Blasted‘s 1995 debut was one of those rare productions which salmon-leaps from the digestive tract of the review section to the higher functions of the headlines. Sexual violence, xenophobia, war crimes, a total breakdown of order in and outside of a hotel room – the verdict was kneejerk, the play and its author demonised and/or pathologised.
I found it myself some years after this initial reflux had ebbed and time’s better counsel had dredged up and widely acknowledged the terrible tenderness beneath the shocking surface. The transgression was material, but the transcendence I’d read about eluded me. I wasn’t revulsed by the plot, but felt short-changed by the language, the extremity of the characters (not in their behaviour, but their abject, almost binary displays of power or weakness). The violence seemed to sweep everything but its own logic and imagery offstage. So, even with hindsight, even having absorbed the praise of those critics who’d begun by condemning, my first reading was wrong.
I see it differently now, woke up to the fact Kane was a writer free enough of ego to mainline ugly actions in an ugly fashion. As has been argued elsewhere, this is not to say pain is presented raw – the collision of worlds which makes Blasted‘s scene progression more dialectical than accumulative would be disengagingly ridiculous if not weighted just so – but that her judgement and vision are as important as her skill in witholding the artful arrangement of parts dramatists routinely use to shortcut and symbolise – Blasted has to be lived through, experienced. So, let’s…
“Doing to them what they done to us, what good is that? At home I’m clean. Like it never happened. Tell them you saw me. Tell them…you saw me.” (Soldier)
You can find a perfectly serviceable synopsis over at Wikipedia – I imagine the gist is well-known, but in the simplest of terms, a rape in a hotel room somehow abruptly allows the war raging outside to rush in like black water through a stress fracture. Carnage ensues. In this unedited 19-page interview (pdf), Kane reveals the surprisingly simple genesis for the play’s seisimic shift from naturalism to nightmare: “I switched on the news one night while I was having a break from writing, and there was a very old woman’s face, a woman of Srebrenica just weeping and weeping and looking into the camera…I thought: ‘So what could possibly be the connection between a common rape in a Leeds hotel room and what’s happening in Bosnia?’ And then suddenly this penny dropped and I thought: ‘Of course, it’s obvious. One is the seed and the other is the tree…’”
“Punish me or rescue me makes no difference I love you Cate tell him for me do it for me touch me Cate.” (Ian)
If critics mistook Blasted‘s radical commentary for rebellious posturing, Ian’s language from the off would aid that first impression – there’s barely a line uttered which wouldn’t qualify as hate speech (although this is supplemented by an almost cheerful acceptance of his own corruption, physical decay and imminent death). In manipulating the soft-hearted and muddle-headed Cate, the audience witness a horribly inevitable crime. But the aftermath is anything but, as a laconic soldier whose main motivation seems to be to share the atrocities he’s taken part in makes Ian the next victim, raping and blinding him in turn. A bomb breaches the walls, the soldier shoots himself and the last semblance of civilisation as we know it collapses into something between Beckett (minimal, timeless bleakness) and a snuff nature doc.
Kane knew what she was doing: “You have a nice little box set in the studio set somewhere and you blow it up… For me the form did exactly mirror the content. And for me the form is the meaning of the play, which is that people’s lives are thrown into complete chaos with no reason whatsoever.” And always remember, for all this, the play retains a sliver of hope amid the splinters of the set – for survival, if nothing else.
“My brother’s got blind friends. You can’t give up.” (Cate)