October 9, 2008

When Bad Things Happen
to Horrible People
Sarah Kane's Blasted at Soho Rep, October, 2008

NOTE: This essay was written as an introduction to the "catalog"
created for the Soho Rep premiere by The Program, a joint venture
with David Cote and Helen Shaw of Time Out New York.

Blasted is a deeply European work“—Michael Billington, The Guardian

While Blasted is only now receiving its New York Premiere, in England it’s generally considered one of the most important plays of the 1990’s, and has generated a considerable body of critical writing. The excerpts you’ll find [in the hard copy of the Program catalog] reflect a critical consensus about what Kane’s play means, and how it should be understood—as a political statement equating masculine violence toward women with warfare; as a formal breakthrough whereby the form of a play can shift from heightened naturalism to the theatre of the Absurd; and as a seminal work in a broader school of transgressive theatre. We’ve chosen the opening section of Alex Sierz’s In-Yer-Face Theatre to provide an overview of the context in which Blasted first appeared, while Graham Saunders’ ‘Love Me or Kill Me :’ Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes offers enormously helpful information about the text itself.

These insights will surely make it easier for American audiences to see Kane’s play, and her intentions, more clearly than British critics did in 1995. Nor do I expect Soho Rep. audiences to be so shocked they storm out of Blasted screaming “this is a ‘disgusting feast of filth’.” But the play does force you to watch a steady stream of gross and gamy activities, and that I think may pose some uniquely American challenges.

Everyone knows that Americans (and let me just say, up-front, I’m using this term as loosely as possible) don’t feel comfortable with Art (another term I’m tossing around in a dorm-room bull-session way) for Art’s Sake. That’s something Europeans do. We Americans insist that our Art be useful, that it have something to say, that it teach us something about ourselves, appeal to our finer instincts etc., and generally behave itself in a decent, civilized manner.

Which is a totally bogus generalization, by the way—we’re fine with lots of gross, gamy and even European-style art in literature and movies and so forth—but it does hold true for the theatre. Perhaps because theatre is a public art form, perhaps because of the way theatre is taught to most of us, we still instinctively evaluate a play in terms of its moral pedagogy. Listen carefully the next time you sit in on a post-play discussion: you may be surprised how often questions about the play (be they questions about the contents of the play—e.g., what happens to the characters--or about how the play struck the particular audience-member) are framed in terms of “what’s the lesson here? What do we learn?”

And you can, certainly, ask “What’s the lesson of Blasted?” and look to Sierz and Saunders for answers. But if, afterward, you still don’t find yourself wholly convinced—if you find yourself muttering “OK, I get that it’s all about Bosnia, but why do we have to see somebody shitting on stage…” let me suggest that you’re asking a uniquely American question, which requires a uniquely American answer.

Let’s start by trying to clear up what Kane herself was up to when she wrote this play the way she did. First of all, it’s significant that all of the ghastly behavior onstage is undeserved. Ian is an appalling human being, but that doesn’t mean he “deserves” to be anally raped and have his eyes sucked out. Terrible, terrible things occur in this play, but Kane very carefully avoids making any of them “justified.” A second and related point: None of these people is particularly nice or good or admirable. You could argue that Cate is more sinned against than sinning, but even her story is not exactly the Book of Job. If Cate were a better class of human being, we might be tempted to seek redemption in her fate. If she were even more pathetic, we could even feel sorry for her, But Kane deliberately closes off both possibilities by making Cate as borderline-unattractive as possible. You will read Kane quoted as saying she finds her play “optimistic.” With all due respect, this is ludicrous—at least by any commonsense definition of “optimism.”

Yet there these things are—the blowjob, the baby eating—and there’s no way around the fact that Kane wanted you to have to see them all, all played out, right in front of your eyes. Which is why, IMHO, it is a complete waste of time to argue that the play is or isn’t naturalistic or expressionistic or absurdist. Regardless of its genre, this is the rare play where physical actions—the depiction of actual events in real time—are more important than any other aspect of the dramaturgy—language, dialog, situation, character, etc.—including “meaning.” Sierz rightly points out that Blasted is, above all else, experiential. Its primary purpose, its primary meaning, is the experience you get sitting through it.

Some works of art are abstract, referential, symbolic or allusive; other are concrete. Some use their physical presence as a kind of “pointer” to thoughts, ideas and emotions; others present themselves as object, as fact. One of Kane’s most telling quotes (about her play, Cleansed, which features impaling, dismemberment and a broomstick up a rectum) is “I tend to think that anything that has been imagined, there’s someone somewhere that’d done it.” which pretty much sums up what Blasted is all about. This play drops you into a terrible world where ghastly things happen, one right after another, in front of your eyes. Nothing has much of a rhyme or reason, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. The actions are grotesque in the extreme, but the implication, surely, is that whatever Sarah Kane is capable of putting onstage can be (ergo, probably has been and is being ) acted out in real life, too. Blasted says, in effect, “see for yourself—here’s how bad it can get.”

For all kinds of reasons—very, very good reasons!—Americans reject the extreme, nihilistic Continental vision that insists the world is, en fin, a cesspool teeming with various species of vermin. Outside of Ambrose Bierce, Jim Thompson, Jonathan Edwards (and possibly General W. T. Sherman), I cannot think of an American who has even come close to such a bleak, unsparing and merciless world view. We—who believe ourselves to be uniquely good, and capable of solving anything—quite literally do not want to go there. And if we’re led there, our automatic reaction will be to challenge the premises of (in this case) an artist claiming our attention. We ask “What’s do we learn here?” because our every instinct is to try to make things better (our success rate may not be so hot, but that’s another story). And if there is no lesson—if there is no way to make things better—the default American response will be: That’s just not the way things are (or if they are, at various times and places, that still doesn’t justify anything).

Or to go back to the idea of moral pedagogy: Americans have no problem at all with artists who make beautiful things, inspirational things, transcendental things. But an artist who deliberately makes ugly, terrible and troubling things, setting them before us for our contemplation, risks being judged irresponsible at best, and at worst, just plain “sick.” We Americans famously want to imagine ourselves free from the dead weight of history. Blasted, on the other hand, asks us to consider what kind of creatures we truly are, and what kind of world we have made for ourselves. The honest answer—the historical answer—isn’t exactly reassuring.