"Here am I and there is my body": Fragmenting Bodies and Subjectivities in 1990s British Drama
“Here am I and there is my body”:Fragmenting Bodies and Subjectivities in 1990s British Drama Alessandro Ferrone York University Graduate Program in English 30 April 2012 Supervisor: Dr. R. Darren Gobert
Ferrone 1We saw ourselves now as we never had seen,Portrayal of the trauma and degeneration,The sorrows we suffered and never were free. — Joy Division
Ferrone 2ContentsAcknowledgments 3Introduction 4I. (St)able-Bodied? 15 Sarah Kane, Cleansed (1998) 17 Mark Ravenhill, Faust Is Dead (1997) 29II. Leaving the Shock-Fest 43 Martin Crimp, Attempts on Her Life (1997) 44 Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis (2000) 55Conclusion 66Works Cited 70
Ferrone 3Acknowledgments There are truly only two people that I must thank for making this project possible.The first is Marcia Blumberg, who introduced me to the work of Sarah Kane and MarkRavenhill in the summer before my fourth undergraduate year. Admittedly, what firstcaught my attention was a play in her syllabus that contained an F-bomb in its title, butby the third time I read Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking (before the course had evenbegun), I knew that it was something to which I wanted to devote much more time andinterest. Marcia’s support throughout the past three years—from countless referenceletters to encouraging phone calls—has been unwavering and I am so appreciative. I owe my deepest gratitude to Darren Gobert. Whether helping me discern thedirection of this project, offering me honest feedback to my work (both positive andnegative), or even scolding me for not meeting my own self-imposed deadlines, he hasbeen a steadfast and reliable presence for the duration of this entire process. Darren hastruly been nothing short of a mentor to me in ways that are not confined solely to thispaper, and it is no hyperbole to say that I have no idea where I would be if not for histhoughtful and unending guidance. I am proud of the work that I have produced and Isincerely hope that it does justice to the effort and support with which Darren hasprovided me since this project’s inception.
Ferrone 4Introduction Near the end of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, the speaker quotes an eerilyresonant warning from the book of Isaiah: “Gird yourselves: for ye shall be broken inpieces” (228). It appears in a passage that is rather apocalyptic in tone, and consideringthat 4.48 Psychosis is the final play in Kane’s small but powerful oeuvre (premièring justover a year after her death), the quotation seems quite apt to describe a recurring motif innot only the entirety of her body of work, but also much of the drama that was performedon the British stage throughout the 1990s. It was during this decade that a new theatricalsensibility came to prominence in England, (in)famously labelled by Aleks Sierz as “in-yer-face” theatre1, in which “the language is usually filthy, characters talk aboutunmentionable subjects, take their clothes off, have sex, humiliate each other, experienceunpleasant emotions [and] become suddenly violent” (In-Yer-Face 5). By no means aformal movement (despite the implications of Sierz’s label), a handful of young,imaginative playwrights—chief among them Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, AnthonyNeilson, and Jez Butterworth—rejuvenated the British stage with sensational,controversial, and highly politicized work. Since then, Sierz’s book has come to be seenas a somewhat first blush analysis of the period and many have commented on whatappears to be a totalizing treatment of several playwrights who certainly share a numberof thematic commonalities but also demonstrate tremendous range and uniqueness. Whatcannot be denied, however, is that In-Yer-Face Theatre played a crucial role in drawing1 When Sierz asked Sarah Kane what she thought of the in-yer-face label, she responded,“That’s your problem, mate, not mine . . . At least it’s fucking better than NewBrutalism” (Sierz, “Politics” 24).
Ferrone 5critical attention to the work and served as a kind of launching pad for the dense body ofacademic literature that has since developed. This paper will examine the representationsand extensions of human bodies in these plays and the ways in which they are used todramatize fragmentation on personal, cultural, and psychological levels. The plays that Iwill discuss do a great deal to resist the discursive boundaries that limit identity and self-expression, sometimes by theatricalizing bodies in pain or physical distress, other timesby collapsing this fragmentation and dislocation into the very form of the play itself. In the first part of this paper, I will examine two plays for which their respectiveplaywrights are arguably less known: Sarah Kane’s third play, Cleansed, and MarkRavenhill’s second play, Faust Is Dead. My selection of these two works is quitedeliberate. While their debut plays, Blasted and Shopping and Fucking, propelled them tonotoriety upon their premières in 1995 and 1996 respectively, perhaps nowhere in theirrespective oeuvres is the body as emphasized, anatomized and interrogated as in the twoplays I will discuss. In Cleansed, we witness Tinker, a sadistic man with the trappings ofa doctor2, as he carries out a series of brutal attacks—beatings, surgeries, humiliations—on a group of seemingly captive men and women who struggle to express their love forone another in a rigidly policed environment. Kane does a great deal to blur thesubjective boundaries of her characters, and she theatricalizes this instability on theirphysical bodies: the clothing that Graham wears in the opening scene is transferred firstto Robin and then to Grace; Grace’s clothing is worn by Robin and then by Carl; andCarl’s penis is ultimately removed and grafted onto Grace’s body. Their physical forms2 Kane problematizes this identification more than once. In the first scene, Tinker tellsGraham, “I’m a dealer not a doctor” (107), and this is something of which he reminds usagain at the end of the play.
Ferrone 6are consistently malleable entities that, whether degraded or empowered, always serve toinform some central element of their identities. This motif engages with a very robust mass of scholarship that examines theintersection of material bodies with semiotic meanings and identifications. Postmoderntheory, particularly in the 1990s, posed a series of questions about our bodies andidentities that were simultaneously taken up by many of the artists writing for the Britishstage during this decade. Theorist Anne Balsamo, for example, writes that “the physicalbody has traditionally been a reliable ground for establishing identity,” but as “bionicbody recrafting . . . become[s] more advanced and sexual body parts technologicallyrefashioned, a visual reading of gender, or any other cultural marker of identity, off thesurface of the body will be hopelessly confounded” (155). And perhaps this is the pointKane intends to explore in her work. She engages directly with theories that attempt toexplain the legibility of physical bodies and the challenges presented to this legibility byautonomous, non-normative identity formation. Indeed, she seems to find hope in theplasticity of the human body for its range of identity possibilities. Perhaps helpful in this context is Donna Haraway’s discussion of the cyborg; thatis, a hybrid of organism and machine that resists the concept of a natural human form andhas rendered almost indistinguishable the differences between organic and artificialbodies. For Haraway, the promise is “a way out of the maze of dualisms in which wehave explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves” (57). She speaks to an ontology inwhich the notion of a legitimate, authentic, or natural body is completely destabilized,and the effect is to dislodge codified meanings in order to strike down restrictive identitycategories. There is, of course, a notable difference between Haraway’s cyborg and the
Ferrone 7plasticity of the body that Balsamo describes, but what they have in common is abroadened space in which identity formation can take place. In this way, despite theubiquitous images of pain that pervade Cleansed, the play ends with a sense of optimism:Grace/Graham3 and Carl—their bodies dramatically different from when we first sawthem—look skyward as Grace/Graham reaches out to hold what remains of Carl’samputated arm. As Christopher Innes asserts, “the imagery points to a possible waybeyond the violence of a degraded civilization, as does the gender-blending” (534); theirsolidarity—coupled, ultimately, with their survival of unimaginable brutality—perhapssuggests that the mutability of the human form can offer a viable alternative to thediscursive restrictions placed upon subjects and identities. Ravenhill is more cynical in Faust Is Dead. The play follows a Frenchphilosopher named Alain during his travels in the United States to promote a book. It isthere that he meets Pete, a much younger man who entertains him with sex andrecreational drugs, and introduces him to the Internet. Heavily laden with postmoderntenets like the end of objective reality and the arrival of the age of simulation, Ravenhilloffers a critical perspective of the theories that inform contemporary ideas about bodies,identities, and reality. One method of self-fashioning taken up in the play is the practiceof cutting, sometimes referred to as self-injury, which involves methodically slicing theskin. Theorist Victoria Pitts suggests that such “body projects are . . . seen inlate/postmodernity as integral to the construction of a self . . . The transformation of thebody, in this view, often reflects such a narrative project of the self, and bodies are readas surfaces that display one’s identity to others” (31; original emphasis). Donny, a boy3 Their speech prefixes have been combined by this point, Grace’s phalloplasty havingseemingly completed her desired transformation into her brother.
