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4.48 Psychosis: The Struggle of a Young Playwright

by Brian Lobel

Sarah Kane burst on the London stage at the age of 24, in a media frenzy of scorn, derision and distaste for her work. It was the kind of response that might devastate most young playwrights. Sarah Kane was not like most young playwrights. By the time of her tragic death in 1999, Kane’s work had garnered international critical acclaim. Her plays continue to be translated and performed throughout the world today, with a growing awareness of this troubled playwright and her troubling brand of theater. The controversy began over Blasted, Kane’s first play presented at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1995. Her debut work featured a litany of graphic images pertaining to rape, war and dehumanization. Some critics called Blasted "a disgusting feast of filth," and a few even called for the Royal Court to be stripped of its governmental subsidy for producing the work. In the midst of that critical firestorm, several noted British playwrights quickly came to Kane’s defense, including Caryl Churchill (Cloud Nine), Harold Pinter (Betrayal) and Edward Bond (Saved). Bond wrote, "The images in Blasted are ancient. They are seen in all great ages of art, in Greek or Jacobean Theatre, in Noh or Kabuki. The play changes some of the images – but all artists do that to bring the ancient imagery, changed and unchanged, into the focus of their age. The humanity of Blasted moved me. I worry for those too busy or lost that they cannot see its humanity." The standard bearers of British theater had recognized that an important new voice was being heard. Kane didn’t intend to create a transitory shock, but instead to poetically describe the horrific reality of the modern world. "Experiential theatre," she said, "purposes to make the audience feel as though they have experienced what was presented before them onstage." The grotesquerie of Kane’s theater is not simply self-indulgent; it is meant, very directly, to shock the audience out of their comfort zone and into a more nightmarish reality. Kane’s early plays were sweeping investigations of power, like the aforementioned Blasted. They include Phaedra’s Love, based on Seneca’s classic story of a scheming mother and son, and a later play, Cleansed, which centered on the survival of love amongst a group of inmates in a futuristic concentration camp. As Kane continued to write, her work grew increasingly personal, as evidenced by Crave, an intimate piece on interpersonal power dynamics, which finally achieved broader recognition for the young writer. However, Kane’s final work, 4.48 Psychosis, is widely considered her most personal. The young writer, who battled clinical depression her entire life, created a shocking, yet imaginative porthole into the mind of a mentally ill woman. 4.48 Psychosis heralds a break with all theatrical conventions–the play reads more like a poem, without character distinctions or stage directions –and even presents much of Kane’s personal medical history–her struggle with antidepressants, suicidal tendencies and her philosophical wrestling with the idea of mortality. Sarah Kane’s life and career came to an abrupt end, when the playwright hanged herself at a London hospital in February 1999. When 4.48 Psychosis premiered one month after her suicide, the connection between the playwright and her work was apparent to all. As one character puts it, "I dreamt I went to the doctor’s and she gave me eight minutes to live. I’d been sitting in the f**king waiting room half an hour." Kane was 28 years old.

The Hypocrites in the Garage

Some of Chicago’s most talented theater artists have brought their unique points of view to our stages as part of the Visiting Company Initiative. The Hypocrites are no exception, as they present the Chicago premiere of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis in the Garage Theatre this fall. Backstage asked The Hypocrites’ Artistic Director Sean Graney to explain the name behind their critically acclaimed company: "The easiest thing to say is that it is derived from the Greek word for "actor" – someone who pretends that they are something that they are not. The real answer comes from Ionesco, who is my theatrical hero for many reasons. Ionesco wrote this book, Notes and Counternotes, which is a compilation of essays and interviews and various speeches that he made throughout life, all about theater. In one essay, he’ll contradict what he just said in the previous essay, or he’ll say something completely opposite of anything he’s ever said, and that’s where the idea of Notes and Counternotes derives from. So, the name comes from that idea, that you can’t pin a person down to a certain idea, to a way of thinking, because human beings are just a lot more complicated than that. Ionesco’s saying that we’re all hypocrites, in a way."