Complacency and Complicity in Sarah Kane’s Blasted

Sarah Kane

Sarah Kane

It is not easy to piece together the work of Sarah Kane.  She challenges linear conventions and orthodox perceptions.  The themes and scenes are potent and brutal, but it is clear that there is a genius at work when reading her words.  Blasted, her first production, epitomizes this.  On the surface it is the story of a racist, misogynist, ableist, misamator; his rape victim, a young woman named Cate; and his rapist, an unnamed soldier.  But the play is not about the outward plot, or even the characters on stage.  Rather it is about the audience.  Kane uses the narrative to force the audience to examine their own complacency and complicity in the crimes that facilitate their comfortable lifestyle, metaphorically by bringing Ian, their point of reference, away from his domestic paradise and thrusting him into a warzone, and almost literally by bringing the warzone to their realm of escape: the theatre.

 

BlastedKane’s disdain for constructed rules is articulated before the play even begins in the author’s notes where it says “Punctuation is used to indicate delivery, not to conform to the rules of grammar”.  So, yeah, fuck you grammarians.  And that is straight from Sarah Kane.  This disdain for conformity seems, in this instances, like reasonless angst that is nothing more than an innate, or perhaps reactionary response to prescribed rules, or even a vain attempt to flag to the reader that the work is a post-modern piece, but as the play unfolds, it is clear that Kane’s attack on conformity to such constructions is a carefully considered construction in and of itself.

 

 

Ian is, for lack of the better word, the plays ‘protagonist’.  He is a protagonist in that he is the main character, but he is not a protagonist in the sense that, as opposed to be ‘good’, he is a horrid, detestable person.  The term antihero also false to describe him as there is no sense of heroism present in his character.  Ian’s first line is telling in that, after Cate expresses awe of the expensive hotel room they are in, Ian feels the need to state that he has “shit in better places than this”.  Christopher Wixson draws on this line for the title of his piece on the play, and for good reason.  It is the epitome of Western attitudes.  The room is not seen as a place where one can sleep, or relax, or rest or make love, but rather a room that serves as a place for disposal.  Ian is not concerned with making the room better, but rather defecating in it, which is not dissimilar to what Western troops are metaphorically (and I suppose literally) doing in the Middle East at this very moment, and certainly it is not dissimilar to how the Americans viewed Vietnam during Johnson’s and Nixon’s respective tenures as president.

 

A scene from Blasted that I borrowed from here.

A scene from Blasted that I borrowed from here.

In the pre-9/11 world, places like Rwanda and Kosovo seemed like far away regions that were utterly foreign and unfamiliar, even when the appeared on the news.  The West’s involvement in these affairs likely seemed nonexistent.  Kane articulates part of the reason that it is possible to distance oneself from such tragedies through Ian, who places barriers between himself, and those around him.  The most overt barrier is that of perceived race.  Ian employs the term ‘wog’ to describe the hotel staffer who is taking care of them, a prerogative terms used in the United Kingdom to describe people of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent (I’m SO not racist that I had to look that slur up and even considered not reprinting the word here, but I thought putting quotes around it would absolve me of any racist undertones).  He also uses phrases like ‘Pakis’, ‘conker’, ‘coon’ and the “N” word (which I could absolutely not bring myself to reprint and I even had to use “double” quotes around the letter “N” to distance myself even furthers from that awful, horrid, disgusting word).  He also uses ‘sarnies’, whatever that means (I’m sure it is a horrible racist slur as well).

 

A scene from Blasted that I borrowed from here.

A scene from Blasted that I borrowed from here.

His comments are not just ‘racist’, but also ableist, misamatorist and misogynist. He uses phrases like ‘spaz’ and ‘Joey’ to describe a child with cerebral palsy.  His misamatorist language includes words like ‘dyke’ and ‘lesbo’, whilst he boasts that he is not a ‘cocksucker’ (though he hopes very much that Cate is).  His misogyny bludgeons the reader and audience when he refers to Cate as a ‘cunt the “C” word and also indulges in rape culture by essentially telling Cate that she’s asking to get raped by unintentionally arousing him and informing her that if she is going to get him hard, she had better help him release his penile tensions (I cleaned that up a bit in my paraphrasing).  Oh, and he also promotes rape culture by actually raping her.  By using the labels, even if there weren’t hateful, Ian creates barriers between himself and those around him.  He distances himself from them and dehumanizes them in the process, disengaging himself from feel any sort of empathy for them, and thus allowing himself to be complacent and complicit in the victimization of marginalized groups.

 

 

Hitler was a nationalist!

Hitler was a nationalist!