Ferrone 8that Alain and Pete encounter in an online chat, routinely cuts himself and posts imagesof his wounds online, praising the practice as a means of taking control of his ownidentity. In addition to this possibility for personal definition, proponents of the practicepoint to its resistance against broader social directives of subjectivity as well. NikkiSullivan writes that “flesh which bears the trace of self-inflicted wounds is readunquestioningly by many as symptomatic of some sort of personality disorder . . . Forothers, however, modified bodies seem to signify a resistance to heteronormative idealsand identities” (47). Ravenhill places himself quite decisively in the former camp; ratherthan celebrating the possibilities for self-fashioning that Pitts and Sullivan describe,Ravenhill points to their limitations and shortcomings by illustrating the ways in whichthey forgo human experience, feeling, and suffering. His dissent is most evident duringthe play’s climax: as Alain theorizes Donny’s cutting as a radical contemporary methodof reclaiming his identity, he overlooks the very real issue of a suffering young boy whodies by the same instrument he believes has granted him the chance to live life on hisown terms. The second part of this paper will examine two plays which further resist theboundaries of form, tested by plays like Cleansed and Faust Is Dead. When MartinCrimp’s Attempts on Her Life premièred at the Royal Court in 1997, audiences weredivided regarding its perplexing content and fragmented form. In addition to theproduction’s highly theatrical and technology-saturated staging, the play itself provedquite challenging to its viewers. Devoid of a linear or coherent plot, Attempts on Her Lifealso does away with stable characters; Crimp includes dashes to create dialogues andconversations but never indicates the number of speakers present at any given time. The
Ferrone 9result is a sort of carte blanche for directors of the play, who are free to interpret the workin any way they choose. The only consistent element throughout the play’s seventeenscenarios is a woman, sometimes called Anne, other times referred to as Anya,Annushka, Anny, or one of many variations on the name. She repeatedly becomes thesubject of conversations, arguments, musings, songs, and even advertisements, withoutever appearing onstage. In a way, the play comes to be about “the processes of subjectioninvolved in shaping the self” (Agustí 121) as we witness the (de)construction of a subjectwho has no input in her own identity. In line with analyses of the body’s interaction withidentity formation, such as that of Philipa Rothfield, the subject of the play isreconfigured by “outside interpretations; conscious, imaginary, and unconsciousrepresentations; and it is penetrated by discursive forms of determination” (187). Perhaps the most common initial assessment of the play was that is served as anemblem of the future of contemporary British theatre. Aleks Sierz called it a “postmodernextravaganza” (In-Yer-Face 33); others equated the play to self-indulgent intellectualmasturbation without the capacity to affect an audience emotionally. And as a result of itsformal fragmentation, Attempts on Her Life is often cited as an example of what Hans-Thies Lehmann calls “postdramatic theatre.” In his study, Lehmann asserts that theconventions of plot, narrative, and character are becomingly increasingly absent in thecontemporary theatre, and accordingly, unfixed from its speakers, language becomes anew and independent element of performance. He writes, “language appears not as thespeech of characters – if there still are definable characters at all – but as an autonomoustheatricality” (18). Accordingly, postdramatic theatre employs speakers or text bearers inthe place of traditional characters, who have “no other responsibility than to deliver text:
Ferrone 10that is, not to interpret. The theatre becomes a place in which speech is not processed onthe stage but in the auditorium” (Barnett 18). To bolster his argument, Lehmann borrowsElfriede Jelinek’s concept of Sprachflächen, or “language surfaces,” to describe thereplacement of dramatic speech with language that is not so much continuous dialogue asit is a juxtaposition of spoken textures “directed against the ‘depth’ of speaking figures,which would suggest a mimetic illusion” (Lehmann 18). This opposition to mimesis(particularly in relation to character and language) is certainly noteworthy if only for itsdeflation of the concept of objective reality. As Lehmann summarizes, “[e]nclosed withinpostdramatic theatre is obviously the demand for an open and fragmenting perception inplace of a unifying and closed perception” (82), and this is, undoubtedly, a centralelement of Crimp’s work. While Attempts on Her Life certainly exemplifies many of the characteristicsLehmann describes, this does not necessarily imply, contrary to the assertion of many,that the play is indeed “postdramatic.” On the one hand, the productions upon whichLehmann focuses in his “overwhelmingly production-heavy” study are “mostly German,Dutch, and Flemish” (Defraeye 646), and the theatrical sensibilities he describes, despitesharing commonalities with contemporary theatre in England, cannot be so broadlyapplied without considered recontextualization. Additionally, as reviewer Elinor Fuchspoints out, the vast number of theatre practitioners who are mentioned in the book asexamples of postdramatic artists signals a kind of totalizing perspective which invariablyoverlooks the distinct qualities of their respective works: “With a single term, Lehmannre-creates three or more generations of theatrical outliers as a movement. Virtually everycontemporary theatre artist and group of international note is here identified as a
Ferrone 11practitioner of the postdramatic” (179)4. It is important, therefore, to emphasize thatAttempts on Her Life, while employing certain postdramatic devices, cannot accurately ordefinitively be called a postdramatic play. Sierz makes this distinction clear bycontrasting Jelinek’s Sprachflächen with the language in Crimp’s plays, reminding usthat “Crimp’s text, which is all dialogue, and recognizably conversational dialogue at that. . . is the language not of poetic invention but of real people” (“Form” 380). While thespeech in Attempts on Her Life is somewhat estranged from its speakers (therebypreventing the depth of character against which Jelinek writes), this is ultimatelyaccomplished not by amalgamating the text—in order to remove the “distinction[s]between narration, dialogue, description, expository text and stage direction”(Zimmermann 74)—but rather by fragmenting the dramatic action into short scenariosand eliminating the stabilizing continuity of characterization. Perhaps the most obvious counter-argument to Lehmann’s contention relies uponthe very concept of performing a play. While the theatre, as an institution, may be arguedto be postdramatic, can a play be devoid of drama? What, then, are the boundaries withinwhich a play is defined? Richard Schechner classifies drama as a “written text, score,scenario, instruction, plan, or map. The drama can be taken from place to place or time totime independent of the person or people who carry it” (71). What Schechner describes isthe work of an author or creator, and, barring any unexpected mishaps, the work retainsconsistency each time that it is performed. A play, then, which generally relies on a staticscript, fulfills Schechner’s definition of drama because it is a “tight, verbal narrative; it4 Fuchs’s often scathing review of Postdramatic Theatre also raises a score of otherpertinent concerns, chief among them the unadvertised abridging of the Englishtranslation and the dubious textual intervention of translator Karen Jürs-Munby.
Ferrone 12allows for little improvisation; it exists as a code independent of any individualtransmitter; it is, or can easily be made into, a written text” (94). The very existence ofCrimp’s script, therefore, contradicts the classification of Attempts on Her Life as apostdramatic play, a phrase that, upon consideration, proves quite paradoxical. Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis has been similarly labelled as an example of thepostdramatic. Like Crimp’s play, 4.48 Psychosis contains no speech prefixes, nodiscernible characters, and no semblance of a linear or sequential plot structure. It allowsfor a broad range of staging choices, the most noteworthy of which is arguably thenumber of performers on the stage. James Macdonald’s original production cast threeactors while Claude Régy’s French production, which I will also discuss, was performedalmost entirely by Isabelle Huppert. The text, which takes a multitude of forms—monologues, dialogues, lists, and numbers—suggests a passionate inquiry into a highlyfractured psyche, examining the misgivings, frustrations, and apprehensions thatpredicate suicide. As he does with Attempts on Her Life, Barnett interprets Kane’s finalplay strictly within the context of Lehmann’s postdramatic theatre. In a passage whichlikely informed this postdramatic reading of the play, Lehmann outlines “the structurallychanged quality of the performance text: it becomes more presence than representation,more shared than communicated experience, more process than product, moremanifestation than signification, more energetic impulse than information” (85). Andwhile the language in 4.48 Psychosis comes in “a wide variety of textures” (Barnett 19)and is, therefore, more comparable to Jelinek’s Sprachflächen, Kane’s play cannot bedefinitively labelled a postdramatic text for precisely the same reasons I delineated in mybrief introduction to Attempts on Her Life. While Barnett is not incorrect in his
Ferrone 13assessment that the play presents “neither cause, nor effect, nor development. Thecondition is not explained, no answers are proffered. The architecture of the play isdeliberate but the sequence is not predicated upon the demands of a plot; no storyemerges from the chaos” (21), he errs in his rigid taxonomy of the play, which ultimatelylimits its range of possibilities.5 In many ways, these two plays signalled a strong shift intheatrical form and content that set them apart from the kind of work that garneredSierz’s reductive “in-yer-face” label. In stark contrast to the physical violence, onstagesex, and general brutality that characterized much of the drama produced on the Britishstage in the mid-1990s, the end of the decade saw similar political, philosophical, andtheoretical conceits dramatized in radically innovative ways. Rather that representingsocial fragmentation, alienation, and incoherent identities on the human body, Attemptson Her Life and 4.48 Psychosis collapse form and content, character and speech,language and violence, and ultimately, demarcations of self and other in order to examinethe indeterminacy of subjectivity and selfhood. My ultimate objective in this paper is to draw attention to a rather brief period inthe history of the British stage—specifically 1997 to 2000, in terms of these four plays—in which the limits of the human body came under fierce attack. And in examining thesefour similar yet radically different works, I hope to illustrate how they theatricalize,challenge, and engage with modern and contemporary theories about the corporeal andpsychological parameters of the human subject, providing us with “a point from which torethink the opposition between the inside and the outside, the private and the public, theself and other, and all the other binary pairs associated with the mind/body opposition”5 In fairness to Barnett, Lehmann himself includes Kane in his discussions of the“autonomization of language” (18) and “theatre literature” (33).
Ferrone 14(Grosz 20-21). Jennifer González asserts that, “when the current ontological model ofhuman being does not fit a new paradigm, a hybrid model of existence is required toencompass a new, complex and contradictory lived experience” (61). Perhaps, then, theseplays—with their dismembered bodies, fractured psyches, and discontinuous,indeterminate identities—filled a gap in the English theatre of the 1990s which failed toaddress the demands of a complex, multifaceted and ever-changing culture. As Kane,Crimp and Ravenhill resisted the boundaries of the conventional and the acceptable, theynot only interrogated the notions of a unified society and an objective reality; theydeconstructed the possibility of a subject that is unified within itself.
