanelle is raging like a madwoman, whereas Bodice is knitting (!).

[7]“The THIRD SOLDIER, now half naked, takes the knife (…), kneels and cuts MARBAN on the buttocks. (…) [He] holds MARBAN’S thighs and attempts to bugger him” (Brenton 1980; I, 3: 40f.). Numerous more examples for spectacularly violent scenes are encountered if one refers back to the theatrical tradition before the introduction of censorship in 1737 (cf. Sierz 2001: 10-30).

[8]Among others, especially Aleks Sierz has done a lot of research on the 1990s phenomenon of In-Yer-Face Theatre; the above mentioned characteristics prove to be characteristics of “In-Yer-Face plays” in general rather than individual characteristics of Kane’s early playsBlasted, Phaedra’s Love, andCleansed(Sierz 2002: 107-110; Sierz 2001: viif., 4-10).

[9]The outcry happened in the press, not in the public; Kane repeatedly emphasised that: “There was media outrage, but it was never a public outcry.” (Sierz 2001: 97).

[10]Kane (as quoted in: Sierz 2001: 98; my emphasis).

[11]“Ms Kane on the other hand, offers her audience scarcely a clue as to why her characters should be­have as they do …” Jack Tinker,Daily Mail(as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 11). Mr. Tinker, however, might have been mis­led: true, Kane does not make the motives explicitinthe play. But it is very pro­bable that she shared E. Bond’s opinion that people “respond aggressively when [they] are deprived of [their] physical and emotional needs or when [they] are threatened with this; and if [they] are constantly deprived and threatened in this way – as human beings now are – [they] live in a constant state of aggression.” (Bond 1978: 3f.) cf. the corres­pon­dence to Ian and the soldier inBlasted.

[12]Kane,Start the Week, BBC Radio 4; date unknown (as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 27).

[13]Nightingale,Future of Theatre, p.21 (as quoted in: Saunders 2002b: 34).

[14]Michael Billington,Guardian, 5 April 2001.

[15]In this context it is worth mentioning that Kane again and again stressed the importance of the audience’s in­volve­­ment in the play. What fascinated her most concerning theatre was that it is the only medium that is a live per­formance art. Because, what Kane was most interested in was: that there would be some kind of reciprocal inter­action between audience and performance. But this interaction only works if the audience is prevented to merely sit back and consume. Shock tactics are one device to achieve such ambitious aim.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Love Me or Kill Me
The Predominance of Love over Violence in 'Cleansed and Crave' by Sarah Kane
University of Freiburg  (Englisches Seminar)
Hauptseminar: British Drama after 1945
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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529 KB
"An excellent paper. [...] You argue an excellent case for taking Kane seriously."
British Drama after 1945, Sarah Kane, In-Yer-Face-Theatre, queer theatre, queerness, violence, love, sex, gender, homosexuality, gay, lesbian, transgender, theatre, Cleansed, Crave, Blasted, 4.48 Psychosis, British Theatre, 1990s theatre
Quote paper
Hanna Kubowitz (Author), 2003, Love Me or Kill Me, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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