Premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London, 1995, Blasted by Sarah Kane was received by many critics negatively, most memorably by Daily Mail drama critic Jack Tinker in the title to his article as a “disgusting piece of filth.” It is a tour de force of the horrors of war, as reporter Ian descends into manic hysteria, sharing a hotel room with his friend Cate and visited by the strange character simply named ‘Soldier.’
The play blends across a range of two styles, the first scene being a naturalistic (‘normal’) style and the introduction of the Soldier in Scene 2 introducing a slow shift into surrealism, with the conclusion of the play devolving into a succession of nightmarish images. As such the plot is largely non-linear and abstract, but as a friend of mine recently said, “you can’t understand it if you just think inside of a box.” And this play does its best to blast that box open. Ha. Ha ha.
What is most notable about the language of the play is in its simplicity, leaving the abstract imagery to the onstage images. For the most part the characters speak in broken sentences (as shown below), and monologues are largely non-existent, save for the Soldier character in Scene 3. This is most effective in Scene 1 between Ian and Cate, as it gives Cate a broken a detached feeling, but it also serves to make the later scenes of the play impulsive, like the world has descended into a dream state.
Soldier – Never done that?
Ian – No.
Soldier – Sure?
Ian – I wouldn’t forget.
Soldier – You would.
Ian – Couldn’t sleep with myself.
Soldier – What about your wife?
Ian – I’m divorced.
It is easy, on reading the play, to see what the critics of the original performance were shocked at. The play is easily R-rated, with explicit sex, sexual violence, and horrific imagery. I am not easily shocked (after reading Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ I thought I was desensitized to most literature) but the final scene of this play dropped my jaw, and I can’t imagine watching the performance without feeling somewhat sickened. However, I would disagree with the contemporary critics of the play that the violence is “immature,” and it is not simply designed to be shocking for the sake of being shocking. Like Burgess’ ‘The Clockwork Orange,’ Kane is ripping back the comfort blanket from ‘civilised society’ and taking war to its logical conclusion – complete and utter destruction, not just physically, but also psychologically and spiritually. There is no moral precedent in warfare, and Kane is not being particularly outlandish in her portrayal, as a simple read through of the history of the siege of Leningrad in the Second World War would confirm her portrayal. The violence is shocking, yes, but this is only because of the moral plinth we place ourselves on.
The final moments of the play are characteristically bleak, with little hope for change, but this non-optimistic worldview seems largely appropriate. War is violence, and it is important to remember that no country can conduct war and expect to escape this violence. Sarah Kane’s play is shocking, disturbing, and morally outraging, but it is a reminder to the pervasiveness of violence. Cate tells Ian that “You’re a nightmare,” and this rings out throughout the piece, not just about Ian, but also about war, and the capacity of humanity to keep conducting war.