Ferrone 15I. (St)able-Bodied?: Cleansed and Faust Is Dead Following their première plays, Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill were seen bymany as exemplars of a radical, irreverent political and theatrical sensibility. But what isremarkable about both playwrights is that, while each subsequent play continued a trendof provocative and controversial subject matter, their bodies of work were consistentlychanging and evolving. No great passage of time separates each playwright’s first andsecond plays—only sixteen months between Blasted and Phaedra’s Love and less than ayear between Shopping and Fucking and Faust Is Dead—but even in such a short amountof time, both Kane and Ravenhill demonstrated a commitment to innovation that wouldgo on to characterize the entirety of their respective oeuvres. Perhaps this is my reasonfor selecting Cleansed and Faust Is Dead as the subjects of examination in this section ofmy paper, rather than the playwrights’ iconic debut plays, which some might considermore obvious choices. These two plays, while formally different from their predecessors,take up some of the same conceits in a way that is palpably more visceral and visual.Here, the emphasis on human bodies is intensified, drawing our attention to the capacityof the physical form to represent pain, convey meaning, and stand in for a deeplyfractured social body that is ultimately dislocated from itself. For Kane, part of this project’s objective is to underscore the infinite plasticity ofthe human body, to destabilize its codified meanings in order to undo similarlynaturalized discourses about subjectivity. In this way, she seems to be in conversationwith Haraway, who perceptively contends that bodies are not “sacred in themselves; anycomponent can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code, can
Ferrone 16be constructed for processing signals in a common language” (55). And by dramatizingher characters’ bodies under duress—interfacing components with one another quiteliterally at one crucial point in the play—Kane underlines the mutability of identity andthe potential for self-definition, even within the restrictive parameters of social codesthat, while arbitrary, are impossibly powerful. In Faust Is Dead, Ravenhill examinesbody projects in a very different way, selecting to emphasize the media through whichbodies are given not only meaning in contemporary culture but legitimacy as well.Densely packed with Baudrillardian theories of reality and simulation, Ravenhill’s play isa scathing examination of “a culture that denies any chance at accessing an unmediatedreality” (Hadley 266). Like Kane, he theatricalizes the consequences of this society onthe bodies of his characters: in some moments, they are rendered numb and unfeeling; inothers, they literally bear the scars of their futile attempts to experience something thatthey might call real. There is, however, a crucial distinction to be made between theplaywrights’ respective approaches to this political and philosophical sensibility.Contemporary theoretical discussions of bodies, identities, and subjectivities urge us toconsider the emancipatory potential of the postmodern, posthuman subject, and Kaneseems to be more optimistic about the possibility to unmake language and meaning.Ravenhill, on the other hand, is keen to point out the limitations of these theoreticalmodels, never truly condoning postmodern ideology despite engaging rather vigorouslywith it. What both plays ultimately have in common is their interrogation of the limits ofhuman bodies, subjectivities, and identities, utilizing the human form as a plane uponwhich to map out a topography of social and communal suffering.
Ferrone 17Sarah Kane, Cleansed (1998) In the years following the sensationalized opening of Blasted, Kane was busywith a series of projects: in 1996, she premièred her second full-length play, Phaedra’sLove, at the Gate Theatre; in 1997, her eleven-minute teleplay, Skin, was transmitted onChannel 4; and later that year, she returned to the Gate Theatre to direct a production ofGeorg Büchner’s Woyzeck. Despite this volume of work, however, it is her next play thatis often recognized as the follow-up to Blasted (Saunders, Love 88). Cleansed—whichmarked Kane’s return to the Royal Court as well as her reunion with James Macdonald,the director of the original production of Blasted—was performed in the DownstairsTheatre, her notoriety necessitating a larger performance space and greater seatingcapacity. The play documents the torture and humiliation of several sexually non-normative individuals who are sequestered within the boundaries of a universitycampus—at least, that’s what Kane’s stage directions tell us. Elaine Aston suggests thatthe setting is more akin to “some sort of clinic, punishment or correction centre” (78),and this reading is certainly congruent with the confinement and regimented, almostritual, torture of the play’s characters. Their tormenter is a sadistic figure named Tinker,whose chief goal, it seems, is to determine the extent to which a person will suffer for thesake of love. That the play’s gruesome action unfolds within a university—a settingcharacterized by “self-proclaimed liberalism” (3), as Ruby Cohn puts it—presents a kindof incongruity that lends itself to the play’s broader examination of identity, sexuality,and subjectivity. Kane subversively reimagines the academic sphere as “an institutionthat regulates, represses and regiments, rather than encourages the creative, theimaginative and the unorthodox” (Aston 89), and in this unexpectedly oppressive setting,
Ferrone 18it is fitting that the relationships explored in the play all iterate some form of “illicitlove—homosexual, incestuous, and commercial” (Cohn 3). The play opens with a young junkie, Graham, who dies after Tinker injects heroininto his eye. Six months later, his sister, Grace, comes to the university to retrieve hisclothing and possessions, which have been given to a fragile, illiterate boy named Robin.Grace demands that the boy relinquish her dead brother’s clothes, and, when she donsthem herself, she is overcome with grief. Tinker immediately restrains and sedates herand she resolves to stay at the university, begging Tinker, “Treat me as a patient” (Kane114). We watch Grace as she conjures her dead brother on the stage repeatedlythroughout the play, calling on him for support during a brutal beating by unseenassailants, making love to him, and eventually taking on his movements and mannerisms;as the stage directions indicate during their love-making, they “find each other’s rhythmis the same as their own” (120). Her steady transformation into Graham comes toconstitute the ultimate expression of her love for him. When Robin asks her what shewould change about her life, Grace responds, “My body. So it looked like it feels.Graham outside like Graham inside” (126). At the end of the play, Tinker grafts a penisonto Grace’s body and amputates her breasts, completing the transition that he believesshe has been seeking all along. Another central pair of characters is Rod and Carl, two men who struggle to agreeon the terms of their relationship. Carl’s yearning for commitment and string of naïvepromises—“I’ll always love you . . . I’ll never betray you . . . I’ll never lie to you”(110)—chafe against Rod’s bitter cynicism: “You’ve known me three months. It’ssuicide” (109). And for the better part of the play, Rod’s perspective seems to prevail.
Ferrone 19When Carl is threatened with impalement, he reneges on his earlier promise to die for hislover, begging Tinker to spare his life in exchange for Rod’s. Having located the limit ofCarl’s love, Tinker coldly announces that neither man will die, leaving Carl to repair thedamage he has inflicted on his relationship. Each time Carl attempts to apologize for hisbetrayal, however, his expression of love is swiftly followed by the systematicdismemberment of his body. First, Tinker cuts out his tongue; later, a message written inmud leads to the removal of his hands; an awkward dance of affection is cut short by theamputation of his feet; and finally, his genitals are removed (providing Tinker with thepenis for Grace’s phalloplasty). Ironically, it is Rod who is ultimately willing to die forlove, declaring, “Me. Not Carl. Me” (142). The conviction of his sacrifice brings aboutno elaborate torture or mutilation; instead, Tinker promptly cuts his throat and has hisbody taken away to be incinerated. The final character to appear in the play is a seemingly anonymous womanconfined to a coin-operated peepshow booth. Tinker visits her at regular intervals tomasturbate but these scenes eventually reveal a tortured element to his sadistic personaand provide us with an analogue with which to navigate the play’s other equally fraughtrelationships. In these moments, Tinker seems to take on the role of the jilted lover,superimposing what seems to be an unrequited attraction to Grace onto the Woman’ssexually objectified body. Moments after Grace utters, “My balls hurt”6 (134), Tinkerrevisits the Woman, finally understanding the depth of Grace’s love for her brother. Inretaliation, he forces the Woman to open her legs and touch herself, shouting, “TOUCHFUCKING TOUCH . . . You’re a woman, Grace” (137). Her response, “Don’t want to be6 This moment is particularly noteworthy because it occurs long before her surgery,prompting Tinker to administer electroshock therapy and subsequently visit the Woman.
