Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sarah Kane and "Blasted"

I caught Blasted last week, and posted an introductory analysis (*not* a review) on Metromix. But it's the sort of drama that lingers in your mind long after you've left the theater. Inspired by a long, fascinating thread on Parabasis, I've decided to add my two cents.

In my view, Sarah Kane is a genius – not one in potential but cut off before her prime, but one who produced a fully-formed masterwork in her first at-bat. Whether it's to your taste or not, Blasted is an intelligent work that extends many of the dramatic experiments of the 20th century. She goes further than anyone before her in the modernist tradition of frustrating the viewer's expectations and denying us closure.

She does this on several levels. The most obvious is the in-yer-face shock of several rapes (man-on-woman and man-on-man), humiliations and horrors, eye-gauging and cannibalism, and so on. But get past that. On the level of character, Kane creates a wholly unsympathetic protagonist, Ian, then humiliates him to the point (well past the point?) of earning our sympathy. Most importantly, the style and structure of the play, like an embryo developing then losing gills, evolves through every stage of modern theater history, starting with traditional chamber-drama naturalism through episodic, expressionistic, & absurdist drama.

Critics make a lot out the connection that Kane drew between Blasted and Bosnia. Watching the production at Soho Rep, I also read it as a 9/11 play from a prescient leftie Brit. Read Ian as colonialist America and the soldier as al Qaeda hijackers. I don't like to reduce the play to political symbolism. But I think there's a connection between the European sense of surprise and horror at the Balkan violence and the American freak-out after the attack within our borders. When genocide and terrorism happens somewhere else, it's seen as mass dementia or inherent barbarity; when it happens to you, it's not so easy to dismiss. Kane's trying to shock the audience into seeing itself as Ian.

So, to get back to Isaac's question: what's the value in putting yourself through the play? Like other radical dramas (Woyzeck springs to mind), it shocks you out of complacency. It displays human behavior shorn of all Romantic trappings. It absolutely resists convention and cliché. It expands your conception of what it's possible to show and do onstage.

Finally, it's a work of art, because it presents a coherent vision of human affairs in the world. But I don't think it's a nihilistic one – no more so than that of Euripides or Beckett, at least. The last beat of the play sees Cate give water to Ian, who earlier had violated her but who, in the final analysis, is simply a dying blind man. There's hope, forgiveness, and compassion in that last gesture.