Such overt barriers are easily identified, though, and what Kane does is more subtle.  As Wixson points out in his insightful review of the work, the character defend their xenophobic stances by suggesting they are rooted in their “love [of] this land”.  This stance links the xenophobic language of oppression with nationalism, and thereby suggests that our blind loyalty to nationhood can help to facilitate crimes that are not dissimilar to those committed by nationalist Germans in WWII.  This recognizes nationalism as a flawed logic, akin to the appeal to tradition or the appeal to the majority, which in turn invalidates any rational based on such a premise.  It is through this, as Wixson notes that “Kane strips away Ian’s disillusions of dignity, superiority, and willful blindness” (85) and simultaneously the audience’s as well.  Ian is sure to state that he doesn’t do foreign affairs, yet Kane’s narrative forces him overseas, which is also what she is doing to the audience in bringing the warzone to a west end theatre.  There is a willfully blind in Western society, and this becomes a literal blindness by the end of the play as Ian has his eyeballs sucked out by a solider.  Since Ian, even when confronted with the realities over overseas ‘interventions’, insists on remaining blind, the soldier accommodates him, making him literally blind.

 

Abeer Qassim Hamsa, age 7. When she was 14 Abeer was gang-raped and murder in front of her family by several American military men who then murdered her entire family. Kane describes a similar scene in 'Blaster, over 10 years before this took place.

Abeer Qassim Hamsa, age 7. When she was 14 Abeer was gang-raped and murder in front of her family by several American military men who then murdered her entire family. Kane describes a similar scene in ‘Blaster, over 10 years before this took place.

The soldier, who serves as a more perverse and barbarically honest ‘universal soldier‘, provides the true narrative, which is juxtaposed harshly with Ian.  Ian is essentially a tabloid reporter, linking him with sensational ‘news’ narratives about celebrities.  The contrast between Ian and the solider are as sharp as the contrast between Syria using chemical weapons on its own people, and Miley Cyrus twerking all over Robin Thicke chauvinist cock groin.  Ian articulates this most crassly and succinctly when he states that there is no “joy in a story about blacks”, asking “who gives a shit?”  People in the West are more concerned with tabloid news than they are with human rights issues.  The soldier, though, forces Ian to recognize what is going on.  He tells Ian about how he shot “a small boy… through the legs” and how he raped four women in front of their men.  The youngest ‘woman’ was twelve.  The soldier states that she didn’t cry until her turned her over, and then boasts that when he was done he made “her lick [him] clean”.  Then he shot her father in the mouth. Another narrative has the solider watching  a “young girl [he] fucked” try “to claw [his] liquid” out of her, with her hand buried between her legs.  The scene also includes a child with “most of his face blown off” and a “starving man eating his dead wife’s leg”.  This images are brutal, but they are not simply there to shock, they are there to open people’s eyes.  Ian would rather report on Katie Price than on Mi Lai or the likes of Steven Green who raped and killed a 14-year-old Iraqi girl before killing her parents and sister.  The Green incident didn’t happen until 2006, but Kane’s work details similar events.  The work was likely not meant to be so prophetic, but merely a reporting of the kind of events that had happened in conflicts such as the American/Vietnam war and had been happening in places like Somalia and the former Yugoslavia.

 

 

Sarah Kane

Sarah Kane

Though making Ian aware of these events is key, the soldier also serves to implicate Ian.   Ian looks at the solider with disgusts, stating that he would never commit such acts, but then the soldiers ask Ian about the girl who locked herself in the bathroom.  Ian plays the numbers game, stating that he’d only raped one woman, whereas the soldier had four in one go.  The solider is further linked with Ian because, just as Ian notes upon his arrival in the hotel that he had shit in better places, the solider performs a territorial pissing on the bed when he enters the hotel room, linking the two men through the act of expunging bodily waste.

 

 

Since 9/11, Sikh men have been given a hard time at airports by people who are prejudice enough to profile people based on ethnicity, and whoa are, not surprisingly, also ignorant enough to not know the difference between a Muslim and a Sikh.

Since 9/11, Sikh men have been given a hard time at airports by people who are prejudice enough to profile people based on ethnicity, and whoa are, not surprisingly, also ignorant enough to not know the difference between a Muslim and a Sikh.

The conversation between the solider and Ian demonstrates a lack of cultural understanding  When asked which side Ian is on, Ian states that he doesn’t “know what the sides are” in the country where he is visiting.  The soldier himself doesn’t seem to care as when he poses the question, he adds “if you can remember”.  Such an approach is reminiscent of civil conflicts where sides are constantly shifting, and that the actual reasons for war are secondary.  When Ian tries to explain that he is Welsh, the solider fails to see a difference between Welsh and English, demonstrating the kind of lack of cultural and ethnic understanding that Serbian and Croatian people likely were enduring at the time from a Western perspective that failed to identify what the difference was between them, just as many today don’t understand the difference between Iran and Iraq, or Sikhs and Muslims, or Sunnis and Shiites, or even Chaldean for that matter.

 

Christopher Wixson links Kan'es 'Blasted' with Jonathan Swift's 'A Modest Proposal'.

Christopher Wixson links Kan’es ‘Blasted’ with Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal‘.

