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.


Lisa Allender said...

Hmmmmm. My initial reaction to this review-of-sorts is to say this reminds me of a film called "Trainspotting"--there were NO "redeeming" characters in Trainspotting, and I say this cheerfully, as someone who is quite comfortable with "dark" characters/motives/outcomes...but:
we have to CARE about the characters, else we may just decide to release that "suspension of disbelief", and then, the play will go nowhere, fast.
I mean, if we are not able to at least empathize with at least one character, what sense is there, in us taking this in?
My background is in theatre/performance, and I find the writing process appears to demand similar qualities from us. One of them, the ability to "humanize" even the most inhumane of us, really has to be present, or it is impossible to connect.
IMHO, the "communion" is what it's all about.

I found your posts interesting, and I'll be back!
In the Degrees-of-Separation--Category:
I found the Link to your blogspot by visiting online, the Millay Society, which linked me to The Millay Colony, which featured you as a jurist there....

Amber said...

I think it's a great point that a play can be wholly nihilistic but still have incredible vitality as a piece of art. What I'm less sure about is how much internal life any play can have if it's shellacked around a couple of generalities that are so expansive and widely known as to be almost meaningless: that "people" do ghastly, inexplicable things to each other, and that "people" are timorous ducks who need to be made to look into the abyss. You mentioned Bierce--a Bierce story can manifest a pretty low-wattage view of humanity, or not; more important is that one feels it darting after something harsh, strange, and specific to itself.

I haven't seen Blasted and can well believe that there's much more to it than those two ideas. But if its raison d'etre is mainly "experiential," what exactly is the nature of that experience? Is it that of watching babies get eaten and eyeballs sucked out? Or is it that of going to a hip theater and watching actors enact a bunch of violent hoodie-hoo and then applauding them and going off to drink wine? Given that it can only offer representations of events rather than the events themselves--no matter how skilled the cast and director--how transgressive can the play, much less our experience of it, ever be? How much does the answer matter, and to what? (Those questions sound brattily rhetorical, but I honestly don't know and would love to hear other thoughts.)

Jeffrey M. Jones said...

These both raise such interesting and important questions that they deserve, at least, acknowledgment and thanks (a proper answer will take longer)(this might also be a good time to apologize publicly to Gus Schulenberg, whose comment on my No Dice piece made the case for representational theatre so elegantly and completely that I am still mulling over an adequate reply)(the short answer being, you're right, Gus, but not IMHO exhaustively or exclusively so).

• So, with regard to "we have to CARE about the characters," this is another example of something which is right, but not necessarily exclusively so. If by "we" you mean "me," there's no argument--meaning only that "me" is sufficiently representative to stand for "we," because the majority of American theatregoers would probably agree that characters you care about are the prime desideratum. Not entirely sure all forms of drama depend upon empathy (Noh is the example that comes to mind, but a fair amount of avant-garde stuff explicitly denies empathy--which of course leads to the whole rat-tail corkscrew argument over whether a-g theatre is even therefore Good or Valid theatre or whether its adherents are all just wine-quaffing hipster douchebags). My inclination is to come at this another way, because the word "care" seems especially slippery here. Esp. because the strict sense of the word (= "are concerned about the well-geing of," as we care about, e.g., David Copperfield or Pip) slips in and out of synch with a more general sense (= "are sufficiently interested in to want to pay attention to," which is the sense, surely, in which we care about Uriah Heep or Miss Havisham). The (useful) point being that the strict sense--which is all too often the sense enforced in run-of-the-mill dramaturgy, post-play feedback sessions, etc.)--really limits what theatre can discuss (Note that even proponents of this definition typically recognize that it sets out a limitation of what's theatrically possible, and buttress the argument by appealing, once again, to the Audience). The really interesting question, to me, is whether it is, in fact, impossible to make intersting theatre which isn't based on interesting characters--and if it isn't, what that kind of theatre might look like. If nothing else, one would have to be willing to suspend the requirement that there be at least one interesting character simply in order to see clearly what such an alternative theatre might be able to do/say/look like or be.

• And with regard to Amber--I think "widely known" is another of those slippery terms, in the sense that it is also "widely known" that people all die, and that includes "me," but the depth and heft of that knowledge (or more likely, the lack thereof) become apparent only with the experience of people actually dying. It's not so much that we’re timorous ducks. (Your Bierce comments--esp. darting, harsh and strange--are wonderful, but do you disagree that the prevailing tone is sardonic, taking the form of "may I remind you, this sort of thing happens all the time"?) Of course Blasted can only offer representations--you really have to start by asking how theatre generally makes an impact on the audience, and then work back to how and why Blasted may do it a little differently (if, indeed, it does). I think it does, and I think it does specifically in the way in which the string of ghastly events are shown to come about--bluntly, matter-of-factly, without the slightest invocation of right and wrong—and in its dispassionate presentation. In this regard, its strategy is not unlike that of a documentary or news photograph of some atrocity, with the significant different that one is the record of an actual event and the other an act of imagination. I personally didn’t find the play at all transgressive, but it was certainly effective, and (wine or no wine) left me brooding about just how appalling people are to each other on a routine basis. As to how much that matters--and a lot of artists would agree with the (bastardized version of) Adorno, that writing poetry after Auschwitz is impossible--you should go see for yourself, which you can still do, through mid-December). And if you go, ask yourself afterward to what degree you are invited to care about characters.

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