Notes on and quotes from Cleansed (1998) Sarah Kane
“Think about getting up, it’s pointless. Think about eating, it’s pointless. Think about dressing, it’s pointless. Think about speaking, it’s pointless. Think about dying only it’s totally fucking pointless.” (Grace/Graham)
If Blasted made Kane’s name via its full-frontal short-circuit of naturalism, Cleansed would start in a resultant afterworld denuded of socio-historic context. And if the form of the former was explosive, the latter is institutional – some curious, awful hybrid of university and death camp, to be exact. The play’s episodes are experiments – to measure the power or worth of love in the face of violence as pure as dissection.
Tinker is doing the dissecting. He’s a doctor and a dealer. It’s his institution, and he is god within his own creation. When Grace arrives looking for her brother – whose overdose, presented almost as ritual, constitutes the first scene – she gives herself up to be closer to his memory, which will shadow her through the trials to come. She will dress in his clothes. Eventually they seem to fuse.
“Listen. I’m just saying this once. I love you now. I’m with you now. I’ll do my best, moment to moment, not to betray you. Now. That’s it. No more. Don’t make me lie to you.” (Rod)
Meanwhile, among the other inmates, Rod and Carl – a couple – will be torn apart with exactitude. 1984‘s fear of torture used to invalidate or de-idealise love is only the beginning for this pair of pinned butterflies. And it is in the physicality of their relationship’s dismemberment that we see how far beyond the arm’s length etiquette of psychological normalism Kane was willing to go. When Carl speaks love, his tongue is removed, when he writes, his hands, when he dances, his feet.
So, where her first impact came from epic atrocities visited with the sudden force of divine thunderbolts on realistic characters, her second original play dovetails equal brutality so deeply in its everyday structure that it seems a stable element, a fact of life. What became the talking point this time was not the starkness of the action, but the calculated challenge of its impossible stage directions – most famously ‘The rats carry Carl’s feet away‘ but also the anti-illusionistic magic tricks of flowers growing through the floorboards or wounds synchronising on different bodies. For all the bloody carnage, the emotional cruelty, the fallibility of body and personality alike, the power of the play is manifested in its visual poetry. Suitably, it’s difficult to think beyond Yeats to summarise it – “A terrible beauty is born…”
“Shh shh shh. No regrets.” (Tinker)