Sarah Kane (3 February 1971 – 20 February 1999) was an English playwright. Her plays deal with themes of redemptive love, sexual desire, pain, torture—both physical and psychological—and death. They are characterised by a poetic intensity, pared-down language, exploration of theatrical form and, in her earlier work, the use of extreme and violent stage action. Kane herself, as well as scholars of her work, such as Graham Saunders, identify some of her inspirations as expressionist theatre and Jacobean tragedy. The critic Aleks Sierz has seen her work as part of what he has termed In-Yer-Face theatre, a form of drama which broke away from the conventions of naturalist theatre. Kane's published work consists of five plays, one short film (Skin), and two newspaper articles for The Guardian.
Born in Brentwood, Essex, and raised by evangelical parents, Kane was a committed Christian in adolescence. Later, however, she rejected those beliefs. After attending Shenfield High School, she studied drama at Bristol University, graduating in 1992, and went on to take an MA course in play writing at the University of Birmingham, led by the playwright David Edgar.
Kane struggled with severe depression for many years and was twice voluntarily admitted to the Maudsley Hospital in London. However, she wrote consistently, if slowly, throughout her adult life. For a year she was writer-in-residence for Paines Plough, a theatre company promoting new writing, where she actively encouraged other writers. Before that, she had worked briefly as literary associate for the Bush Theatre, London. Kane died in 1999, when, two days after taking an overdose of prescription drugs, she committed suicide by hanging herself by her shoelaces in a bathroom at London's King's College Hospital.
Kane originally wanted to be a poet, but decided that she was unable to convey her thoughts and feelings through poetry. She wrote that she was attracted to the stage because "theatre has no memory, which makes it the most existential of the arts... I keep coming back in the hope that someone in a darkened room somewhere will show me an image that burns itself into my mind".
Kane's first play was Blasted. Kane wrote the first two scenes while a student in Birmingham, where they were given a public performance. The agent Mel Kenyon was in the audience and subsequently represented Kane, suggesting she should show her work to the Royal Court Theatre in London. The completed play, directed by James Macdonald, opened at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1995. The action is set in a room of a luxurious hotel in Leeds where Ian, a racist and foul-mouthed middle-aged journalist, first tries to seduce and later rapes Cate, an innocent, simple-minded young woman. From its opening in a naturalistic—though troubling—world, the play takes on different, nightmarish dimensions when a soldier, armed with a sniper's rifle, appears in the room. The narrative ultimately breaks into a series of increasingly disturbing short scenes. Its scenes of anal rape, cannibalism, and other forms of brutality, created one of the biggest theatre scandals in London since Edward Bond's Saved in 1965. Kane admired Bond's work, and he in turn publicly defended Kane's play and talent. Other dramatists whom Kane particularly liked and who could be seen as influences include Samuel Beckett, Howard Barker, and Georg Büchner, whose play Woyzeck she later directed (Gate Theatre, London 1997).
Blasted was fiercely attacked in the British press. The Daily Mail drama critic Jack Tinker wrote a review headlined "this disgusting feast of filth". This reaction was shared, if in slightly more muted terms, by most other critics. Blasted was, however, praised by fellow playwrights Martin Crimp, Harold Pinter (who became a friend), Caryl Churchill, who considered it "rather a tender play". It was later seen to be making parallels between domestic violence and the war in Bosnia, and between emotional and physical violence. Kane said, "The logical conclusion of the attitude that produces an isolated rape in England is the rape camps in Bosnia and the logical conclusion to the way society expects men to behave is war." Blasted was produced again in 2001 at the Royal Court. The assistant director of this production, Joseph Hill-Gibbins, suggests that "The argument is made through form, through the shifts in styles in Blasted. That's how she constructs the argument, by taking this setting in an English Northern industrial town and suddenly transporting the action to a war zone." The critical realism that the first scene sets up is "literally blasted apart" in Scene Two. The critic Ken Urban says that "for Kane, hell is not metaphysical: it is hyperreal, reality magnified".
