Helen Mort on Sarah Kane
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
[Content warning: suicide]
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 almost seems inappropriate to quote lines from the play as if they’re aphorisms, isolating them from the multi-layered context of the script, but there are so many phrases I had to memorise. Recently, I’ve been trying to think about how often I use the second person in my poems, how often the default ‘you’ of my poetry (particularly love poetry) seems to signify an ideal or invented other, a person who isn’t quite real. ‘Crave’ distilled my thoughts, again and again:
You fill my head as only someone who is absent can / You’ve fallen in love with someone who doesn’t exist.
I admire everything about ‘Crave’, but I think I admire the gallows humour of it above everything else. Kane’s work is always unflinchingly, unnervingly witty. She makes me think of my favourite Ivor Cutler quote: “First, you get them laughing, then while their mouths are open, you pour the poison in.” The voices in ‘Crave’ are self-aware, contradictory and sharp:
M: There’s something very unflattering about being desired when the other person is so drunk they can’t see.
B: Fuck you.
C: I tried to explain that I don’t want to sleep with someone who won’t appreciate how hard it was for me the following morning, but he’s passed out by the time I’d finished my sentence.
Kane originally wanted to be a poet, but decided that she was unable to convey her thoughts and feelings through poetry. She once wrote in The Guardian that she was attracted to the stage because "theatre has no memory, which makes it the most existential of the arts. No doubt that is why I keep coming back in the hope that someone in a dark room somewhere will show me an image that burns itself into my mind".
I love writing when it dares the audience to laugh the way ‘Crave’ so often does. After the laughter, we’re left burned by her images in the way she described. Whenever I think about theatre, Sarah Kane’s work is always a good place to start and to finish, a good place to feel less alone, a place to be reminded: ‘you’re not a bad person, you just think too much.’
Illustration of Helen Mort, by Lily Arnold. Read more about Helen here in our archive.