Some of you may remember my previous, “You should read..” post on how everyone in the world should read Ghost World by Daniel Clowes. I managed to keep the vast majority of that review/recommendation fairly lighthearted and, some might say, amusing, with a cunning combination of my natural wit and by pretty much talking about Australian Soap Operas for most of the thing.
There will be none of that here. Not because Sarah Kane isn’t funny, but everything she writes, even her humour, is heavy. Her words have weight you know, and the problem with having a nice, rational conversation about Sarah Kane is that she’s the literary equivalent of bringing your special someone a dead crow as a token of affection and using it’s intestines to spell out, “You make me fucking ache with longing.” As true as the whole thing might be, it’s super messy and macabre and no one wants to see that guys, it’s fucked up.
I had a pretty messy introduction to Sarah Kane and to talk about that I am going to go back to 2007. The year before I’d turned sixteen, gotten GCSE results that were way representative of my utterly empty social life and started sixth form college, where I took Drama and Theatre Studies - which is like plain old Drama only you write way more essays. My school was really into essays. And exams.
Everyone was always talking about drama bringing people out of their shells and I had this idea that it would make me good at talking to other people without sounding super defensive and weird. That didn’t happen, but it turned out that I was actually kind of okay at acting, probably because I had like three copies of Hamlet on DVD, or because I spent most of my life pretending I was other people, or something. Drama was my favourite time of day; in an odd sort of Glee Season One way I had friends, friends I went on exciting theatre trips with. One time we saw Luke from The O.C in Tennesee William’s Summer and Smoke and then had our photographs taken with him outside the stage door. Once we went to Camden to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Roundhouse and used our free time to wander around Covent Garden and a film crew from Strictly Come Dancing interviewed us about how great the new professional dancer Ola was and this girl called Steph said, “Ola is HOT” and it made it to air. I think that might also have been the day I bought some poppers with Beth from Camden market and we sniffed them and I said, “This is my first experience with hard drugs” and she said “Mmm” because we weren’t friends yet and I was stupid.
That first year… I’m trying to picture myself and all I can see is a girl with hair much too short and thin to possibly be me. I had a conversation with myself recently where I decided that my head is so much better and happier now because my hair is too big to let bad things in. I had a conversation with my sister just last night about memories. She said that every time you revisit a memory, every time you play it over in your brain you’re essentially creating it again, you’re rewriting it - so the more you remember something, the less it becomes what it originally was. My sister doesn’t usually talk about things like that, and right now she’s dying her hair green. I have this habit of connecting things when I’m writing like this, but in 4.48 Psychosis Sarah Kane is talking about the opposite of that - severed connections, things that are supposed to fit together that just won’t. Maybe I’m connecting that anyway. I’ve said connecting too much.
The thing is, that even if you’re not me, and you don’t wax poetic at any given oppurtunity and there isn’t a part of you that genuinely believes your life is marked by a string of elaborate metaphors… Even if your religion is coincidence and chaos then you’ll still have something, there won’t ever be a time that you won’t have a part of yourself that sticks to another, and another, until it’s snowballing and clinging on to all of these things outside of you.
So it starts with your mind; because that’s where you live and that’s stuck to your body. Your body can be a problem; because for some reason most of us hate our bodies, and unless you’ve been brought up on a hearty dose of Walt Whitman, it’s sort of hard to celebrate yourself and sing yourself and all that, it’s sort of hard to feel your mind in the end of your fingertips but still, it’s there - mind to body, body to world, mind to voice, voice to people, mind to world, mind to words. This is the basic stuff, this is how we function; we piece it all together because that way we’re not floating in the dark and the silence. I realise I’m sounding like a particularly poignant episode of Doctor Who right now.
What I’m trying to get around to is what 4.48 Psychosis is about, or part of it, because it’s about a lot of things and none of them are all too clear. But what I remember of it these days is the severed connections. “Body and soul can never be married”, “Do you think it’s possible for a person to be born in the wrong body?”, “Here am I/ and there is my body/dancing on glass”.