Ferrone 20this” (137), confirms not only that the edges of Grace’s identity have slowly blurred intoGraham’s, but also that her profound love for her brother leaves no room for Tinker’sapparent affection. Perhaps it is precisely this lack of a meaningful, intimate personalrelationship that underpins Tinker’s cruel and violent treatment of the play’s characters.As Ken Urban suggests, his “sentimental longings reveal Tinker to be as trapped as theinmates that he tortures” (Body 162). He promises the Woman, “I’ll be anything youneed” (Kane 122), but her dismissive laugh lends credence to the notion that theenigmatic Tinker “can take on any role at the university except the one he wants most:the lover whose love is reciprocated” (Urban, Body 162). Since violence is such a pervasive element of the dramatic action, the play is anundeniably graphic and viscerally affecting experience. But the intensity of the play’simagery is not found in brutality and bloodshed alone. Almost every scene contains as itsnucleus a powerful image—some violent, others more tender—that serves to bolster itsmeaning, situating the play in a “world of vivid stage pictures” (Urban, Ethics 42) inwhich the image that is produced on the stage supersedes the language whichaccompanies it. Grace and Graham perform a dance, side-by-side, in perfect unison;patches of blood rise to the surface of Grace’s clothing as her brother touches her,bloodstains simultaneously appearing on his own body in the same places; and in aprotracted scene of humiliation, Tinker force-feeds Robin an entire box of chocolatesintended as a gift for Grace and then presses the boy’s face into a puddle of his ownurine. In these scenes, language becomes secondary to image and action, deliveringmeaning in a way that is significantly more explicit and affecting. In an interview withGraham Saunders, Macdonald stated that the play’s “images are there to tell the story
Ferrone 21more powerfully and immediately than the text” (qtd. in Saunders, Love 122). Thisstrategy is certainly ambitious, especially in light of some of the images that Kanedescribes in her stage directions. The play calls for several seemingly unstageablemoments: a giant sunflower bursting from the ground, daffodils covering the stage, aheap of books being set on fire, and of course, Carl’s recurring amputations followed byrats scurrying away with his severed appendages. The objective in the originalproduction, however, was not to render these events on the stage in a manner that wasrealistic; instead, Kane intended to emphasize the theatricality of each moment in order tounderscore—rather than distract from—its meaning. This theatricality is especiallyevident in the violent scenes involving Grace and Carl, in which blood, for example, wasrepresented by red ribbons and rats by leather bags, rendering these difficult moments oftorture and mutilation “deliberately unrealistic” (Sierz, In-Yer-Face 114). On the onehand, this strategy avoids the impossible task of convincingly dramatizing severaldisturbing and violent events. More importantly, however, it urges the audience to engagewith the play on an emotional plane without being immediately repulsed by the subjectmatter. As Macdonald explained in another interview, “even if you did manage to makean audience somehow believe that you were cutting off someone’s feet, their onlyreaction is probably going to be to pass out. And it’s not about that. It’s to get them intothe mountainous territory of thinking about how someone loves someone else so muchthat he would be prepared to lose his feet” (qtd. in Gobert 148). Similarly, Kane assertedthat Cleansed “was never about the violence; it was about how much these people love”(qtd. in Saunders, About 74).
Ferrone 22 This decision to heighten the play’s theatricality was not without its detractors.Interestingly, Saunders, who is one of the foremost contributors to the study and criticismof Kane’s work, suggests that “[a]n overly aestheticized approach to the choice ofrepresentation in stage images can . . . dilute the emotional intensity and experientialmethodology that seems to underpin all the plays” (“Just” 102), but this analysis entirelymisses the point. The aesthetic of Cleansed, with its hyper-theatrical violence andemphasis on vivid imagery, aims to supplant language and enact a thoroughly differentand more viscerally gripping kind of storytelling, carrying out a “kind of aesthetic terroron the audience” (Waters 373). The result is not a dilution of the play’s emotionalintensity, as Saunders seems to believe, but a means of effectively “articulating a highlycoherent and deeply tragic message about the indestructability of love” (Carney 288).And nearly every aspect of the staging in the original production served to bolster thiscentral theme. Sierz describes the way in which “some scenes were shown as if fromabove, in others the stage tilted” (In-Yer-Face 114), placing visible strain on the actors’bodies as they navigated the performance space. Kane, herself, stepped in to play the roleGrace for the original production’s final three performances after actress Suzan Sylvesterwas injured, explaining that the role called for her to be “flown halfway up a wall, and doall sorts of extraordinary things” (qtd. in Saunders, About 77). Aston suggests that thephysical difficulties the performers’ bodies legitimately encountered on the stage, rangingfrom “acting on a slope or a bed set at an angle, or having a body harnessed andsuspended in the air . . . worked as an externalisation for the difficulty of striving for afeeling, a love, that other (symbolic) forces seek to repress or to deny” (91). The boldtheatricality and emotional intensity of the play’s images, combined with the very real
Ferrone 23challenges of negotiating the physical stage, take precedence over the pared-down andminimal language of Cleansed. In many ways, language itself comes under fire in theplay much in the same way that human bodies do; Kane’s dramatization of violence,pain, and bodies under torture has a great deal to say about the role of language indiscourses of gender, sexuality, and identity. The dramatization of pain, which is such a pervasive element of the stage action,inevitably calls into question the way in which pain is semiotically conveyed andunderstood, the way it is linguistically expressed and borne on the body. When Carl hashis tongue cut out, the presence of red ribbons in the place of blood makes clear that weare witnessing not a literal act of torture but rather the representation of torture and itsattendant pain. But James Cunningham, the actor who portrayed Carl in the originalproduction, performed this scene and every successive act of dismemberment “with arealistic response, making those moments all the more viscerally charged for theaudience” (Woodworth 18). That Carl expresses his pain solely with his body—histongue, after all, is the first organ to go—is yet another way in which the spoken word isdisplaced by visual and bodily expression. This ubiquitous preoccupation withsuperseding language is not, however, Kane simply beating a dead horse, nor is herproject merely to establish imagery as a viable means of storytelling. Her dismantling oflanguage is a challenge to its capacity to regulate and to define, to construct boundaries ofnormativity and subsequently marginalize outlying subject positions. In this light, theplay’s setting in a university comes to be a rather logical (if sinister) choice. Academia, inits power to produce knowledge, simultaneously produces discourses of normativity andexclusion. It is language itself that oppresses Kane’s characters; they are imprisoned
Ferrone 24within the very institution responsible for the directives they defy and subsequentlypunished for their transgressions. Kane’s emphasis on imagery, on the body, both identifies and challengeslanguage as a force that regulates subjectivities. Tinker’s policing of Rod and Carl’shomosexual relationship and Grace’s incestuous love for her brother is in keeping,therefore, with the control and punishment of sex and identity practices that do not adhereto the prescriptions of normativity. The characters’ “moments of private intimacy areshown as regulated, policed and punished, in the interests of a heteronormative gendereconomy” (Aston 91). Perhaps this is part of the reason that Tinker expresses so muchrage towards the Woman when his treatment of Grace proves ineffective. Even though hesubjects Grace to electroshock therapy and “bits of her brain are burnt out” (135), Gracenever returns Tinker’s affection. Her primary attachment remains to Graham, in both thememory of her deceased brother and her cultivation of him within her as his identitycoalesces with her own. Amidst the cacophony of voices that anticipates the electriccurrent discharging through Grace’s body, a brief thread can be extracted—an exchangebetween Grace and Tinker which, when isolated, locates the precise moment of Tinker’sdisenchantment: “Grace: Love you . . . Tinker: Yes . . . Grace: Graham . . . Tinker:Tinker” (135). She steadfastly clings to her love for her brother, her desire to embodyhim—indeed, to be him—as a means of ultimately being herself, claiming agency in thedefinition of her own identity. This incestuous desire is doubly transgressive because itsimultaneously enacts a transsexual subjectivity that Tinker cannot accept or overcome.Instead, he orders the Woman to show him her genitals, to look at and touch them, as away of forcing her to abide by the limits of her sexed body. When she asserts, “I can
Ferrone 25change . . . Thought you loved me,” he responds, “As you are” (138). He cannot conceiveof Grace (for whom the Woman is a surrogate) being anything beyond her body, anyidentity other than the subject position historically associated with her body parts, definedand consistently reified through language. In this way, Kane’s privileging of imagery in Cleansed can be read (or, moreappropriately, seen) as a way of undoing language and the constraints it places uponidentities and subjectivities, a strategy to override the constitutive histories of words infavour of an ontology in which no such linguistic fixity exists. This is, of course, not tosay that images do not carry with them similar discursive histories. The images Kanecreates in the play are effective because they appeal to emotion and urge the spectator torecognize, feel, and then reimagine. That is, they call up a collective reservoir of imagesand associated meanings that have been historically reiterated, but rather than leave theseimages unexamined, Kane subverts and interrogates them, fundamentally altering theirmeanings if not creating new meanings entirely. The appearance of flowers—first asunflower, then daffodils—at the climax of Grace and Graham’s most intimate momentsurges us to make meaning rather than simply accept it. The blinding light that envelopsGrace and Carl at the end of the play is intentionally ambiguous. Is it intended to remindus of Grace’s electrocution—“The shaft of light grows bigger until it engulfs them all. Itbecomes blinding” (135)—or does the emergence of sunlight ultimately leave Grace andCarl “cleansed” as the title suggests? Kane’s imagery subverts language at every turn inan attempt to undo the limitations it imposes on identity. Aston argues that Kane’s representation of pain accomplishes a similar end. WhenTinker cuts out Carl’s tongue, he “waves his arms, his mouth open, full of blood, no
