The cover image on the Methuen edition of Sarah Kane’s Complete Plays is a war photograph. Taken by James Nachtwey, it shows not the middle of combat but its consequence: a rubble-strewn street somewhere, the sole human occupant of which is a boy, peering at us from the bottom center. How is one to read his expression? Is he accusing us, asking for something, or simply asserting, with eyes that almost shout, “This is where I am”? One can’t put words to it with any certainty—this may be part of the ambiguity of photography that Susan Sontag once discussed—but the gaze of that boy is hard to turn away from. (Incidentally, you can see Nachtwey working on a print of this image in the documentary War Photographer.) The photograph is an apt emblem for Kane’s plays, which bring us reports from zones of intense conflict, littered with destruction, dotted with gruesome violence including rape and dismemberment, wandered by perpetrators and survivors.
You can hear theater types talking admiringly, even rapturously, about Kane’s work, for very good reasons having to do with the form and the material of theater. She explodes the vehicle of the traditional drama; she writes what may be unstageable and requires theaters to figure out how to present it; eventually she dissolves character itself, presenting in her last play a sequence of lines that may spring from one person or from many (it’s been presented both ways) and that partakes as much of poetry as of drama. But the reason to attend to Kane’s plays—and to attend them, if you have the chance—is simpler and more direct: she confronts us with crucial difficulties in the world.
One may ask of the brutality in her work, Why should I see this? Why should I be asked to endure this? How can I deal with this? The action in her plays is not all painful; they contain admixtures of pleasure and the striving for love and connection. But I think those questions are what Sarah Kane asked of the world. By encapsulating what she saw, she’s giving us a chance to find answers with her, or for her, since she’s no longer with us. What’s more, though I don’t wish to aestheticize her work, the figures in her plays may be hard to escape, like the gaze of the boy in Nachtwey’s photograph, but at the very least there’s something vitalizing in our encounter with them.
On Tuesday, London’s National Theatre will launch a production of Kane’s play Cleansed. The National’s website contains information here. Over the weekend, the Financial Times posted a story discussing Kane’s work, the upcoming production of Cleansed, and other developments including an opera, which you can find here.