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Citizen Kane 

A suicidal playwright's last -- and most personal -- work

Wednesday, Nov 10 2004
The title of Sarah Kane's play 4.48 Psychosis is supposed to signify the moment in the morning when humans have the most clarity -- and are thus most likely to commit suicide. Kane didn't die at 4:48 a.m., but five years ago, at age 28, she did perish by hanging herself in a London hospital. This, her last play, is considered by many a beautiful and wretched punctuation on her life.

Kane's career was a rough one. Her first play, Blasted, premiered in London at the Royal Court Theater in January 1995. Set in a posh hotel room in Leeds, it's in part about a dying middle-aged businessman who invites a naive and trusting young girl over to soothe him in his final hours; he rapes her and humiliates her until an armed soldier enters the room and turns the place into a gory Bosnian battlefield.

Blasted did not do well with the critics. Though British dramatists Harold Pinter and Edward Bond saw brilliance in Kane's brutal tale of war and human destruction, the newspapers called her work vile and lacking in artistic merit. The reviews hurt, but Kane went on to write four more plays, most of which were similarly cited as gratuitously violent and obscene. Her scenes, however, were not imagined; they were often modeled after actual wartime incidents.

4.48 Psychosis is no less harrowing than Kane's previous plays, but it's even more personal, speaking directly to the enormity of her depression during the period leading up to her death. Like all of her work, it's poetic and stark. The script is a free-flowing compilation of monologues, fragments, and brief conversations, and its lines aren't pre-assigned to particular roles. Director James Macdonald divides the material among three characters (two women and one man), who take on varied voices within Kane's loosely constructed universe, revolving mainly around a patient tortured by an endless barrage of psychotherapy and medication. The three actors (Jason Hughes, Marin Ireland, and Jo McInnes) appear on an unadorned black-and-white set; a giant mirror angled above the stage amplifies the nakedness of their characters by producing eerie reflections.

The play is bleak, but beautiful in its bleakness, always maintaining a lyrical quality in its language, with simple lines like, "Watch me vanish. Watch me. Watch me. Watch." Its power lies not in a sense of hope, but rather in its potent unraveling of the grueling world of mental illness. It doesn't tie together neatly in the end, but neither did Kane's life. As a writer, she wasn't looking to illuminate the joy interwoven with the ugliness of daily existence. She was just trying to make sense of this world, and in that way, to bear it.

About The Author

Karen Macklin


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