Royal Court production of Kane's 1998 'Blasted'Twitter/(@royalcourt)

Content Note: This article contains detailed discussion of trauma and mentions of sexual assault

By its nature, theatre is both a transient art medium and one of community - performances can be fleeting but emotionally poignant, and we are all aware that the intimate time we share is limited to just a couple of hours. Theatre has also frequently been a means through which to explore traumatic events, such as with Sarah Kane’s harrowing 1998 play Crave. But how fair is this to survivors of trauma? Does this help foster a sense of community and compassion, or hinder it?

“An important marker of cultural shift towards greater empathy in theatre” 

Crave explicitly lacks a sense of community, and Kane’s choice to make her play devoid of most context, save the vague indication of an occurrence “Somewhere outside of the city” and “Three summers ago”, makes it challenging for us to establish relationships between characters. Even the continuity of any one character’s experiences, particularly as abuse victim C remarks that, “He [A] needs to have a secret”, is brought into question: the play, despite taking place in only one act, has a frenetic and fractal sense of time. This allows for the “secret” to be an all-but-indecipherable threat hiding between the lines, until A reveals it in his monologue. Here the audience is exposed to the effects of trauma and the transience of memory working in tandem to obscure C’s understanding of her past, and, in doing so, denying both the character and the audience any definitive sense of community.

“The play, despite taking place in only one act, has a frenetic and fractal sense of time”

Even the characters themselves are lacking distinct identities, defined only by an initial. Interestingly, an interview with Kane revealed that she had specific intentions in mind for the characters and their single-letter names. She named A, C’s abuser, with that initial because “they are the same thing: author and abuser”. The audience is not aware of this intention, yet this betrays Kane’s mindset as one that proactively diverts responsibility from the audience and to herself instead - the author and abuser are assimilated in a way that would imply she takes responsibility for the trauma C suffers. Yet in not making this obvious to the audience, Kane not only slyly denies us the ability to ever form a complete judgement but deprives us of even the agency to attempt to.

Sarah Kane Twitter/(@SarahKaneSaid)

Furthermore, Kane published this play under the pseudonym ‘Marie Kelvedon’ in an effort to not be recognised for her earlier work, Blasted, which she lamented that, for some of its violence, had attracted more media attention than a real-life rape. It is perhaps then unsurprising that decisions like these that have consolidated Kane’s reputation as a revered, provocative feminist playwright; by radically removing aspects of community, this allows the audience’s sole focus to be on her characters’ plight, thus making this a sensitive exploration of trauma. Additionally, Kane’s play can be interpreted as a reclamatory story when C is considered to be the ‘main’ character. This is found from the very beginning of the play, which C opens with the blunt declaration, “You’re dead to me”. The lack of exposition makes it impossible for the audience to know who this line is directed at, but immediately establishes a bitter tone and could cause an audience to find the character scornful and melodramatic. This may cause issues with the perceived validity of some characters’ suffering compared to others; each character’s traumatic experiences and their repercussions can only be perceived with relativity to their audience.


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However, the impact of Crave on the world beyond its characters must not be underestimated; it was quickly declared to be a “stunning achievement” that made Kane “without a doubt the most performed new writer on the international circuit”, and thus an important marker of cultural shift towards greater empathy in theatre. This offers an effective argument for trauma-centric theatre, as it may make the impacts more accessible to people who have not experienced it personally; Kane skilfully takes on the role of empathetic observer and educator. Indeed, this could be remarked upon as a strength for discussing trauma rather than a weakness - with this play being largely well-received by critics, it is possible that the same community Kane tried to extricate herself from was far more supportive towards her characters than anticipated. It can therefore be said that Crave succeeds as a tender and innovative exploration of trauma - subject matter need not preclude compassion.