Sarah Kane Was Not A Suicide
By Martin Harries
By Sarah Kane
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St., Brooklyn
Box office: (718) 636-4100
Sarah Kane's suicide comes first. It is
next to impossible to think about her work without thinking of
that act. Given that her last work, 4.48 Psychosis, reads
as a preamble to or rehearsal of her suicide, the fact of her
death all the more powerfully demands consideration. "I have become
so depressed by the fact of my mortality that I have decided to
commit suicide." This is one of the lapidary early sentences in
the text. And this is a late pair of lines:
I have no desire for death
no suicide ever had
Kane works on 4.48 Psychosis over
1998, and perhaps into the next year; in February, 1999, she hangs
herself with shoelaces, a suicide. And now Isabelle Huppert has
come from the grave to tell us that Sarah Kane is not dead. And
of course the undead Kane speaks French (the same language Beckett
chose after he chose to begin to die).
-- Of course I am not serious. And yet
consider the pair of lines above, and their twisted game with
temporality. The lines disown the "desire for death" that marks
every other moment of the piece, but precisely as the lines disown
this desire they point to a temporal problem. Can we say that
Sarah Kane was a suicide? Or must we use the present
tense: Sarah Kane is a suicide? When she contemplated
the act, she was not yet the suicide she contemplated becoming.
The "suicide" who does not desire death is only called a suicide
once she has claimed the death she did not desire.
Is it sentimental to ask whether this lack
-- the absence of a "desire for death" -- is communicable?
The program for Claude Régy's production
of Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychose includes this quotation
If we can experience something through
art, then we might be able to change our future, because experiences
engraves [sic] lessons on our hearts through suffering, whereas
speculation leaves us untouched . . . It's crucial to chronicle
and commit to memory events never experienced -- in order to
avoid them happening. I'd rather risk overdose in the theatre
than in life.
This program for theater recalls Antonin
Artaud's manifesto "No More Masterpieces," where he argues that
theatrical violence, properly handled, will work not to produce
but to mitigate -- indeed to preempt -- violence outside the theater:
It will be claimed that example breeds
example, that if the attitude of cure induced cure, the attitude
of murder will induce murder. Everything depends upon the manner
and the purity with which the thing is done. There is a risk.
But let it not be forgotten that though a theatrical gesture
is violent, it is disinterested; and that the theater teaches
precisely the uselessness of the action which, once done, is
not to be done, and the superior use of the state unused by
the action and which, restored, produces a purification.
These quotations point to a logic for Kane's
theater of cruelty, and to the reason Régy included the first
of them in his program. This 4.48 Psychose is hard to
watch and harder still, it is quite clear, to perform -- we watch
Huppert limp off stage after remaining rigidly in one place for
an hour and three quarters -- but the theatrical overdose in its
sublime "uselessness" should preserve us from bad futures. So,
at least, in theory.
"Everything depends upon the manner and
the purity with which the thing is done." The manner here is spare,
and every aspect of the production works brilliantly. In Régy's
production, there are two actors: Huppert, in sculpturally severe
leather pants, a close fitting blue shirt, hair pulled back, standing
in front of a scrim, and Gérard Watkins, in red pants and an orange
shirt, less restricted in his movements, behind it. Daniel Jeanneteau's
elegant setting, Dominique Bruguière's lighting, the costume design
by Ann Williams, and Philippe Cacchia's sound design all cohere:
imagine Beckett's Not I staged for almost nine hundred
spectators. The central element of the setting is the scrim itself,
which covers the proscenium opening: it looks like synthetic asphalt
and embodies the gulf between these two onstage interlocutors.
And though it is behind her, the scrim also embodies the gulf
between Huppert and audience, a gap that is all the more striking
given her proximity to us. There is nothing between audience and
actress, but that space feels all the more absolute because there
is no physical barrier to remove. The last lines of the text --
"please open the curtains" -- left me naively wondering if the
asphalt curtain would rise. Of course it did not.
