Cruel Britannia

Sarah Kane’s Postmodern Traumatics

by Jolene Armstrong (Author)
©2015 Monographs 234 Pages


Cruel Britannia: Sarah Kane’s Postmodern Traumatics examines four plays by British playwright Sarah Kane (1971–1999), all written between 1995 and 1999 within the context of the «Cool Britannia», or «In-Yer-Face» London theatre movement of the 1990s. Kane’s plays were notorious for their shocking productions and challenging and offensive subject matter. This book analyzes her plays as products of a long history of theatrical convention and experimentation, rather than trend. I read Kane’s plays through an optic of trauma theory, and link the trauma to postmodern experience as defined by war, inter-personal violence, repetitive memory, and sex as medium of violence. Kane’s plays’ unrelenting violence and graphic depictions of violent sex suggest a relationship with theories and practices such as Artaud’s theatre of cruelty, and Kroker and Cook’s theory of the postmodern as sign of excremental culture and an inherently abject state of being. Through a play by play analysis I conclude that Kane’s work suggests that violence and trauma are endemic to postmodern life, and are ultimately apocalyptic due to their culmination in Kane’s final play, the suicide text of 4.48 Psychosis.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Introduction: Kane in her cultural context
  • Blasted
  • Phaedra’s Love
  • Crave
  • 4:48 Psychosis
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Appendix

Introduction: Kane in her cultural context

Sometime around 1995 a “new wave” of theatre took hold in Britain. This theatrical trend coincided with a larger cultural, economic and political movement in Great Britain. In November 1996, Newsweek featured an article entitled “London Reigns,” in which the trendiness of London is detailed, thereby announcing the birth of “Cool Britannia” as a means of marketing to North America a renovated British culture. At the heart of London’s aforementioned presentation to the world as “the coolest city on the planet,” lays an economic motive and assertion: “The British economy has seen three years of sustained economic growth. And since the Thatcher revolution, the City has consolidated its position as a centre of international finance,” (Newsweek 11.4.96) the article’s authors announce. The authors also observe that, at the same time as Britain was experiencing a supposed economic boom, “the gap between rich and poor [was] widening” (34–5). It is precisely this contradiction between economic affluence, which can be tracked in the paper trail of booming London finances, and the ever-increasing number of people living at or below poverty, that I argue, following Sierz and others, becomes the catalyst responsible for the “new wave” of “In-Yer-Face”. Interestingly, this new affluent period in Britain in the 1990s is also “an era of cuts in arts subsidies” (Sierz In-Yer-Face 39). Such funding cuts would presumably hamstring fringe theatres and playwriting cooperatives that emphasize new and experimental work and are dependent upon government grants for successful operation and cultivation of new playwrights and directors. However, as Sierz points out, “what mattered more was the cultural climate” (39). Sierz cites Ian Rickson, Artistic Director at the Royal Court in 1998, as saying that “‘the writers who grew up under the Thatcher regime experienced two things: they were disempowered and simultaneously empowered. On the one hand, the state was strengthened at the expense of the individual; on the other, the only way of achieving anything was to do it yourself’” (39). The general sentiment at the time seems to indicate that the new “DIY theatre culture” is the result of the post-Thatcher climate, which as Rickson says, ← 11 | 12 → “‘provided both a climate of anger and the motivation to do something about it,’” (Sierz 39) spawning a trend that expressed a more “privatised dissent” than the “left-wing” plays of the seventies and eighties (39), meaning, that the generation of playwrights who were coming of age in this post-Thatcher era, were not dependent on funding for producing their work, and they were angrier and more motivated than their predecessors to use theatre as a voice of protest or even as a way to chronicle the experiences of living in this era.

These new playwrights sought innovative spaces for performance, worked collaboratively and resisted traditional pressures to present their theatre in a conventional manner. Further, while the left wing political plays of the seventies and eighties presented political critiques and often forwarded an alternative politic within their plays, the new wave of theatre in the nineties did not necessarily offer political critique, but rather opposition and dissent to present circumstances. It would be difficult to generalize the alternative politic forwarded by this group of plays, since most do not easily align themselves with a particular political movement, opting rather to present opposition, resistance and protest, usually in the form of an ‘in-yer-face’ format, rather than forward solutions.