Ferrone 26sound emerging” (118). While the absence of one’s tongue invariably compromisesspeech, Carl’s inability to make any sound at all is certainly significant. A similarmoment occurs when he awakens from surgery and observes the large bloodstainedbandage that covers his groin; he releases a silent scream as he acknowledges the woundthat has taken the place of his penis. Aston suggests that Carl, rendered not simplyspeechless but entirely silent by Tinker’s torture, emblematizes an erasure of language,permitting Kane to dramatize torture and pain as a form of linguistic—not just bodily—deconstruction. She writes: “Torturing the body, subjecting it to pain, involves areversion to a state before language; shows language in the unmaking or ‘uncreating’ . . .by analogy, the bodies in pain contest the symbolic and propose an anterior, pre-symbolicstate that allows people to desire differently” (92). If this is, indeed, the case, Kane’sdramatization of pain allows us to unravel language and dislocate seemingly fixedmeanings and subject positions in order that we might imagine an ontology in whichidentity is not configured by linguistic constructions and binaries. This project fits quitenicely with Haraway’s discussion of the cyborg and its potential to liberate the subject todefine its own identity. She asserts that cyborg imagery provides us with the possibility to“dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia” (57). In thisontology, the body, the self, is plastic and malleable, free to be subjectively fashioned andautonomously defined. The notion of the physical body as a marker of identity, rather than a mere vesselin which identity is contained, is central to Grace’s trajectory in the play. Her need tobecome Graham is not only internal; she needs others to acknowledge and recognize thissubject position as well, and this is immediately apparent within her first few moments on
Ferrone 27the stage. (Saunders, Love 95). She commands Robin (who is wearing Graham’s clothes)to trade his outfit for hers, and once she is dressed in her brother’s garments, she begsTinker to let her take Graham’s place, pleading, “I look like him. Say you thought I was aman” (Kane 114). The next time we see Grace, she rouses from sedation and seesGraham sitting at the edge of her bed. His assessment of her, “More like me than I everwas” (119), functions almost as a stamp of approval. As he begins to perform a dance oflove for her, she joins him and mimics his movements, learning to emulate hismannerisms and continuing her transformation. The stage directions tell us that,“[g]radually, she takes on the masculinity of his movement, his facial expression. Finally,she no longer has to watch him – she mirrors him perfectly as they dance exactly in time.When she speaks, her voice is more like his” (119). Later, when Grace is beaten andraped by an invisible mob, Graham watches from a distance and encourages her to endurethe pain. As he touches her broken body, he literally shares her wounds, blood seepingthrough his clothing in the same places; “they are sharing the same experience of pain,and thus collapsing the boundaries between self and other” (Singer 154). And finally,after undergoing a double mastectomy and phalloplasty, her speech prefix is amended to“Grace/Graham” and she begins the play’s final scene with the remark, “Body perfect”(149). As she holds Carl’s mutilated arm, they each “carr[y] the fragments of someoneelse’s identity” (Grieg xii), and she ends the play with a smile. Rebellato contends that Grace/Graham is “an image of the almost limitlessplasticity of the body, its permeability, interchangeability and the irrelevance of the‘natural’ or ‘organic’ wholeness of the ‘original’ human form” (“Because” 197), and I aminclined to agree with him. Grace’s preoccupation with her body as the site of her
Ferrone 28identity—initially constructed by external social forces but ultimately self-fashioned—renders her a thoroughly postmodern figure whose material body functions as a “highlyflexible, unmapped frontier upon which an ontologically freed subject might explore andshift identities” (Pitts 186). It is interesting that Grace never explicitly requests to besurgically modified in the play. Simply wearing Graham’s clothing and adopting hismannerisms have a dramatic effect on her demeanour; as Halberstam and Livingstonpoint out, “changing how you walk and talk and dress and who and how you fuckchanges your gender as well as surgery” (17). It is Tinker who takes it upon himself tooperate on Grace, believing that, by aligning her physical body with what he perceives tobe her subject position, he is granting her the help she has been seeking. The problem,however, is that he fundamentally denies her the agency of making her own decisionsabout her physical body. Although it is certainly true that Grace spends the larger part ofthe play modifying her body and appearance in accordance with her constantly evolvingidentity, Tinker’s decision to give her a penis is not disinterested; he acts in the samecapacity to regulate behaviour that has informed his actions throughout the play. Bytransplanting male sex organs onto Grace’s body, he effectively realigns her within thebinaries of sex and gender. Despite the pain and subjection she endures, however, Grace emerges from theplay very much a radical figure, constantly reconfiguring her own body and identity. It isunfortunate, then, that many scholars of Cleansed fail to recognize the role that Graceplays in her own self-definition, preferring instead to dismiss her coalescence withGraham as evidence that her identity has been lost. Sierz asserts that in order to “make upfor the loss of her brother, she gives up her own identity” (In-Yer-Face 115). Similarly,
Ferrone 29Singer writes that by the end of the play, Grace has “recovered her brother, but the priceis her self” (156). Finally, Saunders goes so far as to suggest that “through a penistransplant, she is made to parody her brother . . . subsumed by her brother’s identity”(About 28). While we have no reason to believe that Tinker is able to flawlessly performa sexual reassignment surgery—after all, he confesses, “I’m sorry. I’m not really adoctor” (146)—Saunders’ dismissive assessment of her post-op body, like the myopicreadings offered by Sierz and Singer, does an injustice to the identity that Grace haspainstakingly cultivated for herself throughout the course of the play. Like Tinker, theseanalyses ultimately negate the agency Grace has claimed in the enactment of her self-fashioning and fundamentally overlook her “human capacity for self-determination”(Murphy 117). In this way, despite its pervasive violence and gruesome subject matter,Cleansed is equally permeated by a sense of hope: the self-defined individual canovercome seemingly insurmountable limits, and love, in whatever normative ortransgressive form it takes, will never be obliterated by cruelty.Mark Ravenhill, Faust Is Dead (1997) In sharp contrast to the reception of Kane’s Blasted, Ravenhill’s debut play,Shopping and Fucking, was met with wide acclaim (despite controversy over the title)and effectively catapulted Ravenhill to fame. And while his second play, Faust Is Dead,was not nearly as well received upon its première, it picks up, in some ways, whereShopping and Fucking leaves off, exploring many of the same postmodern philosophicalconcerns and retaining its heavy and often shocking subject matter. Perhaps the mostobvious difference between the two plays, however—and it is a somewhat jarring
Ferrone 30characteristic even without being thrown into relief by comparison—is the explicittheoretical content that saturates Faust Is Dead7. Much of this theory comes from itsprotagonist, a French postmodern philosopher named Alain (after Alain Pelletier, theactor who portrayed him in the original production); travelling the United States topromote his latest book, The Death of Man, it becomes clear that Alain represents afusion of the ideas of Foucault and Baudrillard. He spouts theories of “the death of man,the death of the real, the death of progress, all recognisable postmodern slogans”(Rebellato, “Introduction” xiv), arguing that personhood and objective reality have beenexterminated and superseded by “a hyperreal world, in which signs, symbols andsimulations have replaced reality” (Hadley 265). Inevitably dislocated from thisapparently lost reality, Alain’s trip to America serves a dual purpose: “I decided thatmaybe I should live a little” (Ravenhill, Faust 99). On his quest, Alain meets Pete, ayoung runaway who we learn is the son of a wealthy software mogul named Bill(Gates?), and together, they travel, use drugs, and have sex. When Pete introduces Alainto the Internet, they chat with a young boy named Donny who cuts himself and postsvideos of his activities online. Pete subsequently reveals that he, too, engages in cuttingand a confrontation between the two young men ends with Donny’s death as he slices hisjugular vein in an effort to prove his dedication to the practice. That Alain chooses America as his destination to cultivate life experiences is, ofcourse, not without significance. As David Alderson suggests, it is perhaps a tellingreference to Baudrillard’s America, which “counterposes a culturally and politicallydecadent Europe with an effortlessly modern USA in which everything is simply present7 Sierz notes that, before writing the play, Ravenhill had picked up a copy of Baudrillardfor Beginners. I doubt anyone would find this a surprise.
Ferrone 31to itself . . . incapable of reflecting on [its] condition” (869), and this sensibility is aptlypersonified by Pete. As the America to Alain’s Europe8, Pete has access to experiencesthat Alain does not but is completely devoid of the latter’s capacity for intense analysisand theorization. What is more is that Pete seems to be fundamentally cut off from hissenses, a motif that is consistently revisited throughout the play. In one instance, he asksAlain, “Did you find our sexual contact a worthwhile and stimulating experience?” (103),and the clinical tone of his question indicates just how dislocated he is from his body. Ofcourse, the fact that no sexual contact actually occurred further illustrates that both menhave a complex, mutable understanding of what they consider (or do not consider) to bereal. This unstable hyperreality was reflected in the original production, which“combined real-time video images of the stage action . . . with prerecorded images fromthe David Letterman show, the LA uprising and Death Valley” and used “two largescreens positioned at right angles to convey the walls of the play’s motel and hospitalsettings” (Callens 63). The experience, then, would have been a thoroughly mediated one,using video to blend the audience’s apparent reality (in the form of the live feed) withimages that were decidedly not real (in the sense that they were not physically present),and this choice, reasonably, has a destabilizing effect on our understanding of the play. Part and parcel of the play’s pervasive indeterminacy is its somewhat enigmatictitle. While Ravenhill had read several different adaptations of the Faust narrative duringhis writing of the play, Faust Is Dead is certainly not a pat modernization of the tale. Asone spectator lamented upon exiting the première production, “That’s like no Faust I’ve8 Ravenhill hits us over the head with the contraposition:“Alain: Hi, America. How ya doin’?Pete: Hi, Europe. America’s doing…just fine” (101).