The "observ'd of all observers"
here is not Hamlet but Huppert. Fists clenched, body rigid, she
speaks for a long while in a sort of incantatory monotone. In
the last forty-five minutes or so, there is more vocal variety:
for instance, a rapid tour through a series of violent verbs ("wring
slash punch . . ." and so on in Kane's text). Her gestures are
few: she packs a world of furious resistance into the occasional
upward movement of a curled finger. That raised finger at once
accuses someone unknown and looks like a minute scythe in the
hands of a dancer of death. After short breaks and blackouts,
she is caught in oblongs of light from new directions, and these
simple changes have the effect of making her look like a different
person, older, or younger, or yet more distant. Kane's epic list
of psychoactive drugs and dosages becomes an intense monologue.
Certain key curses such as "putain" ("whore," which here often
translates "fucking" when Kane uses it as an intensifier) return
as grim moments of punctuation. Huppert's performance is painful,
challenging, hard to watch, and unforgettable. She also at once
defies and invites our sympathy, and it is oscillation between
an aggressive defiance and an equally aggressive solicitation
-- to us? to her interlocutor? -- which makes 4.48 Psychose
Jared Stark's lucid discussion of the prevailing
modern discourses surrounding suicide has helped me to understand
the power of this production:
Sociology, psychology, and medicine attribute
suicide to causes beyond the control of the individual, of which
the individual becomes the agent and victim. These diagnostic
discourses might be accused, not without reason, of producing
explanatory regimes that erase the specificity of any suicide
and render it a passive, symptomatic gesture. Any countervailing
effort to give voice to a particular suicide, however, equally
risks generating false identifications and vicarious appropriations.
Watkins's character is at once friend,
doctor, and psychologist, and we can tell that his words will
not penetrate the black veil between him and Huppert. This audience
knows better than to fall for these "explanatory regimes" and
the "chemical lobotomy" that is Kane's phrase for the vanishing
point to which they lead. The danger of "false identifications
and vicarious appropriations" looms larger in staging 4.48
Psychosis. And a disciplined avoidance of the seductions
of such vicarious pleasures explains the relentless affectlessness
of Huppert: "I REFUSE I REFUSE I REFUSE LOOK AWAY FROM ME."
Some do look away, and walk away: their
clatter toward the exits becomes an inadvertent and oddly threatening,
if not entirely unanticipated, element in the sound design. But
for many others 4.48 Psychose may achieve a certain strange
intimacy, an intimacy that is all the more powerful for its resistance
to rapid identification, to the immediate thrill of a vicarious
occupation of a "decompensating" body (to play with
one of Kane's neologisms).
"Rien qu'un mot sur une page et il y a
le théâtre," intones Huppert. In the absence of Kane's text, one
would most likely translate this line back into English: "Nothing
but a word on a page and there is theater." The translator, Michael
Bugdahn, however, renders Kane's phrase: "Just a word on a page
and there is drama." When is a "drama" not a "drame"? Where did
this word "théâtre" come from?
From Artaud, one might say, and from a
whole tradition that considers the word on the page a stagnant
thing until enlivened by a "theatrical gesture": drama won't cut
it. It may be, however, that the English playwright uses the word
"drama" for the same reason her French translator jettisons
it: she claims her place in a stage tradition that has become
too comfortable. Kane continues a dramatic struggle against
fluent identification, against easy translation from the body
of the spectator to the body of the actor. This production understands
And yet Kane's word "drama" points to something
else this production understands. To resist quick identification
is not necessarily entirely to resist identification. Kane's text
includes a trio of positions: "Victim. Perpetrator. Bystander."
In the first production, directed by James Macdonald at the Royal
Court Theatre in 2000, as in last year's revival of it at St.
Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, Macdonald cast three actors, as if
taking this set of positions as a list of characters. In 4.48
Psychose, there are only two actors onstage. This "théâtre"
is a drama that has cast the audience in one of Kane's roles.
But we should not assume too quickly that we know which position
Caveat spectator: Régy chose to
keep the supertitles to a minimum, so I would urge those without
fairly fluent French to read the text in advance. Régy's "note
on the supertitles" in the program claims that the "language of
the soul is immaterial." Maybe so. The language of these bodies,
however, with the exception of a single phrase in English -- "happy
hour" (which provokes Beckettian titters) -- is French.
I regret not having seen Macdonald's production
of 4.48 Psychosis at St. Ann's Warehouse. For a review,
see Caridad Svich's "What the Mirror
Sees," published in Hotreview.org.