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Cruel Britannia

Sarah Kane’s Postmodern Traumatics

Jolene Armstrong

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.
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Phaedra’s Love

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It is a will to nothingness, a will running counter to life, a revolt against the most fundamental presuppositions of life: yet it is and remains a will! And, to repeat at the end what I said in the beginning, rather than want nothing, man even wants nothingness.

–Nietzsche On the Genealogy of Morals 1887

In Blasted, Kane struggled with presenting the abjection of humanity as not only a byproduct, but also as the stimulus of an increasingly more violent world, culminating in the proliferation of war and the bleak realization that sexual violence is the norm in sexual relations. In Phaedra’s Love (1996), Kane continues her project of enquiry into cultural violence, this time posing questions about the effectiveness of enlightened attempts to subvert violent and other reductive social norms. At stake in Phaedra’s Love are notions of stable identity, the ability to communicate an inner self and the effectiveness of that communication in a degraded world. It is a play of sadistic desire in which desire is transformed, or rather, mangled into violence, culminating in death by violent and public murder and private suicide. Phaedra’s Love also poses questions about the conditions through which sadism and its acceptance exist. As Arthur Kroker proposes in The Postmodern Scene: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aesthetics (1986), “sado-masochism, in the postmodern condition, is not what it used to be;” it is “a little sign-slide between the ecstasy of catastrophe and the terror of simulacrum as a (disappearing)...

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