It’s a tiny little book really, most playscripts are, and the copy I have now was the one my teacher handed me on the day I first read it. I think I stole it and these days it’s pretty messed up; ragged, scribbled in. We read it together; the four of us who’d be in the performance, we googled the author, we discussed her death, we skimmed a lot of articles full of phrases like, “autobiographical intent” and, “drama as suicide note”. We looked up mental illness’; we diagnosed her from the page, we took pencils to her words and carved them up into three neat characters; a doctor and two halves of a patient because bipolar meant bisected, probably. This play doesn’t have characters, or scene changes or stage directions, or acts - only line breaks. It reads like a long, angry poem, it lets you do the work or it lets you do nothing and let the words do the work. Sometimes it’s a little hard to read without the sound of a voice and without a performance, because it’s full of horribly miserable, painful imagery and that sort of thing starts to sound like a My Chemical Romance song after a while.
You get what I’m saying.
I could talk about this play as a discussion of madness as truth, the clarity of insanity, I could talk about this play as a love story, I could talk about this play as a reaction to, “chemical cures for congenital anguish”, I could talk about this play as an experiment in the medium of drama. I could talk about this play forever, or for a really long time, because I never get the chance to and it means so much to me. I’m not saying it isn’t difficult to look at, or hard to stage, or frustrating to figure out because you’re constantly wrestling with the spectre of Kane and her death and her suffering and what it means and how that affects what the play is.
When I first read 4.48 I’d been depressed and I understood that part of it. I thought of those lines so simply - this was written by a woman who felt like that, this was exactly how she struggled, this is a suicide note. I could read, “I have resigned myself to death this year// Some will call this self-indulgence/(they are lucky not to know its truth)/Some will know the simple fact of pain” and have it make complete sense, but the form meant nothing to me. We read reviews and mission statements of theatre companies that had staged it in the past and they said a lot about it. I nodded and agreed that it was revolutionary and special and freeing, this play that didn’t look like a play, just a stream of consciousness but secretly I thought it was lazy. I thought it wasn’t supposed to be a play, it wasn’t anything more than a beautiful goodbye from a woman who had suffered for a long time.
Surely art can’t just be one long howl of pain, without form? With nothing to connect one thought to another, with nothing to hold it together? When I’ve spoken briefly about Sarah Kane before I’ve talked about how she knew the theatre, she understood it. She would write the most astonishing and terrifying stage directions and know that if you write it, it can happen, that the things that happen on the stage are an example of truth that means more than your gritty realism ever could. A sunflower bursts from the centre of the stage. A rat scurries away with his missing limb. The sound of spring rain. 4.48 Psychosis has no stage directions, and people say it reads like a poem, I’ve said it and at first I didn’t get it, I didn’t see how this was an incredibly theatrical piece of work. 4.48 is about a lot of things, and the setting is an unravelling mind, “How can I return to form/ now my formal thought has gone?” The form is the lack of form and it isn’t poetry, it isn’t for the page; it’s to be read out and performed. It’s a person on a stage begging you to watch them vanish.
You should read 4.48 Psychosis with caution, because it talks about depression and madness and medication and self harm and suicide and a point where all of that is an appropriate response to the world, but you should absolutely read it, because if you can, if you can look at something like that and recognize yourself, the way I did, then you’re starting to fix those bits of you that have come apart. I read it and I spoke it and I acted it out so hard that it hurt, I threw all of my body into it, I cried and I yelled and I ripped at my throat and I ripped at my costume.
Beth and I weren’t really friends when we started working on this, but one day we were rehearsing and I just couldn’t do it - I had and maybe still have such a problem with getting angry in an outward sort of way and she was telling me over and over, she was screaming at me, “just get angry Frankie, just get angry!” I broke down in tears and ran from the studio; the teacher told Beth off and she came after me. I think we both point out that moment as the moment we became friends… She’s been the most constant thing in my life, aside from my family ever since and at times she’s held me together. You won’t necessarily find a best friend if you read this play, or if you see this play or if you perform this play but you might start to know yourself a little more and that’s all I can really say but it’s something.