Sarah Kane’s Crave: Random Onservations

sarahkanecrave1When first staged, Sarah Kane’s Crave was accredited to a pen name: Marie Kelvedon.  The purpose was to allow the work to avoid association with Kane’s previous works, and for good reason.  Critics and audiences alike can be prejudicial.  Once they’ve come to associate an artist with certain style, it is difficult to escape their expectations.  Because Crave is such a stark departure from Kane’s other works, it needed to stand on its own.  The infamous ‘Kane’ label would not help this play.  Kane’s detractors would dismiss it outright or go prepared to write a scathing review to reaffirm their prior observations, whilst fans of Kane would likely walk away disappointed by the lack of staged rape and incest. Kane’s name would have served to weigh the piece down.


Sarah Kane

Sarah Kane

The play itself a huge departure for Kane.  It is one act, though it is long, and it is a shared dialogue between four voices. Who these voices are and what they represent is unclear.  Given that the characters are nameless (they are identified only by the letters A, B, C and M), their gender would be impossible to tell without making presumptions on their gender based on their dialogue.  The cast, though, was comprised of two women and two men.  The dialogue is fluid and it is not clear who is addressing who, or even if these voices are different people.  They may be an internal dialogue for one person, or two people talking with their subtext and hidden sentiments being voiced for the audience to hear.  It is not an easy play to read and it is difficult to find an entry point into the ‘narrative’, if a narrative exists, but there are passages in this poetic drama that can stand alone.  There are sentences that warrant essays by themselves, so, since my limits as a reader have not allowed me to enter the text in the manner that I would normally like, I will explore some of passages that seemed most compelling to me.


1.       A: “You’re never as powerful as when you know you’re powerless.”

Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu

This line is potent for a number of reason.  Though it might sound like a clichéd maxim appropriated from Sun Tzu or Machiavelli or even Fight Club, it speaks to broader issues of whether or not people should be invested in a system that leaves them powerless.  Kyriarchal systems often create the illusion that the people at the bottom of the hierarchy are in some way empowered. This is done by creating different levels of oppression based on economics, education, gender/sex, perceived race, and religion (to name a few).  While an uneducated white woman may be exploited in a patriarchal system, she could conceivably see herself as invested in a hierarchy based on perceived race, whilst an educated Black man might see himself as being above the hypothetical white woman based on her lack of education and gender/sex.  These interlocking systems facilitate a false sense of empowerment for the exploited.  When one looks past these superficial elements to realize the true nature of their oppression and powerlessness, it is at that moment that they become empowered and are no longer tied down to the constructs of the kyriarchal system.  Sometimes such realization happen among the destitute who resort to theft and other menial crime, whilst other instances see dramatic events such as those that unfolded on 9/11.  Regardless of the scope response, these are people who are no longer invested in a given kyriarchal system and, so, their strength, for better or for worse, is made apparent.


2.       M: M recounts an event where she catches her maternal grandparents kissing, but when M tells her mother about it, her mother tells her that her grandfather died before she was born and that it was in fact her mother’s experience that M was recounting, not her own.


B: B shares a narrative where his father’s nose was broken and then claims that he inherited the broken nose, despite this being genetically impossible.


This image was borrowed from here.

This image was borrowed from here.

These two passages certainly go together.  There is a sentiment in some cultures where people often refuse to accept responsibility for the sins of their figurative fathers, but are more than happy to accept the spoils of that sin.  This is made apparent in North America through the treatment of Africans and African Americans in the time since the colonization of American, as well as through the treatment of Native North Americans.  Though people often reject any link between the past, they are still very much invested in the systems that offer them privilege.  Many of the tall white mansions that were built on the backs of slaves and the land is dispossessed Natives, remain standing.  The families, for the most part, have no issue accepting the home as an inheritance, but refuse to accept responsibility for the sin that was required to build it.  But, just as M shares the memories of her mother, and as B’s nose mirrors his father’s, so too is our cultural identity shaped by the identity of our parents.  If we are to free ourselves of these sins, we must accept responsibility for them first, or risk passing them down to the next generation.


