For those who enjoy the shock value in Sarah Kane’s first two plays, Blasted and Phaedra’s Love, and hope to see more rape and incestuous undertones, then Cleansed would certainly satisfy (though it is light on the incestuous undertones). Kane’s work, though, is should not be defined by these elements, as they are merely pieces of a brutal metaphor that speaks to issues of oppression and objectification, regardless of what the basis might me, and how we try to maintain our concepts of love against the innate desire to survive the oppressive forces that bear down upon us. In Cleansed, the narrative takes place in a former university that has been converted into an unidentified institution whose purpose seems unclear, though one might assume that they are meant to ‘reform’ the marginalized of society, that is, if one can see something akin to a concentration camp as a reformatory.
The antagonist of the play is named Tinker. It has been suggested that Kane named the character after James Tinker of The Daily Mail. He had written a review of Kane’s first play in which he called it a “disgusting feast of filth”, which I would have assumed was a compliment, but was apparently meant as an insult. If this link was intentional, then it serves as an interesting link between the media, and hegemonic institutions. Tinker, the antagonist, serves as judge, jury and executioner of the unnamed facility, and likewise, people in the media, like James Tinker, often pass judgement. Whether it be respected art critics, or tabloid journalism, the media is perpetually praising or disparaging art, people or ideas, amongst other elements of society. Disparaging a work relegates it to the realm of the marginalized. Kane’s play, then, like the inmates of the unnamed institution, are marginalized because they are viewed as somehow outside of the accepted norm.
The play speaks to several peoples who are members of marginalized groups: addicts, homosexuals (or amators), sex-trade workers and transgendered people, and in the case of the homosexual characters, Kane takes an extremely Orwellian approach. Carl, one of two lovers, promises to love Rod, his partner, forever. Whilst being tortured, however, Carl asks Tinker to torture Rod instead. This is reminiscent of the scene in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in which Winston is being tortured and asks O’Brien to torture Julia instead. This link with Orwell’s work is made more overt when rats are introduced, as it was with rats that Winston was tortured in Orwell’s novel. Kane’s interpretation of love, however, is perhaps more optimistic than Orwell’s, for even after such a betrayal, Rod can empathize with and forgive Rod and the two remain lovers. Carl, stating that the “rats [would] eat [his] face”, and admits that he’d “have done the same” while encouraging Carl not to blame himself as Rod does not blame him.
Grace, one of the victims of Tinker’s sadism, is presented as a character who is likely a transgendered person. She comes to the institution to see about her brother, Graham, an addict who was killed in the institution. It is noted by Tinker that Grace looks like her brother, and when she gets her brother’s clothes, she puts them on. By the end of the play she has transformed into her brother, after undergoing a barbaric surgery which she did not consent to. In locking Grace up for adopting gender roles outside those ascribed to her, we see how hegemonic institutions look upon people step outside of patriarchal norms. A woman who adopts a ‘masculine’ appearance is equated with a transgendered person, whether she identifies as such or not. The institution, then, forces them to adopt the physical sex of the gender whose prescribed nuances the person adopts. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Not all transgendered people, for instance, wish to have genital reconstructive surgery. Not all people who adopt gender traits outside of what is prescribed to them identify as transgendered. Neither do all transvestites. Common misconceptions often link amators, transvestites and transgendered people, and even people who don’t identify with any of these but simply do not ascribe to all socially prescribed gender traits. These marginalized groups often find themselves identified by what reproductive organ happens to be between their legs, rather than the content of their character.
Aside from the marginalization of people who adopt ‘unconventional’ orientations or gender identities, the plays also speak to the marginalization of sex-trade workers, linking the abuse they endure within a capitalist context. The idea of women as a commodity is presented early in the play when Grace is asked if she has a boyfriend. She confirms that she did have one, but notes that he “bought me a box of chocolates then tried to strangle” her. The juxtaposition of the gift of chocolates with physical abuse creates an important link. This link creates an association with commodity and abuse. The boyfriend may believe that because he has bought a gift for Grace, that he may take liberties with her. He may see the chocolates, not as an example of gift giving, but rather as a purchase of subservience. When he doesn’t get what he wants, he feels it is within his rights to mete out abuse as he sees fit. This may not be the case, but the link certainly does demonstrate that the giving of commodities does not, in any way, demonstrate an overt link between the giver and any sort of sincere emotion for the recipient. In terms of sex-trade worker, Tinker, proclaiming himself to be a doctor, offers to help a character simply named Woman, who works as performer in a peep-show booth. The link between Woman and Grace is made overt as Tinker actually calls her Grace several times. Though not treated explicitly as a commodity by Tinker initially, her continued commodification transforms Tinker’s initial longing for friendship into a callous exchange void of any empathy. This commodification of Woman, turns women into objects and commodities in the eyes of the people who purchase their services. This link between how Woman is seen and how women is seen is made plain by Kane as she gives the character no name and identifies her only by her sex/gender, which is fitting in that is how people like Tinker perceive them. Identifying somebody with a label facilitates dismissive and prejudicial treatment of people.
Though his is killed in the opening sequence of the play, Graham is an important figure throughout and links the way in which society treat people with addictions, lumping them in with other marginalized people. It is generally difficult to gain sympathy for people with addictions because many view them as being the source of their own problems and because their addictions often drive them to subvert social norms and infringe on other people’s personal freedoms. Methadone clinics, for example, that aim to help addicts, often face the scrutiny of conservative governments and lack funding. Public support for these clinics is minimal because many view them as facilitating a problem. Taxpayers, for the most part, don’t feel that they should, for example, be charged with ensuring that addicts have clean needles, but in marginalizing this group of people, we facilitate their deterioration, regardless of how much of their deterioration are the result of a self-destructed nature. Though many may struggle to see addicts as victims of the kind of social oppression that other marginalized groups endure, it remains a social issue that does facilitate that ostracizing of a group of people in need.
Aside from social commentary, Kane also addresses semiotics and grammar in the play. As is the case with each of her plays, it is prefaced with a passage that punctuation is used to emphasize delivery, not to conform to grammatical rules. Indeed, considering the play is written in poetic form, line breaks play a far more important role than does punctuation. Coupled with this, few of the characters use proper grammar. There are a number of instances of mistaken verb conjugation, most notably in a scene where inmates are learning letters. When Grace sees a letter and is then told what it sounds like, she says that the “letter don’t look how it sounds.” This speaks to the fact that there exists no intrinsic link between the signifier and the signified, suggesting that the relationship between the two is arbitrary. In situating this observation within a sentence that is grammatically incorrect, but still manages to communicate efficiently, Kane is demonstrating, not only the arbitrary nature of semiotics, but also grammar. In the process Kane is presenting an alternate way of communicating that is equally efficient. This suggests that there are ways to communicate effectively outside of the prescribed norm. In the context of the play, this suggests that the ways in which the characters subvert social norms are, like Kane’s own grammatical usage, acceptable and understandable.
The play, like many of Kane’s plays, is not easy to read, and I imagine would be even more difficult to watch for anybody who isn’t a sadist, but it is an important and valuable work nonetheless. Its written form is reminiscent of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf in that it is written as dramatic poetry and doesn’t ascribe to grammatical prescriptions. Though the content and issues addressed in these two plays are different, both deal with love under the force of oppression. Overall, the work is a potent and forceful piece of social criticism with, basted with a layer of tragically futile optimism.