Ferrone 32ever seen” (qtd. in Sierz, In-Yer-Face 138). In a way, the play dramatizes the Faustianbargain on a grand scale, depicting a culture that has knowingly engaged in a contractfrom which it can never recover itself. As Hadley insightfully asserts, “no singlecharacter serves as a Faust figure, and, more importantly, no single character serves as aMephistopheles . . . This indeterminacy is critical in setting up the idea that it is not thecharacters but the world itself that has sold its soul” (263). Alain and Pete, therefore,oscillate between both Faustian and Mephistophelian colourings throughout the course ofthe play. Each tempts the other with a gateway to some sort of uncharted territory; eachultimately compromises himself—sexually, emotionally, ethically—as a result of theirill-fated agreement. By unfixing the roles of tempter and tempted, Ravenhill engages with thepostmodern notion of indeterminate subjectivities in a very direct and deliberate way.Hadley’s analysis echoes Sierz’s claim that the exchangeability of the Faust andMephistopheles positions in the play “not only underlines the idea that good and evilcoexist, but also dramatizes postmodern ideas about the volatility of character” (In-Yer-Face, 136), and, by extension, of identity. Caridad Svich takes this conceit one stepfurther, contending that this hyperreality—this mediated world that Alain and Pete (and,of course, we too) inhabit—serves as Ravenhill’s “ultimate comment on the Faustianbargain the world has made for itself in the name of progress . . . it is the bargain Westernculture has inherited” (85). That is to say: Ravenhill’s characters and the culture that theyemblematize have sacrificed community, social bonds, and an objective sense of realityin order to embrace the self-serving individualism that attends the domination ofconsumer capitalism. Of course, Ravenhill’s own stance on this sensibility is probably
Ferrone 33less ardent than his work might suggest. As Margret Fetzer puts it, “his plays exhibitrather than enforce postmodern ideology” (168; my emphasis). Rebellato is even moreexplicit: “Ravenhill’s use of [these] ideas is fiercely sceptical” (xiv). But there seems tobe a heavier price accompanying the commodity-driven society that Alain sounquestioningly9 reveres. In the same motion with which he claims a sense of self-determination, he distances himself from the people around him, from Pete, from theenigmatic figures that populate his morbid riddles. And if his conundrums—one about awoman who gifts her eyeballs to a lover, another about a man who kills his lover and putsher dismembered body in his soup—are indicative of anything, it’s the “postmodern . . .tendency to relinquish social responsibility” (Hadley 259), something which becomesdisturbingly evident when Alain theorizes about the end of reality—“Reality died. Itended. And we began to live this dream, this lie, this new simulated existence” (132)—asDonny lies motionless on the ground, dying from loss of blood. The effect of the hyperreal mediation that characterized the original production’sset design is an added emphasis on the performers’ bodies, primarily as a result of the useof their bodies as surfaces upon which to project images10, but also because of the play’sthematic content. The notion that one’s body can serve as a marker of self-determinedidentity is explicitly dramatized by Pete (and, of course, Donny). The reason this is soremarkable is that, prior to the revelation that Pete scars himself, he is decidedlydislocated from his physical body. But Ravenhill does not give us the opportunity toshunt this sensibility onto the shoulders of Pete alone. Instead, he uses a choral figure to9 I use this word quite deliberately, since most of Alain’s questions tend to overlook thevery human experiences for which he searches.10 This concept of physically representing the human body as a palimpsest is moreexplicitly taken up in my discussion of Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life in Part II.
Ferrone 34illustrate that this dislocation from one’s senses is a cultural phenomenon rather thanPete’s personal affliction. The chorus describes his childhood fear of the end of theworld, and explains that even in the absence of any signs pointing to impending doom, hesimply cannot bring himself to take solace in a world that never seems to get better. Heconfesses to us: “And I wonder if I should feel something about that. But – you want thetruth? – I don’t feel a thing. See, I’m the kind of person who can stand in the middle of anearthquake and I’m just like, ‘whoa, neat earthquake.’ And I wonder what made me thatway” (137). That this speech occurs near the end of the play should signal to us preciselywhat it is about the world that we live in that made him this way. Pete’s own sensual detachment is conveyed most clearly when he agrees to havesex with Alain in the desert. Not only do both men get high before Pete allows Alain tofuck him, but Pete also insists on filming the entire episode—and, in doing so,experiences it—with his camcorder. When he brandishes it for the first time, he says,almost with a sense of relief, “That’s better. I kind of feel okay now. This always worksfor me. Some guys it’s Prozac but with me . . . ” (113). This need to mediate the activityin which he participates becomes more urgent as the scene progresses. He begins tonarrate his and Alain’s actions in what Ravenhill describes as a “TV commentary voice”(114), which combines with the images on his viewfinder to create the sense that he iswatching something on television rather than experiencing it in a very bodily, physicallypresent way. When Alain spits Pete’s semen from his mouth, Pete tells him inamazement, “That is so cool. Because you know something? I didn’t feel a thing” (115).The camcorder endows him with a numbness that, on the one hand, allows him to engagein the activity in the first place, and, on the other hand, makes it more real.
Ferrone 35 This tendency is described by Fetzer as “emotional impotence, i.e. the lack ofrelating to one’s surroundings” (165), and she goes on to characterize Pete and Alain asfigures that have “given up on reality and life altogether” (166). While I consider herinitial assessment to be accurate and insightfully phrased, I cannot quite agree with hersecond claim. Like Fetzer, Sierz argues that “both have lost their sense of reality . . . Petehas more experience of life, but his world is filtered through the Internet and videocameras” (In-Yer-Face, 135). What Ravenhill seems to suggest in the play is not that Petehas given up on reality; instead, he actively seeks it out in almost the same way that Alaindoes. And, in this way, I am hesitant to believe that his sense of reality has been lost orabandoned at all. In fact, I would argue that his sense of reality seems to be quite clearand consistent, and if his sexual encounter with Alain is any evidence, he defends thisreality rather vehemently. His reality is mediation; it is the hyperreal, commodity-driventechno-culture that Alain has come to America to experience. And as we come to thisrealization, we begin to recall earlier instances in the play which signalled to us thatAlain’s and Pete’s objectives are not all that dissimilar, and perhaps neither are their ownself-assessed realities. Pete tells him: “I’m gonna buy so many totally real experiences.I’m gonna keep the peace in Bosnia. I’m gonna take Saddam Hussein out for a pizza. I’mgonna shoot pool with the Pope and have Boris Yeltsin show me his collection ofbaseball stickers” (112). He, too, like Alain, searches for experiences that are only realbecause they need to be bought; that is, they must be recast in the context ofconsumerism, of the free market, of rampant commodification in order to become “real.”Only then will these experiences be congruent with what both men perceive to be thecultural status quo. In this sense, Pete needs to frame his life within the viewfinder of his
Ferrone 36video camera because that very border lends to his experiences the sense of realness thatis necessary to liken them to the digitized and technology-dependent images of his deeplymediatized society. The effect of this sensibility, however, is a de-emphasis on what is classicallyconsidered to be the “natural” human body. It no longer possesses sufficient power toadequately signify in a culture that is so profoundly steeped in simulation. Pete’s body,presumably as is, is not enough to meet the significative demands of the hyperreal worldhe inhabits. In a way, the unaltered, unmediated body is quite simply not real enough tobe of any value. Not only is it incapable of registering physical sensation; it is alsoinadequate to convey the markers of Pete’s identity. Here, Ravenhill begins to engagewith an even more complex discourse of bodies and signification, which is particularlyrelevant in a contemporary context. Peter Murphy writes that it is a fairly recent paradigmthat “emphasizes the human capacity to make and remake body states” (117), and he isnot alone in acknowledging the importance of this line of thinking. As Frances E.Mascia-Lees and Patricia Sharpe insightfully observe, the notion that “the unadorned,unmodified body is an unspoiled, pure surface . . . dehistoricizes and decontextualizes thebody . . . It resolves all bodies into the Western notion of the body as prior to culture and,thus, as natural” (“Introduction” 3). The context of Mascia-Lees and Sharpe’s work isdecidedly non-Western, but their research is certainly pertinent to the discussion thatRavenhill opens up in the play. Our shock at the sight of Pete’s chest when he lifts hisshirt is precisely what Mascia-Lees and Sharpe refer to in their discussion of the way inwhich body modification “evokes horror at the body’s instability, its ultimate inability toserve as a concrete ground of identity” (“Marked” 148; my emphasis). Jarring as the
Ferrone 37visual image of Pete’s scarred flesh may be, it should come as no surprise that this sort ofactivity is practiced by an individual who cannot conceive of his body as being real. Onceagain, it is important to point out the scepticism with which Ravenhill broaches this topic.The playwright, himself, has said, “There’s a lot of rather trendy performance art inwhich people cut themselves . . . but I find it repulsive . . . it just means there’s somethingdeeply wrong . . . People who are powerless find the only thing they can control is theirbodies, however perversely” (qtd. in Sierz, In-Yer-Face 137). What this perspective tellsus, then, is that Ravenhill is less preoccupied with the act of cutting itself than he is withthe kind of societal circumstances that have led people like Pete and Donny to feelpowerless enough to mutilate their bodies. This sensibility contrasts significantly from afairly substantial body of writing that, like Alain, finds power in self-mutilation ratherthan powerlessness. Pitts’s In the Flesh examines the phenomenon of contemporary body modificationand the attitudes surrounding it, and her stance on the topic is a stark departure fromRavenhill’s. On the subject of cutting, she offers this assessment: Such critics view the practices as attacks upon the body that reflect both self-abuse and social disaffection. Because the practices are often painful, and because they often create permanent inscriptions that work against Western beauty norms that idealize smooth and pristine skin, they are considered by some to be mutilative. Body modifiers are depicted not only as defiant, deviant, or shocking, but also as self-hating, ill, and out of control (24).