3.       A: “A mother beats her child savagely because it ran out in front of a car.”

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

This sentence is especially applicable in the wake of the Edward Snowden/NSA scandal.  Governments often take on the role or the parent over its citizens, and often mete out abuse with the aim of preventing abuse.  This is rationalized in that they believe they are saving their children from a greater abuse, but at what point does the ends no longer justify the means?  Is being spied on a lesser form of abuse than a terrorist attack?  Does this not merely facilitate the authority of a tyrant?  At what point does the savage beating meted out by the government exceed the damage that would have been done by the car?  And what does this do to our psyche?  The fact that the child is referred to as ‘it’ suggests a dehumanizing element in the process as well.


4.       M: “You stop thinking of yourself as I, you think of we.”

The cover from an edition of Zamyatin's We.

The cover from an edition of Zamyatin‘s We.

This passage speaks to the interrelation between people and encourages a breaking of the imaginary boundaries that we put up between ourselves and the world around us.  When we are too concerned with our own personal freedoms, we can infringe on the freedoms of others, but when we tear down these walls and embrace community, we ensure that the needs of all are taken care of.  Socialism?  Communism?  Call it what you like, but moving from “I” to “we” makes everybody stronger, so long as it doesn’t turn into “us” and “them”.


5.       M: “I never met a man I trusted.”

Valerie Solanas likely never met a man she trusted either.

Valerie Solanas likely never met a man she trusted either.

This is an interesting line because it demonstrates the polarization of sexist attitudes that serve to retard the progress of gender equality.  It is an understandable reaction, of course.  How could a woman in the context of a patriarchal society trust a man who accepts privileged in that structure?  At the same time, however, it polarizes the issue and creates a barrier.  Without trust between the sexes, there can be no equality, and though this tentative mistrust in man may help M navigate the world, it will ultimately ensure that no progress is made.



6.       B: “And don’t you think a child conceived by rape would suffer.”

The protagonist in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God was the product of a rape.

The protagonist in Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God was the product of a rape.

This again speaks to the notion of the proverbial ‘sins of the father’, but works in a slightly different way.  The child, who is the product of a rape, will no doubt inherit something from the assault.  It is unlikely that he will have a father figure, or at least a conventional one.  This will cast the child as an outsider, both in the child’s own mind, and in the minds of those around the child.  Likewise, the child may be treated differently by his/her mother.  The truth of the nature of the child’s conception, whether hidden or exposed, will not bear no good fruit.  If a child is raised on a lie, then they will not know the virtue of the truth, but if the child is raised with the truth, he/she will know what they represent to their mother.  The sins of our father will shape our lives either way.


7.       M: “Have you ever raped anyone?”

B: “No.”

M: “Why not?”

The protagonist of Brett Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero does not participate in a gang rape, but neither does he stop it. Is his inaction an example of morality, or neutrality?The protagonist of Brett Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero does not participate in a gang rape, but neither does he stop it. Is his inaction an example of morality, or neutrality?

The protagonist of Brett Easton Ellis‘s Less Than Zero does not participate in a gang rape, but neither does he stop it. Is his inaction an example of morality, or neutrality?The

This short passage between M and B is interesting because it doesn’t have an answer.  B believes that in answering “No”, he is the paradigm of virtue, but M reveals that it is not always the act, or rather the lack of an act, that makes your virtuous, but the motivation behind it.  It is a metaphysical debate, but one with great relevancy.  Has B not raped someday because he respect their autonomy?  Or because he is fearful of the consequences?  He does not answer, so we might assume it is the latter, which brings into question the nature of rape.  Is the desire to do this innate?  Can it only be stopped by employing fear?  Or perhaps it can be rationalize?  Or perhaps the desire to rape is something that results in ‘nurture’ rather than ‘nature’.  Kane does not answer the question, but she forces the reader to confront it.


8.       M:  “I don’t want to be living in a bedsit at sixty, too scared to turn the heater on because I can’t pay the bill.”

Ageism is a growing concern. Read more here.

Ageism is a growing concern. Read more here.

