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Isabelle Huppert in Sarah Kane's "4.48 Psychose," directed by Claude Regy. Photo credit: Pascal Victor/MAXPPP
Sarah Kane Was Not A Suicide
By Martin Harries

4.48 Psychose
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 from Kane:

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 so unsettling.

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 that.

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 we occupy.


Two notes:

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


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