Ferrone 38Pitts finds promise in this denaturalization of human bodies insofar as it as offers thepotential to “queer ontologies that participate in producing the stratification ofbodies/selves across naturalized lines of race, gender, and ethnicity” (197). Of course,this is not the project with which Pete and Donny seem to engage in the play. Donny isless concerned with challenging normative social conceptions of the body andsubjectivity than he is with constructing an ideal body this congruent with his ownpersonal standards of beauty. And the language that he uses to describe his cutting isindicative of the care he invests in his project. He tells Pete and Alain: “I really used tohate my body. I used to feel so uncomfortable, so ugly. But now I’m real happy withwhat I’ve achieved. I’ve been working. And I tell you: you take the pain, you get thegain” (123). The “work” that Donny puts into his body is in line with the understandingof cutting as a form of self-definition, of deliberate personal identity formation. Callensdescribes Donny’s body modification as a “paradoxical act of self-affirmation” andsuggests that it allows him to construct an identity that coheres and engages with hissociety via two methods: “the more personal strategy of cutting and the more social andsubcultural one of identifying with others” (63). The subcultural influence here isimportant because it presents a community, however marginalized, to which Donnygravitates out of a sense of belonging. More importantly, it gives him an audience towhom he can proudly display his handiwork. It is precisely this obscure subculture—this seemingly seedy underworld—thatpiques Alain’s fascination. Not only is it impossibly divorced from his own livedexperiences, but it presents, as Pete cynically surmises, a kind of conundrum for Alain,similar to his morbid riddles. To derive pleasure from pain, creation from damage, beauty
Ferrone 39from disfigurement is enough for Alain to become passionately curious about the subject.His subsequent exchange with Pete, however, reveals two things: first, that his purelytheoretical analysis of the practice is almost certainly a short-sighted one and, secondly,that Pete’s opinion of cutting is ultimately nothing like Donny’s: Alain He scars himself. He submits to a moment of intense . . . to a tribal agony. He creates his art. A testament of suffering upon the body. Pete He slices himself. Yeah. Alain A moment of power, of control over the self as he draws the blade through the body. Pete Either that or he’s a loser who cuts himself. Alain An initiation rite for the end of the twentieth century. Pete Or he hurts real bad inside and he wants the outside to kinda match (124).Pete’s motivation, then, is quite different from the self-affirmation that both Pitts andCallens describe. In fact, it seems to be more congruent with the attitudes that Pittsattributes to critics of the practice. Pete cuts himself because he is wounded and unhappy,because he interprets a certain paradigm as reality but still encounters difficulty everytime he tries to engage with it. He exposes his chest and exclaims, “Everything’s afucking lie, you know? The food, the TV, the music . . . it’s all pretend. And this is theone thing that’s for real. I feel it, it means something” (126; my emphasis). Thisconfession should resonate heavily with us: just moments ago, Pete could not even feelhis own orgasm. Fetzer notes a trend among Ravenhill’s characters, observing that they tend to be“situated at what one would consider the opposite ends of the scale of physical
Ferrone 40sensibility, namely sexual satisfaction and extreme physical pain” (166).11 Evidently,Pete inhabits the latter end of the spectrum, employing pain as an “antidote to hyper-reality, granting [him] access to (physical) reality and heightening or intensifying [his]experience of it” (166). Rebellato examines this possibility in the context of the politico-economic status quo of which Ravenhill’s work is so critical. He suggests that, for Pete,“cutting is a desperate way of making contact with reality, pain stimulating a bodynumbed by the delirium of consumer pseudo-choice and mediation on every level”(“Introduction” xvi). Maybe it is this vast difference between Donny’s and Pete’s motivesthat leads Pete to so vehemently deny Donny’s authenticity as a cutter. He consistentlyreasserts to Alain that Donny is simply not real, that he is “[j]ust some fucking actress . . .Just some fucking fake” (125). And the fact that Donny appears on a video screen for theentirety of this scene—in contrast to the scars on Pete’s chest, which are physicallypresent before our eyes—lends a certain weight to Pete’s side of the argument. This is, ofcourse, until Donny climactically enters the performance space.12 Donny’s transition from a mediated projection to a physical presence on the stagecomes with a very complex set of implications for the play’s subject matter. Pete nolonger accuses Donny of being an imposter as he did just moments earlier (“No, no, no.Look, look, look. See? See? Fucking . . . ketchup . . . fucking . . . stagy fucking” );as Donny stands before him, Pete acknowledges that the cuts on his chest are, in fact,11 Ravenhill, himself, notes a trend in his writing. He cites Jay McInerney, DouglasCoupland and Dennis Cooper as influences on his work, describing their characters as“damaged kids, damaging each other, damaging themselves . . . middle-class kids whoselife had no meaning, with an overwhelming death wish” (“Tear” 311).12 In the original production, Donny did not appear onstage to meet with Alain and Pete.Instead, he “remained a virtual presence” (Sierz, In-Yer-Face 136), slicing his throatduring another video chat, something which Ravenhill felt led the audience to “miss thefact that he’s the real victim” (qtd. in Sierz, In-Yer-Face 136).
Ferrone 41real.13 But just as swiftly as this acknowledgment occurs, the criteria of realness againstwhich Pete evaluates Donny’s body changes: “Let’s see who’s got the most . . . who’s gotthe best? Who’s the winner here, Donny?” (130). To inflict pain on the material body, thepractice which Pete previously believed made him more real than Donny, is now nolonger real enough. To be real entails inflicting the most pain, the most cuts, and in theseverest ways. Although Donny’s motives for cutting are decidedly different from Pete’s,he seems to understand Pete’s ultimatum—“Gotta be a winner. That’s what it’s all about.Winners and losers. Has to be a winner. Has to be a loser” (131)—and readily undertakesthe challenge. Determined to outdo Pete, Donny tells them, “I like to win. Winning’sgood . . . And I know the way. I got the way” (131), before slicing his jugular vein andcollapsing to the ground, all while Alain captures the encounter on camera. As he bleedsto death on the floor, Alain exemplifies with disturbing clarity the “breathtakingabdication of responsibility” (Rebellato, “Introduction” xv) that Ravenhill condemns incontemporary culture, carrying on about the death of reality while the death of a boyoccurs at his feet: “At some point, at a moment at the end of the twentieth century, realityended. Reality finished and simulation began” (132). Pete’s response is leaden, throwinginto perspective not only the horror that we have just witnessed, but also thetrajectories—both in the course of the play and in its broader cultural context—that havecarried these three men to their present point: “Reality just arrived” (132). Faust Is Dead is, ultimately, a rather flawed play. It is a densely theoretical piecethat would have benefited from some degree of subtlety. But if its overwhelming13 More appropriately, the cuts are real in the ontology of the play. We, in the audience,are always conscious of the fact that it is an actor we see, the cuts and scars the product ofmakeup, and this presents yet another paradox that ties into the play’s complication ofmediated reality.
Ferrone 42philosophical content reveals anything, it is Ravenhill’s disillusionment with “the state ofour communal bonds, ripped and tattered by transcontinental economic forces”(Rebellato, “Introduction” x), and this attitude he ostensibly shares with the generation ofartists to which he belongs. This cynicism is, on the one hand, motivated by changes inthe socio-political culture of both the United Kingdom and the global economy as awhole while simultaneously reflecting his condemnation of some of the counter-ideologies intended to cope with—or avoid coping with—the cultural status quo. Hedramatizes these competing elements—in one corner, “a self-indulgent, individualisticsociety” (Hadley 271), and in the other, discourses of the “impossibility of differentiatingbetween reality and fiction” which, themselves, have become “increasingly simulative”(Fetzer 166)—in order to illustrate a fundamental lack of adequate responses to a culturein flux. Mascia-Lees and Sharpe’s assertion that the “physical body symbolicallyreproduces the anxiety of the social body” (“Marked” 145) cannot be more apt whendiscussing Faust Is Dead (or Cleansed, for that matter). The wounds inflicted upon thecohesion of society and the pervasive sense of dislocation that has alienated individualsfrom one another are dramatized on the material bodies of the men and women we seeonstage. Hewn limbs, cuts, scars, and unresponsive sex organs may be shocking in theirown right, but they are profoundly more disturbing in their capacity to represent a culturethat has been systematically cut off from itself, with only limited pathways for recovery.