More socialism!  Here M reveals the concerns she has for the future.  We cannot see into the future, and though a member of the working class may be able to take care of themselves, it can be difficult for them to do so in their old age.  This anxiety about the future and being able to afford the necessities of life speaks not only to the failings of the capitalist system, but also cultural failings in that we (Westerns), in general, don’t revere the elderly people in our society.  Native culture, for example, places a great value on their elders, but Western society views them as an albatross, and so they often become one of the marginalized groups within Western society.


9.       M:  “You’re very naïve if you still think you have those kind of choices.”

Our choices are not always our choices.

Our choices are not always our choices.

This speaks to the illusion of choice.  There is a degree of autonomy in every life, but it is always within the context of certain restrictions.  For a person born to economic privilege, their choice might be between Harvard and Yale.  For a person born to a working class family, their choice may be between taking out an enormous loan to attend a less prestigious university, and working at a factory.  Choice is an illusion.  Our context often dictates what choices we have, and so we are limited without ever having done anything to create such limits.  It is possible to overcome these limits, but some are born free of them, whilst others must take great risks to simply obtain an opportunity to overcome them.  Morally, there are choices we have to make that those who judge us have never been in a position to make.  For instance: two teens may be offered a needle at the same party, and though such a choice seems outwardly identical, one child may have to later choose whether to sleep late the next morning or go fishing with his/her father, whilst the other may have to choose between finding a place to crash, or going home to face sexual abuse.  That needle will represent two different things to both teens.  Their choice (selection) is their own, but their choices (options) are not.  Kane does not speak overtly to these things, but she does allude to them in referring to this illusion of choice and all the complicated implications that come with deconstructing that illusion.


10.   A: “speak German to you badly and Hebrew to you worse”

germanflagstarofdavidJuxtaposing German with Hebrew?  Our naivety is in display throughout the play, but this line seems to really explode this ingenuousness.  Gentiles outside of Germany likely have little understanding of the conflict that existed between the Nazi and the Jewish community in Europe, but the implication here is that despite the fact that the Germans were demonized following WWII for their treatment of the Jews, cultures foreign to both Germany and Judaism still identify more closely with the Germans.  This distancing from the victims of genocide demonstrates how the sentiments that allowed the induction of the Nuremberg laws remains and that people, after the passage of some time, make more of an effort to identify with the oppressor, rather than the oppressed.


11.   M:  “I cannot love you because I cannot respect you.”

This links closely with the previous quote, as well as with Kane’s prior play, Cleansed.  In Cleansed two lovers find a way to maintain their affections for each other, even in the face of oppression.  Here, however, M cannot love somebody she does not respect, but how is respect gained? By asserting authority?  Is it possible to respect a person who is a victim?  If not, is M suggesting that she cannot love somebody who is oppressed?  That oppression kills love?  Or at the very least taints it?


12.   A: “A Vietnamese girl, her entire existence given meaning and permanence in the thirty seconds she fled from her village, skin melting, mouth open.”

Identifying a person with their victimization further victimizing them.

Identifying a person with their victimization further victimizing them.  This images was borrowed from here.

This is one of the most potent images in the play, and one that speaks to our consumption of tragedy and how we define victims through their victimization.  For many Americans, the Vietnamese represented the duality of victim and enemy.  The images Americans saw of the Vietnamese did not exemplify Vietnamese culture, but rather American barbarity.  In defining such groups by their victimization, they become further marginalized.  The permanence of the girl’s victimization outweighs the permanence of her culture.



13.   C:  “Silence or violence.”

"It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees." -Emiliano Zapata

“It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”
-Emiliano Zapata

Silence of violence?  Hammer or nail?  With the recent passing of Nelson Mandela, this line seems especially important.  It is only three words, but an entire monograph can be written on this question and not scratch the surface.  Should one suffer in silence, or defend oneself?  Is it better to die on your feet than live on your knees?  According to some, hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.  Is this Kane’s assumed answer?  Framing such a question on oppression may create binaries, but speaking out against oppression without violence to support it often leads to further oppression, or else falls on deaf ears.  This question becomes even more important in the post 9/11 era when violent responses are defined as terrorism in some respects, whilst the initial oppression is overlooked.