Skin was an eleven-minute screenplay written for Channel 4, a British TV station, depicting a violent relationship between a black woman and a racist skinhead. It was first shown at the London Film Festival in October 1995 and televised by Channel 4 in 1997. The film is directed by Vincent O'Connell and stars Ewen Bremner, Marcia Rose, Yemi Ajibade and James Bannon.
Kane was then commissioned by the Gate Theatre, London, to write a play inspired by a classic text. Phaedra's Love was loosely based on the classical dramatist Seneca's play Phaedra, but given a contemporary setting. In this reworking of the myth of Phaedra's doomed love for her stepson Hippolytus, it is Hippolytus, rather than Phaedra, who takes the central role. It is Hippolytus' emotional cruelty which pushes Phaedra to suicide. Kane reversed classical tradition by showing, rather than describing, violent action on stage. The play contains some of Kane's wittiest and most cynical dialogue. Kane described it as "my comedy". Directed by Kane, it was first performed at the Gate Theatre in 1996.
Cleansed premiered at the Royal Court's theatre downstairs in April 1998, and was directed by James Macdonald. This was at the time the most expensive production in the Royal Court's history. Kane had written the play after reading Roland Barthes' assertion that "being in love is like being in Auschwitz". Cleansed is set in what Kane in her stage directions described as a university but which functions more as a torture chamber or concentration camp, overseen by the sadistic Tinker. It places a young woman and her brother, a disturbed boy, a gay couple and a peepshow dancer within this world of extreme cruelty in which declarations of love are viciously tested. It pushes the limits of what can be realised in the theatre: stage directions include "a sunflower pushes through the floor and grows above their heads" and "the rats carry Carl's feet away". The play was presented at the National Theatre in London in 2016, the first time any of Kane's work had been performed there.
A change in critical opinion occurred with Kane's fourth play, Crave, which was directed by Vicky Featherstone and presented by Paines Plough at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1998. The play was performed under the pseudonym of Marie Kelvedon, partly because the notion amused Kane, but also so that the play could be viewed without the taint of its author's notorious reputation. "Marie" was Kane's middle name and she was brought up in the town of Kelvedon Hatch in Essex.
Crave marks a break from the on-stage violence of Kane's previous works and a move to a freer, sometimes lyrical writing style, at times inspired by her reading of the Bible and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. It has four characters, each identified only by a letter of the alphabet. It dispenses with plot and unlike her earlier work, with its highly specific stage directions, gives no indication what actions, if any, the actors should perform on stage, nor does it give any setting for the play. As such, it may have been influenced by Martin Crimp's 1997 play Attempts on Her Life, which similarly dispenses with setting and overall narrative. Kane had written of her admiration for Crimp's formal innovations. The work is highly intertextual. At the time, Kane regarded it as the "most despairing" of her plays, written when she had lost "faith in love".
Her last play, 4.48 Psychosis, was completed shortly before she died and was performed in 2000, at the Royal Court, directed by James Macdonald. This, Kane's shortest and most fragmented theatrical work, dispenses with plot and character, and no indication is given as to how many actors were intended to voice the play. Written at a time when Kane was suffering from severe depression, it has been described by her fellow-playwright and friend David Greig as having as its subject the "psychotic mind". According to Greig, the title derives from the time—4:48 a.m.—when Kane, in her depressed state, frequently woke in the morning.
Though Kane's work never played to large audiences in the UK and was at first dismissed by many newspaper critics, her plays have been widely performed in Europe, Australia and South America. In 2005, the theatre director Dominic Dromgoole wrote that she was "without doubt the most performed new writer on the international circuit". Fellow-playwright Mark Ravenhill has said her plays "have almost certainly achieved canonical status". At one point in Germany, there were 17 simultaneous productions of her work. In November 2010, the theatre critic Ben Brantley of the New York Times described the SoHo Rep's "shattering production" of Kane's Blasted (which had opened two years previously) as "one of the most important New York premieres of the decade". Playwright Robert Askins, who received a 2015 Tony Award nomination for Best Play for Hand to God, has cited Kane as a major inspiration.