Dead [Women] Poets Society Blog

Helen Mort on Sarah Kane

Updated: Apr 27

[Content warning: suicide]

Sarah Kane

What I sometimes mistake for ecstasy is simply the absence of grief. – ‘Crave’, Sarah Kane.’

The poet I’ve chosen to discuss is a shadowy figure whose biography haunts her best known work. Her writing has become more popular after her death than it ever was in her life. I think of her like a Franscesa Woodman photograph, an oblique portrait in black and white. She wasn’t known as a poet at all but a playwright. Yet to me, her work is lyrical, urgent and resonant. It yields everything I turn to poetry for.

I’ll never forget watching a production of Sarah Kane’s ‘4.48 Psychosis’ for the first time, because – after stepping out into the London light – I had to sit down on the pavement in Waterloo and weep, amazed that anyone who had seen the same play could carry on walking into the city. When I first saw ‘Crave’ performed in Sheffield, I had a more subtle but equally powerful reaction and couldn’t get the angry, funny, devastated voices from the script out of my head for weeks. Perhaps I never have – returning to ‘Crave’ years later and reading it silently, I was amazed by how much of it was already part of my memory.

Sarah Kane was known for creating plays that deal with themes of desire, pain, sex, love, torture violence and death. She was born in 1971 but she committed suicide in 1999 after years struggling with depression and two voluntary admissions to London’s Maudsley hospital. She took an overdose of prescription drugs and - two days later - hanged herself with shoelaces in the bathroom of Kings College hospital. Not long before she died, she’d written ‘4:48 Psychosis’: a fragmented monologue which explores the psychotic mind. According to her friend and fellow playwright David Greig, the title derives from the time—4:48 a.m.—when Kane frequently woke in the morning when she was depressed.

‘Crave’ was Kane’s penultimate play and she initially presented it under a pseudonym (Marie Kelvedon), possibly to distance it from her reputation for graphic violence on stage. It is certainly less violent than something like ‘Blasted’ or ‘Cleansed’, but no less insistently disturbing, no less unsettling. Set in a city without a name, ‘Crave’ works a bit like a long poem, with four voices (C, B, A and M) announcing themselves, reflecting on love, loss, obsession and futility. There are echoes of Eliot and of the Bible (‘hurry up please it’s time’). Sometimes, the voices connect. More often, they talk at cross purposes or overlap:

M: I’m the kind of woman about whom people say Who was that woman?

A: The question is Where do you live and where do you want to live?

M: Absence sleeps between the buildings at night.

‘Crave’ has a lot to say about those sleeping absences, about loving the idea of someone more when they’re away from you, or falling in love with the notion of another person. It al