The pairing of Cate and Ian is perhaps more important than the pairing of the solider and Ian, and Kane spend the bulk of the play on that.  The differences in their approach is demonstrated in the first scene where Cate is in awe of the room and Ian speaks of defecting in it, but it extends beyond that.  Cate does not tolerate Ian’s prejudicial views and speaks against them, and distances herself from his ableist mentalities. She also offers comfort to a baby that was handed off to her and even offers Ian comfort when he is blind and hungry, despite the fact he has raped her.  Ian is a hateful person who fails to realize how self-destructive his hatred is.  In his novel David, Ray Robertson’s protagonist notes that “if one doesn’t acknowledge certain rights that must be granted to all members of the family, there remains the risk that these same sacrosanct rights might be arbitrarily and illogically denied to certain other members.”  David sees a choice: “either might was right or everyone had the same… rights.”  This is central in Kane’s work.  When the soldier asks for a cigarette, Ian asks why he should give him one and the solider says “because I have a gun and you don’t”, a logic which Ian complies with.  Might, for Ian and the solider, is right. Ian seems to agree with this before meeting the solider, enjoying the comforts that Western life has allotted him and ignoring the suffering of others, but when confronted with the product of such disparity in the form of the solider, Ian find himself raped in much the same fashion as he raped Cate.  His hate has bred hate.  Ian, who aligns himself with the ‘British’, eventually finds himself in the position of one of Britain’s many victims: Ireland.  Just as the British Corn Laws has caused the Irish to literally starve to death during the potato famine, Ian finds himself starving, and just as Jonathan Swift suggested babies be sold for food to combat starvation, Ian finds himself compelled to eat a dead baby, a link which Wixson makes in his article on Blasted.

 

A scene from Blasted, borrowed from here.

A scene from Blasted, borrowed from here.

As much as the audience and reader might be appalled by what goes on in the play, Kane relies on the absence to tell of humanity’s horrors.  We see that Cate has fainting spells and what may amount to Multiple Personality Disorder Dissociative Identity Disorder, which likely speaks to a more traumatic event in Cate’ past that she is not dealing with and is not broached in the play.   This alternate personality awakens when Cate is experiencing Ian’s sadistic behaviour, so the reader might assume that she has, as a child, endured such treatment before, likely from a close relative, and that this personality was developed in order for Cate to deal with such abuses and still maintain her positive outlook.  This demonstrates that such brutal rape is not reserves strictly for people who are ‘other’, as Cate is like the victim of domestic abuse, while also illustrating the degree of compartmentalizing that needs to be done in order for us to deal with such brutal realities.  There is also the scene when she returns to the hotel room with food.  The subtext suggested that she was going to prostitute herself for food, which Ian argued against.  When she returns there is blood between her leg, demonstrating that something horrid has happened, but the audience is not informed about this.  Neither is Ian informed about this, and so, when Ian eats the food offered by Cate, he is enjoying the fruits of her exploitation, making him complicit in her victimization, a scene that is reminiscent of Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness.  The fact that Ian does not see the blood between Cate’s legs demonstrates that Ian is unaware of the pain endured by Cate that he might eat.  You know, kind of like that pain endued by women who are gang raped by militias in conflict zones.  You know, the militia’s that are, in turn, funded by us because we buy products from companies like Apple.  You know, Apple, who buys raw components from conflict zone because they ‘need’ them for our iPhones and iPads and such (and I tentatively apologize to Apple for singling them out as there are many other companies that do the same thing and Apple is investigating in some instances at least).

 

A Serbian FIlm reminds me very much of Kane's work, with one shot in particular bearing a brutal similarity.

A Serbian FIlm reminds me very much of Kane’s work, with one shot in particular bearing a brutal similarity.

Wixson notes that many critics blasted Blasted when it came out.  Jack Tinker called it a “feast of filth” (Wixson, 83), which actually sounds like a compliment to me, whilst Michael Billington, who changed his tune on the play after Kane’s suicide, claimed that the “‘reason the play falls apart is that there is no sense of external reality’”, asking “‘who exactly is meant to be fighting whom?’” (Wixson, 78)  Wixson notes that Billington praised Harold Pinter’s Partytime, which shares similarities to Kane’s play, saying that it explores “bourgeois complicity in governmental cruelty” (Wixson, 78).  The irony is, of course, that we don’t know the external reality.  That is the point.  There is fighting going on in the world and we are too consumed with the latest trailer for The Amazing Spider-man 2, which by the way is awesome, or the new play at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs to address the important issues.  It reminds me of the response to A Serbian Film, which is a work that is equally, if not more, brutal than Kane’s play, and speaks to many of the same issue.

 

Is there a sliver lining?  Not really.  Ian ends up trying to clean up his literal shit (his feces) with his figurative shit (the newspaper he writes for), as if he were trying to clean shit of his hands by rinsing it under a stream of his own urine.  The only thing we might take hope is that the West, as represented by Ian, is dying.  He enters the play with a fatal diagnosis, a diagnosis that likely can be applied to the consumer culture of the West.  It will collapse, as all ‘dynasties’ do, but sadly, the West, like Ian, doesn’t seem to mind taking down whoever it can in the process in a vain attempt to prop itself up one last time before it falls into submissive misery under the rule of the next world power.  Like Rome, the West is bringing home the spoils of the world whilst all it ships out is its own feces.  This is perhaps a little too melodramatic a reading, but you get the point.

 

If you enjoyed this post and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler, on Facebook, and add me to your RSS feed.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Speak Your Mind

*

css.php