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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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4:48 Psychosis


The body is the inscribed surface of events, traced by language and dissolved by ideas, the locus of a dissociated self, adopting the illusion of a substantial unity – a volume in disintegration.

–Michel Foucault “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”in Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader

Kane’s final offering to the theatrical world, 4:48 Psychosis, is a testimony to the veracity of Kane’s self-professed growing interest in the performative potential of theatre. In an interview dating back to 1995 Kane stated that: “Increasingly, I’m finding performance more interesting than acting, theatre more compelling than plays” (Kane “Drama”). Kane’s interest in theatre’s untapped potential is evident in the way her final play pushes the conventional boundaries of playwriting. 4:48 Psychosis reads less like a play than a prose poem intended for interpretative performance. I read 4:48 Psychosis as Kane’s a theatrical journey into the darkest realms of the human psyche exploring feelings of alienation, depression, and suicide. It is also a play about unrequited love. In this chapter, I discuss the way in which Kane conjoins the violent language she perfected in her earlier work, her interest in memory, the trauma that is evident in all of her plays, and the desire to provide the audience with experiential theatre. I consider 4:48 Psychosis as a work of art that is a theatrical enactment of depression and suicide, within which is the expression of the fragmented postmodern subject and the impossibility of presenting an...

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