14.   C: “Vanity, not sanity, will keep me intact.”

george-orwellFor those labeling violent responses from the oppressed as acts of terrorism, C’s maxim that vanity, not sanity, will keep her intact is especially telling. The sane response, when realizing the magnitude of oppression endured by others, is to end the oppression and reach out with the hope of finding a new working relationship.  Forgiving a ‘terrorist’ and recognizing their concerns is not the accept response, regardless of how sane and reasonable it might be.  Instead, it is vanity that is often the answer.  The assumption that the oppressor is superior and has a right to their privilege is reinforced and the oppressed are defined as terrorist. This calls upon George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Winston hangs onto the fact that “sanity is not statistical”, whilst O’Brien hangs onto the ‘might is right’ maxim.

15.   C: “I’m not ill, I just know that life is not worth living.”

A: “I won’t settle for a life in the dark.”

A:  “What I sometimes mistake for ecstasy, is simply the absence of grief.”


Was Thich Quang Duc ill?  Or rational?

Was Thich Quang Duc ill? Or rational?

These three lines are all interrelated.  As somebody who suffers from depression, suicidal thoughts are not foreign to me.  My reasons for indulging in such thoughts have never been out of despair, but rather were the result of reasoning and logic.  Others would say that the desire to end one’s life is a symptom of an illness, but this is not always the case.  It can be the conclusion of reasonable observations based on fact and devoid of baselessly optimistic hope.  A’s line, that he won’t settle for life in the dark, tentatively agrees with C’s line, most especially in the context of the ‘silence or violence’ option.  If one recognizes the darkness of a life of oppression and refuses to endure it any longer, there are only two options: death of defence.  Defence involves violence, which many may be morally opposed to, and so, there is only one option.  When one becomes accustomed to a life of darkness, any reprieve, not matter how trivial, can appear, in the context of misery, to be ecstasy.  But the happiness experienced by many others will remain foreign to such people.  It is like Plato’s cave.  A person living a life of misery might turn around and see a life without misery behind it and think it brilliant, but they have not stepped out of the cave of despair to see what a life of happiness is.  Is it worth living when trapped in a cave?


16.   M:  “A private iconography which I cannot decipher.”

Esoteric elitist T.S. Eliot, who some say was also anti-Semitic.

Esoteric elitist T.S. Eliot, who some say was also anti-Semitic.

This is perhaps the best way to summarize the work.  Like T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which Crave had been compared with, Crave is filled with iconography that is difficult to identify.  I do not believe it is possible to understand Crave fully without knowing the author’s intent.  It is a work that cannot be deciphered, and so, instead, all one can do is bring their own personal iconography to the text and plug it into Kane’s words and see what they can come up with.  But this speaks to broader issues as well. The German/Hebrew line is a great example of how these languages represent an iconography of sorts that is foreign to some and, so, not decipherable.  The iconography of the oppressed and the oppressor are often different, and so there is a lack of understanding between the two.  Having such exclusive iconography serves as a way to alienate and exclude people and can intensify the feeling of oppression.  Even when using the same icons, though, individuals often have different associations with them, and so people struggle to understand each other.  Recognizing these barriers is the key to moving forward, and this is what Kane does with this sentence.


17.   C: “rape me till I come”

I am not even going to touch this one, but I had to include it.


Princess Di Sarah Kane

Princess Di Sarah Kane

Over all the work does seem like a private iconography, but there are scraps and pieces that speak to me clearly and directly.  I am not sure how to frame this work, or how to read the voices, but I do know that even through the fog of personal iconography, Kane’s genius, pain, hope and despair are all present in this text.  She challenges our preconceived notions and binaries and encourages us to strip down and critically evaluate what we see in the mirror.  Crave is likely her best piece, even if it lacks a clear entry point for the audience and reader.

If this work sounds interesting, be sure to read my review of Sarah Kane’s plays Blasted, Phaedra’s Love and Cleansed

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.

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