Ferrone 43II. Leaving the Shock-Fest: Attempts on Her Life and 4.48 Psychosis By the end of the 1990s, a kind of evolution became evident in the works of thoseplaywrights who, as Sierz put it, invited theatregoers to “come to the shock-fest” (In-Yer-Face 36). Their approach to content underwent a radical change near the end of themillennium that indicated a broad shift away from the formal devices and shock tactics ofSierz’s in-yer-face theatre. Emblematic of this formal shift are Martin Crimp’s ground-breaking play, Attempts on Her Life, and Sarah Kane’s final play, 4.48 Psychosis, whichdrew much of its inspiration from Crimp’s formally experimental work. In place of thegrotesque imagery and ubiquitous violence that characterized earlier plays like Blasted,Phaedra’s Love, Cleansed, Shopping and Fucking and Faust Is Dead (in which “themutilation of the body is a sign of our severance from one another” [Rebellato 203]),Attempts on Her Life and 4.48 Psychosis collapse form and content, speaker and speech,language and imagery, and ultimately, any determinacy of selfhood in relation to others.In a review of Kane’s play, William McEvoy makes an observation that effectivelyprefigures my broader argument for this section of my paper, noting that, “unlike thephysical amputation of her earlier play, Cleansed, the fragmentation of the self is notenacted on the body, but on language” (18), and language is indeed a central element inboth of these plays. In Attempts on Her Life, language is explored as the site of identity formation, notin its capacity for self-definition but in its potential to fabricate the identities of others. AsClara Agustí argues, the play “dramatizes the construction of a fictitious subject throughthe regulatory and sanctioning role of language” (104), and Crimp dramatizes just how
Ferrone 44violent this process can truly be. In 4.48 Psychosis, on the other hand, language servesnot only as a vehicle for intense imagery but also as the work’s irreducibly centralelement, establishing it as the “location of the play,” free from the “imposition of visualor spatial demands . . . within the text or didascalia” (Campbell 90). In each of the plays,the language, which effectively encompasses both the content of the work as well as itsform, dramatizes severely fragmented subject positions, destabilizing the concept of acohesive identity and drawing our attention to the indeterminacy of selfhood. Thegraphic14 violence that once occurred visually on the stage is, here, redirected against thepsyche, fracturing the subject’s knowledge and understanding of the self, and obliteratingany certainty of a definite or unified subjectivity. The result is a kind of theatrecharacterized by precisely this indeterminacy, by an infinity of fractured subjectivitiesgiven no opportunity or possibility to realize a stable identity. In this theatre, we areurged to interrogate the fixity with which we often imbue our own identities and thefragmentation of our continuity with ourselves. Here is not only the alienation of theindividual from society that Kane and Ravenhill had already explored in their first plays;here is the disturbingly inevitable alienation of the subject from the self.Martin Crimp, Attempts on Her Life (1997) Martin Crimp’s playwriting career began long before Blasted and Shopping andFucking debuted at the Royal Court, and despite his experimentation with form and oftenshocking subject matter, Crimp was never widely classified under Sierz’s in-yer-face14 It is quite à propos that the use of the word “graphic” in this context refers to the visualimages on the stage, although the word itself comes from the Greek verb “to write”;language that is vivid enough to evoke imagery without visual accompaniment is anintegral element of these two plays.
Ferrone 45banner. While moderately successful during the early years of his career, it was not untilthe première of Attempts on Her Life, which Sierz described as “an ambitious attempt torecast theatrical form” (In-Yer-Face 119), that Crimp achieved the height of hisrecognition and notoriety with a play that many believe to be his most important work.Subtitled “Seventeen Scenarios for the Theatre” (199), the play is composed of a series ofloosely related vignettes, each depicting a woman (or some manifestation of a woman)that goes by various derivations of the name Anne. In the first scenario, we hear a day’sworth of voice messages left on Anne’s answering machine, and the scene is renderedominous by her conspicuous absence. This introduction gives way to sixteen morescenarios in which Anne is described, discussed, evaluated, debated, advertised,enhanced, ventriloquized, and otherwise represented, despite never actually beingphysically or visibly present. Remarkably, and perhaps not surprisingly, the accounts wereceive of her often have little or nothing to do with one another. Some scenarios suggestshe is a character being written into a screenplay (perhaps a nod to another Anne inCrimp’s The Treatment15) while others describe her as a suicidal artist, a porn star, aterrorist, a child murderer, and a bigoted mother. Other scenarios still depict her as a hostbody for alien espionage and a newly released model of car. The play is punctuated bytwo musical numbers, one of which, quite appropriately, celebrates “all the things thatAnne can be” (223). Directed by Tim Albery and designed by Gideon Davey, the première production,which opened at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, was characterized by15 Mary Luckhurst identifies Anne in The Treatment as “a partial fore-shadowing . . . awoman who is complicit in her husband’s abuse of her, and who is sexually andemotionally used by two film executives who are interested not in her but in the salaciousabuse narratives they wish to invent around her” (53).
Ferrone 46 two long lines of red lights that converged at the back of the stage, suggesting an airport runway; a black frame reminiscent of airplane windows, conference venues or a television screen; the passing images of X-rayed luggage on an airport carousel . . . bleak cityscapes and a violent TV movie . . . a rap song while a film projection showed a girl’s legs dangling – which suddenly twitch as blood starts running down them, soaking her white socks – and . . . a showbiz song-and-dance routine” (Sierz, Theatre 51).Heiner Zimmermann recalled that the “‘high-tech’ staging . . . sometimes echoed theperformance style of the Wooster Group” (75). And not surprisingly, the play “posed aserious dilemma for reviewers of the première” (Luckhurst 47), who were unsure of howto critique the production’s unconventional staging and rejection of traditional narrativeand characterization. In this way, perhaps the most remarkable quality of Crimp’s play isits form. While lines are designated by dashes, the play is devoid of speech prefixes,thereby unfixing any certainty that a particular line belongs to a specific character.Indeed, there are no characters (in the traditional sense) nor is there any definitiveindication of how many actors make up the cast. Instead, Crimp ambiguously calls for “acompany of actors whose composition should reflect the composition of the worldbeyond the theatre” (202). This intentionally vague production note opens up an infinitenumber of possibilities, depending on which “world beyond the theatre” a director desiresto portray, and particular casting choices in a given production (perhaps intended tounderscore gender, race, age, etc.) can effect radically different meanings within thebroader context of the play. As Sierz asserts, “the piece positively heaves with potential
Ferrone 47for imaginative stagings” (“Reality” 103) and destabilizes, from the very start, any sort ofcertainty of theatrical convention. While some reviewers refrained from truly engaging with the work (owing, nodoubt, to a general confusion with what they saw), other critics, like Nicholas de Jongh,denigrated the play. In his review for the Evening Standard, he began by wondering ifAttempts on Her Life was a “warning shot to suggest what the brave new theatre of thetwenty-first century will look like” but concluded harshly that it was “[j]ust heartfeltpretension” (qtd. in Luckhurst 48). With its renunciation of theatrical and dramaturgicalconventions, Attempts on Her Life is emblematic of Crimp’s regular experimentation“with different ways of matching form and content” (Sierz, “Form” 376). The play’sbroader political and philosophical conceits, therefore, are folded directly into thestructure of the work. As a series of attempts to represent Anne’s life, the play ultimatelydemonstrates the impossibility of representation and of a stable reality. As Luckhurstpoints out, the title winks at turns of phrase which imply suicide or assassination, but itmore accurately refers to “attempts to narrate . . . conveying the idea that narration cannever be completed, that the project in itself is unrealisable” (57). Similarly, DavidBarnett advises us that the title “warns us against fixing meaning” (19), which neatlyanticipates the play’s deconstruction of the fixity of identity and reality. This preoccupation with the instability of identity and reality is the thread thatlinks all seventeen of the play’s scenarios and their respective representations of itscentral figure. While she is referred to by a feminine pronoun in the title and by severalnames throughout the play, Anne ultimately resists (or, more accurately, is denied) acontinuous cohesive identity. Jan Alber is somewhat naïve in his analysis of the play,
Ferrone 48suggesting that Anne’s varied representations are “merely possible options . . . none ofthese possibilities can be established as real” (89). This reading overlooks the violencewith which Anne is constructed by her narrators, especially since, as Zimmermann pointsout, the jarring differences between each representation “cannot be explained away byreferring to the different social roles played by Anne in different situations or the radicalchanges of identity she has undergone in the course of her life” (79). I am equallycompelled to disagree with Sierz’s assertion that the play “create[s] a character out of thefragments of her fugitive absence” (Theatre 53), because these fragments often havenothing in common; indeed, some are entirely contradictory. While Anne may thesubject(s) of the play, it is inaccurate to call her a character; characterization isimpossible when no tangible continuity exists between the fragments of identity thatCrimp offers us. Sierz is more correct in his assessment that Anne is “an absurdist notion,an absence filled by other people’s opinions and ideas” (Theatre 52). Agustí makes asimilar argument, emphasizing “the absence of any specific ‘real’ subjectivity at the heartof the play, reducing ‘Anne’s’ real identity to that of a linguistic artifice, with no external‘reality’ or fixed subject position” (103)16. And because the external construction ofidentity and subjectivity is at the heart of Crimp’s project, his rejection of traditionalcharacterization is in keeping with his “quest to marry form and content” (Sierz, Theatre49), since the development of a conventional character with a cohesive individual identityposes the risk of “confer[ring] a representation with a sense of singularity where no suchquality may be said to exist” (Barnett 15).16 While I agree with Agustí’s broader argument, her use of the phrase “real identity” todescribe an identity that is constructed, variable and unstable is a rather glaringcontradiction.