The appearance of Kane’s plays and the correlation between theatre and economy provide a cultural opportunity for an investigation of Kane’s postmodernity in the context of Jameson’s theory that posits postmodernism as an expression of late capitalist/post-industrialist culture. According to Jameson, one of the hallmarks of postmodernism is that “aesthetic production today has become integrated into a commodity production generally” and consequently such a market demands aesthetic innovation and experimentation (316). The result of risky experimentation, paradoxically, is that artists are increasingly more dependent upon support through foundations and grants in order to produce art. The underbelly of this supposed cultivation of genuinely new art resides in the unwritten dictum that art then conforms to the demands of the granting and funding institutions, severely limiting what kind of art will be produced rather than providing an environment in which artists might produce according to their own aesthetic rhythms and evolution. Furthermore, as Jameson reminds the reader, ← 12 | 13 →

this whole global, yet American postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror. (316)1

The significance and surprise of Kane’s art as publicly funded product is that rather than portraying the themes and stories that appeal to a capitalistic audience, it depicts society as a psychological, figural and literal gore-fest of excessive behaviour. The plays perform a charged postmodern parody of the late capitalist culture which has funded the creation of plays. It might be surmised at this point that the “In-Yer-Face” character of this type of theatre is not simply a general backlash against cultural norms, but a calculated assault directed toward the artistic tastes of a capitalist, consumer-driven palate.

The terms ‘Cool Britannia’ and “In-Yer-Face” theatre tend to be used interchangeably by theatre critics to describe a mood of theatre in Britain in the 1990s. Aleks Sierz broadly defines “In-Yer-Face” theatre as,

any drama that takes the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message. It is a theatre of sensation: it jolts both actors and spectators out of conventional responses, touching nerves and provoking alarm. Often such drama employs shock tactics, or is shocking because it is new in tone or structure, or because it is bolder or more experimental than what audiences are used to. Questioning moral norms, it affronts the ruling ideas of what can or what should be shown onstage (In-Yer-Face 4).

The question immediately arises, then, of how “In-Yer-Face” theatre, with its graphic representations of sex and sexual violence differs from other genres, such as pornography, for instance. Arguably, the difference is not so much in its representation, since much of the “In-Yer-Face” theatre depicts various sexual activities, but in its uses. Brian McNair furthers the arguments made by John Ellis, Maurice Peckham, and Bette Gordan that pornography contains a variety of “‘codes and conventions,’” that are “‘imbued with theoretical and semiotic complexity’” (90). Furthermore, McNair argues that heterosexual pornography ← 13 | 14 → is used by men primarily as an instructional device that both instructs and confirms predominant notions of masculinity, thereby creating and continuing social realities; McNair concludes this argument, in a general way, by stating that the uses of pornography are many and varied (90–106). Arguably, “In-Yer-Face” theatre is used by playwrights as a vehicle for depicting and challenging social realities; audience use may vary from those who attend live theatre in order to seek a specific socially enlightening theatrical experience to those who are more simply avid theatre-goers.

As Sierz observes, The New Oxford English Dictionary (1998) describes “In-Yer-Face” as something that is “aggressive,” “provocative,” and “impossible to ignore or avoid,” noting also that the Collins English Dictionary adds the word “confrontational” to the definition. Graham Saunders adds the term “new brutalism” to the list of descriptors for the term “In-Yer-Face,” which itself has been aptly appropriated from “American sports journalism during the mid-seventies” (Sierz In-Yer-Face 4) to describe this period in theatrical history. Saunders, like Sierz, traces the seeds of the movement of provocative theatre much farther back than the 1990s, to writers such as Osborne and his 1956 play Look Back in Anger, and Bond’s 1964 play Saved. Both Sierz and Saunders agree that it is tempting to position Kane’s Blasted as the first notable incarnation in the most recent trend in this type of theatrical provocation. However, Saunders posits the 1994 production of Judith Upton’s Ashes and Sand as providing, “signs of what was to come from this new group of writers” (4).

I believe, along with Sierz and others, that membership within the Cool Britannia “movement” was more or less mandatory for playwrights producing new or controversial theatre at this time, meaning that if one wanted to be taken seriously as a new writer, one had to write in this mode and be prepared for the critical flack and adulation that accompanied taking these sorts of theatrical risks. As Sierz observes,


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
Postmodernism Play Violence Cruelty Trauma
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 234 pp.

Biographical notes

Jolene Armstrong (Author)

Jolene Armstrong is Associate Professor in Comparative Literature and English in the Centre for Humanities at Athabasca University. Professor Armstrong’s work is in Canadian and American literature and popular culture, indigenous literature and in examining intersections between narrative and mixed media art. Her first book, an edited collection on Canadian Métis author Maria Campbell was published in 2012.


Title: Cruel Britannia
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236 pages